2013 World Games - West Coast Tryouts

Posted: March 21, 2013 02:03 PM

2013 World Games: The Journey to Cali
West Coast Tryouts

March 16, 2013. A misty morning in Northern California. On Treasure Island, a tiny speck of earth rising out of the chilly waters of the San Francisco Bay, 35 of the top ultimate players in America go through their pregame rituals: stretching, taping, double-knotting the laces of their cleats.

All go through these motions with a tight, focused intensity because today is no ordinary tournament day, and everyone knows it. Today marks the first day of a special competition. These players are the best of the best, and they’ll be playing against the best of the best, and on the line rests nothing less than the chance to represent the USA.

This morning marks the beginning of the first of two tryout combines being held by USA Ultimate. The goal of the combines? To select the twenty men and women who will represent the red, white and blue at the 2013 World Games in Cali, Colombia.

The rosters of USA teams past read like a who’s who of the annals of ultimate. Steve Dugan, Billy Rodriguez, Fortunat Mueller. Johanna Neumann, Chelsea Dengler, Miranda Roth. Former selectees to the squad include countless Callahan Award winners; club, college, and world champions; and all-around masters of the game. The past iterations of Team USA have captured two golds and a silver in three World Games tournaments to date.

And today, these 35 assembled players will square off for the right to add their names and become a part of that storied history.

"Getting invited to try out was an amazingly humbling and exciting moment. There were so many extremely talented players and people that put their names in the hat, and though friends and those close to you will always encourage and confirm to you that you’ll make it, you never really have any idea if you will make the cut. To see the list of people invited is a testament to the caliber of player that exists all over the country and how hard the vetting process must have been.

To be completely honest, I look at the list of players and believe you could select a random group of guys and girls and still have the talent to win it all."

--Brett Matzuka, Ring of Fire

Between nine and ten o’clock, the morning chill begins to drift away, and as the minutes tick by, players start to shuffle onto the fields to register. Introductions are made. Friends from across the country who haven’t seen each other for months warmly embrace, and friends who share a club team or home city slap hands, smile and prepare for the day ahead.

Chase, Mac   West Coast Tryouts

Chase Sparling-Beckley and Mac Taylor battle.


It will be a long one.

The fields themselves – two lined pitches in the heart of an island soccer complex – seem to shimmer gently more than normal, the grass wavering in anticipation of what is to come. The first players begin warming up their flicks, and as though waiting on that cue, the pylons of the expansive Bay Bridge suddenly cut through the swirling fog overhead. Like guardians of the sky (or, for ultimate historians, like the Manhattan bridge that watched over ultimate legend and USA Ultimate hall-of-famer Kenny Dobyns at his first tryout), they stand watch as the sun emerges, bathing the players in a soft light as they begin their warm-ups.

It’s tryout time.

As with any group of ultimate players on any morning anywhere, warm-up routines and personalities differ. The players quickly take to their roles. There’s the serious one, ready to loudly lead the team through a precise sequence of plyometric routines. There are the risk-happy handlers, the ones who eschew extra stretching to warm up their scoobers and off-handed, high-release throws. And then there are the jokesters who, even at an event as full of purpose as this, spend their last, precious minutes before the day officially begins playing flutterguts and giggling at errant throws.

Just as interesting as the players themselves are the pairs they form. At one edge of the field, a Doublewide player warms up with a roster hopeful from Johnny Bravo, two teams that last met in a hard-fought game at the season-ending USA Ultimate Championships last fall. On another sideline, a Fury player seeks out her counterpart from Nemesis, and farther along the pitch, open and women’s players throw with invitees from the Mixed scene. Clearly, these are not the kinds of partners that tend to find one another before most days of top-level ultimate. But then again, this isn’t most days.

At quarter to eleven, coaches Alex Ghesquiere and Matty Tsang call in the assemblage to lay out the schedule for the day. Byron Hicks from USAU headquarters watches in silence, and assistant coaches Tully Beatty and Dominique Fontenette – themselves former USA National Team selectees – add their words of wisdom. And then, just like that, it begins.

"I have been preparing for this tryout since mid-November. I took some time off right after Nationals to give my body a rest after our particularly long season, which started early because of Worlds...I started back up with a lot of endurance track workouts and Olympic lifting in the gym. More recently, I have been doing more speed work on the track, still lifting in the gym, and of course, speed ladders and throwing drills to work on change of direction. I want to put my best foot forward and show up to tryouts in really good physical and mental shape.

I am going into this tryout not only with a lot of pressure to perform well, but also to prove to myself how I match up with dominant players from all across the country."

--Kaela Jorgenson, Fury (and USA Women’s representative at Worlds 2012)

With a gathering of talent like this, what are the coaches looking for? To some extent, this is made explicit. On offense, the coaches want to see players who can move the disc quickly, create good spacing on the field and flat-out get open. On defense, the coaches want players who can cover tight, keep the mark strong and help out their teammates when possible. It’s interesting that what these coaches are saying will get these players, the lights of the game, onto the National Team is exactly what novices are exhorted to do from their very first time showing up to pickup or summer league: the fundamentals.

