Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Murderball

Hucks. Booms. Bombs. Rips. Biscuits. Headshots.
My favorite part of the game is throwing it deep.

I've been learning to throw an ultimate disc for 12 years now and I'm still discovering new ways to improve; still experimenting within the smallest of intricacies to find ways to toss a perfect biscuit. Every day is different and each day provides a new challenge of "relearning" how to release a perfect throw. Which edge holds best in today's air?
I tend to think of a disc flight in the same terms as a disc golf. There is speed, lift, turn, and break. For almost every pass, I have an idea or plan for the entire flight of that specific throw. I'm in love with my IO edge. It lasers fast into space, lifts ever so calmly with the same speeding velocity. It catches the edge and fights with every rotation of spin, before turning sharp over the defender. The most import ingredient to this 4-part approach is putting enough Z's on the disc to turn it over in soft air.
My backhand is all bark and no bite. It floats rather than kills. It will wait for a receiver though, like an open elevator door at a two minute stoplight, it will rise and sit. But to be fair, the backhand has more power and can be thrown consistently farther. I attribute this phenomenon to a single receiver - former roommate Andrew "Skywalker" Mahowald. A rock climbing jump snatch specialist. The catch of preference: Float. Big and floaty. At 6'2, lanky and able to single hand snatch dunk out the planet, then big and readable hucks are just fantastic. I always try to get feedback from my cutters -- so we both know beforehand when the defender is going to get pwnd!

If you haven't had the pleasure of watching the boom headshot video, for shame. It started as an inside joke at Wisconsin about hucks that slowly matriculated into my favorite slang word -- murderballs. The word choice is both funny and appropriate as these long distance throws are game-changers, point-enders and momentum swingers. They are one shot kills, headshots in first person shooters, executed with a long range sniper rifle. I have spent a fair amount of time evolving my throws and searching for the best angle and power combinations for the disc to travel maximum distance. It's like the power-up meter on Tiger Woods golf. You must find the sweet spot between the full red power bar and the release point angle.

As a casual poster on rec sports disc -- I found one thread particularly interesting this past summer. The BroMan was posting his usual onslaught of instructional throwing videos. Hall of Famer Mike Gerics, relentless poster on rec sports disc, made a comment about the power and coordination of a backhand throw. Eventually, my curiosity drove me to trying out "Mike's Tips." What I realized is that Geric's had indeed been correct on his analysis. Instead of rotating the disc in a curve around the torso, there was more power generated by bringing the disc way back and then directly forward in a straight line and snapping your wrist like a wet towel. Over several weeks, I began experimenting with this slight variation and discovered that my distance increased by 10/15 yards and the time in air another second. The difference between warning track power and the Mannywood Free Hamburger's Jackpot Home Run! This subtle change of technique adds valuable air time on pulls and a formidable difference in overall distance.

I was comparing forehands with Ron Kublanza at Poultry Days one year, seeing who had more power and how the mechanics of each thrower differed. I still owe Cash a nice ass golf disc. However, Ron is a slippery fish to disseminate information from. Ron has had the pleasure of playing club in Madison, Chicago, Boston, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco and now Minneapolis. (Side Note: Chicken still has a ways to go before he overtakes Ron as HOF'er most-traveled journeyman). I was able to wiggle a couple concepts out of Kubz, most interestingly the prowess of his forehand and excelling in different systems. Ron has a huge "shoulder jerk" as his elbow comes far past his torso, making for a fearsome elbow jerk. It seemed to me that the movement between the elbow and shoulder was twice as far than with my lightning release. The increased overall distance that the disc traveled before release had the "Gerics Effect" with more spin and superior distance. It was like the wind-up distance actually accounted for a bigger and more powerful release.

Another aspect of developing a murderbomb is learning how to rip a disc golf disc. My sophomore summer I lived with Ted Tripoli, Grank Zukowski, Nate Hurst and Rodrigo Valdivia - all avid disc golfers and I was eventually allowed to tag along and "learn" how to play. It took a summer or two to really identify the benefits of power and control the disc golf game evolved into my ultimate throws. I bought myself 5 Roc's all weighing over 175 grams and went nuts. When the pins were down during winter, I would throw 3-4 drives each hole. I can still feel the difference in my ultimate pull after a solid round of 15 drives.

