Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Discussion of Different Offensive Stacks

This is an interesting topic to me, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I think a lot of offensive choices are influenced by region. I think teams in Colorado tend to run different offensive schemes than a lot of other places due to the influence of CU-Boulder and Bravo, whereas places like the West Coast definitely have a different "meta-game" for their offensive stacks, as I'd call it. Secondly, because after the conference championships this past weekend, it seems that our Colorado "meta" may be shifting away from the Horizontal/Split stack, that has been a pretty big part of Colorado college and club ultimate for many years.

Let me preface this by saying, I can't for certain say what different teams are specifically running, when and why. What I can tell you, is what I've observed, having been to club and college nationals, and having participated in tournaments in every corner of the country.

The first stack I learned as a college player in 2003 was a center stack. It wasn't our offense at CSU, but it was used as teaching tool, for people to learn how to make a good solid cut, to learn timing, and because we ran a center stack as an endzone offense. In Colorado, for a number of years it was generally regarded as an inferior stack, because it was easy to poach and went very stagnant from the sideline (I'm not calling it inferior now, wait for me section on that below).

Our actual offense my first two years at CSU was a horizontal stack. The standard three handlers back, four downfield, using all the horizontal space, working the complete field width with handler swings etc. In my mind as a young player I regarded this as a top notch offense, mostly because it was most of what I had learned, and our team ran it well. It wasn't until Potlatch in 2005 that I began to realize that the Ho-stack is much more of a beginners stack and that it was cycling out of the competitive college scene and club scene quite quickly.

At Potlatch my club team, DTL, had won the services of the Team USA coach Ted Munter in an Ebay auction (fundraiser for Team USA), for one game. After dressing him up in a sweet red jumpsuit with lots of bling, he coached us for a game, then gave us some great advice on how we looked. The thing I remember most is that he told us that Ho-Stack was really a basic offense; easy for a smart team to shut down, and the advantages were almost non-existent versus a split stack or a spread stack.

After that year, at CSU, we moved on to a CU/Bravo-esque split stack, and have not since returned to horizontal. What sparked my interest in this topic, as a mentioned above, is that this past weekend at the Rocky Mountain Conference championships both CU and CU-B were both running exclusively a center-stack, and while they've used it on occasion in the past, I don't believe it has ever been their exclusive offense prior to this year. This got me to thinking about the different advantages and disadvantages of the 4 stacks I'm spent the majority of my ultimate career playing, and why more and more teams seem to be changing to center stack.

Note: I'm not going to describe in detail what each stack does, if you aren't familiar with it, check some online resources.



It's a great beginner offense. Everyone has a position on the field that is essentially theirs. You stick to your cutting lane for the most part, are looking for big handler swings, and the emphasis for the downfield is mostly "run your ass off, and don't stop." There's obviously an element of timing, like any stack, but foremost you're getting your downfield to truck it around.

Another big advantage is that you always have an opposite side of the field from the thrower deep look. No matter where you are on the field, there's a cutter downfield in the far lane that has the potential to be cutting deep for a big, space deep throw (the best kind of deep).


It is easy to bracket the downfield; posting one defender as a deep and one defender on the under and just switching as the two cutters go under and deep. It's also very easy to clog the downfield with poaches from the handlers, as there are three handlers back at all times. Additionally, as the disc moves to one side of the field, the opposite side defenders can recognize that their cutters aren't primary looks, and interfere with both swings and deep looks.

Regardless of the ability to switch or poach against this offense, the biggest disadvantage that it has is that none of your cutters are given significant isolated space. At most you have 1/4 of the horizontal field to make your move as a downfield cutter, and even then, your deep is easy covered by other cutters' defenders who are not in a primary cutting position. In my opinion every good offense should give a primary look to a cutter with a majority of field space over any other cutter. As the overall athleticism in the game increases (and I believe in the last 8 years, it has increased RIDICULOUSLY in college), cutters need more space on the field to get open.

Overall, I think it is still a great offense to teach in High School or to use with newer players in a summer-league type situation.

Boston/Side Stack/V-Stack


This is a stack that I've run on every single team I've played on as a pull-play. It's very simple, it gives every cutter the entire field to get open, and it makes it easy to learn timing as you have a set cutting order and you know exactly when you're planning on cutting.

