From the undulating fields of the Twin Cities Polo Grounds, USA Ultimate’s Central Regionals took place this past weekend in Maple Plain, Minnesota (30 minutes west of Minneapolis-St. Paul).
It was my 1st time playing in the UPA/USA Ultimate series, as opposed to a Surly Cynic player I was chatting with who has played in every Central Regional since 1984, and I had a fantastic time. Unfortunately my schedule didn’t allow me to keep too close an eye on the other divisions (Masters started an hour later than everyone else, so all the games were done by the time we were on Saturday), so this recap will focus primarily on the Masters division.
My team, Rust, is technically based out of Detroit, but we were pulling players from all over the region, including Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis, as well as making full use of roster exemptions to bring in players from Toronto.
We were situated in the northeast corner of the facility, which prevented me from seeing any Open Ultimate this weekend, but we were surrounded by the mixed division, and when we arrived at the fields to commence our warmups, CLX was in full force, on their way to victories over scottyface (who I didn’t realize was a Canadian team until the end of Sunday play), and rolling over IBEX. One comment from a teammate during the CLX-IBEX game: “Why don’t they [IBEX] use their women?”. Probably why they were a 14 seed.
Our opening game was against Real Huck (Chicago), who qualified for the UPA Championships last season, and I have to admit, that while we had a decent sized roster of 16, it’s always a little intimidating to see your opponents with a roster of 28.
While the weather was absolutely perfect (temperatures in the mid 20’s, no wind, slightly overcast to prevent the heat from becoming unbearable) from a playing stand point, it didn’t exactly lend itself to zone defence. We decided to open with a zone anyway, as we felt that Real Huck didn’t have a lot of handling depth, and that we could either force some over the top throws that we could snack on, or get the disc into the hands of their cutters, then pressure them into a low percentage throw.
I felt our zone worked fairly well from a conceptual standpoint: we forced the over the top throws we wanted, but we kept coming up just short in our bids, allowing Real Huck the easy fast break for scores. Our offence was working somewhat well, as we hit on some strikes early, but we were still feeling one another out on offence, learning what each player liked to do. We ended up on the losing end 13-3, but we felt good coming out of that game, as it was not a must win for us (we were seeded 5th, and just needed to beat seed by 1 to make the championship bracket), as we felt is was a great way to get to know one another before going into a must win game.
In the other games that round, Surly Cynics (6th seed) upset Age Against the Machine (4th seed) 13-8, helping us greatly in our goal to reach the semi finals, and Surly (1st seed) and Old Style (3rd seed) had a very competitive game, as they felt one another out, with Surly coming out on top 13-10.
Our next game, against the Cynics (Minneapolis), was a big one for us. Thanks to their upset, if we were to beat the Cynics, we would be all but assured of the 4th seed after pool play, which would put us in the championship bracket. The game did not get off to a good start, as one Rust player dropped a wide open huck in the end zone, then got burned by a Cynic huck that went right over his head on the opening point. I don’t want to embarrass this player, but needless to say, there was a lot of hat throwing and F-bombs involved.
The Cynics employed a side stack, which I’ve never seen before, isolating one player on the force side, and leaving 2 pairs, 1 short and 1 deep, on the break force sideline. I felt we did a good job of shutting down any continuation hucks, but the Cynics were incredibly patient with their offence, hitting the underneaths and working the disc up the field for scores.
If I remember correctly, it was 7-5 Cynics at half, and they continued their momentum in the 2nd half, getting out to a comfortable lead, as they neared game point (12-7 I believe). We went on a small run to cut the lead to 12-10, but couldn’t pull off the comeback, as the Cynics took us down 13-10. It was certainly one of those games where you look back and analyze every little thing. If I had caught that opening point, as I should have, the score is now 12-11; if one didn’t poach as far off their man on this point, etc.
The loss effectively eliminated us from the championship bracket, barring an upset over Old Style, who had just taken care of business against Age Against the Machine 13-6, while Surly beat Real Huck 13-10, taking care of their 2 biggest challengers to kick off the tournament.
