Saturday, August 1, 2015

Rocky Mountain Highs and Lows

Most of what happened in the The All-Stars loss to Molly Brown I should have seen coming. Four games in five days with a short roster, 1800 miles of travel, the altitude - I knew all that was happening. I knew that Molly Brown was quite good as well. But how did I not know that Alicia White was playing for MB? That's not fair.


The most damaging of The All-Stars' fatigue manifested itself in the lack of secondary cutting. The primary cutting was still decisive and aggressive - but it's always easy to find the will to cut when you're on stage. What was missing (and necessary on a night where there was a lot of poaching off of the handlers) was the secondary cut. Those cuts came, but because of the fatigue, they came a beat late. The mark was on, the poach was settled and consequently, the fifteen yard reverse flow cuts into the middle of the field that killed Riot, weren't there against Brown.

The altitude was responsible for the windedness and lack of defensive pressure throughout the game, but it was also responsible for several turnovers on leading passes. Playing at altitude has a profound effect on what you can throw and how you can throw it. You can throw the disc so far, it's unreal. Just look at Qxhna's pulls in that game compared to the sea-level games. But you can't hang the disc. The thin air means that the disc will run out and away from itself. There a number of The All-Stars' turnovers that came on away passes that never slowed down and set up like you'd expect.


Having watched U-23 Japan, Riot and now Molly Brown play use it, it seems likely that the sag-off-the-handlers defense will be the It-Defense of the year in the women's division. (A key component of this defense is to sag in the middle and then aggressively trap the disc on the sideline. It is a bend and then break strategy.) One of the really cool things about seven players is that it is actually too many. Just dropping down to six greatly reduces the poaching potential because you can put everyone in an aggressive, active, damaging spot. The cool problem with sevens is that some offensive player is always in a bad spot which means that you have to work to put them in a good place. Against smart help defense, there is always a free defender. How do you negotiate this problem? Three-handler spread offenses put their extra person around the disc, but that allows a poach to sit in the lane. You can hit them, but all you've done is throw the disc into the trap on the sideline.

There are two good solutions. The first is to run your handlers and play high tempo. The shifting angles and constant motion reduce the efficacy of the poaching. The second is to take the swings and be patient. (This is Fury's strategy.) The All-Stars don't have a defined strategy yet and maybe they won't get one, but they need something better than the pie-cut resets they are currently using - it costs yards and runs them right into the poach on the other side of the field. (This was a huge problem in the U-23 finals.)


I loved getting to watch Molly Brown's offense. It is still a bit embryonic, but it looks capable of being nasty efficient. They did a really nice job spreading the field, moving the disc laterally and then attacking once they'd gotten an opening. The spacing was really pretty - but something I'd expect from a team with such an infusion of Scandal players. Quality spacing is a hallmark of the Rev-Scandal system. The other thing about Molly Brown is how deep they are. You take a team that is on a slow rise, a team that has a really good base established and then you add four or five really talented players? That's a recipe for a national title.


Notes: the defense was boring. I understand why MB played vanilla (they're deeper, they're on film) but TASU should have played some weird stuff. Why not? Maybe you settle on something they can't solve and even if not, you learn something about your team....Kate Scarth is general, I think a bunch of The All-Stars are's interesting to see TASU settle into a very O-line, D-line system....Ozone will be a tough game; they are better than people think and the pace of the tour will really begin to take it's toll.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


In putting a 15-8 beat down on Schwa, The All-Stars revealed exactly where each team is. The All-Stars are shaping up into the team they will be; in fact they are very close to being fully formed. Schwa has much further to go until they are the team they want to be. The positive for both teams was the defense. I know the wind gets the big assist, but the D was excellent.

One of the cool things about The All-Stars is that they are all excellent defenders. Against Schwa they were particularly good around the disc, stifling Portland's resets and containing their arounds. Again and again, Schwa was driven down into the trap and not let out. The All-Stars got some big blocks, but nothing out of the ordinary. I remember as a young player marveling at someone's ability to get blocks and wishing I could play like that, when one of my older teammates said no, you want to play defense like Al because his man never even gets thrown to. That's how The All-Stars were able to play last night.

Portland's defense wasn't so shabby either. They didn't do any one piece of defense particularly well, but they hung in and played with grit and desire the whole way through the game. This may seem like a small thing, but it isn't. Teams have to build around an identity - that identity gives them strength and purpose and allows them to push through and weather difficult stretches. (Those stretches can be points or years - I spent five years in one.) On a night where their offense fell apart, their defense held together and that's the kind of thing that you can build around.

