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A Game Of Inches: Breaking Down The Game Of The Year

Boston Ironside and Seattle Sockeye players shake hands after their semifinal matchup at the 2013 Club Championships.

Photo by Christina Schmidt — UltiPhotos.com

You might have expected that the semifinals and finals of the Club Championships, hosted in front of a stadium crowd and a live ESPN3 audience, would have showcased the most exciting and competitive Ultimate matchups of the season. Unfortunately, many of those final games were unclean or lopsided; exciting as it was to witness some teams perform so well, most sports fans yearn for a close game.

Seattle Sockeye and Boston Ironside’s matchup in the semifinals was the notable exception: a double game point instant classic that we unanimously ranked as the best game of 2013. Both teams were peaking from earlier regular season ups and downs.

The high quality play led to some interesting tactical decisions that may have helped tip the scales. Yes, credit to Sockeye for pulling out the win, but when a two-hour game is decided by a single break, you are effectively looking at two evenly matched and equal teams. We re-watched the game and tried to keep track of some of the most impressive – as well as some of the more questionable – decisions that played a role in the game.

Positive: Ironside’s Changing Defensive Assignments

Early on, Boston assigned captain Russell Wallack to cover NexGen veteran Phil Murray. Murray bested Wallack deep and in the air to score two of Sockeye’s first four goals. Something had to be done to limit Murray’s impact and alter Sockeye’s point of attack.

Enter Jack Hatchett, one of this club season’s elite defenders. The man who tallied Ironside’s only three blocks of the game (one on each of Nate Castine, Mike Caldwell, and Phil Murray) took on the Murray assignment for the majority of the second half. Murray did not catch a deep pass or score in the second half. Murray still wound up on the score sheet in the second half (he threw one same-third mid-range huck into double coverage and one five-yard small ball goal), but Hatchett’s coverage made it more difficult for him to get involved and took away his primary scoring option (deep looks).

Another interesting Ironside switch, late in the game, was George Stubbs taking the Matt Rehder assignment. Rehder had been a nightmare for Boston during the game, making play after play and dominating every one of his matchups. After the game, Ironside coach Josh McCarthy spoke volumes about Rehder’s play.

“Rehder was unreal,” he said.“Our tall guys weren’t fast enough and our fast guys weren’t tall enough [to cover him].”

But Stubbs was probably the right call. Rehder was noticeably quieter towards the end of the game (when Sockeye’s handlers and B.J. Sefton took more control over the offense). While it’s true that Stubbs gave up length and was unlikely to win any true aerial battle (Rehder almost pulled off an incredible catch on double game point), Stubbs prioritized protecting the house and forced Rehder to get minimal under yards. Stubbs’ mark was also very intelligent. Rehder likes to hold his flick grip longer than most players; his early stall count throwing progressions tend to include switches between attacking open side flick and breakside hammer space (as opposed to throwing traditional backhands). He hurt Ironside with hammers early in the game.

But on double game point, Stubbs forced Rehder to take a 10-yard under along the sideline. By stall two, Stubbs’ right (backhand side) hand is straight up in the air, hoping to prevent an early Rehder hammer with both a physical and visual block of that lane. He willfully prioritized the big hammer throw and was willing to give up an around backhand, correctly suspecting that Rehder is unlikely to move to that grip early in the count.

Negative: Ironside’s Inability to Stop the Upline

It’s the big plays from Rehder, Stubbs, Hatchett, and Sefton that we’re likely to remember.  But if you rewatch this game closely on film, you might find that Ironside’s inability to stop the handler upline cuts – a year one fundamental in Ultimate – was a bigger cause of their woes than any of the big moments.

One good example is the Sockeye scored at 9-8 that put them up by 10.  Almost the entire point is Sockeye going up the force sideline.  Some of these are good, athletic cuts made to the open side of the field – yes, you’re not supposed to get beat open side, but that’s what makes good cutters good.

