2016 National Championships - Men's Day Two Recap
Posted: September 30, 2016 10:28 PM
You may have seen Ring of Fire destroy Chicago Machine in the live-streamed game. Finally, Chicago’s talent and size couldn’t overcome their lack of unity and a stale slow-down offense. Ring was just the team to expose them. Then again, it could have been nearly anyone. Chicago might need to find and employ the type of offensive prowess that teams like Bravo, Ironside and Revolver have – or double up and add even more talent. Whatever the answer, they have to consider Nationals a disappointment. Ring of Fire, left to smolder three weeks ago after a third-place finish in their own section, burned their way to quarters to face former regional rival Washington D.C. Truck Stop. These guys know each other, respect each other and probably don’t like each other. Perfect for the fans, although it might not be the flashiest ultimate out there.
Machine wasn’t the only favorite to fall to these upstart lowest seeds. In fact, the halftime score of all four pre-quarters game came with the same tally – 8-6, all in favor of the underdogs.
Furious George, the tournament’s 16 seed, was one of those underdogs, a young team still in search of some success to pin their vaunted program to. Maybe they found some here – PoNY scored out of half on a break to make it 8-7, but Furious answered back, kept up the pressure, and this one went to the west coasters.
I have to confess -- I couldn’t watch a lot of the PoNY-Furious game. With Machine losing to Ring, I had to start watching that, and when Charlie Eisenhood got the news over the mojo line that Boston’s number-two team, Dig, had broken out of half to go up 9-6 on Sockeye, well, I had places to go.
Over on the fields where Dig had finished up playing two matches yesterday, Sockeye was dug in. And on the next field over, Austin Doublewide was handing it to Madison Club. So much so that the game was pretty much over midway through the second half. Madison looked out of it. Doublewide looked confident, fired-up, composed. Book it: Doublewide with their class of 13 rookies advances to a regional rematch with Johnny Bravo.
"We didn’t huck it deep," Doublewide’s Matt "Skip" Sewell told me after. "We put Malacek on the D line and allowed his cannon arm loose on D points, so that option was always there for him."
"Muffin [Malacek] was maybe three of four on upwind hucks," credited Madison coach Tim DeByl. "He found Dan Emmons and Chase Cunningham. We had no upwind breaks at all."
What happened? Madison was playing on the same fields as yesterday in similar weather conditions. How was it that Doublewide handled them so easily?
"We played like it was yesterday," said DeByl. "We expected to get turns, but they never turned it going it downwind. Today was a different day. The wind was maybe seven miles per hour less, and not a crosswind. We didn’t adjust on our O and tried to huck it."
There was also the hangover from the Truck Stop game. "When the two observers look at each other, nod and raise their hands to signal goal and the players rush on the field and we win, and then everything comes back – I think it affected us for sure," said DeByl. "I understand what happened, if that throw was a turn, I would have wanted it to come back, but somehow we couldn’t get over it mentally. If we had lost handily to Truck, I think we would have been better prepared for today."
Meanwhile, Sockeye was in serious trouble. Fans, onlookers and other teams began to congregate on field 220. This was a legitimately tough affair – soft cap came before Ben Sadok hit Jeff Babbitt in the end zone with a hammer for a 12-10 lead, making it a game to 14. Zane Rankin dug one out on a short throw pushed down in the end zone for the score to make it 12-11 and is fired up. Dig and Sockeye were employing good strategic choices on their D lines, mixing up zone and man – to good effect. A hanging hammer from Dig going upwind isn’t caught by Babbitt – instead Matt Rehder, who moved over to the D line after half – I should say he played both lines – clubbed it out of the air, but was clubbed by Babbitt, and Rehder went down and then subbed out. Sockeye scored the break to tie at 12s, but Rehder was missed.
But it wasn’t until a Reid Koss zone hand block gave Sockeye the short porch that Fish fans started to exhale. Dig held, Cooper to Babbitt for 13s. On double-game point, Rehder was not in, but Simon Montague, Danny Karlinsky, Rankin, and Nick Stuart were – and then a lot of turns. This was either excruciating or exhilarating to watch with so much on the line – Dig drop, Fish throws into a D, Dig can’t swing it, Sockeye bombs it away downfield for a turn. Dig’s Frederik Brasz shuts down Montague on an up-line cut and forces the high-stall swing pass which is finger-tipped to the ground. And then – Sockeye’s young gun, Rankin, flies through the air for a layout catch block – the D that wins them the game. Fish works it and finds the easy open man to pull out a 14-13 victory.
"Our offense tightened up," admitted Dig’s Thomas Cooper afterward.
Sockeye v. Ironside
The weather both held and held off – chilly and windy but no rain. Quarters match ups featured the cozy pool winners who saved energy resting in the morning versus the teams who started today at 9:00 a.m. First up: Sockeye v. Ironside.
We saw this coming from a mile away as pools were announced, but it was still a surprise in how it played out: Sockeye fading late against Revolver to lose on double-game point in the last round of pool play, a game they could have salted away. Then swimming upstream for nearly two hours against Boston Dig this morning before eking it out on double-game point.
