By: Tony Leonardo
After eight years of near-misses, Boston Ironside finally wrote their name in the record books as a champion with an intense double-game-point finals win over rival San Francisco Revolver, 14-13, at the 2016 National Championships.
For Boston, it came down to the wire against the defending champs, the odds against them, down a break late in the second half. Winning always came easy to Ironside – except when it mattered most – and it was happening again. And then suddenly a Beau Kittredge forehand was improbably guided to the turf by an invisible hand, and moments later – or what seemed like eight years of unbridled desire later – Kurt Gibson found Jeff Graham at the near cone, and Boston was champion.
“I just started sprinting and jumping around like a maniac,” said Ironside coach Josh McCarthy.
Gibson’s presence may have been the tipping point for Boston. Few players can lay claim to his pedigree of winning with different club teams – first with Austin Doublewide in 2012, then Denver Johnny Bravo in 2014 and now with Ironside in 2016. Revolver owns the four titles before and betwixt.
But Gibson wasn’t the only one: this Ironside team was deep. Jeff Graham, sidelined for several seasons with injuries, was healthy and wicked fast. Tyler Chan and John Stubbs were now in their second and third seasons with the club, and Jared Inselmann, the Mid-Atlantic star who had recently arrived in the Hub, slid effortlessly into a starting O position while fellow transplants Jay Clark and Dave Ferraro brought more talent to the D line.
“Top to bottom this is the best iteration of Ironside we’ve ever had,” wrote Josh “Cricket” Markette. “That being said, I think the team needed a guy like Kurt. Kurt not only brought a winning attitude and a winning résumé to this team, he also brought a skill set that we haven’t had before.”
At first, it looked like Gibson was the latest and best gun-for-hire bringing his talents and game-winning mentality to a program in need of both. But the history is there: Gibson played for Boston in 2007 and 2008. Gibson’s name is included on the Ironside 2008 roster, the year they lost in the finals to San Francisco JAM – but he wasn’t there. In early August that year, Gibson was diagnosed with cancer; he started treatment in September.
Some other familiar names appear on that first Ironside roster: Danny Clark, who was out for the 2016 season with an injury but patrolled the sideline; Jeff Graham; Will Neff – even guys we saw playing for other teams in Rockford, like Trey Katzenbach, Josh Mullen and, of course, George Stubbs – now on the other side. Boston always had talent and a touch of championship pedigree from the legendary Boston franchise Death or Glory. A title seemed to be just around the corner.
But each year brought Ironside closer to infamy instead of legacy – none more excruciating than 2010 when they entered the finals at 38-0 before key injuries and a deficiency of talent to replace them led to a thorough loss to Revolver. By 2016, the story had been well told: Ironside had been to the semis or better at Nationals in eight straight years but could never close the deal. Call it mental, call it bad luck, call it a curse, but Boston could not win the big game. In that same period, Revolver added three world championships to their four national titles.
Both teams were ready. The air was tense but not nervous; players and coaches were in the present. Then like a whip crack, the game began, and the teams started firing off bursts of pent-up energy. Nothing was given – every cut and every throw was contested, and talent was stacked on talent. Each squad had enough star power to field a starting lineup of Team U.S.A. stalwarts.
But by the time the first half ended, only Revolver stood tall. San Francisco fiercely resisted all pressure, scoring on every possession, including two turns from Ironside. Had there been no halftime, it is conceivable they could have gotten to 15 with perfection as their muse. At the half, Revolver was up two breaks, 8-6, and receiving to start the second half. All the pressure was on Ironside.
“It kind of felt like here we are again, down a couple in the second half of finals, and the story is on repeat,” McCarthy told me.
“You could tell everyone was kind of worried,” said Gibson. “I don’t want to say I didn’t have my own doubts, but I told Cricket, maybe some others, ‘Guys they are playing a perfect game. It will take a perfect game to beat us. If they play a perfect game then they deserve to win – and if they don’t, we will be there to convert the breaks.’”
“I was confident that if we kept bringing that defensive pressure, we could get a break,” said McCarthy. “We just needed one spark.”
And then it was bang!-bang!-bang! Revolver’s magical spell was vanquished in seven minutes of sparks — Jack Hatchett comes under Grant Lindsley to get a block, Joel Schlachet makes a rare throwing error, and Dave Ferraro runs Beau off his line – three straight turns by Revolver and three straight scores by Ironside made it 9-8 Boston, and we were heading for a classic.
Throughout the game, Simon Higgins was nearly unstoppable for Revolver, Christian Foster was bombing pulls deep down the field for Ironside, George and John Stubbs were running with unlimited energy and precision, and then it was Nathan White bookends to give the advantage back to Revolver before a Jack Hatchett clean up on an overthrow let Boston break back. We were 13-all, game to 14, Boston receiving on double-game-point (DGP). The last DGP men’s championship final was won by Seattle Sockeye, 16-15, over JAM in 2004 with a blade to the end zone caught by Chase Sparling-Beckley in a crowd. Things can get weird when the stakes are high.
“I got to the line, kneeled and said a prayer because we could always use that,” Gibson told me. “I was jacked up but still had the butterflies, felt the excitement. Receiving on DGP means it’s all on you. You can be the glory or you can be the goat. It’s why you play.”