But, other times, Ironside is simply playing bad, arguably lazy defense.   At one point, Jamie Quella’s man makes a pass – and then immediately cuts upline for another 15 or 20 yards.  Quella overpursues on the mark, and Sockeye gets the rare break throw into upline territory again.

Other good Ironside players struggled in this area as well.  We already talked about Russell Wallack – one of Ironside’s key defenders – and his struggles with Murray early in the first half.  But he also was a step behind a few first half potential layout opportunities that were getable – including one on the first point where he got beat upline – and had the unsuccessful tip on the first-half hammer.

Of course one of the difficulties of matching up against Sockeye is that, by breaking the mark so well, they create some upline opportunities for themselves.  With Sefton, Murray and Rehder having strong games downfield, that makes things more difficult.  But the quantity of yards and the sheer number of upline resets that Sockeye was able to get off, especially as their deep game cooled down in the second half, was an important factor.

Positive: Sockeye’s Timeout at 7-7

Following a relatively quick offensive hold, Sockeye tied the game at 7s and was eager to take a lead into halftime. Sockeye called a timeout that allowed defensive stud Reid Koss, deep threat Matt Rehder, and scoring machine Joe Sefton to catch their wind and stay on the field to help Sockeye earn a break.

It’s obvious that teams want to use their last timeouts of halves and stack their lines when a halftime lead is on the line. Saving those impact player legs doesn’t make sense given (a) the national semifinal setting and (b) that teams generally want to convert breaks as early and efficiently as possible.

This instance just adds another unit of credence to that strategy, with the rested players directly impacting the resulting break: Koss notched an early block, Sefton scored, and Sockeye took a crucial one-break lead into halftime.

Negative: Sockeye Forcing George Stubbs Out in the Second Half

George Stubbs didn’t score in the first half. Although his scoobers and around throws helped Ironside’s offense utilize the width of the field, his only huck of the first half was a hanging 50/50 shot that Alex Kapinos barely came down with on a second effort.

Ultiworld had tracked Stubbs’ season long completion percentage on throws greater than 30 yards hovering around 60% (not terrible but not elite). Of course that is a small sample size, but it’s also supported by our subjective impressions – at every tournament Ultiworld covered this season, Stubbs seemed to have one huck incompletion for every on-the-money (sometimes break!) huck he threw. His arsenal of deep throws and quick release makes him one of the best in the world even in that department, but his consistency this season was lacking.

Not everyone is in agreement about the best way to play him. “You certainly don’t want him to beat you by throwing it deep,” said ESPN announcer Evan Lepler mid-game. But, actually, the stats and experience from the semifinal game suggest letting Stubbs get the disc under and forcing him to throw deep would perhaps give Sockeye’s defensive unit more chances with the disc.

There was a definite change in the Sockeye strategy on Stubbs following halftime. They forced Stubbs – who, while not tall, is one of the fastest cutters in the game – deep. Stubbs took immediate advantage of this adjustment and generated enough separation to quickly and easily score on two consecutive Boston offensive holds (Ironside’s eighth and ninth goals). You can watch Sam Harkness at 8-8 give up the step (off a flick force) and then get burned. Lepler says that the only player in the world that could give up that step and catch up to Stubbs would be Beau Kittredge; count us as skeptics even then. There’s no great way to defend one of the best in the world, but this may have been the silliest way.

Of course mixing up defensive looks to keep the offense on its toes is valuable. Maybe Sockeye relied on data about other Boston huckers or had confidence in the Harkness match up or sagging help. But Stubbs wasn’t dominating in the first half by any means, and Sockeye had generated breaks while containing him underneath. Sockeye’s adjustment didn’t generate more pressure and it enabled Boston’s offense to score more efficiently. What’s that old saying? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Stubbs came to life in the second half and may have been the game’s most important player; we’ll never know if that was at least in part because of Sockeye’s adjustments, but it could be something interesting to watch for in future club seasons.

Positive: Looking For Matt Rehder

You can’t say enough about how important Matt Rehder was for Sockeye in this game. Despite missing most of the season with an injury, he exploded into this game with an outstanding performance. He was the focus of the game recap.

