>This past weekend was Vassar College’s third annual Huck For Red October tournament. Two years ago I got to play on Vassar’s A team as a junior, last year I got to organize and play in the tournament as captain, and this year was the first time I had the bizarre pleasure of playing on the Alum team. You never know which alums are going to show up any given year. Last year we faced off against an alum team full of former superstars in the likes of Jake Hoffman, Jer Isseks, and Jason “Freakshow” Chandler. None of those legendary figures showed up this year, but we were blessed with a different set of recent graduates, all bringing their own various wily veteran experience to our team. We even had four dudes show up who went to Vassar in the 90’s–wasn’t it an all-girls school back then?
The weekend ended up being enlightening in a number of ways. I want to share just a few of my thoughts on the Alum team, the current Vassar men’s Ultimate teams, as well as the sport of ultimate in general.
The first difference I noticed about playing on an Alum team is that the athleticism, speed, and enthusiasm that helped previous Vassar A-teams that I played on to win games, was much less existent. I guess you just take for granted how three days of ultimate practice per week keeps your body in good shape. Life just one or two or three years after college will inevitably leave you less conditioned unless you’re really going out of your way to fit regular exercise into your schedule. Even then, only with ultimate do you get to improve your acceleration and long-sprint speed, as well as your endurance, jumping, and reading of the disc. Even though I’ve been playing a lot of basketball in Philly, for example, my body hasn’t been getting better at taking prolonged sprints and fast-paced jogs. Instead, the body becomes more adept at quick changes of direction necessary for fakes or blow cuts, or leaping grabs in the air for catching discs at tough angles or ripping down rebounds. In the case of the Alum team, I found that most of our players relied on a different skill set than the one that I was accustomed to from years past. For example, Tex played an in-cut game and relied on his quick fakes and solid short-range throws to keep the disc moving. Players like Pete D and Hobie, although not the fastest players on the field, were knowledgeable enough to find ways to get open on the dump and were patient enough to swing the disc or dump it themselves if the cut wasn’t there. In that sense, our team featured a number of players who relied on quick, calculated decisions that ended up being relatively high-percentage and low-risk plays.
Some of our more recent graduates, like Alsnow (who’s been running a good amount) and myself, were still in good enough shape to make those long in-cuts or deep cuts that kept defenses honest and allowed our in-cut game to thrive. Jackson and Marco had their fair share of big plays, however, what allowed us to go 4-0 the first day was an extreme sense of overall team patience and calm on offense and a lot of experience with positioning on defense. Also, the teams we played generally cowered under our almighty and overwhelming sense of wisdom and confidence.
We started off the game against the Vassar A-team with that same sense of patience and calm, going up early in the game (something like 5-2), however, you could see that relaxation fade as the current Vassar team capitalized on a series of our mistakes (missed dump cuts, in-cut drops, and other high-percentage plays that were good to us on Saturday but that failed us on Sunday). Whenever a team starts shooting themselves in the foot, any good opposing team will seize those opportunities in order to shift the momentum back in their favor. And that’s exactly what the current Vassar squad did to us. A few methodical marches up the field stand out in my mind, but a couple of spectacular big plays also facilitated their first-half comeback–including a ridiculous, cross-field, inside-out flick huck by Peter that looked like it was for-sure going out of bounds but just sort of magically, gently settled down into Jake’s outstretched arms in the back corner of the end zone.
At half-time, the score was 8-6, and the current team was pumped-up, I’m sure, but us Alums weren’t sweating it. I remember feeling two emotions at the half. One was the typical anger I feel in any competitive battle. After that 8th point was scored, everyone was hooting and hollering and I remembered all the times I used to silently hate the opposing teams we played as an A-team, especially when they were winning. I hated the “let’s go’s” and the disc spikes and the goony rushing of the field. But as I walked to the line with my head down and grabbed a water bottle and looked up to see the current team walking back to the sideline, smiling with their arms around each other, or high-fiving and giving slightly sexual ass pats–I remembered that I knew every single player walking by me and I had seen those pumped-up, sweaty grins before on the battlefield that we once shared together. The anger that I felt faded immediately into a gratifying sense of pride. At that point, all the shit-talking I had done over the past few months and the win-at-all-costs attitude I had coming into the tournament all seemed so pointless when I realized: these guys are the Vassar A-team–a team I helped to build, and a team that I love. Of course I wanted to win, I always do, but I knew I couldn’t treat this game with the same mental outlook as I used to have back when I was playing against other schools. I knew I would give everything I got in the second half and hope for the best.
The second half opened with two consecutive points for the alums, evening the game at 8 a piece, and thus beginning the second half race to the finish. It seemed like the score was never more than a point or two apart until the dramatic 14-14 universe point finish. I remember marking Nick “Frogger” Rook a lot during the game, which was really fun because as I was guarding him, I was simultaneously really admiring his cool, calm, collected mental state, right up-close, even as he faced my overly-aggressive mark. He really impressed me all weekend with his easy-to-catch throws and patience and skying abilities. I do regret marking him on the last few points of the game, however, as I would have preferred to be on a cutter. In fact as well as Raffi played, I would have loved more opportunities to guard him and see how that went, however, one of my biggest regrets of the game is not marking more of the go-to cutters on the current team. I really did try to identify who those people were, but it was amazingly difficult. I think you’ve got to give credit to the leadership of the team for that one because although some people had bigger games than others, everyone seemed to contribute regularly, even with a 15 or 18-person line. MattLuk and Neely played a huge role, from an organizational standpoint, in facilitating the win. Of course, they were very solid on the field as well–Matt’s epic sky over Tex stands out in my mind as well as one lightning-fast flick-huck release that found that back of the end zone.