“I felt confident,” wrote Neff. “There were no other players I would rather have on the line besides the six that were there with me. We had been battling together all season, putting in the work physically and mentally to be ready.”
“As a fan of ultimate, universe point in the finals of Nationals is probably the most intense, oh-my-God situation you can be in,” conveyed ESPN broadcaster Evan Lepler.
Ironside worked it halfway down the field before trouble arrived. Tyler Chan had the disc on the sideline, trapped, and he wanted to get it out. All season, Boston had been taught to get it off the sideline to their veteran handlers in the middle. Gibson set up a cut and streaked back for the center reset, but Revolver’s Cassidy Rasmussen, hidden in the backfield, flashed into the lane. Chan crouched and fired a fast and low forehand ahead of Rasmussen, but it clanked off Gibson’s outstretched hand. Turnover. On double-game point. An audible gasp from the stadium crowd.
“I was trying to get in the lane,” wrote Rasmussen. “I started the point guarding John Stubbs, but switched with Lucas [Dallmann] onto Jeff Graham who cleared up the far sideline. I took the opportunity to get in Tyler’s vision to try and muck things up.”
“That whole play is just like a blur,” wrote Chan. “I remember getting the disc, seeing no good options up field, and turning to get a reset. Kurt was there, and I was definitely going to throw it to him, but I don’t think we were on the same page when I chucked that hot stone. I didn’t think that Cassidy was going to have a play, and I was expecting Kurt to keep on moving backfield, but he was expecting me to hold it until after Cassidy was done jamming up our lane.”
“My first thought was, ‘Here we go again. This is how it ends,’” wrote Markette. “But instead of lingering in negativity, you see your guy run deep, and you chase after him. The only question was: Were they going to put us in a position to get a D, or were they going do what they always do – be effing robots and flatly punch it in?”
“I didn’t think Tyler was going to throw it…literally wasn’t expecting it,” said Gibson. “I was about to run around Cassidy, and then when the turn happened, I kind of stopped. That turn is on me. My thought was ‘holy crap, if we lose this, it will be all my fault, and I will be pissed.’ Then it’s a scramble. I have to find someone on D. Somehow I ended up on Beau. I thought to myself, ‘I am going to be a living nightmare on the mark. Wherever he is facing, I am going to be jumping around.’”
Beau and his big body claimed real estate to center the disc after the turn. Lithe Kurt danced around him and, I don’t know, Kurt calls foul on Beau for body contact, Beau pivots away from Kurt and throws a reset forehand that never had a chance.
“Beau and Kurt both looked like the play had stopped. Kurt was waving around and talking about something as if the disc wasn’t in, and then Beau threw it. And then it seemed so casual how the disc hit the ground, and Kurt wandered over and picked it up,” wrote Chuck Kindred, who was calling the game from the ESPN booth. “It was an absolutely surreal moment.”
Cricket ran back to handle for Ironside. “A thousand thoughts go through your head: ‘How can I win this right now?’ and ‘How can I screw this up right now?’”
Markette gets it from Gibson and resets, barely avoiding a D attempt from White, and now Gibson, marked by Kittredge, has the disc five feet from the goal when a stoppage occurs, and everyone catches their collective breath. Kurt calls out “Jeff!,” although I may be the only one who heard it. After a pair of failed squirrel cuts from Markette and John Stubbs, Jeff Graham comes flying across the field and catches the game winner. Nine years of failure is forgotten, erased, eclipsed – overtaken.
“I can’t describe the feeling,” wrote Graham. “Explosive joy, for this team, for the guys on this season’s squad, for Josh and the guys that have been playing on Ironside since the beginning, for everyone on Boston teams over the years.”
“Joy, pride, accomplishment. Obviously a sense of relief and a little bit of disbelief. Mostly, ‘We f’in did it!’” wrote Hatchett. “This was my sixth year on Ironside, and the buildup of disappointment through the years was pretty big. But to think of guys like Danny and Jeff and Jared and Papa JMac and Reb and Goldy who have been top players and coaches in the game but never tasted this feeling – I’m just so happy for them.”
“My heart was pounding. And in the immediate aftermath, I was in disbelief, not about the result, more about how lucky we were to have witnessed such an epic game,” recalled Lepler.
“The one guy that came to my mind in the aftermath was George Stubbs. He was the face of those previous finalist Ironside teams, and he had to watch his former team and his brother win. It takes a real man to watch that and maintain grace. I think that’s what George is though,” wrote Kindred.
“This year felt different from the start,” wrote Ironside assistant coach Chris Shaikh. “From March on, every time someone asked me how we were going to do, I said we were going to win Nationals. So much talent, so much drive. We cut extremely good players and returners, guys who would have made the team any other year.”
To some, Boston’s almost decade-long run near the top without a title represented a Boston-Brahmin-like ego failing in clutch moments: Boston was a great team, but they weren’t special, they weren’t unique, they didn’t have the heart of a champion. Perhaps that’s true, or perhaps they were just unlucky and faced better teams.
There is no question the finals match could have gone either way. Both teams were deserving of the title and played without fear and without reservations.
But in the end, Ironside won by relying on heart, joy and faith – qualities they had all along. Those little things added up to something bigger: a championship.