The second big development of my deep game was thanks to 2006 Hodag captain Tom Burkly. Bearclaw was able to convince me to only look deep out of solid positioning and advantageous situations, helping me change my deep throwing decisions and cutting down on my turnovers. It was a necessary change as I had loose trigger finger in my high school days. As a primary deep thrower, it decidedly took a large share of the reps and essentially disc-hogging as I nearly bombed it every time I held the rock with determination on my mind. In many cases, I trusted myself to take the shot rather than trust my teammates to make the right decisions with the disc. I wanted the responsibility to win the game and I didn't care what other people thought. I was going to make sure it was finished.

One final consideration while jogging down the field is to let your opponent know that they need to fire up, after delivering your best looking biscuit by reminding your opponent that, "Muffin is the shit!"

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Desire to Win

"Victory and defeat are each of the same price."

A full club season is exhausting. A part time job, easily 18 hours a week. The challenge of exerting 100% effort into every single small facet of the cumulative season is daunting. Every workout, every dynamic, every single marking drill - can you consistently perform with the same high energy & execution? Occasionally the "long" winter provides the proper perspective with ample time away from the game. Often the beginning of the club season is the easiest time to renew the youthful energetic feeling,. I'm referring to the third grade recess type excitement, a certain kind of building in your stomach as your reach the doors leading to the fields, the spacious green space better known as freedom. The joyous feeling of walking onto a perfect open field eager for practice and perfection. The question persists, can this energy and focus be sustained day-in-day out? What makes the difference from Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning? Besides the 4 hours of sprinting, changing direction and pivoting. Excuses aside, if you can bring the energy and excitement -- your sore hamstrings and screaming calves make no difference. The hours of competition, the full purpose of winning each scrimmage to 5, completing every single rep of break mark attack drill.. The desire to win.

Can you bring it 24/7? Can you bring it in the clutch or even when it doesn't matter? At pick-up, at practice, at tryouts or in national finals? Fast forward seven months and now the entire season comes down a single game. Are you just as excited as you were the first day of tryouts? Are you still giving that 100% third grade recess type effort? Do you feel the pressure?
The first point of national finals, I was jacked up and ready to play max out. Heart slamming, testosterone at Chuck Norris levels -- ready to give it everything. Revolver scores in 5 passes, kicking the disc out for a perfect cross field huck. Now, is that energy and focus still there? I immediately went to our trainer/massage tent and flopped face down, peering under the tent flap as the next point began. The pull came, we centered the disc.
Now, is that commitment to excellence still aflame? Are you pivoting and faking just as hard as you did the first day of the season when you saw the fields after the off season months of the snow and rain and cold? The mark bids on the open side throw and gets the block near our brick line. I breathed out and swore to myself. Game over. That was the closest we were all game at 0-1. The overall finals performance can't feel like anything but under-performance in the clutch. Our play was consistent, but not overwhelming. The defense allowed quick strike goals and costly drops on offense yielded too many break opportunities.
But that's not what really happened.. We had fallen in love with our man defense because it had worked so well. Soft or hard marks both, it didn't matter, many D's were earned with honest-hard-nosed-effort-man-on-man-grindin-in-your-shorts-defense. It worked in practice, it worked the first game of the year against Sockeye after going down 1-5. We could beat every single team man-to-man, even if you knew exactly what we were going to do. It became the norm as the match-ups had been solid. But against Revolver, there were major letdowns in 1v1 coverage, especially in being able to effectively stop the initial set play. No help on the man. If the match-up was favorable and the throw went up into good space, points ended. It felt like getting pounded by your kid brother.

Ironside has now lost in the club championship to Revolver by the score of 10-15 for the second years in a row.

How do you rationalize defeat?

You put in the work. The hours of preparation.
But when you get to the last 70 yards, you falter and fail.
When your goal is to be the best - how do you deal with the letdown of second or third or fifth place? As it turns out, “Victory and defeat are each of the same price.”

