Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Five Things I Learned at College Nationals

Colorado State attended nationals for the first time this past weekend in Mason, Ohio. Beyond my own club experience from  more than a decade ago, the team had exactly zero members who had played on a stage this large - our closest comparison being several guys with YCC experience.

Results-wise, we didn't have much success, finishing without a win and tied for 17th. After winning our Conference and Region we had some momentum heading into nationals, but the logistics, format and planning were something new to the team and myself - I had only ever attended club nationals as a doofus kid who had no part in the planning or preparation process.

Despite not putting any wins on the board, the team had a wonderful time. We more or less scored and broke the same amount of times each game regardless of opponent (except for UBC when we ran open lines), but other teams consistently made fewer unforced errors and that's really what it came down to - catch and throw better, win the game.

Here are five things I learned as a first time nationals coach:

1) Don't Trust (just) the Film

I watched a lot of film between regionals and nationals. Early on, I set up some seeding projections and tried to watch as much footage of teams I expected to be in our pool. When seedings were finalized, I doubled down on the efforts to game-plan. In general, I take pride in preparedness. If we lose a game, I'd like to think it isn't because someone threw a curve ball we weren't expecting but...

Washington ran a split stack I had never seen on film and we struggled to generate pressure.

Stanford, a team I had expected to be huck-happy and force discs to a couple of big targets, were impressively patient and had several offensive possessions where they threw 25+ throws comfortably.

Umass and SLO largely played as expected.

In general, my film study wasn't overly helpful and in the case of Stanford actually a bit hurtful as we stuck with our FM a few points too long and didn't develop our zone enough to the point where we could challenge and pressure their offense consistently. In hindsight, I should have focused more on making our team more offensively dynamic rather than trying to further disrupt other teams based on incomplete or inconclusive film details from earlier in the season.

2) Player Lines/Observers on Every Field are Wonderful

These two tings are lumped into one, but I can't emphasize how much the sideline buffers and observers make a difference. Not having to navigate players/bags and easily having vision of the field from the sideline, especially as a smaller person (I'm little), made life so much easier.

As far as observers, enough can't be said about the work that those folks put in at nationals and in general. I actually appreciate them more for keeping time and for their active calls rather than their rules mediation.

This is a point I made to my team before games on Friday and a point also brought up by other coaches that I think everyone should absolutely keep in mind: Observers should not automatically be referenced when a call goes against your team. The call should be appropriately discussed between players and if an agreement can not be reached then the observers should be brought in to clarify and make a ruling.

I think every competitive game benefits from having observers, but I also believe that if players don't take the time to arbitrate appropriately, we're losing the whole point of self-officiation. Learn the rules! Make the right calls at the right time regardless of whether that outcome benefits or harms your team! If an agreement can't be reached - that's the time for an observer.

Thanks to all of the hard working folks who observed our games over the weekend - wonderfully done!

3) You Have to be Top Heavy...

We'd spent our entire season rotating our whole roster through tournaments. We played three lines deep and purposely made sure we stayed just tight enough that we'd secure a nationals bid for the region. Our depth was solid at nationals but it turns out, with the forgiving nationals format (pool play games spread out over multiple days, huge breaks between games, etc), your depth matters less. You don't grind out wins late in the tournament simply because you're winning the attrition battle - you're seeing fresh, elite players at every phase of the game.

Our team didn't really win games during the regular season at match-ups 1-5, but rather more down towards 17-26. That's really where we shine and that's why we largely had weaker Saturdays and stronger Sundays (see regionals) throughout our season. Unfortunately, winning games late in the tournament at the back end of the roster just does not come in to play at nationals when you can't get out of pool play.

I can say now, from personal experience, playing 25 different players ranging in skills from above average to very solid will net your team consistent 11-15 (or so) losses at nationals.

This isn't to say I don't think our team can't compete at the highest levels with our current personnel. Our core of players is largely young guys lacking in elite reps. Now that the whole team has nationals experience and many guys are seeking out more club playing opportunities this summer, I think we'll develop more and more consistency at the top end of the roster.

