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...

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