Having the opportunity to win a title, twice, and falling short both times is extremely disappointing, more-so for 2010 than 2011 to be honest. Especially, I feel bad for Captain Mike Zalisk. When I was in the process of coming out to Boston, I flew into Philadelphia to play the tryout tournament Bell Crack. I actually met his mother before I met Mike as I was staying at his parent’s house that weekend. She served me a late dinner and began recounting the various injuries Mike has overcome since as early as high school – including multiple knee surgeries and slow-going roads of rehabilitation. Mike made the trip to Prague and essentially coached the Boston team to our 5th place finish at World’s. He was at every workout, every practice, every tournament, but only able to contribute so much on the field due his recovery schedule and doctor’s orders. There were practices that lulled to only 13 players and Zalisk was forced to play despite his noticeable limp. Towards the end of 2010, Mike was getting healthy. Regionals looked good and he was playing faster at practice, often catching glimpses of his powerbomb throws and savvy physicality.
The first game at Nationals in 2010, Mike re-aggravated his hamstring and was done for the tournament. If Will Neff was one of the more prominent huddle voices in 2010, but Mike was definitely the voice of 2011. At every significant practice – he was the voice describing the process – challenging the team. When the moments for team reflection surfaced, Mike was the vocal point. Stressing that for how many great seasons and incredible teams he had been a part of – but he had never won a club championship. During one of our last practices of the season – he made this point with passion in his voice and it really stuck with me. How many opportunities do you get to win a National Title? How many title games do you get to play in a career? From that perspective, I can look back on these past 2 years with Boston Ironside and come to only one conclusion, “Man, we missed when it meant the most.”

“The entire season, we’ve kept ourselves hungry. When we do something good, we say ‘silver medal’ to remind ourselves of falling short in 2009." This was Revolver's response to losing in the finals of 2009 to Chain Lightning. Always a reminder, always staying hungry. After 2010, Ironside reloaded the cannons, with 10 players moving on from a team of 24. Adding 13 new faces is nearly half the ship's crew.

"When defeat comes, accept it as a signal that your plans are not sound, rebuild those plans and set sail once more toward your coveted goal."

This is amusing for two reasons.
First, Ironside is a boat and second, sailing to our coveted goal is competing for a national championship. As it turns out, championships are much easier to collect in college. But it's often difficult to reconstruct plans that are entrenched in history and success.
The offensive system, pioneered by Death or Glory is possession ultimate. It won 6 championships in the 90's. I'm finding the reset pattern outdated and narrowing.
Flashback: I am 18 years old and playing my first ever club season with Madison Club. I'm a freshman, my eyes are wide, and I'm soaking in ultimate like a sponge, about to ride the wave of 7 ultimate tournaments in my first 9 weekends of college. At this point, tryouts are in process for the Wisconsin college team. Chicago Heavyweights begins. Madison Club loses 3 straight universe point games in power pools and is in danger of dropping down out of the elite bracket.
Players are falling one by one, now deep in the 5th straight game on a hot September afternoon. Madison is battling Illinois Alumni and morale is waning.
9 times out of 10 we crush Illinois, but we are on the dregs as the losses have sapped our conviction. Halftime happens and we made a futile attempt to focus on just one aspect of the game. Swing the disc off the trap sideline and reverse the field against a crosswind. The only point stressed is to swing the disc off the line early in the count.
The game resumes, it's now tied 10-10. Another offensive point begins and Madison is slowly moving the disc down the sideline. Stall 5, another cut to the line, stall 5 again, another cut to the line and again and again. Hector, totally muttering angrily on the sideline as he sees the pattern. Valdivia paces closer and begins to increase his presence. His muttering volume suddenly roaring into the picture, "Swing the disc! Swing the disc off line!"
The disc continues up the line.
Valdivia begins pacing the play, repeating his words, steaming.
The disc continues up the line.
Now jumping up and down pleading, "Get it off the line."
To no avail.
In a fit of rage, Hector picks up a cooler lid and begins smashing it against a nearby cooler.
"Off the Line!"
"Off the Line!"
That offensive possession must have lasted a half an hour.
For every single cut to the line, that cooler paid a price. It was symbolic as it was hilarious. We were unable to focus on the simplest of team concepts and an example was going to be made of the cooler. This is what you get when you play like an asshole.
Madison drives the disc into the red zone now.
The final cut, going hard to the cone, looking for a clinching score!
The cutter hurries his flick and turfs is OB, jamming it straight past the front cone.
The heat of the day had taken to Hector hard, and the disappointment of the prospect of losing to this chump team on a win-less Saturday, it was all too much.
I peered over Tyson's shoulder to see a debris everywhere, a plastic cooler damaged in half, various pieces of a shattered cooler lid and Hector panting hard, spread on the ground.
He looked a man overheated.
That cooler took the beating of its life -- for failing to concentrate on the simple concept of swinging the disc off the line.
Thanks to Hector's visual outburst, I will never forget the life-or-death importance of swinging the disc off the line, early in the count.
This lesson has served me well.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Dirty Dozen

