Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why bother with a force? Part 2 - The Development

If you haven't checked out Part 1 of this blog series yet,  take a few minutes to catch up on it, as it sets up the origins of my 'force-less' D.

This entry is how the strategy developed more as a college captain and coach.

Please stay tuned for part 3 where I will actually break the strategy down.


Part 2.1 (as a player)

My fourth year of college at Colorado State was a transitional year for the team. The previous year's top 25 team had nine graduating seniors, with six of them being fifth years. We still had a good team, with a lot of great, young athletes, but our overall experience level took quite a hit.

I was fresh off of a club season where I had learned a lot of new strategy and in my second year as captain (we never had a coach) I was eager to impart all of this knowledge on to my team. I guess in my mind our 'advanced' strategy would counteract our personnel losses from the previous year and we would easily be able to maintain a top 25 team.

This did not go quite according to plan. We still had plenty of great athletes but, like I mentioned above, we were lacking in experience. In hindsight, what the team really needed was a good year of core fundamental work to develop our young, athletic guys.

I took the opposite approach. A huge chunk of the year was dedicated to complicated defensive scheme. Not only did we work on several different schemes (including something similar to the 'ragweed' D I learned on Sack Lunch), but I developed an equally complicated play-calling system which nobody on the team ever mastered. (To this day, I bring those play-call sheets to our team leadership meetings as examples of what not to do).

The end of the year finished with a disappointing universe-point, upset loss to Arizona State at Regionals (Ironically, in windy conditions against their stout zone).

I think back on this year as a failure of leadership. I do believe it is very important to fully develop a strategy and a complete game-plan, but in this year specifically I let the fundamentals of the team slip for the sake of strategy.

Before anything else can take place, young players need to be to catch, throw and cut. It was a mistake to believe I could bypass those basic fundamentals and scheme my way to success for the team.

My fifth year, I took a step back from leadership, acknowledging my failures, and turned the team over to Jordan White and Andy Stringer. Stringer was fresh off of a finals appearance at Club Nationals with Bravo and Jordan was widely accepted as either the 2nd or 3rd best deep in the region (depending on whether or not you played for Claremont). Jordan would join Stringer on Bravo for the next several years after he graduated.

They re-emphasized core fundamentals and largely ignored scheme, opting to play almost exclusively man defense.

We played CU Mamabird tight at Sectionals, losing 15-13 (this was before Colorado College's rise to relevance. We finished second to CU at Sectionals all five years I played). At Regionals we lost to Arizona and soon-to-be Callahan-award winner Joe "Loppy" Kershner 15-13, in a game that came down to Loppy making a ridiculous toe-in grab on a deep huck for the game winner. Colorado and Arizona went on to finish 3rd and 5th and nationals that year.

I don't think anybody on the team was disappointed with these losses. Those were two of the best teams in the country and we played them well.

The loss that stung was our elimination game at Regionals against UC San Diego. We weren't the deepest team in the country by any stretch, but we were very tall and fast. Part of the reason we had success with the re-focus on fundamentals and standard man defense is that we had a physical advantage over a good chunk of the teams we went up against.

However, UC San Diego recognized that they were physically outmatched very early in the game and began throwing their infamous four-man cup, despite the lack of wind. (A brief history lesson: They were one of the earliest teams to develop a four-man cup and utilized it with great success in the early 2000s, culminating with a semi-finals appearance at Nationals in 2006).

It wasn't as though we had never seen a zone before. Teams frequently ran disruption defenses against us given our height and speed. We had also spent plenty of practice time developing our zone offense to the point where most teams couldn't disrupt us significantly enough without weather conditions. However, UCSD ran their zone very well. It took away our hucking game. It took us out of our comfort zone. They didn't blow us out, but after we took a three 3-0 lead against their  man defense to start the game, they dictated the pace the rest of the way with their zone, cruising to an 13-11 win.

I don't blame the captains for that loss. We had focused on our strengths that year: developing the fundamentals of our athletic players, a strong-hucking game and hard man defense. It was only disappointing in the sense that I prided myself on being a cerebral player, the "smart" guy on the field, and UCSD schemed their way into a clutch victory, where the year before I had failed at that very same thing.


Part 2.2 (as a coach)

After playing out my five years and graduating in 2008, I became the first Ultimate coach Colorado State had employed since 2001. As a coach, I was determined to find the correct balance between a fundamental base, and a schematic advantage. I wanted to be the tall, fast, fundamentally sound team that also could scheme and react to scheme effectively!

My first year coaching we still had a very athletic team. I made sure to establish and re-emphasize basic fundamentals throughout the year. We still matched up physically against most teams, but I wanted to make sure we had the ability to both play and react to scheme effectively.

We had a fantastic fall, finishing  16-1 with our only loss to Wisconsin . We took that positive energy and big momentum into the spring, but injuries to several of our key players and the lack of depth behind them hurt the team significantly.

After finishing 2nd out of our pool at Regionals behind Mamabird, we crumbled in cross-overs to San Diego State and were eliminated from contention.

Despite a sub-par finishing place at Regionals, I felt good about our team balance. For the level of talent and experience on the team we put together a good season. There weren't any games that we lost that I really felt like the outcome should have been that different, with the exception being if the team had stayed healthier.

The next several years after that, the team took a bit of a nose-dive. We weren't a very talented team. Our athletic advantage was gone and the team was very young and inexperienced. We went from a team that had consistently finished in the top half of the region to a team that was battling to make Regionals.

However, these years are finally when I began developing our 'ragweed' defense from Sack Lunch into a college setting effectively.