There was a telling moment on offense that defined the game for me. (It's at 1:19:00.) Franklin gets the disc on the backhand third and has nothing. Erin Schroeder is checking down on the far side of the field and is a step open. Which is to say - she isn't very open. She is twenty-five yards away and coming straight down the field, leaving a block angle wide open. With no hesitation, Franklin puts it in exactly the right spot - a boring, routine play. This is the throw that The All-Stars were making, that Schwa wasn't. It's the throw with tempo to someone who is open, but just. It requires trust. It requires placement. These are the throws that keep an offense alive against good defense.

I'll end with scrapple. Kelly Hansen's block on Jaclyn (21:45) was the play of the game...Schwa's offense didn't play wide enough downfield and didn't play back enough when challenged at the disc....Stert was instrumental on two big upwind goals - throwing one and skying for another. That's upwind offense - get in a good spot and take your chances.....Speaking of hucks, that might have been the difference in the game. Schwa missed too many that they should have hit....Where's the Traffic game?...The line versus Molly Brown is The All-Stars -1/2.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Wrong Again

I remember discussing the then-nascent Nexgen tour with founder Fresh and telling him he'd be lucky if they won three games. Clearly I was wrong. My prediction for the All-Star Ultimate tour was also three wins. Looks awfully wrong at this point.

One of the amazing things to me was how much the All-Stars looked like Nexgen. It was eerie. Like Nexgen, they didn't do anything fancy, they just went out and played ultimate and won because they individually won their matchup. 

It wasn't a terribly well played game on either side. The All-Stars looked like a new team and made new-team mistakes. Riot looked disinterested for most of the game, particularly on defense. It didn't really occur to them that they might lose until very, very late in the game. 


This is the second time I've seen Riot play a sagging, no-mark style defense. It wasn't exactly the same as what they did at the US Open, but similar enough in not putting any pressure on the thrower. I really don't like it. I'm not sure if it's the strategy or the tactics (the plan or the implementation) that isn't working, but it isn't challenging the thrower at all. The days where you could get a turn by making a team swing the disc ten times are over - the throwers are just too good.

I can't help but compare this to the brilliant sagging defense the Japanese play. There are two major tactical differences. First, they are covering multiple areas simultaneously by constantly moving, moving, moving. It may not seem like a two yard shuffle here and a jab step there make a difference, but they do. They create ever shifting force lines on the field and those lines and the motion associated with them control much more space than a static poach. (Which is what Riot was doing.) Secondly, the Japanese are connected to all the other players on the field - Riot is overly connected to the thrower. As specific examples, look at how often ASU got a ten yard gainer to the sideline with the opportunity to throw anything downfield. Look at how often the ten yards right in front of the disc was wide open for a comeback cut. That ten yard gainer can be trimmed down to no gain with some deft footwork. That comeback cut can be turned into a swing to the sideline by your connection to what is happening behind you.


Of all the early 90s strategies to make a comeback, dominator is the most surprising. Riot ran it as their endzone offense (the distinction from a standard endzone offense is the space to the front of the stack and the emphasis on getting the handlers running in space), but also as a developmental system in the early part of several possessions. Kelly Johnson was notable running in front of the disc.

The problems that lead to the demise of dominator as a high-level strategy where on display both yesterday and in the college championship game where Stanford used it as upwind offense in the second half. First problem is that it is incredibly physically demanding of the players who are running it. Second problem is that it routinely asks for demanding mid-range away throws. Coupled the physical demands means that dominator often ends on an execution error on an away throw. Johnson's turnover to lose the game was a classic example. And brings us to the final problem - the join between the dominator and the other cutters in very weak. A well run dominator should put you in power position but it is hard for the cutters to know when to engage because their primary directive is to make space for the dominator, leaving them constantly wondering when to stop clearing and start making space.

I'm excited to see the development of ASU over the next month. Right now, they are all raw talent and only a little bit of knit - what will they look like when they are a team?  They need an endzone offense, but I'm not sure there's much else they are missing. Like Nexgen, they may be able to do it on simplicity and talent.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Natural Enemy

Washington may be our natural rival, but British Colombia is our natural enemy. Over the years, they always seem to hand us the worst of our defeats; this year was no different. When we met at Northwest Challenge there was a lot on the line - both the tournament title and the #1 ranking would swing on the balance of the game. Now there is a difference between losing and getting beat; in the NWC finals, UBC beat our asses. The final score, 9-12, belies how out of sorts we were, how rattled we got, how much we struggled, how painful a game it was. We walked away from that game and spent an hour getting our heads screwed back on - then we set to work making sure it wouldn't happen again.