The circle breaks, and the invitees are split into groups where players are tested in a series of head-to-head battles. Can you throw your i/o flick for a break? Or is the mark too strong? Can you stop that loopy backhand the stud player you are guarding loves to throw? Or will you bite too hard on the low release and give up that around?

In time, these one-on-one drills become two-on-two and then three-on-three, and players are tested on their skills in downfield play. Who is tough enough to keep getting open for every other throw in a game of two-on-two, and who tires? Who is willing to make conservative decisions and take the easy pass, even when there is such high pressure to perform, and who just can’t resist jacking up a deep shot? What’s more, of those deep throws, whose carry the patience and skill that keep hucks floating flat, and whose start to blade in the wind? Whose come only to wide open, streaking receivers, and whose follow dicey, half-open cuts?

"So and so is looking good," says one coach, impressed with the way a relatively unknown handler is willing to diligently find those break throws over and over. And the coach is right. But what’s more valuable to the coaches: dink-and-dunk break side work, or perfect gun slinging with seventy-yard shots hitting targets on a dime? Nobody knows. So everyone is forced to play their hardest and to their strengths and wait to see how it all shakes out.

For ninety minutes, players test themselves against each other, and everyone’s individual styles become more and more pronounced. Shooters shoot. Deep cutters go deep. Speedsters sneak underneath and start catching every other pass. Finally, after an hour and a half of grueling drills, the players are given a break for lunch. Cleats are removed, sandwiches are distributed, and for thirty minutes, everyone reverts to the way they’d been when they arrived. For a short while, everyone ceases to be competitors, and once again, everyone is a friend.

"Yes, I’m excited...I think being a little nervous is natural. I also think this is an incredibly unique opportunity to play with some of the most talented players in the country. No matter what happens, it’s going to be fun and definitely help push my game to the next level...I’m just going to try to play my best, have fun and learn."

--An-Chi Tsou, Polar Bears

"Just having fun," quipped one tryout and former Callahan winner when asked what he thought of the morning session. And of course, the half-hour lunch break was all smiles. But once lunchtime ends, the players retake the field with fresh looks of fierce determination in their eyes. The morning called for intensity, but now it feels like it was little more than a warm-up. Because no matter how good you may look in a drill, what really counts is how you perform in a game situation – and all afternoon long, these players will be sliced and diced into teams, charged with sending seven on and doing what elite ultimate players have to do every time they step to the line: score.

The goal of this tryout (and the coming one in Washington, D.C.) is to select twenty individual players for the USA’s World Games team. Each player reminds themselves of this. "No longer can you rely on the teammates with whom you’ve been playing for years," their minds seem to chasten. "You’ve got to get out there and do your best with whoever is on your line." And it’s true – there really are no teams now. There’s a common goal, but not a common cause. Everyone is playing for themselves – not selfishly, of course, but to highlight the best they can be among whoever is around them. And because of this, odd bedfellows begin to emerge.

Star members of Riot and Fury stand side by side as teammates. Lines featuring multiple alumni of rivals Texas and Colorado, or Colorado and Carleton, hold up hands waiting to receive the pull. Similarly, dream matchups, heretofore only seen at team practices, start to materialize. Longtime Revolver teammates Beau Kittredge and Mac Taylor stare each other down from across the field. Mamabird alums and close friends Josh "Richter" Ackley and Adam "Chicken" Simon guard each other from the handler position on both sides of the disc. Alex Snyder marks up on her Fury teammate Nancy Sun, and Manisha "Slap" Daryani and Lakshmi Narayan, two other Fury veterans with such similar games as to be often confused for one another, go toe-to-toe downfield. It’s incredible. 

With all this talent on the field, how can a player do what it takes to get noticed?

"I remember looking at the tryout invite list, seeing my name, and getting super excited. Then, I looked through all the other names, and I kept going ‘Oh, she's good...Oh, she's good!’ Every single girl on that tryout list is amazing, which is pretty intimidating."

--Lindsey Cross, Molly Brown

If you’re one of these players gunning for a spot on the final roster, what do you do? You hold your hand up in the air, ready to receive the pull, and you look across the field...and you notice that of the seven people sprinting towards you, five are national champions and one of the other two is a Callahan Award winner.

What does that make you think? What goes through your head? Especially in a field this good, what will make you stand out? Will it be a positive: one memorable play against the best of the best; one shining, perfect moment? Or will it be one throw that doesn’t quite make it? What if that’s what the coaches remember?

And halfway through the tryouts, do you allow yourself to wonder where, perhaps, you stand? Only the best were invited, and there are almost no subs – are you conditioned well enough? Can you keep pushing? You’re breathing hard; what do you still have left in the tank?