I guess I'm getting old. At the very least, I'm older. I returned from my 12th straight club championships Monday evening, taking in a full day of overcast skies and mellow pacing in Sarasota before calling the whole thing quits. I arrived a week prior, late in the Tuesday night, because the years' experience have also taught me a thing or two about the ins and outs of the tournament.

I love the time at the beach, and the sand hot or cold either way. It is fine and white and light between my toes, and the beaches tease you with bits of sand dollars but rarely the dollar whole. The walk along the beach south, after a Sunday stumble down the steps of the Daquiri Deck, teammates - or, if you're lucky, a pretty face - in tow, head buzzing from a powerful admixture of satisfaction and Electric Lemonade. The end-of-day chill session by your team tent with a few friends, foot free of cleat, privates finally ventilated after a harrowing day tossled and smothered and in a dank darkness.

I used to be the guy that showed up and asked who to pay and to be pointed to his match-up. I had no idea who rented cars, or put down deposits for houses, or called other adults and negotiated financial transactions. I woke up to a breakfast. I arrived at the fields and was told where and when we'd be playing. I had no idea which way was north, where I-75 was, or how to get to the Publix and back. I rode my share of pine, but every time I was called in to play it was a special event. One of my first points ever on those pristine fields ended with Parinella taking me deep. I remember the way I felt running down the play, too far behind to D it. My second or third point ended with me throwing an I/O backhand break for a goal, also against Parinella, and I certainly remember how that felt. Oh, to be a n00b again!

I remember the distinct feeling I had after each of my playing seasons. From my freshman year of college until our loss in finals against Sockeye with Bravo, I ended each season a better player than I'd started. Then I played Sub Zero '08, one of the greatest team to squander a fortune. We were like Harry Potter's boggart; scary as fuck but ultimately without much punch. It was frustrating being a team with immense talent but unable to find a common groove, and the season's saving grace was that despite our underperformance, we were great friends and loved to hang out.

After Sub's subpar performance, and exacerbated by the departure of good friends Dan Heijmen and Andrew Brown, the tenuous fiber connecting Sub's roster to some of the best of Madison's players snapped, and after several years of playing under a variety of systems, I felt I had enough knowledge to try and captain Madison Club back to the national spotlight. With players no longer commuting away, we built a team that could compete on the national stage and won our first regional crown since 2001. I brought an amalgam of ideas for running practices, offense, and defense that was informed by the systems of my prior teams and the pedagogy from my experiences as a teacher. During those first two seasons with Club, the bulk of my time and energy went toward my captaining duties, so much so that in my second year they encroached on my conditioning time. Coupled with the demands of coaching the Hodags, this meant that I went into the club season in substandard shape. I tweaked my back early, and that injury nagged me in one form or another for the rest of the season. For me, going 3 seasons without feeling I was improving as a player took a toll, and I gave up my captaining duties for this season and went on a long summer road trip to get my head right and to help Alex move to Madison with me.

It was just what I needed. I drove almost 7000 miles this summer, stayed in shape, and cleared my thoughts. When I returned, I had no responsibility on the team other than to play my best. I did. After our victory over GOaT to end our club natties, I felt like I had another 5 games in me. I was able to apply my knowledge of the game to my on-field performance more directly, and this was my best and most consistent season so far. More importantly, realizing that I could play better yet renewed my faith in myself and my love for the game.

