Thursday, May 04, 2006

Central Regionals

This was a weekend of fate. For over 11 months Wisconsin knew this weekend would come. We remember clearly being in Corvallis, checking the final results and realizing the obstacle that had been placed in our path. A regional championship and nothing less if Madison wanted another shot at the college championships. This one game became a looming barrier that held importance beyond words. The alarming reality that only one team from the Central Region would be in Ohio sunk in quite quickly, and the knowledge that an entire season of hard work and dedication could be ruined by just one game was absolutely terrifying. With all of this hype and attention, this single task became a larger than life event; something incredibly valuable and loaded with expectation. The fact that Wisconsin had won 4 straight tournaments meant nothing if we didn’t convert in regional finals. These are the mental struggles that the Hodag’s faced and needed to overcome.

I think the final outcome started with our preparation. Over the summer when many college players started playing club together, we wondered about Carleton. Before the fall season even began Wisconsin was organizing a bid to attempt to bring regionals to Madison. When the Hodags had tryouts it was all about the last 20% and selecting the group of competitors that could defeat Carleton in finals. As the spring season began this goal was within our sights. This objective crystallized and began to prickle after losing to Carleton in Vegas. The impact of that loss stuck with almost everyone, putting more focus and effort on improving. From that point on everything Wisconsin did was gearing up for this weekend. We planned for this one game, we studied our enemy, we had a practice run the weekend before, and we prepared ourselves 100 times more effectively than last year. We timed our workouts to have our bodies be in excellent condition and we thought we had everything figured out. But nothing can confuse and devastate a team’s confidence and momentum like the predictably precarious Midwestern Spring Weather.

The anticipation for Iowa City was overwhelming and coupled with finals growing close made for a stressful week. No one could think about school because the most important weekend of the year was approaching fast and we were running out of practice time. Wisconsin held the one seed and had a pretty easy pool. However, the driving rain, cold conditions and blustery winds made it pretty miserable. Our first game was against our B-team the Pimpdags. They surely wanted a piece of us and at 1-1 the intensity was there as they believed they had a chance. The Pimpdags were the only team on Saturday that had the throwers to accurately huck the disc. But at 4-1 that feeling of rivalry faded as the conditions worsened, drops increased, and best throwers proved themselves, riding the storm to a 15-2 victory. This was a glimpse of the future, teams laying down and not giving their full effort late in the game. Next was Marquette who despite having some athletes could not handle the increasingly crappy driving rain. Turns came by the handful and we cruised in for a 15-0 win. They almost scored several times, but the weather was extremely bad and the drops hurt them. They were having fun though, some sliding around shirtless in the rain and making the best of the awful circumstances. Our last game of the day was against Carleton-GOP. With the intent of finishing games quick to get out of the cold rain and get our rest we were damn ready to finish the day. GOP did their best with the conditions but unquestionably surrendered a 15-1 finish. However, GOP was definitely the funniest team we played all day because they dressed up of course. Overall, a combination of the weather and fast starts made for a speedy finish and opportunity to scout CUT play their last pool play game against Winona State. We huddled in our cars as we watched a 10+ turnover point. We built confidence right there, seeing Carleton struggle in the rain when we dominated our opponents.
“Dinner with the Enemy”
We showered up and decided to go to “The Mill” which apparently has really good pasta type food. With many of our parents with us, several who came as a surprise, we had a large group of 34 people. As we order our drinks and find our seats, guess who wanders in the door? Carleton?!? Oh… hey guys. They sit on the other side of the open room with a small stage in between us. Two examples for how much we loathe Carleton: 1) Rodrigo and Dan are in the bathroom and in walks Ben Hahn from Carleton. They immediately recognize each other and don’t say a word. No smile, no sign of friendliness, it was an uneasy silence. 2) There is some joking around because how on earth did the Hodags and CUT get into the same dinner room?? So Ted Tripoli stands up, walks around the booths to the other side. As Tripoli moves the room murmurs, and everybody was watching, thinking Ted was going to strut over and talk to those guys. However, he turns sharply and grabs the blinds and loudly pulls it over, taking CUT out of view and saying, “I don’t even want to look at those guys.” Carleton laughed and even bought us 3 pitchers of beer which was pretty amusing. Over two hours later, after several wrong orders/running out of food, we left for the hotel, grabbed our dried clothes and went to bed after a convincing and compelling team meeting.