It's impossible to talk about UBC without talking about the border. I think it's hard for people outside the Pacific NW to really understand the push-pull relationship between the Canadians and the Americans. On the one hand, they are an integral part of our community - we play them multiple times a year, we know their players, they know us. When people bring up the inevitable "Why are the Canadians participating in our Nationals" argument, I always want to respond with "Why is Kansas in our Nationals? We haven't played them ever." But on the other hand, they feel different and because they feel different, they act different. When they come down across the border, they make sure to stop and pick up their chip-on-the-shoulder. Have you ever noticed how often Canadian teams put maple leaves on their jerseys? They want to remind us that they are Canadian because they are always reminded of it themselves. There is a Twilight Zone quality to crossing the border - things are the same, but not the same. Tim Horton's is 7-11. Clamato is tomato juice. And things aren't quite fair either. You can spend a greenback in Abbotsford, but you can't spend a Loonie in Bellingham. Canadians play in the USAU series, but when has a States team ever tried to play in CUPA's series? The thing is, the resentment really is defined by the border. When I've traveled into Canada to play Canadian tournaments with Canadians, the feel is so, so, so different. The faint edge of discomfort and resentment is gone, replaced by the general good feeling and good spirit that is the lingua franca of ultimate communities everywhere.


The primary characteristic of the Thunderbirds is replace-ability. Their cutters are expected to be equally effective going away from the disc as they are going toward it. They should be good throwers - as capable of delivering the disc down the field as they are at receiving it. Their handlers should be balanced as well - they can all make 20-yard pass, they can all break the mark, they can all get open against set defense. Their offense doesn't demand anything especially difficult from anyone, so when things are working well it is a series of comeback cuts to the open side with an occasional break throw mixed in. Every now and again, someone will be wide open going deep and they catch an easy goal. The prototypical T-bird is Lisa Wong. She's fast, but not blindingly so. She's quick, but not stunningly so. Her throws are good, but not shocking. She's a good receiver, but she's small so is dependent on being open and getting a good throw. She's a good defender, but she won't break the game with a string of layout blocks.

The strength of this system is that it is very hard to key in on anyone player. Time and again, I've watched us get destroyed by someone and decided that we'll focus on taking that player away only to get destroyed by someone else the next game. For most teams they play, UBC's best player may not be the best player on the field, but their sixth and seventh best players are far better than the other team's sixth and seventh best players. They are certainly more well-rounded than their matchups and therefore capable of exploiting whatever advantage they have. The weakness of this system is that it is very dependent on everyone playing well. If everyone plays only okay, you've got a big problem. In a lot of ways, UBC's system is the exact opposite of Stanford's or UCF's. Instead of consolidating offensive responsibility, they've spread it out as evenly as possible. If everyone on UBC has an okay game, that's a turnover apiece for a total of twenty. If everyone on UCF has an okay game, three players have five each and no one else has any (because they aren't allowed to.) So often watching UBC play, I see beautiful play interrupted by a drop or throwaway. This is a danger of asking a lot of people to do work. The problems this kind of system presents are compounded by the fact that UBC is temperamentally a small ball team, which provides more opportunity for costly mistakes.

That isn't to say that the Thunderbirds don't have some excellent individual talent. The trio of Lam, Chan and Chung formed a consistent and unflappable handling core. Downfield, the exceptionally fast duo of Ellen Au-Yeung and Victoria McCann provide complimentary threats. Better under than away, Au-Yeung is all backhand; better away than under, McCann is all forehand. And then of course, you've got Mira Donaldson. There is no question that she is the most talented player on the team - she's super long and possesses deft touch going down the field on either side. Her step-through backhand is particularly nasty (a major problem for a force-middle team), but the biggest difficulty she presents is that she can huck against the mark. While a number of other T-birds have nice deep throws when unmarked, Mira is (almost) the only player who can huck while marked. Her years of experience with Traffic and UBC make her unrattleable against the zone and many of our strategies changed and shifted based on when she had the disc. Her length made her an excellent target going away from the disc as well. Really, though, it was the hucks - every good team needs easy points and the string of Someone to Mira to Victoria deep was worth two or three quick goals per game.

Defensively, T-birds 2015 was a bit different from previous years. Historically, UBC has relied on a variety of okay-not-great defenses to generate turnovers through confusion more than brute force. Unlike a lot of women's teams that play only force flick and maybe a zone, UBC will play several different makes and several different zones augmented by some transitions. This year, however, they played very, very vanilla up until Nationals. We saw few zones and no transitions. I think in part they were working on developing younger players and didn't want to overload them too early, but the paranoid part of me thinks they were holding back for Nationals because when we saw them in the semifinals they hit us hard with the transition for numbers. But for the most part, they were a team characterized by speed and stick-to-your-girl grit; freshman Naomi Morcilla and graduate Erin Bussin led the way.


Our response to UBC's threat was to bring intense psychological warfare (or at least the ultimate frisbee version of it). All good teams do this - you cannot be successful if you cannot insulate yourself from the psychological pressure exerted by other teams. Simultaneously, you exert your own pressure on the other team. There are a million ways to do this, ways that range from Riot's intense positivity to Revolver's stonewalling IHD. Your method has to suit your team and we chose a method that suited ours - to go on the offensive. So out came the "U-S-A" chant, out came the red-white-and-blue outfits, the Star Spangled Banner to lead off the game. We had fun, we were loud, we were excited and we were annoying.

