By now most of my avid readers heard Missoula’s Mental Toss Flycoons competed in the 2007 UPA Club Ultimate Championships in Sarasota, Florida at the end of last month. It was the final round of competition, and MTF was one of the final 16 teams in the mixed division to make it to nationals. Ultimate continues to grow in popularity and the competition keeps getting tougher and more intense each year. Every team looked big, fast and deep. The mixed division is developing "elite" teams and our region is the best in the country, with 4 teams making the championships. I was really impressed with the talent level overall and, save for a few teams, across the board the teams were well represented in talent and ability.
I’m happy to report that MTF is well on its way to establishing itself as one of the top Ultimate teams in the country; the team finished the competition with a 5-3 record, placing 9th and improving two places from last years 11th place finish. Of the 16 teams, our spirit ranking was 1/10th of a point behind the winner (Bashing Pinatas), meaning all the teams we played ranked us extremely high in our Spirit of the game evaluation. We battled every team that beat us honorably and to the end. Our three losses were to the teams that finished 1st (Shazam Returns 9-15), 2nd (Slow White 12-15) and 8th (Tandem 12-15) and, truth be told, we felt the only team that really outplayed us and deserved the win was Shazam, the eventual champs. The other two losses we sustained we pretty much beat ourselves. Along the way we beat teams from Colorado, North Carolina, Atlanta, New York and Minnesota; all teams from much larger markets with more Ultimate players to pull from. We cheered, hugged, laughed, cried and laid it all on the fields. We shared floor space, bed space, food, rides, clothes and whatever else anyone needed. Despite my personal bias, I am confident when I say we represented true team spirit and what I’d consider the ideals of “teamship” if I could add that word to Webster’s…or in the least “sportsmanship”. It’s hard not to be a great team when you have so many kind souls supporting you as well as kick ass athletes getting it done on the fields. Lots of family and friends made the trip to support and watch us and my good friend Sean Brown (of Indy fame, Three Martini Lunch and Chico's Bail Bonds nattys appearances) made the drive over to say howdy.
Offensively we had some major standouts in James Kennedy (winner of the coveted Offensive Parrot), Skyla Sisco, Kerr and Fast Johnny. THese guys were unbelievable, making highlight reels and photo shoots throughout the tourney.
Defensively, it didn’t get much better than Will Sutton, Ryan Applegate, Jen Nichols and Jesse Adams. But I don’t think anyone one of the people listed above would put themselves up on a pedestal above their teammates…it took everyone to make it happen and often it was the small gesture of a back rub or word of encouragement or a hug that spurred on our stars and journeymen alike. All in all, this was a very special year and nationals was a very special event.
If you’ve seen Hugh Carey’s incredible shots on Flickr, click here to see the photos , without a single caption or word they tell the story better than I ever could in most cases. Hugh was simply amazing and he has an uncanny ability to capture a moment almost before it happens, something you rarely if ever see in a person, let alone one with his experience. My words hardly compete with many of those shots to describe the emotional highs & lows but I will do my best below. I also must admit to you my own shortcoming (one of many)…I’ve spent the last several days dreaming of a different finish in the Tandem game, dreaming of that next game to get to the semi-finals and dreaming of a chance to play for the championship. I’ve at various times inserted myself into a situation (of course, giving myself superhuman skills I don’t actually possess), changed a dropped pass to a completion, a missed score to a turning point and a just barely missed bid to a beautiful game saving layout defense. The loss of that pre-quarters game to Tandem, the second time the same un-spirited, ill-mannered group from Boston has knocked us out of the top 8 (Tandem placed last in the Spirit category the past two years), which prevented us from placing higher than 9th, was a crushing blow emotionally. So I’ve spent most of my waking and sleeping moments since Saturday bouncing back and forth from dreaming of what could have been to moping about what was…frankly I wasn’t much in a mood to write up until yesterday and, although it might be better to not make that public knowledge, I think it adds some honesty to the review I’m about (or as our Canadian teammates might say, a-boot) to give.
So…without further ado…
EVERYBODY WAS FEELIN” FI-E-EYE-NE
Nationals Day One (Thursday, 25 October 2007)
Our first game of the day was against the Black Molly, a team from the Raleigh-Durham/Chapel Hill Triangle area of North Carolina. I’d heard they were a team with a mixture of nationals veterans and young guns ready to run. During the warm-up it seemed like every time I looked over to their side, another 6’4” dude was showing up. This game went fairly true to form with both teams having first game jitters. It was close early, with us trading points before we stretched it out to take the half 8-4 I believe. We put pressure on early on and kept it the whole game, despite allowing a small run from the North Carolinians and we got some stellar defensive plays to get breaks going in our favor and we went on to win 15-11.