When all was said and done, those two straight universe-point games essentially sealed Sockeye’s fate. They didn’t have much of a chance against a rested and ready Ironside team.
Still, competitors don’t quit, and Sockeye wasn’t going belly-up. They went down early, 4-1, stayed in the game, and even recouped to being down 6-5, and switching to zone. But Boston’s Jared Inselmann (who looks right at home in the Boneyard-reminiscent Boston skull and bones jerseys) found the break spot with a hammer over the top and Ironside scored, 7-5. Kurt Gibson got in on D, but this point – the point for half – was defined by an unwise huck to a streaking Nick Stuart. Giving up four inches, Boston’s Jack Hatchett easily got up and smacked the disc out of the air. On the D conversion attempt, Gibson was all around the disc – as he was all game and has been all tournament – but being relatively new to the Boston scene, he has to call out his players by name "Christian, then Alex!" and Christian Foster cuts in and gets this disc. Simmons wasn’t able to get open, but hey, can’t get everything – Ironside eventually scores.
This play wasn’t really anything, but it does illustrate that Sockeye might have been tired or unfocused. No one echoed the play call on the sideline. No one told Foster’s defender. And Ironside gets the break.
The second half starts with an exact duplicate huck that comes screaming down the field for Nick Stuart, and the master of ups and positioning, The Axe Man, Jack Hatchett rises up and paws it away, and again Ironside marches down and scores the break. Somewhere in here, Rehder goes down with an injury and walks off the field, and this depleted Sockeye team was no longer able to keep up, no matter the personnel and despite a furious goal-line defensive stand several points later. The guys out there had already played 20+ more points in a scant half-a-day more than Ironside, and it showed. The game ended 13-8 and with Ironside’s ninth straight Nationals semis appearance.
Sure, Gibson might be new to the squad, but he says it’s easier to fit in than others. "Lots of smart guys, veterans on here like Jared (Inselmann) and Crick (Josh Markette) make it easy," Gibson told me after. "And it’s the same type of vertical system I’ve run before. It’s not like I was coming into a new system, like the one Revolver runs, for example."
I asked him if it would be a disappointment if he didn’t win Nationals with Ironside. Maybe he tried to hold back, but the answer to this was an affirmative, pleasant "yes" that belied what he probably wanted to say – something like "hell f-ing yes!" I’ve written about Kurt as a champion trying to bring that certain thing to Boston, but writing is just making words to read pleasantly. In truth, and in person, Kurt Gibson’s internal lodestone is permanently set to winning. It’s what defines him, it’s what he is good at. He doesn’t want to lose, and if your team is going to lose a game with Kurt on the field, it’s not going to be because of him.
"You train for nine months. You put everything in – training, practice, effort— to peak. That’s our ultimate goal – winning a championship," he said. But he followed up. "We’ve put ourselves in a position to win. But if we don’t, as long as we leave it all out on the field, I’m okay with that."
Except inside, he isn’t okay with that. And that’s what makes Kurt Gibson a champion. It’ll take two more games against two of the best programs in the country for Kurt to be on top again.
Bravo v. Doublewide, Ring of Fire v. Truck Stop, Revolver v. Furious George
First, some shout-outs. There’s nothing like Nationals to bring out the old heads and old stories. However, I didn’t actually get any stories about Windy City’s epic, caustic championship season of 1983 or their equally terror-filled reign of 1986, although I hope to run into some of those guys here later. Nor did I get anything on Hall of Famer Joey Giampino, who I believe lived and played in Rockford for some time, alongside his days with Chicago’s Windy City.
But I did see a brand-new Spin-Itch shirt and instantly remembered its origins: Rockford’s team from the 1980s! But why a new shirt? The man explained that his son had asked if they could bring back the name again – sure! "Spin-itch is back!" he explained giddily. And pardon, I forgot his name (sitting next to old Czech player PK, and not Czech the country, but Czech Ultimate, another classic Chicago team of yore) and he has two kids who play, one for panIC.
I spoke with Kurt Dahlenburg, now coming to Nationals for his 33rd straight year, which is quite impressive. Even after a lot of years as a player, many as a coach and mentor, Kurto wants to win, wants the sport to be competitive. He isn’t going to be a spirit policeman, but he puts in his time, put a lot of his life to this sport, say what you will. Just be thankful the observers are here, perhaps!
Local-ish players from the UPA, Abusement Park and the Sky Hawks showed up today, among many other – I saw a teacher bring his middle school ultimate team to the fields.
On to the quarters: Bravo v. Doublewide. Doublewide had just eviscerated Madison Club while Bravo rested. This was a good game. Both teams were moving against and with the wind without much trouble. And it was clean – this game got to 15 while others this round did not.