As a thrower in a V-Stack you can easily break the mark because there is almost 40 yards of horizontal empty space, even upside throws are viable because the cutter is always isolated in a 1on1 situation.


You have to start in the middle of the field for it to work. The reason it's run as a pull play, is because it's takes advantage of the fact that a defense is not completely settled in on their men after a pull. You almost always have an opportunity to center the disc off the pull. If you start the disc on the side of the field either you're behind the stack, giving you very few options, or you're on the far side of the field from the stack, where you aren't give the liberty of a throw wherever you want on the field.

Additionally, teams can oftentimes poach the underneath and deep with smart switches. One of the most effective ways of interfering with a V-stack is simply getting down on the pull very slowly, and thus clogging the cutting space for the initial look.

Overall, I still a Boston is one of the best pull plays around. The defense has to do something to interfere or the chances are good you will end up with a quick score for your team.

Split Stack


You are giving two cutters (the hot side) 2/3+ of the horizontal space on the field to make their cuts. As the disc advances downfield the cold side is cycling in  from the far side of the field from the disc, essentially, turning it into a V-stack, which as I discussed above is extremely difficult to cover man-to-man.

You aren't completely crippled setting up on a side of the field, rather than in the middle, because you have two options as a primary look, so you are always given a break option downfield in addition to a primary deep or underneath cut. Really what this boils down to, is it's V-stacks little brother, set up so it develops into a Boston, but so you are able to start without the disc in the middle of the field.


The cold-side defenders can easily poach and interfere with the hot-side cutters as they recognize that their cutters will not be initially active.

You are allowing for handler poaching as well given that you have three handlers consistently behind the disc, making force-middle poaches and whatnot viable defensive looks.

If the disc ends up behind the cold side of your stack the downfield is very clogged.

Overall, I think split is still a very strong offense. All of the poaching issues can be managed with good handler movement and good cycling from cold to hot, and it allows plenty of space for your cutters to be isolated.

Center Stack


You are leaving either side of the field open for a break regardless of the force. You are giving your primary cutter the leeway to make any cut they want, deep, underneath, break. You are allowing for a reset (the front of the stack) that will always gain yards, rather than other offenses relying on a backfield handler cut. The person who is your traditional dump reset (assuming you run only two handlers back as a default), also has the entire backfield to set themselves up for a continuation break throw.


This is an offense the needs to start in the middle of the field, however the are plenty of easy options for the middle reset.

You are susceptible to poaches underneath from the non-active stack members.

You need a lot of speed in your cutters. While most teams that run center stack can call any number of set plays (Santa Barabara comes to mind) a good chunk of the time the first cut will be coming from the back of the stack, so they need to be able to cover a lot of ground quickly, to give you a viable option from the get-go.

You also need handlers with BIG arms. Since the back of your stack is set up fairly deep compared to a horizontal or split, the people you have picking up the disc need to be able to put the disc 70+ yards from a stationary position. Additionally, your throwers need to be able to break the mark liberally. You have the entire break side of the field open for floaty breaks, so your throwers consistently need to be able to make that break throw. Much of the success of a center stack depends on getting the disc around to the break side of the field then continuing breaks down the field.

Overall, I think center is becoming (I realize a lot of college teams, especially west coast, have always run center, I'm taking this from my Colorado perspective) the stack of choice for elite college and club teams. You are simply given too many devastating options when you have the speed and throws to take advantage of the strengths of a center stack. A lot of the most athletic teams I can think of in both college and club (Doublewide, Mamabird, etc) now seem to run center, and it  is obviously successful. It's a hucking  and break-mark offense, and if you have the throwers and big downfield cutters to pull it off, it's next to impossible to defend. A far cry from the "noob" offense I was taught it was eight years ago.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The New College Ultimate Series - Worth It?

When talking to a lot of Alumni and people around the Fort Collins community they've ask me about how the college team is doing, and every conversation turns into an explanation of the how the new college series is working, and what I think of the system. So I've decided to do a blog entry that explains all that stuff so hopefully I can save us all some conversational time or have an easy resource for curious people to reference that's a bit easier than wading through the pain in the butt USA Ultimate site or going through RSD.  Section 1 will be how the system used to be. Section 2 will be how it is currently. Section 3 will be my opinion on the changes. (note: these changes have been in the works for a couple years starting with the expansion of nationals to 20 from 16 two years ago).