I knew we didn't match up well anymore against most decent teams. We had some good players, but across the board we didn't have a lot of athletic depth or experience. We worked diligently on our 'all-man' (again, I will outline the core principles of the strategy in my third entry, but it's what I changed the name to from 'ragweed' since it wasn't quite the same defense as we'd run on Sack) defense to mitigate our disadvantages. The majority of practice stayed dedicated to developing fundamentals, but we spent time each practice to working on our scheming which would allow us to disrupt opposing teams' offensive sets while still playing man-to-man, much like Sack did.

In 2010 we limped into Regionals on a supplemental bid, finishing 14th in the final year before the college restructuring which moved us out of the Southwest into the Southcentral.

In 2011 we faced a Conference Championships scenario where there were only two bids to Regionals. Mamabird was of course going to take one of those bids. The second bid was up for grabs, but the favorite to take it was Wyoming, who was ranked in the top 40 after a very strong regular season. We went into the tournament knowing we'd have to work hard to beat every team but we'd also spent two years refining our atypical base-defense. We weren't a particularly tall or fast as a team but we were confident we could ride our hard-work and scheme to victory.

We steam-rolled every team at Conference Championships (except Bird), with the game against Wyoming for the 2nd bid ending 11-4. Admittedly, the teams were beat were all young teams with less-established programs, but were still happy to earn that bid against a Wyoming team that was ranked over 100 spots higher than us going in to the tournament. Those victories came almost exclusively playing 'all-man.'

At Regionals we struggled against better competition. Our defense was stout and forced a lot of turns, but we weren't able to consistently score either offensive points or breaks and we finished 14th. Defensively, we felt good, but offensively, we just needed some more athletes.

From 2012-2014 the team continued to improve. We regained some size and speed, while continuing to use all-man as a core defense. In 2013 we finally broke back into the top eight of the region for the first time since I graduated.

For this current season (2014-2015) and beyond I'm confident the slew of young athletes we have on the team will have great success running both regular man and all-man and we'll continue our upward trend towards the ranks of the college elite.




Ok, ok, I get it. For those of you that aren't affiliated with CSU this was pretty much just a boring story about the team's ups and downs for the last several years. I know it's not that interesting for people who have no context of the area/teams involved. I promise, the final entry in these series will be out soon and will be dedicated to technical, actual ultimate strategy stuff!

Thanks all for reading!

To be continued...




Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why bother with a force? Part 1 - The Origins

As the fall college season wraps up and the young guys all head home for Thanksgiving and Christmas my mind inevitably shifts to churning out a couple of blog entries. What I finally decided on for the next couple weeks (hopefully), is a three-part series on my defensive strategies and how that mindset has developed throughout my playing and coaching career.

Parts 1 and 2 will be the origins and progression of how I approach defensive strategy.

Part 3 will be the analytic entry on why exactly the things I talked about in parts one and two are effective (in my mind at least); an entry more or less breaking down how the strategies actually work.




Part 1

In 2007, for the first time in my Club ultimate career, I left the Mixed scene and made the trip down to Denver to tryout for the men's team, Sack Lunch. Sack had traditionally been the 'next-in-line' team behind Johnny Bravo in Colorado and I wanted to learn more about ultimate both in the Club Open Division and from players I had never met.

To this day, I credit that one year play for Sack with developing my strategic mind more than any other ultimate activity in my career.

For starters, our base defense did not have a traditional force (forehand/backhand etc). The team had some absolutely fantastic players and athletes (the top six or so guys joined Bravo the next year after the team dissolved), but several of the core members of the team weren't necessarily elite athletes; the strength of their game was extremely heady play coupled with solid throws. Rather than have delusions about matching up 1 on 1 across the board against the elite programs, the leadership knew the team's overall strength was smart play and they game-planned around that.

I won't go into all the details of our 'ragweed' defense (trade secrets), but the core principles were a force-middle mark with significant down field switching. The chemistry between teammates, coupled with a high on-the-field IQ, led to a good portion of the close games and victories we had throughout the season.

For our first tournament, we traveled to Solstice in Eugene, Oregon, where they were testing out some experimental rules (at the time), including observer-monitored times between points and games to 21.

While we didn't win a lot of games (2-5 on the weekend), we were the only team, besides Furious George, to limit Sockeye's offense to sub 21 points. Our game against them wasn't pretty by any stretch. The first half remained somewhat close as they ran several points of zone which somewhat mitigated their huge athletic advantage. In the second half, they clamped down with hard man defense and we struggled to score, eventually losing at cap, 18-8 This wasn't unexpected as this Sockeye team went on to finish undefeated at nationals boasting an absolutely star-studded roster.

Even while our offense struggled mightily, our defense was able to disrupt their offensive flow. They adjusted appropriately to our schemes (having arguably the best Ultimate mind in the world in Ben Wiggins), but their deep game was limited, and we held them to short gains mostly isolated in the middle of the field. This was not a fluke of the weather; we played them early in the morning in pristine conditions.

I can't make any assumptions as to how they approached this game offensively, but at the very least, we felt like our defense did a reasonable job of playing to our strength: smart-play.

As far as end of the season results, in the end, we didn't meet team expectations. We ended up fifth in the region and struggled throughout the year to maintain our numbers. We had a (purposely) small roster and when injuries began piling up, both practice and tournament performance didn't end up quite where anyone wanted.

Regardless of the final finish for Sack, the team opened my mind up to ideas and strategies that went a level beyond anything I had conceived before.

It wasn't as though I was some first year rookie or league player getting googly-eyed over some advanced strategy.The previous season I had captained a 38-11, top 25 college team, and the year prior to that I was playing at Club Nationals. It was simply a way of thinking about the game I hadn't yet been exposed to.

I took my new knowledge into the next college season confident these principles, which I had seen to be successful at the club level, would dominate in college.

To be continued...