Beach Diaries, Open (Brach) 8/27/11

Posted: August 29, 2011 10:34 AM

It feels weird, but it’s true: it’s finally, actually, over.  The U.S. won gold in 5 of 6 divisions (with a silver in the remaining one), and our Open team finished with a convincing 13-9 victory over the Philippines in the gold medal game at the Lignano beach arena.  

The tournament is history.  And we won.

It’s funny, sitting here with a gold medal around my neck and (finally!) on my way back home.  We spent so much time and mental energy preparing for this tournament, and though it feels great to have won it, there’s something of a void now: where do we direct our energies from here? 

The final itself was outstanding.  The U.S. and Philippines captains spoke with one another beforehand and hashed out an understanding regarding marking fouls and violation-calling protocol.  Though the final score was no closer, the accord made the game tighter, faster, and (I think) more enjoyable for everyone, as we were able to eliminate the speed bumps of mid-game rules discussions and just play.  It was, I’d like to think, an exciting game for the crowd, too – there were only about 10 total turns in the entire game, and both teams’ offenses were dialed in.  Additionally, and despite the U.S.’ height advantage, both teams proved willing and able to work the long ball, leading to a number of great deep shots for both sides - always a fan-pleaser.

For me, the best thing about the final was that I took time to actually step back from the game itself and revel in the moment.  Our captain, Tyler Kinley, settled us in before we started, basically saying, “Look.  This is a game of Ultimate.  You’ve played millions of these.  But this one is special.  Look around.  There are hundreds of people here to watch you, right now.  You’re on the beach in Italy, competing for a world championship - so whatever happens, enjoy this.  Enjoy this moment; take the time to really savor it.  Because there is nothing else you will ever experience again that is exactly like it.”  And he was right.   The stands were packed, and the crowd was loud.  Playing defense became a special challenge, as even hearing teammates on the field was a battle.  But on the sidelines – watching our O team, for instance – I was amazed at the fact that there were all of these people, players and civilians both, there solely to cheer me on (or root against me).  They were there just to watch me – all of us – play.  What an honor.  What a rush!

A synecdoche for our team as a whole, I think, I definitely peaked at the right time.  My quarters, semis, and finals games were unquestionably my three best of the tournament, and that I was able to play at my highest level against the hardest competition left me feeling very good, for the finals especially.  It didn't come easily, though - I actually left semis feeling very down about myself, and it took a lot of help from my teammates to pull me back up and inspire me to get my head back in the game.
I went into semis against the Swiss playing a near-perfect tournament – zero turnovers, a healthy handful of d blocks, filling my role on D-team offense as the calm reset / easy open look – and after our first two defensive breaks to open up the game, I thought that, for the most part, I was playing at my top level.

Then, with us up 4-2 and our defense just having coaxed a turnover out of the Swiss, I faked my man under and torched him deep, setting us up for a backbreaking score as Josh Ackley floated me a great shot into the end zone.  But here’s what happened: I missed.  I misjudged the disc by about an inch, getting only fingertips on the throw as I skied my defender but didn’t wrap my hand around what should have been the goal that put us up 5-2.  I didn’t make the play, the Swiss scored, and then we got broken twice in a row to go down 4-5.  In my mind, I was already writing our epitaph, and I placed the blame squarely on myself.  Even though I finished the game playing very good defense on some of the Swiss’ best players, and even though we won and earned our spot into the finals, I found myself in a definite funk as Day 6 ended.

Luckily, this is what a team is for.  Brett Matzuka, a Ring of Fire guy I’ve only just recently gotten to know thanks to this experience, pulled me aside.  “Look,” he said, “Brach.  I know what you’re going through.  Four years ago, I was here at Beach Worlds playing for Australia.”  He did his undergrad work over there, at the University of Queensland.  “With us tied with Great Britain on double game point, I had the disc and I hucked it out the back of the end zone.  We got the disc back, I got it again, and I threw the exact same throw – it also sailed out the back, they got the disc again, and then they scored.  We lost, and it was on my bad play.