There is a broader question here of what constitutes good SotG. Is it okay to put psychological pressure on your opponent? We do this all the time inadvertently, but is it okay to do this intentionally? It is okay to put physical pressure on your opponent - is mental pressure also okay?
To be clear on definitions, physical pressure means all the defensive and offensive strategies that teams use: marking, zones, positioning, boxing out. There are limits to what is acceptable and what is not. The line between acceptable and not acceptable is not clear and shifts from game to game, team to team, level to level. The kind of physical defense you see at club Nationals isn't ok at Eugene city league. That's fine. Psychological pressure is no different. Do you rush the field? Do you have a special chant you use after a big break? Do you have a go-to cheer? Is it annoying? Do you chat up the other team during games? Do you ignore them? You are exerting psychological pressure on the other team.

Over the years, we've worked hard on our relationship with the Thunderbirds (as have they) and together, we've slowly moved to a place where we can play crazy, intense, enemy-ultimate and then have a real conversation about what happened. It helps that we play each other four or five times every year (six times this season!), but what's really made the difference is each team's leadership being willing to approach the other when they had a problem. They had a problem with some of what we did this season and told us so. Some things we changed (because we agreed), some things we didn't (because we didn't agree) - that's how it should be.


By now of course, you know that going into the semifinals, Mira's shoulder was wrecked. Instead of staying on the high road, they'd stumbled against Carleton - I had multiple reports that they completely collapsed following Mira's injury. But in one of the most impressive pieces of coaching of the tournament, they managed to right the ship and build a new identity as a team.

I watched all of their game against Ohio State and it was impressive to see the shift happen. First, Ellen Au-Yeung moved from a traditional 3 spot into a 2-3 hybird - a lot like what Shofner and Ode do for us. Secondly, their tempo picked up a notch. No longer were there pauses in the offense as they waited for Mira to get open or deliver a throw. Playing without ego and without intention, the T-birds just moved the disc to the next open person. As their adjusted offense began to crystallize, their depth slowly took over and they blew OSU out down the stretch, finishing on a 13-2 run. Their Virgina game was similar (although I only saw the final five or six points). They traded early and then walked away down the stretch outscoring Hydra 10-3. I know UVA had the food poisoning problem, but UBC was an exceptionally bad match up for them. UBC's strengths - speed and depth - perfectly match UVA's strengths - speed and depth. I like UBC in this match, even against a healthy UVA.

There is a weirdness in Mira's injury that even though it made UBC less good, it made them a better team. This is a team that is built around equality of roles and interchangeability of players - where, then, do you fit one exceptional, transcendent talent? Any time Mira was on the field, she was an immediate threat to throw or catch a goal, but at the same time this introduced an inconsistency into their offense. Or a hitch or a disconnect - a seam appeared where things should be seamless. I wasn't really aware it was there until I saw them play without her and saw how quickly they came into a more cohesive identity.


Going into the semifinals, our strategy was unchanged from the base strategy we'd used throughout the weekend: apply pressure with our zones, but test various defenses to see what was going to be effective.

They won the opening stage of the game. We weren't prepared for their transition defense and we weren't prepared for their increased tempo. Really, we were prepared for the team we'd already played five times this year, not the team they'd become.

I saw the transition right away and began making adjustments, but they took a few points to take hold. The first adjustment was to adjust our pull plays away from sidestack and into some of our spread formation plays. These are more flexible against a variety of defenses - they'll work against person just fine, but they also slide easily into zone offense. I also tried to get Weaver and Wah to play two-person-quick to throw off the zone-for-numbers. This is a complex idea, so let me run it out. A traditional transition is to play a conservative zone for a certain number of passes. You might play a 1-3-3 for 3 passes or a 2-3-2fm for 2 passes. It is unusual to go over five passes on a zone-for-numbers; it's just too easy to lose count. If you want to play a zone longer than that, but still transition, it is typical to use an audible. The idea behind two-person-quick is to have your two opening handlers throw a bunch of passes really quick before the defense gets down. What this does to a transition-for-numbers is push the defense through their count before they are really ready. If they are playing zone for three passes and you throw those three passes while they are still running down, you've forced them into a terrible situation - they are in person, but not matched up at all. We hadn't faced a true transition all year, so we hadn't practiced this method at all. Consequently, we didn't really pull it off as I wanted - Weaver and Wah were too far apart. But we did manage to do three things as a result of trying to adjust. As mentioned, our shape was better for the defense. In trying to throw early swings, we shifted away from a play mentality to a just play ultimate mentality. This is a key shift when facing any kind of junk defense. Finally, just the recognition of what they were doing settled the offense and eliminated the confusion transition defenses can generate.