Our next game was against nationals veterans Bad Larry, an experienced team that went to Worlds last year but a team that had a disappointing performance at nationals last year and an up and down year this year. We knew some players on that team and knew they were really good, which fired up our team. As with the first game, we traded points early on as we tried to figure out their defense and adjust to their offense, but just like the first game our defense shines. We get the breaks early and then a late break to take half, 8-4 just like game one. It’s clear as we talk in the huddle, that what really sparks our team is defense. And nothing fires us up more than seeing one of our teammate’s layout for a defensive block. Bad Larry tried to get back into the game in the second half, but truth be told, it was a lackluster effort and we just weren’t interested in allowing that to happen, so we beat them 15-10 setting up the big game of the day against Slow White, the #1 seed in our Pool and 3rd seed overall.
Last year we Played Slow White in game 1 and, well, they crushed us. We got a chance to play them at ECC this year and they beat us there too, but we were missing several key players and had just come off a universe point loss to Brass Monkey. S we entered this game confident that we could hang with last year’s runner-up and beat them. This was an epic game. We started on defense, exactly what we wanted and used our zone to confuse them early going up two breaks to make the score 4-2 good guys. They come right back and score to make it 4-3…we hold our offense together and score right back to make it 5-3. It is at this point, when we are up two scores and are on defense that the game starts to slip from us. Make no mistake, Slow White is a good team with good players, but our team is better. We cause the turnover and push towards their goal line, actually getting the disc to within about 4 feet of scoring. But we were inpatient and tried to push in a score to a player who was covered. As oft happens, off the turn they run and get behind the defense, huck once and then throw to an open player. Now instead of being 6-3 good guys, the score is 5-4. After some mistakes on our part and great defense on their part, they go up 6-5…they get one more defense on us and close out the half 6-8. The second half was hard fought and we closed the gap to one point at 11-12 and Slow gave us three opportunities to tie it on the next point but they go up 13-11. We turn it over on offense on a long huck that doesn’t work and Slow’s d-line scores on our o line to make it 14-11. We score to make it 14-12. As it did all day, our defense stifles them and has a chance to score but we just can’t punch it in and they win 15-12. This loss was disappointing only in the fact we knew we could beat them, were in a position to do it but just couldn’t quite make it happen. Still, we finish the day right where we need to be, 2-1 and on our way to the Power Pool with the other top 7 teams.
THE GLORY OF VICTORY AND THE AGFONY OF DEFEAT
Nationals Day Two (Friday, 26 October 2007)
So this is where things get funny. The UPA format for the championships takes the top two finishers from each pool (Day One) and moves them to two new pools of four called Power Pools. The bottom two finishers move to two other pools which are play-in pools. Last year we were in the Play-in pools and worked out way up to the pre-quarters. This year we were in the Power Pool! For the purposes of rankings, the UPA takes the winners of the previous day pools and gives them a 1-0 record to start day two (even though they may have had a defeat) and takes the 2nd place from each pool and gives them a 0-1 record to start the day. Since I am not a statistician please do not ask me to explain this logic…I can’t. We were placed in a Power Pool with Slow White (1-0), Rival (1-0), and the number one seed in the tourney, Shazam Returns (0-1). Shazam was upset in pool play by Rival, which had a direct consequence on us as you will soon see. So we started off the day playing Rival, who by virtue of their upset was the current #1 seed. We were pretty pumped up for this game…we beat Rival last year and felt like our women were stronger than theirs. We decided to zone as much as possible and play aggressive defense. This strategy worked great. We got an early break on them, then another, then another and got on a roll. They called time-out when the score got to 5-2. Their captain is heard screaming, “come on Rival…WE LOVE TO BE DOWN…come on” and they quickly score off the time-out but we score right back, giving our defense another chance on the field. Some not so good call come into play on tier part, with one of their vets in particular making about three calls in a row to try and disrupt our flow. It didn’t work and we take half, 8-3. The second half started much the same, with us scoring twice to take the lead to 10-4 but Rival is a come from behind team and they started to mount a come back. We call a time-out and Tim Murray settles us all down. We knew they’d make a run so don’t worry was the message. A good time out call and we go on to win 15-9, making us 1-1 in the pool, Rival 1-1 and on the other side Shazam beat Slow White…so owe are all 1-1.