Old Style (Milwaukee) was a big game for some of our players, as our Milwaukee contingent had been cut from Old Style, but in an odd twist, their captain neglected to remove them from the team email list, and on the eve of the tournament, had sent out some inadvertent bulletin board material regarding us lower seeded teams.
This motivation, plus frustration from the Cynic loss had us coming out of the gates strong, trading points for a while with Old Style, but their depth, talent and size eventually wore us down 13-5. Surly rolled Age 13-3, and Real Huck beat Cynics 13-5, kind of proving the Old Style captain right, that this really was a 3 team pool.
Although unofficially eliminated (barring a Miracle on Ice like upset over Surly Sunday morning), our team kept their heads up, and looking to end the day on a high note, went into our final game of the day versus Age Against the Machine (Cincinnati) ready to roll. We got out to the hot start we wanted/needed, taking half 7-2, as we switched to more horizontal stack sets on offence, and really got into a nice rhythm with our handlers and cutters. Age gave us a run late, but we were able to finish it out 13-8, giving us enough time to catch the key game of the day 1 field over, between Old Style and Real Huck. Style took the win, and the spot in the championship game, 13-8. Surly made quick work of the Cynics 13-5
So Sunday morning we rolled in ready to face the best team in the world (Masters division), Surly (Minneapolis). For an Ultimate nerd such as myself, it was kind of cool to be going out there and see players such as Ron Kubalanza and Eric Lonsdorf lined up against us. It was just as cool as getting yelled at by Eric Zaslow in the Real Huck game for making a bad call. Of course I took the call back. It was a bucket list moment.
The funny thing about being an Ultimate nerd, and knowing all these players bios, is that you never realize that everybody else is NOT into Ultimate as much as you are. I was sent out on our opening line, and I commented that I wanted to match up against Kubalanza, although I knew I couldn’t really cover him, I just wanted to be able to say that I did. The rest of my team looked at me and asked who Ron Kubalanza was!
We wound up going zone against them instead on the opening point, a 3-2-1 with a dump taxi, where I was the left mid. I set my position off the OB pull, and turned to facemark my area, and who do I see? Ron Kubalanza! Sure enough, the handler tried to hammer it over our cup to him, and I was able to anticipate the throw and get the D, which we converted for a 1-0 lead.
Our team was just really loose for this game, and really had everything clicking. Our long game was working with far more frequency than we would have imagined, but it’s the little things that separate the big boys from the rest of the crowd.
We got a nice D in the end zone off a huck to the corner, walked the disc to the line, but no one was moving, and we ended up making a rushed stall 9 throw that was easily intercepted. Surly then worked the disc across the field towards the end zone when the Mad Gerbil was born. On a simple pass for what appeared to be an easy score to Kubalanza, Sean “Homeless Poet” Prentiss, exploded out of the end zone for a giant layout D from behind on the goal line. Prentiss got and up and kept on running, with Kubalanza chasing. We quickly worked the disc to me on the sideline and I figured “what the hell”, and ripped off a 50 yard O/I forehand that curled just over the defender’s shoulder and Sean grabbed with an even better layout than his D. Our sideline exploded, and in the ensuing huddle (off a timeout call), the Mad Gerbil nickname was coined, and our team now had a rallying cry.
Despite all this good fortune, we were down 10-3, but with all the excitement from our sideline (which was noted by the other fields), you would have thought it was the other way around. Our goal for the game was 5 points (we incorrectly believed that none of the other bottom 3 had score more than 4 against Surly on Saturday). At 12-4, we ran off 2 in a row to actually force Surly to put out their top line to finish us off and get the rest they thought they were going to receive prior to the championship game.
Surly was very gracious in victory, but once the post game handshake was done, their post game team huddle was not a happy place, the main complaints being lack of focus and intensity. That fired us up even more going into our 5th place game against Age Against the Machine.
Our game against Age was unbelievable, and I’d say in my top 3 this year. Age was certainly fired up, looking to avoid ending the tournament without a victory, and the teams momentum back and forth, no one going up by more than 2, to take half 8-7
The championship game was over fairly quickly, as Surly dispatched Old Style 15-5, to head back to Sarasota, and set a up a game to go rematch from 2009 against Real Huck, who beat the Cynics by an identical 15-5 score. Due to the quick finished in those games, we had a bit of a crowd for our 2nd half.