I'm feeling good right now, coupling all my experience with the passion of my naive youth. My career, my journey through all the levels of this sport, has been such a rewarding gift. I am thankful for all my teammates and opponents that have pushed me to continue learning and improving. I feel young, I feel grateful, I feel hungry, and Mooney's record 19 consecutive natties appearances is only 7 years away...

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


Hodags are forged at a variety of heats, and having returned from another fantastic trip to Sarasota, I got enjoy watching six of them tempered under the hottest flame.

The symbiosis of the Hodags and Club has long been established. Each has been dependent on the other for continued competitiveness and success. Each year the college team sends its best to Club to be schooled and steeled, and this year was no exception. What was incredible was how well they played, how much they contributed, and the size of their development from June to now.

Shortly after we were done playing on Saturday, one of the young Dags on the team asked me, "what is harder, winning a college championship or quarters of club natties?" Well, the former's a lot more prestigious but the latter is significantly harder. That's why a season on the club team is worth two years of development; all your on-field mistakes are immediately punished; your lazy poaches are quickly exploited; a higher level of consistency and excellence is demanded to make the jump from college to club.

And I am sitting here typing, and my mind is tounging around dozens of plays so tasty it makes me gleek, and on the business end of each of those plays is a man that will be wearing a Hodag jersey this spring. You've got to be kidding me. And we get six of them? Wiseman, Jake, Simmons, Colin, Hart, Coolidge?!?

One thing you notice when you go from watching club to college is the speed of the game. When the Hodags head to MLC in a little under two weeks, those six are going feel the game slow down for them. Ten seconds feels like fifteen. The mark seems predictable and lethargic. After having ran their assess off guarding and being guarded by some of the best athletes in the game, their match-ups are going to feel like recess duty. And this year we get six of them! For a moment try to imagine what it feels like to play at a fall college tournament, when for the last 5 months you've been competing against the best, when just the week prior you were drawing Ironside's best defenders.

All of my Hodag teammates played exemplary this past week. They have been rocks on the team all season, and we've relied on them in a variety of roles and asked them to contribute. They all have. Wiseman and Jake have not yet found a ceiling on their skills downfield as cutters or defenders, and both can go up with the best jumpers you've got. Hart and Colin are going to throw to each other downfield for two more springs. That's frightening. Simmons alternated catching pulls and catching hitch passes on the O-line, and had hundreds of reps reading downfield junk sets devised by the best defensive minds. I think he's going to be ok with the disc in his hand and a college team trying to play zone. These dudes are all ballers.

But I want to signal out and give respect to Coolidge, my unanimous Most Improved Player for the club team this year. For me, it's not even close. Two years ago, Coolidge had what would have been his first season with the Hodags cut short. This last year, he began contributing solidly and played well at college nationals but questions remained. He became in that year a dependable defender that could make plays from time to time, but still mistake-prone. He entered the club season with the full steam of the college season behind him however, and the immediate transition to the adult game was exactly what he needed. To say he took it to the next level would reduce him; he took a quantum leap in every facet of the game.

I remember the exact practice it happened, too. On a weekend full of small-side scrimmages, we were paired on the same team and I watched him, all day long, complete around breaks off the line. He just lit up, a box of oil and kindling in the dry August sun. Two months prior, occasional drops and turfed passes clouded his game. The heat of his flame burned them away; he has not looked back since. He erased some of the best handlers from hopeful Sarasota offensive game plans. If you thought you were starting on D above Coolidge on the Dags this season, think again. It's his throne right now, and I'm incredibly proud of him.

I'm just fucking jacked for this college season! At the start of my last club season I considered hanging them up at its end. I stuck around another year and I am bought in as hard as ever. I still have legs, I'm finding more and more heart in the unlikeliest of places, the game is making so much sense to me, and I'm having a shitload of fun again. It's just that, for me, getting older has been feeling so good; all my kid emotions and curiosity, but a self-control that allow me to use my gifts for the pursuit of daily wonder. And this college season can't start soon enough! I get to help lead a group of dudes that work so hard most of them haven't looked up to see how good they are! Are you kidding me? Fucking fantastic!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The 2011-12 Hodag roster is set. And, Jesus, that process takes a long time.