The next game was nasty for us in that it was the only game where I could honestly say we were outplayed for most of the game. Shazam is good, smart, fast and deep…we pride ourselves in all of those things too so it is never easy to admit when another team is better. But they came out hard early, running head to head with our best players and anticipating our offensive scheme with great effectiveness. We tried to stick to our game plan on offense but they out jumped us when our throws were on and took advantage of every single error. The second point of the game was a marathon point, which they won to go up 2-0. They pulled a perfect pull into the back corner of our end zone and we stranded Ryan. At stall 9 he was forced to try and throw a hammer against the wind, resulting in a Callahan and us being down 3-0. Amazingly, this low point didn’t affect Ryan, who was so fantastic all weekend. Had it been me, my own mind games would have taken me out for the tourney, but not Ryan. As a matter of fact, I think he played better AFTER the Callahan than before and he was definitely on my “studs of the tourney” list. There was a reporter for the UPA covering this game and he had a quote about the game from here on out…he thought we let our history with Shazam effect us too much and thought we wasted too much energy trying to get back into this game. There may be some merit to this, as the game of chess being played around us was hidden to most of us and we couldn’t expect the turn of events to follow. We made a run in the second half, but Shazam controlled the game and won 15-9, our worst loss of the tourney and one of the worst of the year. So now we are sitting at 1-2, Shazam is 2-1 and all attention moves to the other field where Slow White is beating Rival 12-5. If Slow wins the game, they are also 2-1 and Rival falls to match us at 1-2 but we beat them head to head so we would advance to the final round of 8. If Rival somehow won the game, then we’d drop down to the pre-quarters and have to win to get back into the final 8. Imagine the turmoil and knotting of our stomachs as we saw Rival score point after point to close the gap to 12-11…then 12-12. The soft cap horn went off meaning the game was to 14. Slow scores to make it 13-12 and then get the turn…a score and we are in. The captain of the team turfs his throw…just throws it into the ground and Rival scores to tie it at 13…next point wins. Slow gets the disc and after a throw or two, just turns it over again. Rival jumps on this opportunity, scores and wins. Ugh, the sound of 21 people getting hit in the stomach issues up from the windy fields of Sarasota’s Polo club.
So there we were, back in the same place as a year before despite doing everything we needed to do to be in the top 8. And we faced Tandem again, the same team that knocked us out last year. So it is the end of the day, the only teams left playing are the teams fighting for a spot in the quarterfinals. Tandem is big, they have strong women (despite an erroneous report that they didn’t use their women) and they are more than happy to make bad calls to screw with another team, as we soon found out. At this point I’m going to throw out a personal observation…our team is nice; too nice at times. We want to say nice things about people, we want to smile and shake hands, and we want teams to like us even when we are beating them. This can sometimes lead to us not be willing to tell each other the truth. Before this game started we huddled up and said things like, c’mon guys we are better let’s just go out and win…we want to play this game and they don’t. Well, the fact of the matter was we really didn’t want to be playing that game, under the worsening skies of Sarasota. We wanted to be off somewhere celebrating as a team that we’d made the quarterfinals…and Tandem did want to play that game to fight their way back up to the top 8. So when the game started, both teams played the way they really felt. We were flat, unemotional and uninspired. Our best players were in a fog. We dropped the disc, we panicked against the zone and we got beat on defense. They went up 3-1 and then 5-2, then 7-4 before taking half 8-4. We are on our heels and you can see it in our eyes. It is at this point I close my eyes very tight and search for that thing that is so elusive…the thing that can shake a person out of a fog and right the ship…the energy that will turn us all back into the people we really are…but I can’t find it in my head and like everyone else, I am quiet and listen as Tim and mark try to spur us on and Emily tries to fire us up. The second half starts much like the first, with Tandem throwing over our zone, breaking us and going up 9-4. But suddenly it is Kerr and Jesse Adams who begin to inspire us. Kerr is determined to not let up and Jesse is laying it out all over the fields. We open up our offensive rotation even more and it works. We score and then score again. Suddenly it is 11-6. Can we do it? Can we score 9 more before they score another 4? The wind picks up a bit and it starts to rain. As odd as it may sound to outsiders, this brings a smile to our faces…we love bad weather. We