4) ...But You Also Need Depth to Truly Contend

I'd venture to say that every men's college champion in the past seven years has been the deepest team in the field. I think Carleton winning this year really affirms that notion. I can't speak to women's as I'm not as familiar with the division, but even the Nethercutt and Mickle led championship teams had such a huge quality of play behind their superstars that they overwhelmed their opponents in the finals.

I'm really excited (as a coach and fan of college ultimate) that while it does seem like you do need a 'superstar' to contend, depth does matter when it comes to deep bracket play. I love a good underdog story, but I think it's appropriate that the teams winning the titles tend to be the best all-around teams, not just the best all-around 2-3 players.

5) Nationals is Fun

The atmosphere. The fans. The parents. The alumni. The commentators. The food (!!!!). The staff. Take your pick, it's fantastic.

Thanks to all the hardworking volunteers and staff members in Ohio this weekend and thank you Hib for working so hard and giving me an opportunity to experience nationals as a coach for the first time!






Friday, May 12, 2017

South Central Regionals 2017 - Colorado State



Colorado State Hibida went into regionals as the top overall seed. After upsetting Colorado at conferences and Texas upsetting Texas A&M at their conferences, the path was set.

We were confident in ourselves, certainly, but every team in the top four was threatening. Colorado was "coming back for [their] region." A&M had given us our only bad loss of the entire season at Centex and Texas was finally getting their very talented core of players healthy.

Saturday morning we arrived at the fields extra early to circle up and do some team building - reminding each other why we were there (to support each other) and how we got to that point (by supporting each other).

There was a slight breeze that made the games somewhat upwind/downwind and it stayed a factor throughout the weekend. Here is the full schedule and results.

Game 1 (pool play) vs Saint Louis University

Despite the high energy from team-building, we came out flat in our first game. SLU had a big thrower (#29), some good athletes down field and made nice plays early to jump out to a 4-1 lead. We reeled off three in a row to tie it up 4-4, but they broke us again before halftime and went into the break down 6-8.

There was no need to panic. We were running some new personnel on O together and the chemistry wasn't quite there, yet. Defensively, we planned out some adjustments for their huck-heavy approach.

In the second half we flipped Spicer to D, set a zone, and had Spicer go person-to-person on #29. The strategy proved effective as the rest of the team struggled with their "every-other" guy locked away from the disc. SLU fought admirably but we went on a 9-2 run to close out the game, 15-10.

SLU was a solid crew. They ended up fourth in the pool but played hard through consolation brackets for a seed-breaking, 9th place finish overall.

Game 2 (pool play) vs Baylor

We won the flip I elected to take offense, hoping Baylor would take the upwind endzone so we'd be attacking into the wind. I trusted my thrower-heavy O-line's ability to score upwind and I expected Baylor to struggle in the same situation. Even if we were broken to start, I was confident we'd get the break back out of half - the wind was supposed to pick up as the day went on.

My assessment was correct as we scored the first point upwind, then broke Baylor's first O. The rest of the first half was trades, but our offense scored with ease while their offense battled it out with our two D lines. Our D wasn't able to complete the upwind breaks, but we had the two break buffer and I expected that to increase that with Baylor receiving into the wind in the second.

I specifically steered clear of putting extra handlers onto our D lines to help offensively. With the longer pool play format, we knew we'd have 7 or 8 games, all on very hot turf, and we wanted to have every bit of extra gas available for Sunday bracket play.

The second half played out much like I expected - we broke out of half and Baylor lost a bit of steam. We traded several holds, then finished the game with two breaks - the first on bookends from freshman, Sean Peskin, and the second with our "Grandpas" line (our four graduating seniors and some other, older players) upwind, for the win, 15-9.

Overall, I was impressed with this Baylor squad. They had several very big athletes and spaced themselves well to take good deep shots. They won their crossover after pool play and played Mamabird tight in the quarterfinals, losing 11-14. In the end they finished 8th overall breaking their initial seed significantly.

Game 3 (pool play) vs Wash U

Let me start this with something from my regionals write-up from last year that 100% still holds true: "Wash U is one of our absolute favorite teams to play and I think we've played them every year at least once for the past five [six] years. They're competitive, spirited; they don't ever let calls from either team become a defining part of the game. I will gladly play them every year forever, win or lose."