Section 1 - The Old System:

So previous to this year, Colorado was in the Southwest region. This region consisted of Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming. Every year the first tournament in the college series would be the Sectionals tournament, which consisted of a tournament with all the teams from the Front Range and Wyoming, usually some combination of CSU, CU, CC, UNC, DU, Wyoming, Mines, CU-B, Air Force etc. In previous years the number of bids each section received to the regional tournament would be based on the number of on-time rosters the section submitted. It was slightly more convoluted than that, but essentially, the more rosters from your section that got in on time, the more bids your section got to regionals.

After sectionals the qualifying teams from each section travel to regionals for the regional tournament. Each region got a certain number of bids to nationals based on the region's previous year's performance at nationals and the overall size of the region; then the top teams from the regionals tournament moved on to nationals. It was a fairly simple system, it rewarded strength from the previous year, size and expansion and being timely with your paperwork.

Section 2 - The New System (VERY confusing, bear with me):

The most sweeping of the changes to the College Series began by the changing of regional boundaries. Colorado is now a member of the South-Central region, which is Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The sections were reorganized into conferences, but these conferences are not the same as the sections were previously. The first thing they did was separate developmental (any B or lower squads from a school) and Divison III (enrollment of less than 7500), teams from the Division I teams (enrollment > 7500). So what was the Rocky Mountain Section was changed to the Rocky Mountain Division I Conference (CU, CSU, UNC, WY, DU and Metro State), the Rocky Mountain Developmental Developmental Conference (CU-B, Air Force-B) and the Rocky Mountain Division III Conference (CC, Air Force, Colorado School of Mines). For other sections, like what previously was the Texas section, they did the above separations, but also separated them geographically to be separate conference areas: South Texas and North Texas. So South Texas has a DI, Dev, and DIII conference, as does North Texas. (note: Division III schools that have attended nationals in the past 4 years, eg Carleton, are allowed to play in the DI conference)

The sectionals tournament was replaced by the Conference Championships for each separate conference, however since neither DIII nor the Developmental conference in the Rocky Mountains had enough teams for their own Conference Championships they were combined with the other DIII and Dev Conferences from the entire region. So instead of a Rocky Mountain DIII and Rocky Mountain Dev conference there was a South-Central Div III conference and a South-Central Developmental conference, which included all the DIII teams and Dev teams from the entire region. These conferences had no conference championship tournaments (due to the lack of numbers that led to the combining each division into once conference), and went straight to DIII regionals and Developmental regionals. (developmental regionals ended up being cancelled due to lack of interest and the dev teams all joined the respective DI conferences, aka CU-B is participating in the DI conference championships).

So now, theoretically, there are 3 different regionals for each region. Division I (schools with enrollment greater than 7500), Division III (schools with less than 7500) and Developmental (B-teams, this ended up being cancelled in the South-Central). There are also two different nationals: Division I and Division III (developmental regionals is the highest tournament for the developmental conferences, however, they are able to advance to division I regionals AFTER developmental regionals given certain criteria). Additionally, after DIII regionals, DIII teams are allowed to advance to DI regionals (similar to Developmental regionals' criteria) if they'd like a shot at DI nationals rather than DIII nationals (confused yet?). The bid allocation process for all the different conferences will be explained below.

The other sweeping change (this began last year), that came about this year was the bid allocation process. Now all regionals/nationals bids are based on the official USA Ultimate Regular Season Rankings. To be ranked a team is required to compete in 10 or more regular season games at a USA Ultimate Sanctioned Event against other sanctioned teams. So essentially, tournaments that are not sanctioned will not count towards your ranking.