Our zones, which had been devastating earlier in the season, struggled to gain traction in the first half. Through our previous meetings, we had settled on a breathe-out-squeeze-in strategy to deal with Mira's throws and UBC seemed content to let her do all the heavy lifting. The breathe-out when she had the disc meant that she could move it, just not for advantage. The squeeze-in when she didn't meant that we could pressure the weaker throwers into making a mistake. Additionally, the let-Mira-throw it strategy was slow tempo which was a real boon to the kind of aggressive, trapping zones we run. Without Mira on the field, the T-birds played simpler zone offense. They moved it quickly to the first open person and used the width of the field. We weren't ever able to really get set.

The consequence of these two strategic shifts was that we were down a break late in the first half. At 5-6, Nij "pushed-in" which is coaching slang (from poker) for stacking the line up. We loaded up on offensive firepower and went goal, goal, goal, halftime. I had several outside observers tell me later they thought the game was over after those breaks. It probably was, but only because we were going to make sure it was over. UBC was a team that we knew could beat us and that we wanted to make sure we gave the full weight of our attention and respect to. They had a couple of chances early in the second half, but our O-line continued to bring defensive pressure and we kept them from getting a break. Meanwhile, our D-line was getting chances and we began pulling away, first to 12-8 and then shutting the door with back-to-back breaks.

There are all different kinds of loses and this looks like one that will make UBC much better. Don't ask me to explain why this is - it just feels like that to me. Sometimes it takes the pain of losing a huge game to drive you onward to the next step. I think it part it's because the next step is often a difficult one or a painful one in its own way or requires much, much work to achieve. Or perhaps it's that you don't realize what it takes to reach the next step until it's too late to take that step or that you were willing to pay the price. However it breaks, when you look at UBC 2016, you'll be looking at a team that is an extension of 2015. Same team, same project.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


This is from a free write I did as a part of the leadership camp I helped run two summers ago in Seattle. I went back this summer to do more leadership work and was reminded of it through conversations with coaches.

Confidence and the challenge of being confident. Confidence comes naturally, but it also comes from familiarity and comfort. It is easy to tell someone to be more confident; it is far more difficult to be told to be confident and then actually be confident. What then, is the path to confidence? First, fake it til you make it. Act like a confident person. Speak loudly and clearly; expect and demand people's attention; take initiative; say few words. Through the practice of confidence, confidence will grow. Second, continue to gain experience and knowledge in your area. You want to be a confident leader in ultimate? Then learn ultimate.  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"I Always Root Against Stanford"

By the end of the season, I know our major opponents almost better than I know my own team. Through playing against a team, live scouting, video work and social media work I get to the point where I know names, numbers, tendencies, strategies, tactics, strengths, weaknesses and I have a clearer view of other teams than my own because I only know them as ultimate players. In a pinch, I can push away all the emotion and squeeze out a truly unbiased evaluation of my own team, but not very well.

For a long time, I've disparaged Stanford's style of play as too dogmatic, too rigid, too boring, too old-fashioned. A lot of this is just philosophical differences; as a proponent of the individualistest, wildest, openest, strangest strategies I am opposed on principle to any particularly structured system. Back me in a corner and I'll grudgingly admit that strict structure is a valid way to run a team. I've certainly lost to a lot of teams that are very structured. And a certain part of my dislike for Stanford is just sour grapes. In my years coaching Carleton I went 1-4 against Superfly, but two of those were National title games. It doesn't really matter how nice you are or spirited or anything, if you win that much people are going to dislike you for it.

Along with my grudging respect for their continued success, I've begun adding admiration for their strategic flexibility. The last really traditional Stanford team was the 2011 team that refused to huck against the Skirts and lost the possession game to Finney. Since that time, Stanford has pushed and changed their offensive playing style, slowly moving away from their traditional dump, swing, attack offense and employing less graceful and more brutally efficient methods. This was a smart switch. Stanford's traditional dominance was built on twin pillars of athleticism built through grad students (see Gegg, Courtney) and disc skills built on the opportunities the mild California winter provided. But the rise of youth ultimate (and its comparatively slow rise in Cali) means that the bar has been raised on what 'good disc skills' means and the path to develop skills is different as well. Far from being the most talented throwing team, Stanford and the rest of the Southwest teams now lag behind the rest of the country. For a team with an expectation of winning and a goal of a national title, a change of strategy becomes a necessity.