Sunday morning rumors swirled about tournament format, fields closed, lost alumni and the like with bad weather still coming. We managed to start quarters against Iowa State just before it started down pouring. With a certain amount of confidence and swagger in the air, Madison was ready to prove that this tournament belonged to us. Although it was a close game early, 3-2, we made it into a 15-5 drubbing. Despite the wet conditions, Madison was still able to throw several nice deep shots in the rain. All day the handlers were the key to our success, moving the disc quickly, effectively, and killing with the up field reset (Thanks Tyson). ISU only had 2 good throwers and couldn’t handle the zone and stiff wind. They continually punted, but our consistent O2 resets and chilly offense were pretty vicious. After this game, we lost the fields. The Iowa complex had already shut down 3 fields yesterday so they added in the bye rounds, but this time because of the continual rain, we lost them all. So for semis we had to change fields and locations. We went to a random city park to finish the day. A line of 18 cars struggled to caravan to the new playing site. The start times were pushed back an hour and it landed Madison all by themselves at the new site to throw around and try to stay warm as the other teams finished their quarter’s games and headed on over. During this time lag, as Carleton and Minnesota stayed dry in their cars, it down poured again and became so windy that 10 yard passes upwind were a luxury. Another question: Have you been to your nearest city park lately? I never used to notice how tall those dandelions grow, just how thick the grass is, or just how many gopher holes there were. Basically, it was playground country style and the observers had a talk with the captains about how they would interpret throws skimming the tall grass and dandelions. These fields seem better to support a local spring league game rather than the finals of the Central Region, but at least the ground was soft.

When Minnesota, Carleton and St. Cloud State finally arrived and emerged from their shelters we started our games in some brutal wind. We effectively mixed our zone and man defense, getting valuable practice for the upcoming final. Most importantly, SCSU played some zone defense, giving our zone offense a chance to work out the kinks. We finished quickly 15-5, with St. Cloud again conceding the game after a big lead. St. Cloud wished us luck and told us to beat CUT, but not before Naz continually ruined marks and made people look as silly as Andrew Brown usually does. I should mention that Naz looks pretty silly and lanky, but his confidence with the disc is rock-solid.

Finally, we had done it; we had made it to finals and the game to go to nationals versus our biggest rival Carleton CUT. The alumni, parents, fans, girlfriends, and other teams had to be fenced off to keep a decent sideline for this game. The sun broke through right before the game started and the conditions drastically changed from wet, cold, and windy to warm, sunny, and windy. In what would become an upwind-downwind game CUT won the flip and astutely chose the wind. Wisconsin’s “Seattle drill” before the game began was clean and crisp, with rocket passes slicing through the wind and sure hands sticking to discs. As the game started, the crowd was loud and omnipresent. With a steady 20-25 mph wind to the face, going upwind seemed nearly impossible. With several huge CUT pulls, Wisconsin took two or three possessions to just be able to finally work it out of the end zone before the turn and quick Carleton conversion. Carleton looked really good early, the zone appeared unbreakable, the offense was smooth and efficient flowing off the break throws and Wisconsin seemed slow to react and timid. Last year the youthful Hodag’s might have been more nervous and worried, but it was so much an upwind-downwind game that a 2/3 field pull was pretty awesome and scoring downwind was extremely easy. And then it happened. CUT broke our zone and quickly worked it up the field and then scored the upwinder as if they had been doing it all day. The momentum swung instantly. Carleton was playing harder with more intensity, had louder sidelines, and had scored the unthinkable unwind break. It was as if the world had stopped rotating. The Wisconsin fans were shocked and the overall tension and pressure increased dramatically. As we called our zone offense and awaited the pull, the fierce wind and Northwoods cheerer’s made any noise coming from farther than 10 feet away completely inaudible. This was just another unexpected obstacle that found its way into the finals. Well, the pull landed deep and rolled out, trapping us on the sideline. They pushed us all the way to the back of our end zone before we changed the game. Dump swing, dump swing, dump swing as fast as we could before a desperation hammer that didn’t even reach our front end zone cone for a turn. We got the disc back on a backfield miscommunication by CUT giving Heijmen the disc. An initial rapid succession of throws got the disc quickly up the field. Several more key breaks through the zone by Riley and Muffin punched the disc through the cup and pushed us closer to the goal line. Once in range of the end zone, one final break of the cup to Rodrigo Valdivia created a Carleton defensive meltdown and left an easy open pass for our own upwinder. We had taken the momentum right back and immediately scored the downwinder as well. This is where the tide turned, with Wisconsin fans really getting into the game, and the Hodags reversing the pressure back on Carleton.

