Tuesday, March 04, 2014

From Dan Heijmen ('03-'07, Callahan '07). He wanted me to pass this along to the CUT world at large.

From the first day of my first tryout I heard about CUT. It was the Fall of 2002 and the Hodags had come off their most successful season in their history: losing in National Finals to Stanford (a bitter pill) but more importantly, beating CUT in Regional Finals for the first time in over a decade. The Hodags went on to back up that win in National Semis, beating Carleton again and cementing Wisconsin as a national power.

This would have never happened without CUT.

If you’re a Hodag, there is no bigger game than Regional Finals, and no bigger rival than Carleton. At Wisconsin, scrimmages are held where both teams are told to play like CUT, and the week leading up to Regionals is a mix of anxiety, intensity and sleepless nights. The faces of their studs pop up in your head during workouts and practices - obviously - but also when you least expect it:  daydreaming in class or when you’re trying to fall asleep.

You dream about getting that block or throwing that goal that will claim this year for the Hodags. Or worse, the nightmare of getting D’d, or giving up a break that loses the game. You know that CUT will demand your best, but that it might not be good enough to win.

In my 5 years playing for the Hodags I had a losing record against CUT at Regionals . My first year was a typical epic. Guys like Chase, Masulis, Phil, and Jimmy Chu from CUT going up against Tyler, Paradise, Brown, Tyson and Hector for Wisconsin. In all my years of sport I had never participated in such an incredible atmosphere of pure competition. And when it was over and we had lost, I watched as Tyler and Chase looked each other in the eye and embraced. They had each given their all against the man they’d been preparing for and training against all year. They had earned each other’s respect and admiration. They had pushed the other to new heights and brought their teammates along for the ride. Both teams gave their all, and CUT came out on top. We went on to win Nationals that year, but we had still lost to CUT.

As a Junior, playing in Carleton Stadium I suffered a compound fracture going up for a disc against a CUT opponent. I was rushed to Northfield Hospital and was in surgery while my team played and lost for the 3rd year in a row. CUT rushed the field and celebrated (or so I was told) another Central Region Crown while I was hooked up to a morphine drip and barely knew where I was. But when I woke up, who did I see come through the door but Chris Rupp, one of CUT’s captains. He wasn’t with his teammates, celebrating a Regional Championship, a trip to nationals, and a victory over his fiercest rival in his home stadium. He was at the hospital, visiting a guy he barely knew. At the time, I knew Chris only as an opponent. He was my year and the guy I measured myself against. I imagined the work he put in on the track or in the weight room and used it as my motivation during our latest, awful, gut-churning workout. That he came to see me said everything about his character and reflected everything that was good about CUT and our rivalry with them.

He kept the visit brief, saying how sorry he was and that he hoped I would heal up in time for Nationals, 5 weeks away. His visit meant the world to me, and deepened my respect for him and his team. But more than anything, it made me want to beat him even more. I wanted to show him my best. I respect the hell out of Chris Rupp and I wanted to prove that to  him by playing my balls off at Nationals.

We matched up in Pre-Quarters that year, knowing that because of the draw and tournament format, that there would be only 1 bid to Nationals from the Central Region the following season. Both teams fought hard, with alumni screaming on and tempers flaring up. I caught a 50/50 disc in the endzone with my good hand and spiked it down with my cast, the bones in my forearm being held together by 2 plates and 12 screws. My teammates swarmed me, ranting and rabid with joy. This was why I played. To compete against the best, and to lose myself in pure competition against a worthy opponent.

After that college season was over I decided - with a few other Wisconsin guys - to try out for Sub Zero, our chilly neighbors to the North. There was some definite tension in the air when I first got out of the car and put my cleats on. What was it going to be like to catch passes from CUTboys, instead of trying to D them? What about high-fiving after our scrimmage team scored?

The tension lasted for about 3 minutes. These were good players: fast, smart and hardworking. They were easy to play with and they were fun to play with. The guys on CUT moved the ball quickly and yelled a ton from the sideline. Sure, they were weird liberal arts kids and probably played a ton of Magic the Gathering, but that didn’t change the fact that they could ball. I credit my first season on Sub Zero with instilling in me the awareness that a strong, supportive and intelligent sideline was paramount towards building a winning program.