Tryouts for the Hodags began the first week of the school year, with two weeks of open sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays. The leadership junta convened then and made an initial round of cuts, removing players that are still learning the basic rules of the game or who weren't ready athletically. We went down to about 60 from 100.

The next two weeks the intensity ratchets up as we begin to sprinkle match-up drills into the sessions that allow us to assess people directly against each other. Our scrimmages feature team focuses and a few strategy points and we look to see who can take and implement them in the game. This year's tryout group featured a higher level of basic skills across all players, if not a player clearly rising above the rest. It made for some great practices and scrimmages between teams, as we split into 4 squads and perform drills and warm-ups with our respective teams. The games give us an opportunity to watch tryouts' sideline game, to qualify intensity as it's shown. During the meeting to cut from this group, these types of intangibles count for a lot and can mean the difference between making the cut and not.

The final round of cuts goes for two more weeks, still on Mondays and Wednesdays, and culminates with our tournament No Wisconsequences. We attend in split squads that have been divided for a week and play. Last year featured both squad in finals after a surprising loss by CUT against Ball State, and finished on universe point. This year both squads again trampled through the competition, but captain Simmons' team overpowered captain Liu's easily in the wind to take the tourney.

Immediately after the fields were cleaned by both tryout teams, the junta got in a car and began the drive back to Madison, beginning the conversations about who had stood out and who they wanted to take. I'll admit that before the tournament I hadn't been too excited about any one player; I had seen good play but my jaw hadn't dropped. No Wisconsequences changed that quickly. The weekend had a stiff wind that came and went, and made the flight paths of even the best throws unpredictable at best. This meant that during any given point the odds that a pass would sail away from its intended target were high. And that means that time and again, those that showed the most tenacity were the ones frequently catching garbage throws. I'm a firm beleiver that attitude is contagious, for good or bad. I will take someone with grit and tenacity but iffy throws over someone with pretty throws but poor sideline presence and body language, any day. Being part of a team that has carved a lot of success out of sleeves-up, suffocating man D,

(Let me interject the tryout story here. Do this on your team: next tournament, take a photo (real or mental) of what your sideline looks like at random times. Choose a game and do it like every 4 points. Pay attention to your teammates' body language; what are they saying? Where are they in relation to game play? Describe your sideline in one word to yourself. It's amazing what a sideline says about the seven players on the field.)

It is crucial that you possess at least a glimmer of Kill Mode to be considered on the team at this point. As the junta debated, a few unanimous players rose from the stack, and everyone spoke of them excitedly. These are the easy rounds. We returned 19 players from the year prior and had so much talent at each position already that we could afford to take from the top of the board without having to think much about positional needs. When we reached 5 remaining players for 3 spots, we began to measure all the intangibles. Are they a good teammate? Do they march the sidelines throughout the game? Do they take initiative to contribute in small ways to the team's overall needs? We also look back and read the answers to a survey all tryouts take, paying close attention to questions that ask about team attitude, goals, and reasons for wanting to play on the Hodags. At this stage in the game, those answers can make or break someone's chances. This year, choosing the final two spots took as long as everything that had come before it. That speaks to how equivalent several candidates were in regards to their tangible skills. For a program that puts the team before the player, sideline presence ends up being the most important factor that differentiates between those vying for the final spots on the team.

This year we're fortunate to have a fantastic rookie crop, full of upbeat youthfulness that will pay big dividends to the success of the team in the spring. We took several true freshmen with a wide-eyed excitement that was contagious, and with incredible upsides. We filled out the roster with an admixture of athleticism and experience, and the final product is scary. It also underscores why gritty attitudes are so mint for this year; we have an incredibly talented team, and one danger is that we convince ourselves that talent can supplant hard work. The college season is a long one, and we've got the time to do it, but we will need to play a selfless game with iron trust if we want to cleat up on Memorial Day again. So far, I like what I see.