After the final rankings are released, (the final weekend of sanctioned tournaments was April 2nd and 3rd this year) the bids to regionals and nationals are allocated. To start, all conferences except Developmental in a region receive one automatic bid to Division I regionals. So Rocky Mountain DI, Ozarks DI, South Texas DI, and North Texas DI and the South Central DIII (remember all the DIII teams combined into one conference) all received one automatic bid. Then based solely on the final USA Ultimate rankings the rest of the bids were allocated on overall conference strength, and individual team strength (these calculations include any Dev conference team rankings). I'm not going to explain in detail how the conference strength and team strength bids work but if you're curious you can check it out here: http://www.usaultimate.org/competition/college_division/college_season/guidelines.aspx

Nationals bids are allocated in the same way; overall region strength then team strength within the region based on the rankings.

Now where things start getting tricky is at Division III regionals. Bids to DIII nationals are allocated the same as DI nationals, except only DIII teams' rankings are taken into account. So, for example, the South-Central Division III conference ended up with three bids to DIII nationals and six bids to DI regionals. So first, the top three teams are going to decide whether they're going to DIII nationals or DI regionals. Based on what they decide to do, the bids for nationals and DI regionals will be trickling down into the rest conference and in the rest of the region. Also,  there are guaranteed to be several unaccepted bids given both the desire to attend either DI regionals versus DIII nationals and the simple question as to whether the lower DIII schools want to even bother traveling to Colorado for DI regionals, given that they probably won't be competitive enough for a DI nationals bid.

So for all the unaccepted bids to DI regionals there is a "wait-list" in place, for which conferences are next in line, based on team strength in the USA Ultimate Rankings. But how exactly this will play out given the DIII conferences # of bids to both nationals and regionals is VERY convoluted.

Additionally, if a team's roster changes at all from their early season tournament rankings, to their final USA Ultimate approved roster. then their results are voided (as far as the rankings are concerned), for any tournaments where there were roster inconsistencies.

Section Three - My Take On It All

Please keep in mind, this is my perspective as a coach in one of the least dense regions, and my opinions are based on what happened and is happening in the South Central region.

On the whole, I think these changes are terrible. In the Rocky Mountain area the talent differential between the DI and DIII schools is non-existent. There was no reason to separate schools like Colorado College, Air Force and Mines from the rest of the schools, it has limited competition within the area. This is especially difficult for CC since they finished the regular season ranked 13th in the country overall, and are obviously a serious DI nationals contender, yet they are forced to first go to DIII regionals, putting more strain on them financially. They went to DIII regionals this past weekend in Tulsa, OK, beat everyone up as expected and now have to travel to DI regionals and potentially DI nationals. They're fortunate that DI men's regionals is in Denver and nationals is in Boulder (go Colorado conspiracy!)

I like the effort that USA ultimate is making efforts to increase competition for the younger teams and smaller schools, but the simple fact is that DIII schools are not necessarily disadvantaged from the bigger schools, and developmental teams of established programs are often better than young developing teams of schools that haven't consistently had a program (Texas B and C both finished in the top 5 at the South Texas conference championships).

The final big complaint I have is with the regular season guidelines. This was a response to people wanting to the regular season to be more meaningful and not to reward teams (strength from the previous year) that may have been undeserving. I find no fault in the IDEA of the system, however, there are currently way too many ways to manipulate the system (teams purposely getting bad regular season results voided by changing their rosters), or teams getting their results wiped due to unintentional circumstances.

The best example I have of a team getting it's results wiped is our women's team losing their ranking due to have a player play with them who ended up being enrolled with one less credit than was the minimum for a graduate student to be eligible to play. You can argue that they should have known that, and that their games with her playing shouldn't count, because she's not playing with the team for the series, blah blah blah, yes that's all true, but what it boils down to is that that the Conference lost a bid to regionals because of them losing their results. At their conference tournament the final standings were 1) Colorado College 2) CSU 3)CU. So Kali, who I believe has made nationals in all of but maybe one year in the last 10 years or will not be receiving a bid to regionals, because one player was one credit short at a tournament in February. I don't necessarily have a solution to this problem but I still think there are situations that have arisen like this one that have led to very quality teams not even making regionals.

Overall, I like the regular season meaning more. I like that there's a reason to do well in every game at every tournament. But, I don't think DIII and Dev teams should have been separated (there simply aren't enough teams to support each conference) and there has to be some other way to avoid teams rankings not counting when by all accounts they should.

I hope this answered some questions for people if they managed to make it all the way through.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Flat Marking - When? Why?