Age scored the first 2 out of half and got out to a 13-10 lead, primarily on the back (more accurately the arm) of #41, a 6’5” behemoth who was launching bombs on us at will. We had exhausted every one of our bigs on him, and none of us could contain him. We decided to change tactics and put speed merchant Brandon Marks on him, hoping that he could deny him the disc, or force him out as a receiver to try and take care of the big height advantage he enjoyed over Brandon, and make someone else try and beat us with their arm.
Sure enough, 41 went long, and the huck went up, but Brandon beat him to the spot and took the huck down, which we quickly fast breaked down field for a score, and changed the momentum of the game. We crawled back to tie it at 14’s, and finally broke them for the lead at 15-14. From there we were able to trade out for a 17-16 win, with a flawless turnover free point for the win.
This set up a rematch with the Cynics for 4th place, but many of their players had dispersed to watch the various games to go that were commencing, but the Cynics rounded up enough players, and added one of the members from the Surly Women’s team (captain’s clause trumps all!).
Even though they changed to a more traditional offence from Saturday, and only had 9 players, we still struggled to get ahead of the Cynics, giving up universe half 6-5 (game to 11), and at 10-8 Cynics, we tied it up at 10’s to force another overtime. Alas, all the magic had been used up, and the Cynics pulled out the 12-10 victory.
This allowed us to turn our attention to the game to go between Old Style and Real Huck (we started early and shortened our game so we could watch this one), and quite a barnburner it was. The first half consisted of long turnover filled points, although it was hot D and not sloppy O causing those turns. Old Style took the half 8-5, and at this point some of the Chicago players from other divisions came over to root on Real Huck, which kicked the ambiance of the game up about 3 levels.
Real Huck managed to chill their offence in the 2nd half, and their D line turned it to 11, as Real Huck outscored Old Style 10-3 in the 2nd half to take the bid to Sarasota 15-11, in front of a roaring sideline.
Post game, both teams were commenting on the bad job done by the observers; both sides felt that the observers got most calls wrong, and not just calls that benefited their respective teams either. The winning point was also atrocious work by the observers: Real Huck had the disc 10 yards from the end zone, and tried to jam it up the line. The Real Huck player appeared to catch it for the winner, but Old Style called it down as the sideline rushed the field. A discussion with the observers (I believe there were 3) ensued, where it was ruled that none of the observers witnessed the 10 yard throw for the game winning point, so it was a do over. How none of the observers were in position to see such a throw is embarrassing, in my opinion. However, a few passes later, Real Huck punched it in again for the win, and the return trip to Sarasota.
Overall, my experience this past weekend was fantastic; I have nothing but the highest of praise for the players this weekend. Both on the field and off, every one just had fantastic spirit (unlike, say, some of the mixed division action we saw. I’ve never seen someone ask for disc space by shoving the disc into a players chest and shoving him back about 15 yards before). The local players were very appreciative of us making the trip, repeatedly thanking us, knowing that it was a very lengthy drive or costly flight.
The amenities were great; cold water was provided all weekend, not once did I head over to field water to find it empty. On site massage was fantastic; I heard the pulled pork was great (bad timing on my part that I never was able to have one), and, of course, free Surly beer all weekend.
The fields, on the other hand, were an absolute joke, and some of the worst I have ever, ever seen (I’ve been playing 14 years). When I referred to them as undulating at the top of this recap, I wasn’t kidding. Potholes, dips, valleys, rolling hills were on every field I could see. Repeatedly during the mixed games, I saw a player streaking down field to reel in a wide open huck, only to fall flat on their face as they tripped on the ground. Masters and Mixed were off in the northeast corner, so I was not able to see any Open or Woman’s action, so I don’t know if their fields were better and we just got the shaft, but as one person commented, “Do they really let horses run around here?”.
While a large complaint, it’s the only one I can make from this weekend, and I am hopeful that this was just the 1st of a string of USA Ultimate series events that I am able to partake in.
My preliminary seeding for the Masters division at Nationals:
5) Ball and Chain
8) Real Huck
11) Slow Country Boil
12) Le Tigre