Stanford 2015 had two really distinct groups of players - the handlers and the cutters. This isn't particularly unusual for ultimate teams, but the distinction between the two groups was stark. The handlers (Michaela, Slim, Mo,  Thompson and  Rempel) were all experienced and equipped with good disc skills. The cutters (Gegg, Hoster, Olguin, Cruz, FM, Harris, Sandino) were all very athletic but lacking in disc skills. The one exception to this dichotomy was Caitlin Go. (More on her later.) Running the traditional Stanford offense wasn't really going to work with this group because they didn't have the top-to-bottom disc skills to run a mid-range game. Instead what you got was a lot of long throws (typically courtesy of White or Rempel), mid-range from the handlers and short resets from the cutters.

I think the best way to describe this offense is as a combination of the traditional Stanford offense with some Central Florida's consolidation-of-throws ideas. Long a staple of Florida offenses, the consolidation-of-throws theory has the most talented handful of throwers carry 99% of the throwing weight of the team; it lets your athletes run and catch but never lets them throw. What this looked like for Stanford is their traditional dump-swing set working into a vertical stack that generated multiple comeback cut looks. Because their cutters weren't able/permitted to move the disc downfield, they struggled to get multiple comeback cuts in sequence, often running dump-swing-comeback-dump. Different from Central Florida was the way Stanford manufactured hucks. While some portion were fast break hucks in transition, the larger portion came off of break throws to the handler at the front of the stack. Rempel in particular was masterful at this. In addition to excellent size and timing, she had a weird knack for bewildering the defender while creating clarity for the thrower. The goal was to get her (or another handler) catching the disc in space, unmarked and 10-15 yards downfield of the original disc - in other words, an ideal situation to huck from. So many of Stanford's easy goals came off of this set.
Every good offense has a pressure valve of some kind - some sort of unpredictability. For Stanford, this was Caitlin Go. Here is a cutter who can throw and because of this unique (to Superfly) skill set, Go generated a lot of goals just because no defender was really prepared to defend downfield off of the comeback cut. This was really difficult to account for because it wasn't Go's defender who had to adjust - she correctly played Go like any other cutter - but the other six defenders who had to react - a difficult task.

Stanford's Achilles' heel was their zone offense. It was a traditional dump-swing paired with crazy micropasses between the poppers and handlers once the disc broke through the cup. When first unveiled in 2014, this offense was a revelation and forced us to put our zone away when we met them in pool play. But a year is a long time to adjust and we learned to just jam a million people around the disc once they started running the micros. (There are some frame stops from our NWC matchup with ten players within ten feet of the disc.) The final result of their offense and our defensive adjustments was they were in a position where they had to throw a lot of contested passes to score - not a good plan.  

All this talk of offense obscures the strength of this team - defense. There are some basic requirements to be a great defensive team - speed, size, fitness - Stanford had all of those. Whatever intangible pieces you need to play great defense - hustle, heart, grit - they had all of those as well. A lot of the credit here needs to go to the faceless army of cutters - Harris is probably the purest example of what this team was about defensively - not a lot of flash, but a lot of work, always right there, just making it difficult. Like a lot of defensive teams, they fool the eye test because they look worse than they actually are. Their defense is making the other teams offense look bad - their own offense is struggling...

So far in this discussion I've been in agreement with what Stanford has done. I'd probably have done it differently, but their strategic and tactical framework make total sense. But there is one aspect of how Knowler ran the team that I completely disagree with - playing time. Throughout the season and throughout Nationals, the trio of Monisha, Slim and Michaela almost never left the field. Maybe this helps you beat Middlebury 15-1, but is that really your goal? I have four major problems with this strategy.
There are reasons to play your best people every point - having your best people on the field means that you are putting yourself in the best position to score that point. But I'm not interested in scoring that point - I'm interested in scoring 15 points. Playing your best people every point means that while you are more likely to score any individual point, you are less likely to score 15 points as the top of your roster yields to inevitable fatigue.
Secondly, playing your best players every point robs your team of head room. Ever notice how really great teams are able to 'turn it on' at the end of a game? Part of that is experience, part of that is having great players who can step up in a key moment, but part of is building head room into your team structure. Just as a frame of reference, we probably played our top seven players together less than 10 times all season - so infrequently in fact, I'm not actually sure who those seven would be.
Then there is the problem of who is left on the bench. In Superfly's case that was Jennifer Thompson and Annee Rempel. Thompson played her role as supporting handler well and probably got her warranted minutes, but Rempel spent way too much time on the bench particularly considering she was one of the only players who could consistently move the disc downfield in big chunks. 
My final issue is player development. You can learn a lot from the sidelines, particularly the sidelines at Nationals, but you learn nothing like what you learn when you play. Let's do some math. Stanford's typical game was 24ish points (15-9) and 40ish games is about 960 points. If your primary handler is playing 90% of those, that leaves not even 100 points for the bench, a paltry 2.5 points per game. But if you bring that primary handler's playing time down to two out of three, you've got 320 points for the bench. That's more than three times as much - eight points per game! That's real minutes and real opportunity for learning.