Wash-U is also always a tight game for us. In 2015 they eliminated us from regionals. At 2016 regionals, they took half and and nearly eliminated us again, before we rallied late to win.

We started the game strong, getting two breaks and a 3-0 lead, but Wash-U fought back. We gave them a short field four or fives times this game and they capitalized every time. We stacked some D lines (the only game all weekend that we did so) to get a couple breaks back before half but they still held a slim 8-7 lead.

I doubled checked the point differential at half between Baylor and Wash U earlier in the day (Baylor had won that game) so I knew exactly the margin we'd need, even if we lost, to still win the pool. We had a bit of a buffer, but not a huge one.

Out of half we broke twice and took the lead back 9-8. I exhaled, figuring we'd gotten over the hump for this particular game, but Wash U again proved their mettle - holding to 9-9 then breaking back to regain the lead 10-9 when we again gave them a short field. We traded out to universe from there, stacking a line to try and win it, but they patiently worked the downwind, and won the game with a crisp break throw and score - final 12-13.

I knew the margin of loss was within our buffer to win the the pool, but this was a disappointing loss and still the only game all weekend we played with kill lines - no excuses. Props to Wash-U for a well-fought game and hard-earned victory. I love their program.

They ended up third in the pool on the point differential but continued on to win their crossover before losing to Texas 13-10 in the quarterfinals and a seed-breaking 6th place overall finish. All four teams from our pool finished in the top 10, with both the 2 and 3 winning their crossovers for a quarterfinals berth - clearly the strongest pool at the tournament.

Game 4 (crossover) vs Texas

This game was for position within the bracket - win or lose we'd be playing against the winner of a 2/3 crossover, so while we certainly wanted to notch a win against a quality Texas program, the pressure of the game wasn't significant, as the consequences of a loss were minimal.

Texas, with a healthy Dillon Larberg and Joel Clutton, had ended our 2016 season with a 16-14 win in the backdoor bracket at regionals. We knew that they'd struggled with injuries all season, but the buzz had been that their main players were back and their win over A&M at their conferences seemed to affirm that.

The game started shortly after our loss to Wash U, which had gone to cap, and we carried a little bit of that disappointing finish into the start of this game. Texas jumped out to a quick 3-1 lead before we re-established ourselves mentally and got our breaks back, coming over the top for a 6-5 lead. Texas was doing their Texas thing: feeding Larberg the disc every other throw and sending #29 (Logan Kinney?) deep.

We rotated different defenders onto Larberg, not giving him the full Spicer treatment, as we largely wanted to save the match-up for Sunday if we saw them again in bracket play.

The game went back and forth with both teams breaking the other before we finally arrived at 11-11 with the game capped for universe. We took a timeout and the players picked their own universe line - one player to start, that player taking someone on the line with them and the next player doing the same, so on and so forth. We were pulling with Texas going downwind.

Texas worked the disc to 15 yards out of the endzone before we forced a turn. We began working the upwind but an untimely drop on a tight pass gave them a short field. They capitalized on the transition and scored after several patient swings, 11-12 final.

It was a disappointing loss, but it changed very little - we likely now were just going to hit Colorado in semis rather than finals. In the past that may have been our kryptonite, but after our conferences win, it didn't feel like that big of a deal.

In an unexpected turn of events, A&M pulled off the 15-13 win over CU in their crossover (coming back from 7-2 deficit) to flip their side of the bracket as well - both crossover 'upsets' meant that nothing changed beyond the quarters match-ups - we would hit A&M in semis and CU in finals if all went according to plan.

As far as Texas, it was pretty clear that while their main players were playing, it was a gritty, teeth-clenching effort. Larberg played almost every point, but he threw literally just one flick - a low inside huck that was blocked - I'd guess there were some lingering issues from his broken collar bone. Clutton made some nice plays, but I was pretty sure he wasn't moving at full speed. Even speedy #29 looked like he may have tweaked a hamstring in our game.

