By: Tony Leonardo
PARITY ACROSS THE BOARD
One could blithely write that we’ve finally reached the era of peak parity in ultimate when talent, coaching and playing opportunities have equalized the field entirely. Any team on any given Thursday. Whoever wants it more. Smart teams know when to lose.
Overused sports aphorisms aside, 2017 does feel like we’ve reached equilibrium in the field. Why all the parity?
Most teams have told me that they haven’t had a lot of time to come together this season. A busy spring and summer for many guys, The World Games in Poland, World Beach Championships in France and the geographical challenges of the Triple Crown Tour have altered the landscape – for good.
Add in elite-level coaching: all the teams have it. And not just one coach or elder leading the way. Most teams in Sarasota will have at least two dedicated coaches. Coaching has leveled the playing field, it’s clear.
So what might separate the squads come Sarasota?
TALENT & DEPTH
Most observers of the men’s division see separation between the top six, maybe seven, teams and the bottom nine or 10. Within those last 10 teams, there is a lot of parity, and among the top half, they’ve all beaten each other.
Depth will always make a difference in a long, deep tournament like Nationals. If you can pull key contributions from down the bench and save legs and focus for your starters, you’re going to do well.
Talent can always find ways to win, and battle-tested, bend-don’t-break talent is the best kind to have. There are more than a few teams who have entire lines of guys who’ve felt the pressure and succeeded.
There are other factors in planning for Nationals: “[Focus on] one game at a time – and more importantly, one half at a time,” writes Florida United coach Cyle van Auken. “At a tournament like Nationals, you could play a tight first game and lose the second just based on the dip in energy – all of a sudden you’re looking at elimination on Thursday afternoon. A team could go up big in a half and the wind will start to howl across those fields in the second half, and everything can change.”
Van Auken should know a thing or two: He’s a Florida guy and helped guide Doublewide to the 2012 title in Sarasota.
RETURN TO SIESTA KEY, OCTOBER AND… WIND?
We had 14 straight in Sarasota before a change of scenery. It wasn’t often you came back from Siesta Key vowing never to return there again. So…we’re back!
But ah, you can never bring back the past. Gone are the polo grounds with their springy turf, cozy feel and lots of memories.
The polo fields have been replaced by Premier Spots Complex in Lakewood, a large soccer-style field site. It’ll be different from the Sarasota we all know and love and not dissimilar to Rockford, perhaps. Just cross your fingers one of those stray hurricanes doesn’t crash the party…
NEW MOON FOR REVOLVER?
You can’t hide talent, I guess, but just like Ironside (see below), there have been question marks about this team all season. Despite recent ultimate media assertions that their offense adjusted and looked passable at Southwest Regionals, I watched the same video and couldn’t believe any Revolver team – regardless of the defense facing them – could throw so many unforced turns. They adjusted in the second half and should know where to look for openings in future junk sets—but what is clear is that this team has a really, really good defense. Eli Kerns on the D line may be the biggest score of the season. Add Nick Stuart over there, toss in George Stubbs and Beau Kittredge from time to time – heck, Mike Payne can put Lucas Dallmann back there if they really need to get a stop – all this, and singularly smart, savvy, All-World ballers like Joel Schlachet and Cassidy Rasmussen haven’t even been mentioned. And Eli Friedman. And..,and that’s just the D line.
The talent is there — I agree with others that this edition of San Francisco may have the most accomplished guys yet. But will talent beat chemistry? I suppose we will find out, because right now there is not great chemistry on the O line – for me it’s still How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Any Team Not Named Revolver to Win Nationals.
GHOST SHIP IRONSIDE?
Last year, we had clear-cut favorites in Ironside and Revolver, and expectations were met in a scintillating final. This year, defending champions Ironside slide into the sixth spot.
But…Ironside really is the same team. Two key contributors who got the chance to finally win a title semi-retired (Jared Inselmann and Jeff Graham, and, defender Rusty Ingold-Smith signed on with Dig, but the rest of the team returned, and they welcomed back Peter Prial.
Boston’s regular season was shaky. They lost three games to Truck Stop alone and eight overall while Revolver lost three matches all season: The seedings are justified.
Plus everyone knows Kurt Gibson doesn’t win Nationals in odd years.
So dark horse then? Surely Kurt and Brodie would approve.
SOCKEYE, RING OF FIRE AND THE FIELD
Sockeye looked great at the U.S. Open, rolling Revolver in an ESPN televised final, 15-10, beating Truck Stop 14-10 in the semifinals, beating Revolver in pool play — they have a loss to Ring on the books, but that was one of those giveaway games that didn’t matter because the pool was locked up. That was two and a half months ago, however, but if that same Sockeye team shows up in Sarasota, then they will win. Them or Ring, or Ironside, or Revolver or….the field.
