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.

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