Why is it that you play Ultimate? Do you play because of your friends/teammates? Love of the game? Or for money and adulation? Why do we push ourselves to play year after year despite recurring injuries, the financial strain of training and travel, and the horrific weather conditions that send players in more popular sports scurrying for shelter. What are we chasing? What are we addicted to?
On Sunday four teams took to the field at Ron Joyce Stadium in McMaster University. The bronze medal game between Local 613 (ON,18) and Crash (ON,8) was a rematch from pool play with the former winning on Universe. Coping with the swirling wind conditions both teams demonstrated plenty of speed and talent but Local 613 proved too much for Crash. Finishing with 4 breaks to 1 and a score of 10-6 Local 613 repeated their bronze from CUC 2014 in Waterloo. Evident on the faces of Crash was the emotion of defeat and the expectations that they placed on themselves. They can rest easy as next year both teams shall be favorites for bids to worlds unlike the finalists.
Both Nagano 98 (ON,10) and Montreal Old Star (QC,4) are composed of Women’s and Open players, both formed recently, both are composed of stars in their respective cities, and neither is trying for a bid in the Mixed division next year. So why do they play? To win? Perhaps, but they do that all of the time. To win a CUC medal? Perhaps, but they have those as well. So why do they go through the effort, expense, and pain to play?
On one side, Nagano 98, the young stars, energy, nervousness, and athleticism. On the other, Montreal Old Stars, the veterans, stamina, finesse, and a plan. Nagano scores a point, then another, and another, and yet another. They’re leading 4-0. The crowd, small but vocal, thinks the game is over and turn to each other for conversation. Montreal calls a timeout, the conversation is quiet, unconcerned. Nagano also has a huddle, but it’s not as fast, they’ve lost some focus but who cares? They have a large lead. Montreal receives the pull and manages a quick point and start to play. They put on a zone, Nagano’s kryptonite. Montreal breaks. 4-1. A high arching pull that gives them time. Another zone, another break. Then another, and another, and another. 5-4 Montreal leads. The crowd is still not awake, they don’t fully realize what’s happened.
As one ages the allure of purely athletic play fades. Perhaps the game becomes boring or perhaps it becomes second nature. Instead there must be other elements that manage to keep our interest. Strategy is an oft misunderstood element of any sport. As one gains experience one understands that they must incorporate the opponent in their strategy not as an enemy or an obstacle but rather as an active participant in your success. Understanding this can tip the balance every so slightly in your favor. However, it cannot be performed individually but must be a full team effort.
The teams trade back and forth for a few points. Nagano broke to take the lead and both teams played it out it was 8-7 for Nagano, 10 minute half. The Old Stars stayed on the pitch, had a quick chat, and stayed warm by throwing throughout half. There was not an ounce of frustration or worry. Nagano left the field and got out of the sun for half except for Jordan Meron. She was determined to have a discussion with the Observers. The control of the conversation was decidedly one sided. Three in green stared down at the captain, in white, as she explained her viewpoints. The response came from the one on the left, who was not the head Observer and yet had been outspoken before the game, and it was unsatisfactory to the one in white who left to rejoin her team.
What happens if a teammate is rattled and frustrated? You must refocus them, watch them, dedicate players to the task. What happens if you don’t? They become an opportunity for the opponent who can sow doubt, can start to exploit the frustrations of other players, and put off a team, ever so slightly bit by bit, as a whole. This is the interesting part of Ultimate when playing against talented youth. The fire that they have has to be managed carefully otherwise it can turn against themselves.
Montreal scored right out of half but continued playing an even more important sideline game. Every so often they’d let out a frustrated outburst and elicit a response. Immediately other Montreal players would seek to calm the situation. Except those frustrated outbursts were planned. Watching the eyes you could see players searching for those that were unfocused, quiet, or frustrated. They’d position themselves beside those primed to burst while teammates gathered around to manage the situation. In every instance there the Nagano 98 player was outnumbered on the sideline, perhaps even isolated. That frustration boiled over onto the field for Nagano while the Old Stars’ smiles grew. The mental game was now firmly in Montreal’s control but the game was far from over.
Both teams had a distinct path to the finals. Montreal had a close game against Midnight Release (ON,9) in pool play which they won 12-10. They also had a close semifinal, 11-9, against Local 613. It was not an easy route for them and they were challenged in each game. Nagano’s experience could not have been more different. They faced no challenges in pool play, blew threw quarters, and had a close semifinal, 13-10, against Crash due to the wind. What Nagano also had was reputation that led teams to believe they were going to lose even before they had played. That reputation was well earned as they were the most physically dominant team at the tournament. For what they lacked in throwing accuracy they made up with in speed and power. Even when rattled they were, at worst, on par with Montreal.
Back and forth the game shifted with Montreal ahead two breaks before Nagano broke to tie it up at 12s. Both teams had been playing well with Nagano dominating on cuts and in the air. Montreal keeping even with clever throws and pinpoint hucks. The crowd was engaged but it did not matter. The teams weren’t playing for a crowd. Every bit of themselves needed to concentrate on the game as such was the quality of their opponent. Montreal scored and was on game point 13-12. Nagano responded, 13-13 game to 14. Who would have thought that when the snow first melted and teams ventured into the crisp spring air that some months later the last game of the season would feature two differently able but perfectly matched teams. The final sequence itself was perfect. The movement up the line, the cross-field huck, the final short pass into the end zone. It was the game that Montreal had been playing not for a day, a week, or month, but for decades. The sequence was a culmination of decades of experience. The final score was 14-13 for Montreal.
The teams had battled each other on and off the field. They’d spoken to each other. They’d yelled at each other. They’d instigated and baited responses and plays. At the end they joined in a circle and spoke highly of one another. In particular Montreal Old Stars spoke about how they had been right where Nagano is 10 years ago (Camelot, Halifax, CUC 2006) and how Nagano is the future. As the young team from the GTA walked back to their sideline you could see the fire in their eyes. It was not a look of pain but a look of determination. There was no outpouring of grief but a feeling of unfinished business.
So why did these teams play? They had no need to prove anything. It’s because they’re addicted; we all are. We’re addicted to making the perfect throw, playing the perfect point, or winning the perfect game. Over time the throws become commonplace, points become easy to score efficiently, and games are won more often than not. So our standards of perfection change. Throwing a break throw against a big mark gives us that little rush. Scoring upwind in gusty weather against a zone gives us a bigger rush. Or winning a tough games extremely well against a great opponent with both sides giving it their all gives us a huge rush. That’s the perfect game that we’re chasing and craving.
After the medal ceremony Montreal relaxed on the sideline and discussed what tournament to attend next: the US Open or the Pan-Am games. Before the afterglow had faded they were already planning their next hit and chasing the next perfect game. Ultimate, it’s a hell of a drug.