There’s still some sort of mystery going on about who this Bravo team is. They’re without marquee names save Ben Lohre, Jimmy Mickle, Henry Konker and Stanley Peterson. Look, last year, this team wasn’t scaring anyone. Jimmy Mickle is an amazing coach for Johnny Walker – he’s led them to two grand masters championships! – but less so for Bravo last year, or at least that’s what he told me, smiling. So Big Jim Schoettler steps in, and now these guys are contenders. Is that all it takes? A cursory look would give you the wrong answer.
I digress. Doublewide played smart, clean and efficient and kept the pressure on. This game was a blowout at regionals, but Dub kept it in check at Nationals. The teams traded upwind goals. Chase Cunningham for Texas, Tom Tulett and Peterson and Owen Westbrook for Bravo, and more.
Every time Dub put the pressure on Bravo with an upwind score, Bravo responded in kind. Every time Dub got a turn, Bravo seemed to get one back. It was, by all accounts, a good game. But you need to be great to beat Johnny Bravo this year – and let’s hope Ironside reads this, because they can’t win on being Boston alone. Bravo won, 15-12. Not dissimilar from their 15-13, 15-13, 13-10 wins. In other words, Bravo isn’t running away with games, but I don’t think they were ever down – in any of those games.
"It’s a rebuilding year!" one of the Bravo players called out after the win.
"We have a lot of belief," Jimmy Mickle told me after the game. "It’s nice, there’s no pressure on us this year. The year we won was kind of a big deal all the time, but this is relaxed, good vibes, almost like a college a feel to it, playing for Mamabird again."
Indeed, Mark Rauls agreed. "It’s fun to be here with these guys again! Last time I played with Jimmy, we won [College Nationals]. This is a good system to play in. It takes a few years to learn the system, but once you get it, there’s a lot of open throws. You know where the throws are supposed to be. Everyone is disciplined."
For their part, I heard a Doublewide player proclaim, "I’m just glad the best ultimate we played all year was today." Peaking, it’s real. Expect a tight semis match between Bravo and Ironside. It’s going to be a good one. This Bravo team has a lot of intangibles on their side.
Before their match with Revolver, I caught up with Furious George leader Alex Davis. They had just come off an upset win in the pre-quarters over PoNY.
"Sometimes a little familiarity is better than skill," he told me. "We’ve played a lot together this summer. But that being said, at this tournament, we’ve made up three different defenses on the spot, and they’ve worked out."
Davis had cracked part of the code of Revolver’s success: "They lock down on your three main handlers, so we want to rotate those guys and move it around and send handlers on strike cuts to get them off us a little. Our strength – and weakness – is in interchangeable numbers. Hopefully we can get something to work."
Well, I saw them huck upwind for goals and generate a lot of turns from Revolver, but the unevenness of the game didn’t ultimately faze the masters of cool. Revolver kept putting up goals, and a close game in the first half turned into a breakaway. Afterward, Furious tweeted "This sounds backward, but we actually played extraordinarily well in an 8-15 loss. Revolver played just a little bit better."
Revolver, predictably, is on to the semis – they didn’t have to grind out an early morning game thanks to that double-game point win over Sockeye yesterday. It helped.
The last game was the most awkward. Ring of Fire went up 6-2 on Truck Stop on the far fields, Truck Stop tied it at 6-6, but Ring took half then stretched it to a 10-6 lead. So there were three four-goal runs in there. Odd.
Truck Stop never quite looked right this weekend. They had a Lazarus-like recovery from death against Madison, but it was as if both teams were cursed because of it. For their part, Ring was as animated, goofy, focused, gnarly, pumped-up and ready to roll as ever. A colorful and talented team.
When it looked like a lock for them to win and thus, once again, come from the ashes to the semifinals, Evan Lepler on the sidelines cracked, "They’ve done that before."
The soft cap was on; this game was over at 10-6 due to long points, until a few points later when it was actually over.
I tried to trace back Ring of Fire’s run. At regionals, they faced three straight games of elimination and won them all (and against Nationals-level teams like Chain Lightning and Florida United). Then at Nationals, they start 0-2 and are down a break at half to Prairie Fire before running the second half there, winning their pre-quarters match up and now quarters. All told, that’s six straight times winning elimination games this postseason.
For Truck’s part, I don’t know. They were never quite in rhythm this tournament. "We wanted to win. But we didn’t know how to do it," lamented Truck handler Sean Keegan after the loss.
"We saw Truck twice this year, so that helped," said Ring of Fire coach Mike DeNardis. "We knew some of their tendencies, tried to push their handlers back and front their cutters coming under. They like to get hucks off quick, so we tried to slow their momentum."
"These guys [Ring] have been together and learned together for some time now," continued DeNardis. "We’ve tried to change the culture a little bit from the days when players would come down hard on teammates. That didn’t work so well when the pressure was on; it could cause cracks. Now we have each other’s backs and try to stay loose, positive. We are still fighters, but it’s starting to click."
Let’s hope DeNardis and his team have some good scouting on Revolver because they are going to need some extra something against the defending champs tomorrow.
Looking forward to the action.
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