“The bottom half of this Nationals is probably as deep as any ever in Sarasota,” writes Van Auken. One of these lower-seeded teams is going to knock some of these top teams off; that’s just a fact.
But yeah, Sockeye and Ring of Fire are going to be in the mix, you can count on that.
CINCY WORLDS 2018
The top three teams in all divisions will get an automatic bid to WFDF World Club Championships in Cincinnati next summer.
You have to say that the teams almost to a man are respectful, fun to watch, not gnarly, know the rules and genuinely care about the sport and Mitch Dengler’s overall well-being. Just sayin’.
I mention above some of the O and D players and the sentiment. Right now, this a very scary D team that runs 17-18 deep, notably with three of the smartest defenders out there who can create magical blocks in Kerns, Kittredge and Nathan White and then your usual hard-nosed guys in Sam Kanner, Kevin Cocks, Greg Cohen and Eli Friedman and the deep defenders in Antoine Davis and Nick Stuart – if Coach Payne can tighten that offense in time for Sarasota, then they will win— it feels that simple.
But nothing is that simple.
Kittredge may be aging, but when I watch him play these days, all I see is someone with smarts and a very high ultimate IQ. And it makes me wonder: All these years, we’ve been in awe of Kittredge’s athleticism, and all along, he’s just been an incredibly smart player foremost, using his speed and ups when he needs to.
Coach Mike Payne agrees, “He is one of the smartest Frisbee minds out there. Whenever we’re considering new strategies, especially on O, we usually check in with Beau to get his take even though he’s not a captain. He’s very observant and has seen it all.”
I asked Payne about how his team uses a war-of-attrition-type strategy, as he said in an Ultiworld Deep Look podcast, and how much the team lived to win the second half.
“[Revolver] thrives in the first half when we go deep in the roster and run other teams ragged so that we can ‘strike’ in the second half,” replied Payne. ”A lot of teams that play us have a deep sense of foreboding, even if they’re tied with us at half, since they know how much more we have left in the tank. That being said, we actually play mini ‘games to three’ instead of halves, so we don’t even think about it in terms of halves.”
I’ll leave the O prognosticators to other outlets. We know the team is working on making their O solid (like almost all teams here, with some notable exceptions), and we know Jordan Marcy and Dallmann and Stubbs moved to the O, and elite point man Ashlin Joye re-joined the team after a year off. Joye will distribute to Grant Lindsley with big unders and Simon Higgins on away cuts.
Last year fizzled out on Sockeye: An up-and-down regular season left them in the seven spot where they were forced to tangle with Revolver in pool play. They had that game in hand before Revolver broke on game point to tie at 14s, then broke again for a 15-14 lead before trading to a 16-15 Revolver win, sending Sockeye spiraling into pre-quarters where they barely averted disaster against Dig before quarters where Ironside promptly plastered them. Why bring this up now? Because that’s not going to happen again. Sockeye will be a tough out, strong on defense, buoyed on both lines by the addition of Dylan Freechild, and if the stars line up, co-captain Reid Koss suggests that “We are hoping [Matt] Rehder will play.” Fun fact: Sockeye has won a Sarasota Nationals twice. “We are excited about Sarasota. We all missed it,” writes Koss.
Ring of Fire
You have to love what you’re seeing out of the current Ring of Fire Nationals streak. Not every team can say they are peaking in year 29, but Ring of Fire can. What makes it so? A strong youth scene in the Triangle Area, a lot of college players that stick around, great coaching and just the right dose of that famous North Carolina ultimate bravado. Following a surprise run to the semifinals, despite a 1-2 start in pool play in Rockford, Ring re-upped this year by keeping all of its talent and adding the traveling triumvirate of Brett Matzuka, Bob Liu and Goose Helton. Another year with Jack Williams as a hybrid cutter, Jon Nethercutt and Noah Saul with eyes downfield, and young athletes like Hunter Taylor, Jacob Fairfax, Terrence Mitchell and Sol Yanuck. What truly makes this team scary is – like Revolver – depth. But how does a team with such firepower know when to rip it and when to hold it?
“It’s difficult to holster a good look and trust that a better look will result,” writes assistant coach David Allison. “However, we are starting to understand the merits of creating great opportunities for teammates. You can tell when we’re locked in because the disc moves a little more quickly and everything looks easy. It’s beautiful to watch as a coach – but perhaps a bit boring to the fan base.”