Punting became a big time strategy going downwind and even hammers to no one were an alright solution, as Rebholz began to jack some giant laser hammers out the back. He threw one cross-field to Heijmen who perfectly boxed out Leon, Carleton’s deep, and had an easy pass to Rodrigo for the score. The trading continued to 7-7 with both teams scoring easily downwind. The intensity of the game was growing and tempers flared early with several hard, but smart, fouls. I even heard fans jawing at each other from the respective teams. I think we had failed to realize from the start that CUT would do anything; I mean anything to gain an advantage. They fouled us hard and often, called me by my first name, had that patented fake niceness, contested obvious fouls we called, trying anything to get into our heads. It was 7-7 and we were pulling upwind to CUT with our stud-laced zone offense. We know a break here would count double (Carrington and Paradise reminded us) if we could hold downwind after half, so it’s a crucial moment. We got a good pull and on one of the first in throws Drew Mahowald put his mark on the game. Ben Hahn made the in-cut and Drew laid out making up several feet to get a sick layout D near midfield. This was huge because CUT wasn’t in zone; we had the disc at midfield, and the crowd as going wild. We worked it up field but squandered our break opportunity on the would-be scoring pass. Carleton gladly punted the disc and we moved to work it up field again. A swing and floaty O2 pass in traffic (4 CUT players converging) came down in the confident hand’s of Matt Rebholz, and he immediately hucked his backhand as far as he could to Rodrigo who was sprinting deep. In probably the deepest upwind throw all game, Valdivia had just enough time to perfectly read the throw and catch it flatfooted near the upwind end zone sideline. Carleton’s Jacob Goldstein initially tried to call him not in, but Gigo definitively called himself in and waited for the observer who quickly agreed. The upwind break for half 8-7 Wisconsin completely changed the game. The Hodags began to guard their upwind end zone with their lives, punting anything and everything in our half of the field we are defending. Since we were only punting downwind, why not send several receivers down field so we can catch the mack or tip? Carleton never quite understood this strategy, so with several 3 vs. 1 in the end zone we scored consistently. Our punts were mostly scored with Tripoli running really really fast to floaty deep backhand hucks. We switched defensive strategies and go man defense as well, pumping in continuous downwind goals. Dan Heijmen continued to dominate getting a ridiculous wrap around layout D from behind a Carleton player. Mum was the word on score with no one asking and no one even mentioning it until 13-10. Superstitions got us as CUT scored an upwind on a close call on the sideline with Hahn toeing the line. It was Jacob that broke it through the cup on several occasions manufacturing the break upwind. CUT closed the gap with an easy score downwind, bringing it to 13-12. Carleton, going upwind, got the punt turn and the crowd went nuts! They worked the disc within 20 yards of scoring upwind. Some stifling defensive intensity by Tripoli, Valdivia, and Heijmen on the handler weave left Chris Rupp with no options and stall 8. In desperation he pivoted forward and attempted to draw a foul on the throw. His mistake was actually throwing the disc, which popped up and flew back over his head about 15 yards. Dan, who played with Rupp with past Club season with Sub Zero, knew Chris too well and told him he was going to the observer when Rupp only wanted a contest. (Note: This is the second time that Chris makes the turnover that killed the cat, see Quarters vs. Furious). Dan argued that he was stationary and that Rupp was trying to draw a on the step and that he was completely motionless on the throwing foul and the observer agreed. Turn. Riley directly dumped the disc to Tripoli who…..
Flashback: It’s midweek Spring Break at Tybee Island. We had punked out on playing with the girl’s team and were playing capture the flag on the beach instead. We did some miscellaneous throwing around and Ted Tripoli began just bombing hammers downwind off the ocean breeze like 70 yards. It turned into a competition and Ted announced that he had the best downwind hammer, just chucking it like 90 yards to people not even moving. He beat everyone, even Freddy, but we were like, “Great Ted, you are the best at throwing 70 yard hammers straight downwind. Good job. Who cares?” Who knew this would come back huge?!?
So Ted got the dump and immediately …throws a monster 60 yard hammer goal to a motionless Valdivia in the back of the end zone behind an unsuspecting Hahn to take the 14-12 lead. We put in another sick defensive line, wanting to end it here. We got the turn and after a sick upwind hammer to Tim Pierce and an overruled travel call on Pearce’s immediate O2 pass to Miller on the sideline play stopped. It was Dan Miller with the disc and Shane Hohenstein with a couple of steps on his man, and his eyes on the end zone. It was a no-brainer backhand huck that Shane immediately spiked to end the game. Two transfer students from Winona State finished the game and we went crazy. It was several minutes before the teams shook hands.

