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 things 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!


  1. This is a great read, and really reflects my experience at nationals last year. I think the format was super tough for us to deal with, and in our case I think we were very top heavy, but the tough schedule and the weather (it was very hot in NC) made it tougher for us to run the same tight lines we might have otherwise.

    Another thing that made things very tough for us was the lack of practice - what is CSU's academic schedule like leading up to nationals? For Case last year finals ended around regionals, so we only had a handful of guys around to "practice" in the weeks leading up to nationals.

  2. Our graduation was one week after regionals. So, we had to fight to hold onto our field space and lost ~1/3 of the team to heading home out of state. It was an interesting challenge.

  3. > I'd venture to say that every men's college champion in the past seven years has been the deepest team in the field.

    That'd be 2010. And that's the perfect cutoff date...