I asked Coach Mike DeNardis how much value, if any, was placed on winning the pool – realizing that the greatest likelihood was going to be a battle between them and Ironside. DeNardis wrote, “One game isn’t going to determine our tournament destiny, but that game would, most likely, secure the pool, and that is usually important for long-term tournament success (excluding us?). So the game is valuable in that we can learn great lessons about “us,” but it’s not going to change the direction we see ourselves heading.”
That’s coach speak for: we know we have a tough pool and are ready to prepare the team win or lose.
And media speak for: Ring of Fire and Ironside could both end up in semis, maybe even finals against each other, so tune in on Thursday at 3:45 p.m. for their game and pay attention.
They are going to be missing personnel in Florida; Alan Kolick is out, and there are notable losses besides Prial returning to Boston and Sean Keegan to New York. But adversity seems to make this team stronger, and it’s about time the secret of Mid-Atlantic club gets out – this is a homegrown region with depth, chemistry, grit and coaching.
Their regular season was strong. They traded wins and losses with Sockeye and Bravo, beat Ironside every time, lost on double-game point to Ring of Fire in the finals at NY Invite (but Revolver beat Truck by six).
D.C. always struck me as one of those transient ultimate towns where post-college players settle down for five years working for some government something-or-other and then leave. But that’s not the case – few teams could claim to have a core that’s been together as long as Truck Stop.
But a high seed last year didn’t translate to success. So what’s different now? “I think we’re taking less for granted as we head toward our last tournament of the year,” writes co-captain Jonathan Neeley. “Expectations bit us in the ass in 2016. But we’re still here – which is to say that none of us are really playing for results. The goal is to keep that process going until the fat lady sings.”
Truck Stop also wisely realized they didn’t want a repeat of 2016, so they welcomed back coach Will Smolinski and added coach Darryl Stanley. These are two guys I’ve personally seen perform as excellent leaders over the last three or four years. If Truck Stop might have lost talent on the field, they have gained it on the sidelines, and that may be the key to this year’s trip to Sarasota.
Adding a few solid pieces to a semifinals team from last year in former Bravo solids Nick Lance and Jackson Kloor, in addition to brains-before-brawn D mainstay Joe “Smash” Anderson, quick-footed Matty Jackson from Prairie Fire and, of course, the Canadian veteran Mark Lloyd. But through it all, Coach Jim Schoettler is trying to keep the team aimed squarely on an ancient, but proven, formula: possession offense using the vert stack. Old heads know this as the Boston brand, the mental and offensive set that got Death or Glory six straight and Lady Godiva the double three-peat. Even older heads (and Schoettler) would correctly call it the Stanford O.
“We’re a deeper team with more talent than we were last year,” Schoettler told me. And then he talked a lot of fragility. “When we get on our heels, we can sometimes have trouble pulling ourselves out. We’ve seen all the top tams this year break under stress – it’s fragility. And we’re working on buy-in and being less fragile. Pick your shots – understand where you are in the game – mentally and score wise – if you’ve taken a couple of chances and they haven’t worked, then look elsewhere. We need to maintain our center and play possession offense.”
It helps that field general Jimmy Mickle knows the game and has a wicked arsenal of throws. “Jimmy’s biggest strength is being able to put the disc anywhere within 30 yards,” relates Schoettler. With Owen Westbrook similarly equipped, and Ben and Will Lohre running the lanes – either break or force-side – look for a lot of fast movement to change field direction and then big gainers up the lines.
It’s no secret Bravo has a challenging road in Sarasota. They’ve beaten Truck Stop before, but doing so again would likely set them up for a quarters match up against the Ring/Ironside loser and a semifinal against Revolver. Ouch.
It’s nigh impossible to be a defending champion and be invisible, but at no time in Ironside’s nine-year history Nationals (all of them resulting in semis appearances or better) has the team been less expected to win a national championship. But don’t tell Ironside that.
“We seem well positioned for another run,” contends Coach Josh McCarthy. “Nationals is tough, though, and our success in making it to elimination rounds notwithstanding, every year is different, and there are no guarantees. No doubt that winning a championship last year, however, has taken some pressure and edge off of the same old ‘Ironside can’t win the big game’ narrative percolating from the ultimate media.”
So what about the regular season, though? McCarthy responds, “The choppy regular season was not altogether unanticipated, as we back-loaded practices to the end of the season. It’s not to say we didn’t do anything in the spring/summer, but we simply expected to continue to improve from our first tournament at Boston Invite all the way through Sarasota. Kurt Gibson was hurt through August and didn’t attend practice routinely until then. He’s a big part of our success, and re-integrating him has been huge.”