It's disappointing for them as they faded out Sunday - getting blown out in semis by CU and losing in the backdoor finals to A&M. I'm pretty confident saying that had their core stayed healthier throughout the year, we'd have been a four bid region.

Saturday Night

Saturday night we debuted Spicer's Callahan Video. The team was really excited and proud of Cody for all the work he's put in these past three years to help bring us into the national picture. The video is wonderful (thanks Chuck!) but still doesn't do Spicer justice - we don't have the pool of footage to truly show the impact he has on the field.

Beyond tasty taco dinners and highlight videos some of the team had to deal with huge blisters covering most of their feet. A few of the guys (including Spicer) who wore thinner socks throughout the day in the hot and humid Texas weather + rubber bits from the turf surface, had feet that were absolutely destroyed. I ran to the store to get needles and moleskin and we went to work fixing up them feet for Sunday morning.

Game 5 (quarterfinals) vs Texas State 

Our blister crew spent most of warm-ups at the trainers getting their feet as ready as they could while we prepped for Texas State. Despite the lingering foot problems we were feeling good. We're built for Sunday, playing deep into our roster all season (one of the ways we've been able to stay as healthy as we have), and the goal is always to ramp up the energy come bracket play and finish as strong or stronger than we started.

Texas State had a small team and couldn't match our energy from the get go. We broke early and often taking an 8-3 lead and not letting up, cruising to a decisive 15-6 win.

Most of the team flipped our sideline to watch Baylor/CU which was tied at 10s when our game finished. Baylor was putting it all on the line, but in the end the cool-headed play from Mamabird prevailed. The final score was a cross field floater to the downwind end-zone.  One of athletic Baylor defenders emerged from the pack to knock the disc away, but Mark Rauls made a huge layout catch on the tipped disc for the 14-11 win.

Game 6 (semis) vs Texas A&M

We wanted this game - like "circle this one on the schedule in big, red marker" wanted it. We've had a few losses this season - one point loss to Minnesota, three point loss to Umass, two point loss to Washington etc - but there's only one game, that we look back on the schedule, and are truly disappointed by the outcome - A&M's 15-6 shellacking of us at Centex. That rainy afternoon in March they had dominated the game from start to finish and this was our chance to prove that no single game would define our season. The winner of this game would secure at least second place and a spot at nationals.

Energy-wise, the team was ready for this one. The wind was picking up and there was a large crowd albeit mostly A&M supporters.

Our pre-game huddle was pretty straight-forward: "A&M has a super high ceiling but they're not consistent. They can go on huge runs in either direction - don't let a big lead or a big deficit change your game. They came back from 7-2 against CU - let them fluctuate - stay consistent, support each other and we'll have success."

We won the flip and I elected to take the upwind end-zone. The wind was stronger for this game and I wasn't sure how exactly we matched up, so we played it safe, taking the wind. A&M chose to pull.

The O punched in the first down-winder with freshman Will McDonald finding deep space on a big flick huck from 2016 south central freshman of the year, Jake Marrapode (ONE YEAR LATER HE'S FINALLY HEALTHY!!!).

We forced a turn on the subsequent point with A&M struggling to find space offensively and our D line handlers, Hudson Martin and Jack Hinchsliff, relentlessly attacked the break side from behind the disc to complete the break.

Jack got a layout block on the next point we secured the second break downwind and a 3-0 lead. We traded downwind O points before breaking again on a perfect upwind huck from Hudson to big man, Sten Larson. A&M again struggled with their upwind O and we completed the second break to make it 6-1.

A&M took a timeout to regroup and we stayed calm - "Be ruthless. Don't let up. They came back in this situation yesterday."

After the timeout, we traded to half, but our offense felt effortless and their offense still looked phased. We didn't play perfect, but Spicer had the deep space absolutely locked down after the turn. A&M clearly felt comfortable airing it out to certain match-ups and they didn't complete a single one with Spicer on the field - it didn't matter if it was his guy or not. "Stop throwing it to 34 [Spicer]" echoed from their sidelines.

The final point to take half we ran a simple deep iso for our Callahan nominee and freshman Mo Scott put out a perfectly placed huck for the layout two-handed score for Spice and the 8-3 halftime lead.