But on the day of the finals, much of this will matter not at all as the wind will take center stage. It was an awkward wind for us - not so bad that we couldn't play ultimate, but easily ten mph stronger than anything we'd seen all season and quite likely the strongest wind we'd seen since Boulder 2012. I still felt that we had the technical skill to handle the wind and the experience to play a sophisticated, opportunity driven strategy. I still think that - even though we didn't manage to do either.

Having watched Stanford's negative ultimate against Washington in pool play I was quite sure that Stanford would huck and play d. I was also pretty confident that they wouldn't be able to move the disc against our zone - they hadn't been able to do so in low wind - how could they in 20-30 mph winds? I also knew that they weren't going to be able to play their touch pass game off of the front of the stack because you can't throw those passes in a high wind - I even told Ashley (who'd been covering Rempel since Stanford Invite) not to bother prepping.

I had a lot of uncertainty about what zone or zones to play and in what circumstances. I had a lot of uncertainty about how we were going to need to play offense - I wasn't sure about the wind and I wasn't sure about how their defense would intersect with it - what would be problematic and what would still be available.

There is so much going on in this game that it is hard to know exactly what to write or explain about - I could pretty easily write 10,000 words. To make it a little easier to organize and understand I am going to break the game 4 ways and then 2 ways. The first break will be into offense and defense upwind and downwind. The second break will be first half and second half.

Stanford Offense downwind and Oregon defense against it
This was pretty simple - if you are upwind of the downwind brick then huck it into the endzone and hope something good happens. Kudos to Monisha for carrying this burden without flinching - in a game culture that ridicules turnovers it can be difficult to turn it over again and again. As I've said before, consistency in a high wind situation isn't about not turning it over, it's about not making defensive mistakes.
A note about huck and play defense as a strategy: done properly, you should send five people deep. You should be playing the front side and the back side of the catch - just up your chances of catching it. There isn't any real point in setting up a traditional zone offense structure if you know you're going to punt anyway. To that end, the one really good punt Monisha threw was the crazy inside-out flick that Caitlin caught off of the tip that took them to half.

We tried to play a number of our different zones, which was dumb because they weren't running zone offense, they were just punting. In retrospect, we should have done a couple exotic zones. First, a 2-0-2-2 with a defender (probably Gabby) fronting Gegg. That means we play a 2 person cup to prevent an easy up gainer, but then play no wings, 2 deeps at the five yard line and 2 deeps 5 yards into the endzone. The other exotic zone would be to play a 1-3-3 with a no huck mark (standing directly behind the thrower and forcing straight up) and the 3 dropped all the way to the endzone.
But I didn't think of these things until I was on the airplane. Sigh.

Stanford Offense upwind and Oregon defense against it
Our zone defenses were not effective - at least not as suffocatingly effective as defense needed to be on a day where multiple chances were necessary to score. Like UBC, they did a really nice job of adjusting their zone offense to be more effective. They picked up their tempo and moved the disc laterally around the edges of the zone, never really allowing us to get set.
I don't usually like to play zone when the other team is going upwind because it allows them throw their favored throws and throw to uncovered stationary receivers. We did in the early going of the finals because our zone had been so successful against them across the span of the season - it had been the decisive feature in each of our previous matchups.
After our lack of success with the zone we went with our traditional FM the rest of the way.

Oregon Downwind Offense and Stanford's defense against it
For much of the game, Stanford played a zone with a 4-person cup that employed a force middle trap. This defense downwind was vulnerable to two spaces in particular. The first vulnerability was the pop-over straight downwind which we used pretty successfully, but should have used more. The second vulnerability was the slow crash into the cup, which we used occasionally but nowhere near enough.
Our biggest problem was that our zone offense wasn't a good fit for the conditions. This season we had switched structures to fit our personnel better (donde esta Sophie?) and it really changed how we approached zones. We employed two wide handlers running a 2-4-1 and we ended up making most of our money going around, attacking quickly down the sidelines and then back into the middle. Credit Stanford's FM trap for pushing the swing back and making it uncomfortable enough that we never really got this aspect of our game going. Really, we needed to commit a bit more to swinging the disc to the high side of the field - when we did, we usually made hay coming back down the other way.
The other place we needed an adjustment was on the goal line. Stanford stayed in zone the whole way and the pop-over space was gone was the field had compacted. Then we really needed to crash into the cup more.

Oregon Offense Upwind and Stanford's defense against it
The biggest defensive move Stanford made was to huck every downwind possession - we never got a short field - we always had to go 70 yards to score. We managed to score four upwinders. Two were against the zone and we chipped and putted our way through. These possessions were very comfortable for us. After they put the zone away and started playing person, things got a lot trickier. The two goals we got against their person were on hucks to Loo and were both very similar. First Beth and then Ode got free about midfield and had unmarked backhands (a defensive no-no on a windy day).