As one coach quips from the sidelines, "This, more than anything, is the test. This is what exposes your weaknesses. Playing against the best, full field – there’s nowhere to hide." And he’s right. Teams pool into four pods, and then three. Leaders emerge. The wind picks up a bit, and players who are used to having no trouble dictating the pace of the game are suddenly finding themselves stymied. And at last, the one skill that can’t truly be tested in a drill, that can only really come out under the pace, flow and frenetic energy of the game, emerges: defense.

It was the one skill that hadn’t been much tested throughout the early part of the day, but once players are given free rein, defense comes out in full force. Layout block Ds and hard bids begin to sprout up across the field like mushrooms after a spring rainstorm. The coaches move from the sidelines to the stands to get a full-field view, the better from which to watch downfield play and see opportunities for blocks develop.

A big layout D on a swing pass leads to a short field. Confident, aggressive decisions on D and O start to prove their value as the margin for error – the difference between a D and a score and, by extension, the likely difference between making the roster and being relegated to cheering from the sideline for friends as they board a plane to Colombia come July – grows ever thinner. The tryouts march on, and every individual matchup becomes more and more hard fought.

Of course, this fight is only half the battle – what about the many great players who won’t have their tryout until next weekend out east?

"I think the tryout process is emotionally, physically and mentally exhausting...and also exciting, fascinating and exhilarating. It’s one thing to have awareness of your strengths and weaknesses; it’s another thing to know how to best highlight your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses in order to stand out in a good way. And it’s a whole other thing to do that in a context that for most of us isn’t what ultimate typically looks like.

The experience I gained with Team USA in ’05 was game changing – I learned so much about ultimate, about "team," about myself. And I made a whole bunch of awesome friends.

The ’09 experience was the first time in a long time that I’d truly tried out for any team (there wasn’t a tryout for the ’05 team – a committee picked people). It was amazing to get to play with so many great ultimate players with whom I had never played before. The tryout weekend was demanding in so many ways, and we all kind of bonded over that too. But I came away feeling disappointed that I hadn’t played my best. I hate that feeling. It gave me a lot to think about regarding my own game, what I consider my biggest strengths, and how I could focus differently if there were a next time.

I figure all I can do is try my best, keep focusing on the things I do well, attempt to stay relaxed, have fun and see what happens."

--Angela Lin, Ozone (and Team USA, 2005)

As the end of the day draws nearer and the sun begins to drop further towards the San Francisco skyline, the wind at last falls away. This, now, is ultimate in its purest form. The disc flies true.

Can you make that throw? Can you beat your defender to the spot? Will you find that extra burst of will to play even harder but still play smart and play right – and win?

Just before the last game of the day, a strong player – one who has recently returned to the game after a long absence – pulls in his team to fire them up for their final battle.

"We have a clean slate now," he says. "Our last game was great, but it means nothing right now. We’ve got to come out again – one more time – and play our best."

Does he notice that he’s just described this whole event? Does anyone? Can the players themselves feel the fact that this last game is a distillation of the entire weekend, a weekend spent gutting out every game and every point, working all the way to reach that pinnacle of the sport: competing for your nation?

If they do, nobody says anything about it. Instead, they finish their cheer, put their arms around each other one last time, then simply step out to the line to play. 

"I'm not really nervous because I'm setting myself up to play my best. I'm doing whatever I can to show up and bring my best game. If that's not good enough to make the team, that's fine. The worst thing would be to leave the tryout feeling like I didn't properly display my skill set. 

While I'm speaking in superlatives, the best thing would be earning a spot on the team (duh). The second best thing would be knowing that whoever makes the team earned it by outplaying me at my best."

--Lori Eich, Nemesis (and USA women’s masters representative at Worlds 2012)

At last, the games end. It’s the end of the day, and everybody looks exhausted. It is clear that all of these players have given everything they have – and tomorrow, they’ll be doing it again. But why? What are they playing for?

Yes, for the right to represent their country, of course. But they are also in some measure playing to commemorate this day, this time in their lives when they are at their ultimate peak. They are playing to test themselves and each other, and they are playing to power a legacy of a time when they are playing the hardest and best they ever will play. Right now, they are making themselves and each other the best they will ever be.

They are out to prove themselves, yes. But to whom? To the coaches? To some extent. To each other? Absolutely. But more than anything, to themselves.

At five o’clock, the day is called. Players undo those double knots and start shaking grass out of their cleats. They pack their bags; they wolf down the remaining granola bars and bananas and swallow ibuprofen.

These players are just like any other group of men and women who do what all of us do: they play ultimate, and they play it hard. They are driven to do it by a force of will deep inside themselves. They do it for the love of the game.

All hint of the mist that so often shrouds the region is gone now. The sun shines brightly down upon the steel girders of the Bay Bridge, and crimsons, rusts and ochres glimmer brilliantly across the sky. Thirty-five players stuff away the last of their jerseys and discs, dumping wrappers and empty Gatorades into the garbage bins on their way to the parking lot.

In pairs and triples, they pile into their cars and motor away. Their steer towards the dusk, preparing to refuel, rest up and ready themselves to do it all again tomorrow.

Cree Howard extends for the disc.




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