The Hodags were good at being loud. We were good at being crazy. We were good and jamming our bodies in a mob and screaming absurdities until we lost our voices. We were good at freaking out at all the right times. At that point, we weren’t great about constructive sideline communication. On Sub Zero, my CUT teammates made me a better player when I was on the field. They told me where the disc was on defense and when I was hot. They cheered for me when I denied my man an under and fired me up when my legs started to go. The feedback and insight I got when I came off the field helped me develop into a cerebral player, someone focused on the details while always remembering the big picture: every time you step on the field, get better.

The CUT influence on the Hodags cannot be overstated. Of course they pushed us to be our best. They forced us around the track for another 200 and told us we had another rep in us when it seemed we were spent. But we also borrowed and stole from them, unabashedly. They had good ideas, and we took them. And guess what, it worked.

The joke with CUT was that the team you saw during the regular season was not the team that showed up at Regionals. They’d come to Stanford or Centex in white, v-neck t-shirts they decorated themselves and go 4-2 or 3-3. Pretty underwhelming for a team with their talent. Their rookies would get a bunch of run and in general they seemed vaguely apathetic about winning. I think I’ve only lost once to Carleton in a non-Regional game. They had a plan, a trajectory for the season that said, early tournaments don’t matter, let’s improve and keep our eye on the prize.

At Regionals, everything was different. They had slick-looking jerseys and made their annual sacrifice to the Midwest weather gods. The rain fell and the wind blew hard, but CUT was fast; their throws were crisp and they were ready to win.

Winning Nationals will always be the highlight of my Ultimate career, but I’ve never been as happy on an Ultimate Field as when we finally beat CUT at Regionals. The weather was so horrible that the University of Iowa closed their fields. We played the game, Regional Finals, essentially squatting at a city park where the dandelions came halfway up our shin. The game could’ve been on the moon, it didn’t matter. To make the stakes even higher, our win over them at the previous year's prequarters meant that only one team was going to Natties. 2 teams enter, 1 team leaves.

The game had everything. Lead changes, amazing grabs, great blocks, upwind goals and a fair dose of controversy. The sidelines were packed and alumni were racing onto the field after scores as though they were playing in the game. When the dust settled, we had won by 3, scoring an upwind break to take the game 15-12. I was elated. I found my best friend and co-captain Tom Burkly and hugged him as though he just returned from war. “ I can’t believe we did it. “ he said, “I can’t believe we finally beat them.”

It was hard to imagine what the CUT players felt. We shook hands and hugged after the game, but something that year was different. We had ended their season. In other years, when we had lost, we still had nationals. We had beaten Iowa or someone else to make it to she show. Sure the loss hurt, but we had more to play. I realized that Nationals wouldn’t be the same without CUT there. It would be watered down, less intense and less vibrant without those crazy CUTboys.

I watched as the CUT players, friends, families embraced each other much the same way that we were. Obviously, there were more smiles on our sideline than theirs, but there was something almost uncanny in the similarity of each teams’ reaction. There was a realization that maybe this was it. This was the game, this was the opponent. This was why we played.

Many Hodags and CUTboys have chosen to mark their bodies with their team logo. Many haven’t. I got one and I see it every day. But even if I didn’t have it I would still remember. I remember my teammates. I remember the workouts and practices, the tournaments and games, the wins and losses. I remember what it feels like to be pushed to be your best, and I remember our rivals.

The CUT community lost 3 brothers on Friday and it sucks. It hurts and it doesn’t make sense. I didn’t know the players personally and haven’t overlapped with any college players for some time now. But I can picture them in my head. I can see their faces in teammates past and present. I imagine that they brought the same fire, smarts and relentless energy that’s become a defining characteristic of every CUTboy I’ve played with and against.

We, Wisconsin, mourn your loss. But we celebrate our rivalry and remember it every day.

Hodag Love to Cutboys everywhere.