First Half
The opening 15 points of the game were a long stretch of feeling out the conditions and each other to see what was going to work. Both teams tried to play zone against upwind offense and both teams yielded upwinders; upwind zone disappeared quickly. The crucial point was the one that took the score from 2-3 to 3-3. Stanford played their 4-person cup here and it caused a lot of problems for us. We still looked calm and poised and unrattled by the wind, but we had so many turnovers and gave them so many good chances to score.  On our end, we began to realize that the game would come down to our ability to play person defense when they were going upwind.
We didn't do a great job of seizing the opportunities we created. We scored three upwinders in the first half and every time we immediately gave up an upwinder in reply.

Second Half
At half time I realized several things - that we weren't going to be able to figure out how to play ultimate in the wind that day, that they couldn't go 70 yards upwind against our force middle and that we might lose the game.
When I talked strategy with the team, I didn't really say much - just that we needed to keep fighting. I have no idea what they said to each other in the final huddle, but it was enough. We came out bang, bang, bang and scored three quick goals to take the lead and seize control of the game. That put us at 10-8.
The final six point of the game were insane. They put on an incredible push to score an upwinder and reclaim control. The points where they were going upwind were long, turnover filled and stressful. The points where we were going upwind were unfortunately short. On our end of things, we were resting a lot of our top offensive players to play downwind defense and were offensively short-staffed going upwind. But we weren't scoring easily downwind and so we never felt like we could double up on points.
The coaching move of the game was Robin's decision to play dominator. In some ways it makes a ton of sense - put the disc in the hands of your best players and let them make plays. Don't make it about team versus team, just make it about our best three versus your best three. In some ways it is a crazy decision. Had they practiced or run it before? Not that I'd seen. You're going to run a high volume of throws offense on a windy day? You're going to run your best players into the ground when you are already short on players? The craziest thing is that it almost worked. Just one pass short....but that's the problem with high volume offenses - when they come up one pass short it is seen as execution and not scheme, but execution is scheme. Still, it was way, way, way more effective than I thought it was going to be.


Building a team is climbing a mountain. The mountain isn't winning a championship, but developing a team to it's fullest potential. Because every team's potential is different, every team's mountain is different. So you can take a team that doesn't win a title or a team that doesn't even make Nationals and feel absolutely wonderful because they climbed to the top of their mountain. The 2012 team that got pasted in the finals by Washington was a like this. I suspect the Ego boys feel pretty much the same way about their season and their loss to UNC. When a team does everything it possibly can, when a team climbs as high up the mountain as it possibly can, you are a fool to feel anything but joyous about what you did.

So how far did Stanford climb up their mountain? Pretty damn far. Much farther than I thought they were capable of and relatively further than I thought we climbed up our mountain. (But our mountain was different - our season was about something different than what their season was about.) Much kudos to the coaching staff for building a great team and putting together a great game plan. Much kudos to Michaela for saving her best ultimate for the most important tournament and most important game. In the finals, she took a step forward as a player, finally stepping into the promise that has accompanied her career. Finally, the most respect to Slim. She'll go on and be great elsewhere, but her greatest strength - her boundless energy - won't matter as much in the club game. She literally dragged Stanford to where they are - arms up in that silly positive body-language woo-woo business yelling "Warhorse" or "Our house" or whatever it is she yells every damn point. Every point. This is a team that collapsed at Nationals last year and she never relented and collapsed at Northwest Challenge and she never relented and just kept going and going. Slim is why.


In 1998, I was coaching a team on the way up. The year before in 1997, we'd thought we'd had the pieces to win and claimed our goal was to win. Then we got to Nationals and stumbled. Bruised, we came back in 1998 and we knew we had the pieces: depth, experience, talent, drive, athleticism. The only problem was that there was a monstrous team sitting on top of women's ultimate destroying everyone; a team that was midway through a 101 game win streak. So with that team in our sights, we worked and worked and worked. We met that team in the finals and they slowly took control of the game - an upwind-downwind affair. They stretched their lead all the way out to 18-14, game to 19. Then we got 13 blocks in a row and tied the game at 18s. Then we got another block. Then we turned it over. Then we lost. The team I was coaching? Carleton. The team we lost to? Stanford.

There is some kind of weird, circular irony that brought me back to that game but on the other sideline. I understand those 90s Stanford teams a little more and hate them a little less. I understand this year's Stanford, too and I'll understand when they root against Oregon always. Maybe in twenty years one of them will be standing on the sideline coaching as this game happens again...


I'm going to start posting here again. I'm not really sure how many of yall are going to read this, but reach isn't really my point for this. I've got words that want out, so I'm going to let them free. Where they fly is up to them.