The ecstasy of winning the title and extending our season was dampened by the thought of ending Carleton’s season. I was overjoyed to win, but felt abrupt empathy for their position, a place that we could easily have been if the game had played out differently. While I maintain that I hate CUT with all my soul, I did feel particularly sorry for them for awhile. The end of a season is an emotional time. I think I hugged each and every one of my teammates I could find, all of us euphoric to finally break through and win Regional finals for the first time since 2002.

Overall it was funny that we won the game with a strategy of punting the disc and playing defense, but I guess we have pretty stingy defense. Many times it was our D line scoring the offensive points downwind with the offense trying to score the crucial breaks upwind, presenting a definite role reversal.

Several other things: This weekend was the weirdest tournament format with less fields than expected, changed times for Sunday, new locations, getting the new directions to all of the alums, playing in a city park, heavy rain, and an incredible wind. Nate Hurst played a super game at handler, shredding the Carleton zone late in the game to help cash in last couple breaks upwind. Rodrigo Valdivia played outstanding all game and pretty much all day. He seemed to teleport all over the field and was in all the right spots at the right time. To repeat, in the beginning of the game, CUT was playing with an anything to win mentality (like Florida?). They were fouling on purpose, contesting calls, grabbing jerseys, and playing mind games. Although the game cleaned up considerably, I almost punched Leon for one foul in particular that rubbed me the wrong way and pushed him away when he tried to play nice and give me a hug. However, the outside support was tremendous. The alumni that made the trip and especially all of the parents were really great. Although several parents had to miss most of finals to catch their flights back home, that fact that they made the trip was strength enough. I also think that the parents came to realize just how much ultimate means to each and every player on the field and how much time, effort, and energy we give to this sport. And lastly, the crazy windy game conditions. Who knew there would be 25-30mph gusts with a straight upwind-downwind game?? Wow, just ridiculous. One last thing: we promise to earn a strength bid for the Central Region next season, because the amount of time I spent pondering not going to Nationals easily outweighs time spent thinking about anything else. It is a damn shame that Carleton will not be in Ohio because they clearly deserve to be there. One of the biggest rivalries in college ultimate, both teams obviously deserving a spot at Nationals, and the Metro East is going to send two teams to Nationals that won’t win a game. CUT could have quite possibly made quarterfinals and they have been replaced by Delaware, or Dartmouth, or whatever. What a tragedy that those 4 not-very-competitive teams from the ME and NE have to pull down the caliber of this prominent tournament. But we’ll be there with our minds and bodies focused on winning it all.

I think all of the focus on this one game began to overshadow our larger goals for the season. When we were picking the team back in the fall, our season goal was very clear to everyone. It was to win a National Championship. That was it – to be the very best and win the hardest tournament of the year. Winning the Central just became another step towards that goal. I think we lost sight of that goal for a little bit. However, the team has refocused at the task at hand. With such a magical season so far, we need to keep working hard to keep improving to have a legitimate chance at going 6-0. We still have National Champs on our team so we know we can do this.

Wisconsin Hodags Central Champions 2006!

pics here:
and here
blue/black pics:
alum game pics: