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...


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