“I felt like crap, and I was sure it was all my fault.  But my buddy Tom pulled me aside and said, ‘Look.  I know you’re dwelling on those turnovers right now.  But don’t worry about it.  We’re gonna get past this loss and win the whole tournament.  And when we do, you’re going to look back on those turnovers and, for a second, you might be upset.  But then you’re going to laugh, because you’ll realize that they didn’t matter at all.  you'll say, "Oh yeah.  I turned it over.  But then we won anyway.”

Basically, Brett told me that I was in the same boat he’d been in a few years prior.  Sure, I’d failed to make the play, one play.  But I was playing well overall, and we could still win the tournament, and when and if we did, then who would care about that one lousy point?

His talk got my head screwed on straight again, and it was a good thing, too.  We took the field the very next day against the Philippines, and from the start, I felt like I was in the zone.  I’m a very emotional guy – I had a great defensive game against Italy during pool play because I got fired up during warm-ups when an errant throw accidentally knocked me in the head – and when I took the field after we scored the first point, I was ready for blood.  We broke them, and I stayed on for another, and this time, when Josh Ackley threw me another tough pass, I came up with a big bid and made the play, helping put us up 3-0 in finals.  It felt great.

Come later in the game, though, I got beat.  We were playing straight-up on the mark to make hucking difficult, and we were all instructed to play underneath our cutters to try to force the Philippines to make a risky choice.  Well, they did.  I stuffed my man under, but then he went deep on me; the marker got deceived into biting on a fake and he let off a near-perfect throw, a huck heading straight for the wide-open end zone.  I took off, making up the ground on my cutter while the disc was still in the air, and I managed to get in position and time my jump from exactly the space I wanted.

And, I missed.  Again, by about an inch, I just barely missed making the grab, and this time, my cutter scored on me.  For a split second, I was mad at myself – I’d just gotten scored on, the one thing that as a defensive player, I’m not supposed to let happen.  As fun and gratifying as it is to get a layout block, much of good man defense is simply hustle and positioning, and really good defense often means that a throw simply doesn’t come – you don’t get a chance to be a playmaker because you’ve already done your job well.  But I had gotten scored on, and it was on a throw that I felt I could have – should have – been able to stop.

The guy who’d caught it hopped up.  He smiled at me.  I stood up as well, and for a split second, all I could think of was how pissed I was that I’d just been scored on.  But then, I thought about what Brett said, and I smiled, too.  I shook his hand.  “That’s a great grab,” I said.  And then we walked off the field.

Was I happy that I didn’t make the play?  No, of course not.  But I wasn’t about to let myself wig out, either.  I did the best that I could under the circumstances, and though I wasn’t able to get the block, I’d done exactly what my captains and team had asked me to do.  And what’s more, that one catch made the score 11-7; we were still four goals to the good.  Sure, maybe I’d missed the play by an inch.  But you know what?  I already knew that I could just look back on that and smile.  I could think – “Oh yeah.  I missed that play.  Oh, well.  But that doesn’t matter.  Because we're going to win the gold.”

And we did.  Off a great through to goal-scoring machine Asa Wilson, we won the world championships.  And receiving that gold medal and singing the U.S. national anthem before the crowd was one of the most satisfying moments of my athletic life.

All in all, this really has been an amazing experience, and I have to thank USA Ultimate, the selection committee, and everyone else who made this possible for me by giving me this chance.  Representing my country has been quite a thrill, not to mention how rewarding it's been to finally play with some of these great guys like Chicken, Richter, and Xtehn instead of against them for a change.  This blog will probably end here, but if you ever see me and want to hear more about WCBU, go ahead and ask – I’d be more than happy to talk about this trip over and over again.  I’d love to spend time detailing the great Mixed division final as well – how the U.S. went down 6-2 to Germany, then fought back to score six straight and go up 8-6, then finally won it on double game point off a nasty layout grab and subsequent huck by superstud Sally Mimms – but I don’t want to steal those guys’ fire.  Go corner them and ask them to tell you all about it.  I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to regale you with their own tales of glory from WCBU 2011.  After all, they won, too.  They're world champions also.

World Champions.  The phrase has a nice ring to it.  I like that. 

Team USA Beach Diaries

Some members of Team USA will be submitting diary entries during the event to keep everyone posted on their experience in Italy.

  Grand Masters
Mixed Masters