Let me preface this entry with the following: this is not HOW to flat mark. This is when and why you should flat mark. If you want tips on how to flat mark, or what you need to do to have an effective flat mark then you'll have to find them elsewhere, or wait for a later entry, because tonight we're talking flat mark strategy.

A lot of people think that a flat mark is only useful against hucking, which it certainly is, but strategically the flat mark is one of the strongest all-around ways for a team to mark, regardless of what the opposing team is trying to do.

For starters, I want to be clear about terminology and the absolute basics. With a flat mark, instead of forcing to one side of the field, the marker is standing directly in front of the thrower, effectively eliminating the inside area of the field behind them in about a 45 degree arc. On top of that, there are two types of flat marks: the traditional flat mark (no-huck) and what I call the strike mark.

A traditional flat mark is designed to make it difficult for the thrower to throw the disc deep. To flat mark effectively there are two things that come into play.

First and foremost, you're eliminating both the inside flick and backhand. The best hucks are inside-out throws that travel flat and allow for an easy read and catch for the reciever. As a flat marker you are attempting to eliminate these. If they get any kind of throw off, deep or otherwise, you're forcing them to throw it around the outside of your mark, resulting in an outside-in throw.

The second part of an effective no-huck flat mark is being aggressive as a marker and making it very difficult for the thrower to step forward into their throw. As they pivot from forehand to backhand you should be shuffling laterally and your body should be impeding their ability to step into a throw. There are few throwers (although they do exist) that can step back and around a mark and still put off a 60+ yard huck. And for you rules zealots out there, I'm not saying you should be violating disc space or intentionally fouling them as they pivot. Your job as a marker is to anticipate and move with them, they can't step into a space already occupied by you (that's a foul on them). Force them to step backwards or straight out, off-balance throws are hard.

The second breed of flat mark is what I call the no-strike mark. This is a mark that is completely designed to eliminate the inside-out throws (essentially shutting down a strike cut, a cut coming into the inside throwing lanes). The setup for a no-strike mark is the same, but you're playing off on the mark several feet. The farther you back off, the more you  eliminate both the forehand and backhand inside-out angles. You're allowing them to stop into their throw and pivot uncontested, but you're making the inside-out throw impossible.  The only choices for them at this point to get a disc into the strike zone is to either throw a high release over the top of you (which is easy to handblock the farther off you are), or to throw something VERY outside-in that will bend around the outside of your mark, which is a low percentage throw or should be shut down by your downfield defender.

As for when and why you should flat mark there are three rules of thumb that I use.

1) When the opposing team is going upwind. I absolutely hate playing zone in an upwind situation (you're allowing their best throwers to throw their strongest throw the majority of the time), but if you flat mark effectively, you're going to severely limit what their offense can do. To throw in a stiff breeze the disc needs to be thrown inside-out to get any range, and if you can eliminate that with your mark then their offense will be severely limited, because the areas that the disc can be successfully thrown to (close range underneath throws) are easily coverable by your downfield defense.

2) They are beating you with a lot of line (oven) cuts from their handlers. If you're facing a team with a lot of quickness in their handler core, and you are consistently beat up the line, a flat mark can be very helpful. Essentially, you're making the line throw a break throw (albeit very slight) regardless of where the disc is on the field. While a 4-5 yard inside out flick or backhand isn't the most difficult throw, it is still more difficult then an open-side uncontested throw. With some communication on strike calls and line calls from your sidelines, you can have the mark be shifting the shade of their flat mark (from forehand to backhand) and you can make that break even more difficult.

3) They have one or two dominant huckers. This one is simple. Take someone with a good mark and try and shut down their deep game. I think back to a game we played against Pitt at Terminus in 2005. They beat us on Saturday mostly through a deep game that revolved around one lanky thrower. Sunday we faced them again and put our longest athlete on him flat marking the whole game, victory.

Obviously there are downsides to flat marking. The downfield defense can't cover both sides of the field so you're conceding a certain amount of underneath game. Flat-marking is most effective against offenses that are trying to work the disc through the middle of the field (split, spread, etc). Center stack, while a very huck oriented offense, is difficult to flat mark against, because the outsides of the field are always left very open.