At NY Invite a few weeks before regionals, Gibson’s presence didn’t change Ironside’s fortunes, but maybe Josh “Cricket” Markette’s absence did. A few weeks later, the whole team was back together again, easily striding to win the region and only turning over the disc three times in the Northeast Regional final v. Dig.
Chicago is a team with a track record of doing fairly well in cross-country play at TCT tournaments against the best. They won the U.S. Open last year and beat Revolver this year at the Pro Championships before beating Sockeye and then making the finals. But a disappointing 2016 Nationals finish might have taught them not to think too much about their successes and failures. “We’ll play whoever they put in front of us until they tell us to stop,” writes Coach Andy Neilson. Expect Pawel Janas and Mike Pardo back behind the disc and long-armed Alex Evangelides gaining yards as a cutter alongside AJ Nelson. Regionals saw them turn in a strong performance against High Five in the finals with only three turnovers from the O line. Machine made the semis in 2015, and they’ve proven they can beat the top teams this year. Now they need to prove they can win consistently.
A top five or top six team most of the season, High Five slid into the eight spot after a loss to Machine in the Great Lakes regional finals. But this still very young team has been playing elite-level ultimate since they began, and you never know when they are going to peak and ride the wave. The Michigan-Ohio State combo, rarest of all in the sports world, needs to find themselves feeling good in the moment to succeed, and one big Nationals win might tip the scales in their favor.
“I think High Five has real, legitimate talent but not a lot of big-game experience,” related player-captain-coach Tyler Kinley. “When we play fearless, we can beat anyone, but sometimes the moment seems too big, and adversity can seem worse than it is. We need to continue to play fearless and have fun and not let the moment get bigger than it is and stay loose and positive.”
Leadbelly grad Paul Arters is one to watch out for, along with Bansfield, of course, as the ball distributor, while Cincinnati native Joe White joins the team straight from Carleton College. Also keep an eye out for co-captains Mitch Cihon, Phil Cherosky and Michael Dagher-Margosian. High Five has wins over much of the field during the regular season; can they do so again in Sarasota?
When you watch this team, you know they are connecting, having fun and playing solid ultimate. I thought this was a UMass Zoodisc core, but in reality, this team is more like a collection of college and near-college players from the Boston area and beyond. Londy, aka Ben Sadok, might lead the charge, but Carleton CUT college champions Tim Schoch and Alex Dagley founded the team from group of friends. Dig brings Jeff Babbitt back at Nationals but didn’t even need him at Regionals in solid wins over GOAT and PoNY. A tireless crew of young players with nothing to lose and just enough championship-level pedigree? Sounds dangerous to me.
“Our goal for the tournament is to play the way that we are capable of playing,” writes coach and former Death or Glory player Tom Matthews. “If we do that, I think we can beat almost any team at the tournament. If we don’t, we are equally capable of losing to every team.”
Toronto is back – at least partially. Mark Lloyd told the team prior to the season that he wasn’t returning, but hey, there’s always Andrew Carroll – fastest guy on the field. Isaiah Masek-Kelly is out, but stalwart All-Canada vets Cam Harris, Jeff Lindquist, Geoff Powell and Thomson McKnight are with the program that’s been bolstered by a youth wave led by Ben Burrelle, Bretton Tan, Connor Armstrong and Mike MacKenzie, among others. And those 20-year old kids have been winning—a lot. Can this team repeat their 2014 run to the semifinals? No one thinks so, especially in such a challenging pool, but don’t count them out yet.
“[Regionals] was a good learning experience for some of our young guys in games that carried a bit more weight than the regular season,” writes coach Sachin Raina. “And it was the first time a lot of guys had played Ironside. It was good for them to understand what the standard of play has to be if you want to win USAUs – and a good reminder for the older guys.”
“[Our starting lines] have been in flux throughout the season and will continue to be,” continued Raina. “You can expect Thomson, Carroll and Cam to start on O, and Powell and Tan to start on D. Everything else will depend on health, match ups, who is playing well and who didn’t forget their cleats.” Ah, youth!
We might see flashbacks of mid 2000s Florida in Sarasota this year as you can expect the four-man zone that bedeviled opponents to return, this time with six-foot-plus big men Freystaetter, Fairley and Langdon, among others. Will it be enough to push them to the quarters and beyond? The regular season was a wash; the team couldn’t come together for TCT tournaments and had to play intra-region rivals to bag enough points for an extra bid for the Southeast – one that could have been there last year if it wasn’t for Ring’s miserable 2016 TCT season.