Strategically, Sockeye changed the shape and focal point of their offense by adding back Rehder. While they were still happy to dink-and-dunk their way up the field with the “small ball” approach that we saw from them in the regular season, suddenly they had another frightening deep option alongside Phil Murray.

They went to Rehder early and often and didn’t let up until, midway through the second half, Ironside assigned Stubbs for coverage. Stubbs was the only Ironside player with any real success against Rehder.

Sockeye has always been, defensively, a team looking for misdirection and confusion. They show a lot of different looks and do their best to keep offenses thinking instead of flowing. By attacking with Rehder, they got the same situation on offense.

Ironside’s usual defensive studs weren’t up to the challenge of stopping Rehder, and it forced a lot of thinking from the Ironside coaching staff about how to slow the offense.

Tough Call: Teddy Browar-Jarus Hammer

This game was so tight and so clean that every turnover ended up mattering. Of course on some analytical level, turnovers at the end of the game don’t matter anymore than those early-on. Focusing too much on poor decision making or execution that happens during “clutch” or “inopportune” moments negates responsibility for early game errors that, of course, may have caused the game to stay close in the first place.

And yet…the Teddy Browar-Jarus hammer turnover stood out as one of the real game-changing moments (Lepler immediately called it as such; so did the Ultiworld crew in the Frisco press box). Whether you believe Ironside was building momentum and this decision potentially halted it, or if you simply believe that second-half break opportunities were too few to come by to waste one, this still stands out. In general, even elite defensive line units are given permission to take a bit more chance while trying to punch in break scores, but Ironside was entering redzone territory when Browar-Jarus made the throwaway.

Endzone mistakes are tough to live with at the elite level, no matter what line you play. And, after the game, McCarthy told Ultiworld it was, “one tough turnover . . . not a smart decision.”

There’s a credible apologist angle for this play, though. Rewatching the game, it’s not clear that Browar-Jarus’ decision was any more questionable than Rehder’s throw to Phil Murray to put the game at 2-2. Wallack got his fingers on that throw, and Murray had to make a spectacular play to save the point for Seattle. This semifinal was the type of game where both teams had questionable throws bailed out by great offensive players – part of that’s just elite ultimate when two great offensive units are clicking.

The other hesitation you might make on film is questioning whether it was in fact, as McCarthy said, a bad decision, whether it was poor execution, or if it was simply an amazing defensive play.

The first thing you have to say is that it really was a great defensive play. Rehder is second-best at the time this throw went up, and the crowd in Frisco at the time was in awe.

Deciding where this falls on the decision versus execution continuum is a bit trickier. Browar-Jarus had more room on the breakside to put the hammer, and I suspect he intended to do just that. If he leads his receiver even three or four more yards, it’s tough to see Rehder making the play. In this instance, Browar-Jarus sees Prial open and short arms it just a bit; the hammer hangs towards the end of its flight rather than continuing to move break (and away from Rehder).

The counterargument is that the decision has to be made in light of the difficulty of the throw in the first place; you might ask your players not to attempt this throw with the other team’s top athlete even within striking distance, because then you are asking Browar-Jarus to make a perfect throw. A rough guess is that, given 5 more times to attempt this pass, it’s a completion instead of a D about three of those times. But maybe 60% isn’t enough of a look there.

Topher Davis, Sion Scone, Benji Haywood, and Cody Johnson also contributed to this analysis.

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About Ian Toner

Ian Toner is an Ultiworld reporter and analyst. He began playing in high school with the Canisius DISCiples, learned the game as part of the University of Virginia's Night Train, and has contributed to Ring of Fire and USA Ultimate's Under-23 national team. He has college nationals, club nationals, and international championship playing experience.

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About Sean Childers

Sean Childers is Ultiworld's Statistics Co-Editor. He started playing ultimate in 2008 for UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studied Political Science (especially quantitative methods) and Computer Science. He has since played for LOS (NC), NYU, Flight and District 5 (both NYC). You can email him at stats@ultiworld.com.

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About Charlie Eisenhood

Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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