Early in the second half we traded holds with Spicer getting a huge bookends on a deep sky into a monstrous layout score going the other way.

They came close to an upwind break shortly thereafter, but missed an opportunity in the redzone as our defense clamped down on the short field. We held that point to make it 10-5, broke twice immediately after for a 12-5 lead, then traded downwind points to a 15-8 final and nationals berth.

There were a lot of stellar performances in this game, but Spicer's stat line was one for the ages. He scored seven times, had two assists, tallied up four blocks and players he covered combined for ONE single touch for the entire game. He did this playing all the O points and only two D points. The final, most gratifying part of his performance, was that despite four fouls being called on him by A&M, every single one of them was overruled by the observer - there was no overly physical play from our best player (a criticism of him in the past and something he's working to improve) - he just exerted his will all over the field.

In the other semis, CU dismantled Texas 14-6, and the stage was set for finals rematch - CU was ready to avenge their loss at conferences.

Game 7 (finals) vs Colorado

There was supposed to be a bye before finals and we had cleats off, with a few guys already having left the complex to grab some food. After CU finished off Texas their captains came over and asked if we wanted to skip the bye and we absolutely did - we had a 16 hour drive ahead of us. We secured a field, confirmed with Calvin, the regional coordinator, and prepped to finish up our regionals. The only real problem with doing a round early, was Spicer had already taken off all of his blister prep, anticipating the two hour break. When I told him we were playing in 15 he gave me the "How much do you want to play in this one, coach?" puppy dog face. I glared at him and he hobbled over to the trainers to get everything re-done.

The plan for this game was no different than what we planned to do in the conference finals. If we won, we were going to do it with every member of our 25 person roster (Cole Turner broke his thumb in A&M game and had been to go to the ER) contributing on the field. Strategically, we had a few tricks up our sleeves, as I assumed they'd be better prepared for our defenses than they had been at conferences. However, they seemed pretty content to stick to their game-plan and we kept the extra tricks in the bag for nationals.

We started the game on fire - receiving downwind and punching in a quick O before trading holds then breaking them twice for a 4-1 lead. Spicer spent those first five points at the trainer still getting his feet prepped but it didn't matter - the team was too energized to even realize he was gone.

Mamabird held to 4-2 with Spicer finally getting onto the field on D to get his legs back on under him. We traded out several points before they broke us to make it bring it within one 6-5. The O-line easily punched in the upwinder after that however which allowed our energetic D-line to get back on the field and break for half 8-5. Bird looked deflated. They had some of their usual fire, and Rauls was making some impressive plays on the field, but they just didn't have the energy we did. We had our sideline channeling our inner Wombles - getting loud (annoying), crazy and keeping the field energy high.

In these second half we held to 9-7 before Bird gritted out a couple of good break points to tie it up at 9-9 - back on serve. We traded to 11-10 before putting together two more breaks (yes the upwind was still significant) and a 13-10 lead. We traded to 14-11 then tried to win it on D with the Grandpas. Bird wasn't having it as they cleanly punched in their score. Our O would score the next point for the 15-12 victory.

For those who thought the conference finals were a fluke or an off game for Boulder, sure, conferences upsets are often that way and you may have just thought my conferences piece was a proud coach of a mid-tier team who finally got a big win. But I'll just say this: I'm an objectively fair person to a fault (ask my wife). This game was not an upset. We controlled the game from start to finish. Bird never led and only tied the game up once. No one player carried us to victory - this was our whole squad capping off a solid weekend with a win against another very good team.

For those of you that still want to doubt, let me throw some information your way:

We're 5-5 against the nationals field this season with a +/-  in those games of +3 (with a 9 point loss to A&M dragging that number down). All five losses were early season. Five of those games were against likely top 10 seeds. Our best player can match up on anyone. Our team is close to 100% healthy. Our team only has four graduating seniors (Spicer is not one of them). Our O line is largely first and second year players who are still figuring out their chemistry. We may not win a game at nationals (we're still working on consistency) or we may win quite a few - honestly that's not our focus or concern. The point is, Colorado State is here to stay.