Sunday, February 2, 2014

Ultimate in Colorado - Travel Times and Unpredictable Weather

As per usual, let me apologize for my writing hiatus. Since my last entry I've purchased a new home, captained a burgeoning club mens team, joined the FC Ultimate board of directors, and worked through the fall season of my 6th year as the coach of the Colorado State Men's Ultimate team. I've had several ideas as to what I wanted this first post of 2014 to be about (hopefully this translates to more entries soon!), but as a huge winter storm hit Colorado last night I think mother nature has decided for me.

I  first thought about the subject matter for this entry when I saw this map linked from the USA Ultimate Facebook page:

Membership Statistics

It's an interesting picture of the density of competitive ultimate players. Obviously, the high population west and east coast hubs make up a huge concentration of players but what jumped out to me most notably was the "island" that is the 1500+ members that live in Colorado.

While it's a blessing to live and play in a state with a large concentration of players, it still presents a unique competitive challenge for college teams in the area: travel distance.

My freshmen year of college (2003) this was just our spring tournament schedule(the team has always driven to every tournament we attend):

Masochist - Colorado Springs, CO - 2 hours (one way, Sunday ended up being cancelled because of 6 inches of snow Saturday night)
Mardi Gras - Baton Rouge, LA - 19 hours (one way)
Southerns/High Tide - Statesboro/Tybee Island, GA   - 29 hours (one way)
Fools Fest - Lawrence, KA - 8.5 hours (one way)
Sectionals - Golden, CO - 1.25 hours (one way)
Regionals - Santa Barbara, CA - 19 hours (one way)

The moral of the story: to be a competitive college team in Colorado you must travel, and you must travel far. When the college restructuring moved Colorado State from the Southwest region to the Southcentral, travel times went down for us slightly. Instead of 18 hours to San Diego or Santa Barbara we'd go 14 hours to St. Louis or 15 hours to Austin. Now our tournament totals have tapered off since my first year, we travel less than in the past and set up more local scrimmages, but the raw travel numbers from that first year are still pretty daunting.

Now I know there are other college teams that deal with similar situations or worse (sorry Montana teams), but the simple fact is, to play the sport we love competitively, it's a very large time travel commitment on top of all the other (physical) commitments there are.

So what does mother nature have to do with any of this? Well, not only does Colorado State get to drive hundreds of hours every season we also deal with wonderful Colorado weather. Our IM fields on campus close from November 1st until the end of the end of March. We are very lucky to have an awesome sports club staff who negotiates with our athletics department for time on the outdoor and indoor turf fields that our football program use for this down-time, but our late fall and early spring practices are oftentimes completely limited to track workouts.

All these factors came together in a brutal reminder when the team traveled to the Santa Barbara Invite this past weekend. After the debacle of weather delays and cancellations from our spring tournament schedule in the mid west last season, the team leadership decided we'd forgo regular season games versus regional competition, swallow the longer travel times and travel to tournaments with somewhat guaranteed good weather.

So, this past weekend (January 25th and 26th, the first weekend after our semester started) we rolled into Santa Barbara with a small squad of 17/29 of the players on our roster (travelling during the first week of school proved difficult for a number of our players). I had hoped some veteran experience would mitigate some of the rustiness since we hadn't played "real" Ultimate since MLC back in November, but with our 5th year captain tearing his MCL skiing over break, and losing one of our other main handlers to a bad ankle sprain, the team was woefully thin at the handler position.

This video of our game against Arizona Sunburn (awesome editing by the way Sunburn, thank you!) sums our problems pretty effectively, sloppy play from the handler spots and inexperience on rotations and swings:

Colorado State vs Arizona SBI 2014

In addition, many of the California teams are from schools on the quarter system, so they'd had several weeks of practice leading up to the tournament whereas we had only one practice in 2 inches of snow the Wednesday before the tournament. (The point of this is not to provide a myriad of excuses for our poor performance. When we scheduled the tournament at the beginning of the fall, we knew the difficult situation we'd be putting ourselves in.)

We got steamrolled, simple and true. We finished 17th out of 18 teams with both our wins coming against a spirited, but very small UC Irvine squad. As we did our team wrap-up after our last game Sunday I strove to drive this key point home point home: a lot of sloppiness and team mistakes we made over the weekend were correctable (drops, throwaways etc), and that the experience our young players got from playing against solid west coast teams would be hugely beneficial for the rest of the season.

We got back to town just ahead of a big storm front Monday and Wednesday night's practice  was cancelled due to 2+ inches of snow still caked on the field. Thursday, a new storm rolled in and we moved our practice time two hours earlier to try and beat it.

This is where this whole rambling piece comes to fruition; as the snow began to fall harder and harder during our Thursday practice, the intensity level picked up. Partly due to the soft landing surface the snow provided and partly due to just being fired up from getting our butts kicked at the tournament five days prior, the amount of bids and defensive intensity went through the roof. As it got colder and the snow got deeper the team just kept working harder (the more you run, the warmer you stay). We wrapped practice up with a series of sprints and as I watched the team running through the falling snow I could help but marvel at how incredible the whole scene was: 20+ young men, soaked from the snow, running their hearts out through what would turn into a full-blown blizzard in an hours time.

As much of a bummer as it was not to do better at the Invite, that practice, with that energy, and the way the scene played-out as the snow fell was a perfect reminder as to what makes Ultimate such a wondrous sport. Practices like that make all the 19 hour van rides 100% worth it. I can't imagine a better place to call my Ultimate home than Colorado and everything that comes with it.

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