The cohesiveness, though, is what I think I was most impressed with, above all else, from that game. The current Vassar men’s team looked more like a cohesive unit than I’ve seen in a while. It’s so early in the season that people still don’t exactly know what their roles on the team will be, but everyone is extremely capable of making a simple cut and throwing the disc up the field or to the dump. The handlers are perhaps the only clearly defined role-players at this point in the season and they did an incredible job at showing patience when they had the disc. The reason I have so much confidence in the current team’s ability to exceed expectations and even play better than the A-teams of the last two or three years is because of this sense of patience. Last year, we relied heavily on the big-play, Jackson and Marco throwing it deep or cutting deep, Jackson throwing it deep to me, or making a risky through in space knowing that I’d catch it. I think this high-risk, high-reward style of play is often effective, but not the most ideal way to build a team and win consistently. What the current team has now is a sense of unity and an assurance that no player has to worry about getting their opportunity to make a play. Last year, I think there was less disc to go around with someone like Jackson touching the disc every two or three throws, and so players who knew they had the ability to make a big play felt they needed to make those plays happen within a more limited window of opportunity, so often you had players force throws or make out-cuts when they should have been in. If some players felt a need to force a play, than someone who touched the disc a lot might have less confidence to look to those players again, and would only reinforce this negative cycle of play.
So in that sense, I think this team has an undeniably enormous potential to grow together and become more dynamic and aggressive and dangerous. Everyone knows they will have a chance to contribute in a significant way, even with such a big line, and so you’ve got consistently fresh legs and consistently patient players who all seem to be on the same page. That, my friends, is unstoppable chemistry, and it’s exactly how the current Vassar A-team beat the Alums this past Sunday.
I regret a few things about my own play, namely that I played almost every point of the game. This was both selfish and stupid and I apologize to the other Alums, if you’re reading this, because I was just so pumped up I barely ever took a point off. This ended up hurting me and the team in the long-run, as all that play time sort of watered down my desire to be constantly “that guy” making the cuts and making the plays. I kept waiting for someone to step up when I should have been doing it myself. I also regret not making more out-cuts when Jackson got the disc so as to revisit that connection that won us so many games in the past, however, these regrets don’t weigh too heavily on my mind as I’m happy with the way I played and really satisfied with the final outcome of everything.
Vassar A ended up winning 15-14 on universe point and I don’t think the game could have ended any better for either side. The alums gave them a hell of a run for their money, but ultimately it was the hosting team that got to go to the championship game and play Dickinson and that’s the way it should have been. Some of the guys were even relieved on the alum team (hungover schmucks) not to have to play another game, but that should take nothing away from our effort because I believe the alums truly gave everything they had and it just wasn’t enough to beat a really great and cohesive A-team unit.
Amongst my praise of the Vassar A-team, I don’t want to neglect mentioning how impressed I was with the B-team, and the advanced play of so many of the sophomores like Rafat, DO, Sunshine, and Linse, as well as a ton of potential in the rooks. Ollie, as emaciated as he is, even looks to be a dominant cutter in a matter of a year or so–it’s very exciting to know that the future is bright for Vassar Ultimate and the match-ups won’t be any easier for the Alum teams at HFRO in years to come.
Finally, on a more personal note in regards to the sport of Ultimate in general, I’ve found that the sport, for lack of a better word, is getting a little bit boring. It’s not that I don’t love playing defense, with all its ambiguity, or going deep on O, but the sport can become very formulaic when you’re not a part of a team full of guys that you love, playing for them and for the team. I certainly felt love for the players I played with this past weekend, and chemistry with them as well, but I’m becoming frustrated that I have no club team to play on and grow with or even any regular pick-up games to attend. What I really want is to get on a really competitive club team and prove to those guys that I’m worthy of being on their starting line. This might take a lot of work, as my throws are not club-ready, but I think I’ve got the confidence and speed and hands to succeed at the next level and I just want to be given the opportunity to try. As of now, I’m really enjoying pick-up basketball in Philly, as I attempt to prove myself and assert my game in an entirely different setting than Vassar Ultimate. We’ve been playing a couple times a week and it was tough at first to adjust to the physical style of play you find here, but I’ve slowly gotten used to it to the point that I feel that me, Marco, Alex, and Anshu can compete with just about anyone we go against. Sports are all about pushing yourself in new ways, mentally and physically, so this has become a welcome challenge for me. It’s good to know that there are public indoor courts here in Philly so even when it gets cold we’ll be able to keep balling.
Well that post turned out to be pretty darn long, but if you stuck with me until the end, I thank you for reading. My next post in the near future will be about A Clockwork Orange, comparing the book to the film, so stay tuned for that. Peace out, friends.