But don’t fall prey thinking this is a ragtag bunch happy to make the show. I asked Van Auken if the talent was there for a deep run. “We resemble a lot more closely the United team that won the region in 2015, beat GOAT and Truck Stop in pool play in Dallas, and had wins over Sockeye and Doublewide that regular season. The ’10 Florida stars, ’13 and ’15 [Central Florida] stars, and ’15 [Florida State] stars – all who were national semifinalists or better in college – are now entering or finishing their prime at the same time. That, and with our height, we are a dangerous team.
“Most of all, we are just happy to be representing Florida in Florida for the first time in the men’s division since 2006,” adds Van Auken. “Great to play such a big one in front of family and friends!”
It’s hard to pinpoint this team. Expectations have been high after Doublewide was able to nab the best players on Prairie Fire and HIP in quick-footed Abe Coffin, big-game defender Jay Froude, the Bennett brothers, Dalton Smith, Kaplan Maurer and more. Last time this team was in Sarasota, they sported a Texas-Florida combination and streaked to finals where they shocked the favorites, Revolver, to win their only title. Can they do it again, or at least make semis?
“This season has definitely been a learning experience for the coaches, captains and players,” writes Coach Jose Cespedes. “Mixing the players trying to find the right spots, the right system for them to flourish in – I’m confident in our plan. Having a bunch of great players and figuring out how to best use them is an awesome problem to have.”
Like most teams here, it’s going to come down to how much this team can gel on the fields. If Doublewide finds solid footing and consistency, they will be dangerous.
Sub Zero built a lead, gave it away and then clawed back on multiple game points against Madison Club in the one-bid North Central Region to advance to Nationals. Nothing has come easy for frosty – every year, the talent is there in the Twin Cities. But players at championship-winning college programs like Carleton College CUT and Minnesota Grey Duck have moved (or returned) west or east while Sub Zero seemingly starts anew. Now in their 20th season, Sub Zero is psyched to get back to Sarasota where they first cracked into the elite club ranks.
“We are poised to come out playing the best ultimate we have played all season,” writes co-captain Nick Simonelli. “We are looking to execute our game and be a nightmare for the opposition no matter what jersey they are wearing.”
PoNY has the opposite problem of Sub Zero: They get talent moving to New York City for life and career goals (notably Minnesotans Harper Garvey and Ben Jagt) but can never quite coalesce all that talent into a quarters run. Last year, they defeated Ring of Fire and Prairie Fire in pool play only to lose a gritty but winnable pre-quarterfinal match against Furious George. This season, they’ve already defeated pool-mates Machine (twice) and Ironside (for the first time ever) but also posted less than optimal dual 15-10 losses to Dig and GOAT at Northeast Regionals.
“I understand why you would say our results seem scattershot,” writes Coach Ben Van Heuvelen, “but from the inside, it has felt like a methodical progression of team-building. Our various opponents and tournaments have hit us with a lot of different challenges, and we’ve used those lessons to make ourselves into a better club. If we play our best, we are going to beat every team we play.”
They’ll have the aforementioned Garvey and Jagt to help the cause, the ever-aware World Games winner Chris Kocher, national champion Sean Keegan, and look for breakout performances from Matt LeMar, Conrad Schloer and European star Nasser Mbae Vogel to round out a hot-or-cold group.
The Philly story is familiar by now. This is a fearless, veteran-laden, unified team filled with homegrown talent who always think they can win every game they play. “I’m really looking forward to our pool,” writes Coach Charlie Hoppes. “I think we’ve had the most challenging pool in each of the last three years, so we are used to this. Being the four seed, the pressure is on Ironside, Ring and GOAT to deal with scrappy Philly guys capable of knocking off anyone. For us, it’s just about giving those teams all they can handle and taking advantage of any cracks we see.”
By now, the mainstays on this team should be familiar: Migs, Trey Katzenbach, Matt Glazer, Leon Chou. But it’s the rise of Billy Sickles and Quinn Hunziker as cutters and the agile, versatile Sean Mott that should be marked appropriately. With Himalaya Mehta and Jake Rainwater as deep threats, this is one of those teams that never seems satisfied. They have a legit win over Bravo from the U.S. Open. Don’t think that type of win can’t happen again.
It wasn’t a fluke that the Condors took a 7-4 lead on Revolver in the Southwest Regionals final. This team has been elite all year, for several years, in fact. Like other iterations of Southern California ultimate, this is a San Diego + Los Angeles + Inland squad. You could see big Steve Milardovich defending the deep shots with Will Griffin, Tyler Bacon and Jesse Cohen collecting goals; Ivers, Turner and Kiyoi distributing the disc. 2017 Nationals might be the foothold that brings Southern California back into the national conversation? Their Thursday pool won’t do them any favors, but they can hang.