The end all moral of the story is this: flat marking has its place in a lot of different scenarios, not just against the huck, try it out.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What makes a great Ultimate player?

I get asked this question a lot. Especially by new college players; guys that have a background in a different sport and are just learning the fundamentals of Ultimate. "Yo Coach, what can I do to become a great Ultimate player?" 

I'm sure a lot of people would argue that speed is the number one physical trait in Ultimate. The fastest people dominate the game. By now everyone's seen the Greatest Catch Ever, by Andrew Flemming. Next, one could maybe make an argument for size and ups, those monster players that dominate the air; pretty easy to see a great player when Beau can jump over a guy. Or maybe being great means you're a great thrower; the guy that can put the disc wherever he wants in the wind, regardless of the defense (insert any number of amazing highlight clips of sick throws here). However, in my playing and coaching experience there is one thing that comes to mind that supersedes any of these characteristics, and that is drive. 

I came into college like many young 18 somethings do, without a whole lot of direction. I hadn't played Ultimate in high school (Hockey was my sport of choice), and beyond an mild obsession with disc golf and a few pickup jungle-disc games, I had no Ultimate background. It wasn't but an off-chance that I saw a flyer for Club Ultimate tryouts on our campus disc golf course and decided to give it a whirl. 

I was very fortunate that the captains of the CSU team back then embodied everything that was essential in shaping young players in a way that encouraged them to have this drive I'm talking about. The captains were all fully and completely dedicated to the sport. They were committed to making themselves and the team better and to maximizing the potential they had as individual players. These captains set the tone for my five years of college play that saw the team climb from relative obscurity in the competitive scene to being a consistently competitive team with the best in the southwest region (by no means because of my individual play, but because we had a core of people with that similar mentality). 

After nine years of playing Ultimate and three of coaching, the philosophy that I have adopted is that ANY player can be a great player; the core building blocks of that philosophy being: the desire to get better, the will to push yourself hard at all times and the ability to learn and develop all aspects of your game.

This does not mean that you're a great player just because you run hard when you're on the field. It means you're committed to improving yourself. This means maximizing your physical potential with lifting and track workouts. This means dedicating yourself to working out kinks in your throwing form and never being complacent with what you can or can't do as a thrower. This means that you don't have a practice speed and an in-game speed. You only know one way to play, and that is balls-out, no matter what you're doing. 

Obviously, everyone has different physical plateaus. There's only so fast you will ever be able to run or how high you'll be able to jump (at least until Ultimate enters into the steroid era, but that's another blog). But never being complacent with any aspect of your game, and pushing yourself to be the best player you can be with the tools you have, is a never ending process. You cannot reach a point where you say, I'm as good as my body will let me be, I've done it, I have achieved maximum Ultimate potential! Think about some of the best basketball players in the world. Kobe Bryant can make an argument for being a top 10 player all-time, and yet his practice regiment and work ethic are as strict as any player in the league.

Beyond the desire to improve is something that I think is best described as a competitive spirit. Do you take it personally when someone gets the disc on you? Do you look back at a point thinking on what you did wrong and how you can improve that? Are you the kind of person that has an incomplete throw and thinks, well if the receiver had bid for it then it would have been complete, or are you a person that thinks if I had put it just a little less O-I there, it would have been complete. The second person in this scenario is the one that improves, there is no such thing as good enough. 

I've seen so many players that come into the sport as phenomenal athletes, but they let their athleticism carry them at the expense of the rest of their game. Their throws improve very little and their defense is shoddy except for an occasional highlight play. The biggest asset they bring to the team is the ease they can get open with on offense (a great thing no doubt, but when matched up against a similar athlete who is a better fundamental player they are rendered obsolete). I'll take a less athletic kid that improves drastically over the course of a season over someone like this every time. When you get a truly phenomenal player, is when they have an athletic gift, but they don't allow it to carry their game. They improve their ultimate fundamentals to match their athleticism and then, bam, a truly dominant player. The reason that the great athletes are the players that teams like Sockeye take, are because they are confident that they can improve the rest of their game around the athleticism because teams like that cultivate the right mentality (improvement driven) for elite ultimate. 

The overall point of this entry is really fairly simple. To be a great player, you have to want to be great and then follow through on that with your actions on and off the field.