score again. Now it is 11-7. They score after a long period of time and are now up 12-7. Just like that disaster strikes. We are called for offsides for the second time and are forced to take the disc 10 yards deep in our own end zone…and they get to set up their defense: Unbelievable. They score and suddenly it is 13-7. But we aren’t done. We score on O to close it to 13-8 and give our defense another chance. They don’t disappoint and we score off the turn to close it to 13-9. They score to make it 14-9 but our offense is finally clicking and we score again to make it 14-10. They shoot for the endzone and Jesse makes a spectacular defensive stop and our d scores…14-11. The very next point we get a drop and put it in again 14-12. Our sidelines are going crazy. The rain is coming down hard and it is cold. Tandem is defeated…you can see it in their faces which were the mirror image of ours at half. The energy is palatable on our sidelines. We are ready, finally, to put them away and reach our goals. Suddenly the loud speakers crackle…lightning strikes have reached close enough that all play is suspended. Players must seek cover immediately. So at 12-14, poised as we are for the strike, we must go and sit under the shelter of the club house porch. First a 30-minute delay is called, then the speakers crackle with more news, the delay will be at least 45 minutes. Players from both teams try to get warm, to eat something and to ignore each other as we are under the same porch. Some Tandem parent I splaying the violin…he is terrible and it is excruciating to listen to him attempt to entertain us, but because we are polite we only send imaginary lightning bolts of our own his way. When play finally resumed the hair on my arms stood up as we huddled and pushed our defensive players onward. I was sure we would win. We pull, they get it midfield and try a big swing…Ryan (I believe it was Ryan) lays out and misses the disc by less than an inch. They go up the sideline and another layout bid barely misses the mark…suddenly I see their star female player streaking for the end zone with Skyla on her hip. They huck it deep…time starts to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n and the players on our sideline all lean out to seek the end zone. The disc is coming in at a perfect angle, both players dive at the same time, Skyla’s arms outstretched, both players land….where is the disc, did she block it, did the other player catch it, did she drop it??????????? The Tandem player rolls over and raises the disc…she scores, we lose. Game over. That’s it, we can’t finish better than 9th No one speaks, and instead there are looks of disbelief, tears, hugs and silence. Our fans, mostly parents, try to cheer us up. They are awesome…they stuck through the elements to cheer and support us and it really meant a lot to us to have every one of them there. But the reality is, we can’t help but be devastated and feel fate conspired against us.
So what’s left? Day three and placement
BADGES? WE DON”T NEED NO STINKING BADGES
Nationals Day Three (Saturday, 27 October 2007)
I won’t lie…it hurt to be in the 9-12 bracket. Not only did we all know we were better than that, we had to play the first game on the field right next to Mischief vs. Slow White a game we would have loved to have been in ourselves. Our first opponent was a team called Bashing Pinatas and….well let’s just say we did not want to lose to a team named Bashing Pinatas. We start a little slow but then cruise out to a big lead, something like 6-1. After that we get a little sloppy and let the back in the game, 6-4. Much to everyone’s chagrin, I call a timeout (I had to do something this tournament, didn’t I?). Luckily someone else says what I am thinking, which is quit messing around, finish this team out in a way that will reflect we are mad at being in this position. We beast them badly, 15-8 I think.
So now it is the final game of the tourney for us and we face off against the Carleton players…dressed in black jerseys designed to look like Tuxedos and with a blue and black flag waving their name,, The Poodle Club of Tulsa…say what? We mix it up this game and play wonderful defense. They are never in the game as we break them, break them and break them again. We cruise to a 15-8 or 15-9 win I am not sure and we take 9th place.
I am not trying to belittle any person or team with this review, but I stand by my comments. We were better than most teams there and I think that bodes well for the future of this team. There will be room for new faces next year and for a renewed commitment to being the best we can be. Ultimate is a great sport and it means many different things to different people…some love to play pickup and spring league, some love it to the point they’ll change wedding plans or miss important family events to play with their team. Whatever your love for the sport, I hope you can respect and honor the people who sacrificed so much this year to play together as the Mental Toss Flycoons…I know I am amazed by every single one of them.
For another year, this is your friendly Ultimate addict signing off. See you all Saturday for the hat tourney.