Texas A&M, Coming Off Tournament Win, Aims For Nationals Bid

Dalton Smith goes for a disc at the 2013 Stanford Invite.
Photo by Daniel Tjioe — UltiPhotos.com

This past weekend, Texas A&M Dozen showed off their increased 2014 commitment and focus by winning their first spring tournament, Big D in Little D, in dominating fashion. As a result, Dozen has a 7-0 record  — and with their 15-8 finals game against Arkansas their closest score line at Big D — A&M could be an early ranking surprise.

“The final with Arkansas went well,” head coach Jose Cespedes told Ultiworld. “The offense ran smooth the majority of the game. A few bad decisions let Arkansas get the disc back more times than I wanted but that is definitely something we can cleanup. Overall defense played hard clamping down in the end zone a couple of times.”

Both captains and coach emphasized that they stayed on task and won by such big margins because they never took points off. Everyone closed out each game with the same amount of focus with which they began.

But that’s not the way it’s always been for Dozen. Last season, it seemed clear that the team had enough raw talent to compete with almost anyone — let alone make Nationals.  But Dozen suffered a lag in attendance – a result of commitment issues.

“Ultimate isn’t of the highest priority at Texas A&M,” Cespedes said.

Dozen likely needed a third bid for the South Central region to make it to 2013 Nationals, but instead finished 22nd in the rankings — just a handful of spots away from the extra bid.

At Regionals, they were underdogs the whole way through. A&M played well, taking Colorado Mamabird to half in both of their matchups. But Colorado recovered to win both games and took the second spot in the region. It was then the team had an epiphany.

“After regionals, I guess you could just see it in their eyes,” Cespedes said. “They knew that it was something special… They knew what they had missed out on and that was missing from game one this year.”

The poor attendance affected chemistry, depth, and even bid allocation. Had they played with complete rosters at previous tournaments, captain Matt Bennett said, perhaps they would have been rated higher and earned another bid for South Central.

“It showed that we need to work harder this year,” Bennett said. Attendance is much better this season, and Dozen is confident that they will be fielding a deep roster.  The team lost a captain Pat Marco and other seniors Cameron Williams, Matt Costello, and Tim Durbin, who is play with Oregon Ego this season. Veteran returners include Bobby Lewis, Thomas Slack, David Na, and Ben Lewis.

Blending Captain Styles — Best of Both Worlds?

Matt Bennett attempted a scoober huck on the reigning and eventual national Championship Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur at the 2013 Stanford Invite. A Pitt defender easily blocked the throw. No one on Texas A&M complained about their captain’s throw. Everyone got back on defense.

“It’s good when it works, but when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We roll with Matt… He is the make or break,” Cespedes said. “And that’s something the whole team knows. No one gets mad. We give him those touches for a reason.”

Doublewide's Dalton Smith gets the D on the first throw of the 2012 USA Ultimate Club Championships.
Photo by Jeff Bell — UltiPhotos.com

Texas A&M’s other captain, Dalton Smith, is a club champion with Austin’s Doublewide. After posting only four turnovers at 2012 Club Nationals, he showed his retention rate is very high and – as seen in the finals with two clutch blocks – he uses his athleticism to generate turnovers.

Smith, who handled on the defensive line for Doublewide this season, has clearly grown into more than just a good athlete. He has matured as a player and as a leader.

The two leaders aren’t opposites – in fact, they are roommates – but their play styles are more different than similar. The Texas A&M team, however, tries to settle in the middle.

“We get the best of both worlds,” Cespedes said. “We’ve got Dalton who plays for Doublewide, great success with Doublewide and then we’ve got Matt who plays for not an elite club team – he plays with friends. We try to blend both those styles.”

Legs on Offense

HIP, Bennet’s club team, tied for seventh in the club South Central region. The team consisted mostly of young Texas and Texas A&M players looking to develop. The club team works to develop depth on a 2013 Dozen team that had short lines and a lot of two-way players.

“We’ve been trying to develop more lines, O and D,” Cespedes said. “This year it shouldn’t be a problem we’ve got 25, of which 18 of us can step on at any time.”

And while Dozen went relatively unchallenged this past weekend at Big D, the tournament was largely beneficial to their younger players.

“Our rookies gained a lot of valuable experience during the tournament and gained confidence going into Warm-Up,” Smith said. “We had high intensity every point no matter the opponent and executed what we’ve been working on in practice.”

Texas A&M travels to Warm Up this upcoming weekend, where they will face their first true test and see some of the best teams in the country. It’s hard to imagine that this gritty team that had Dalton Smith and Matt Bennett on nearly every point of every tournament will run 18 players. It will be worth watching whether their depth are prepared for big tournament matchups – particularly when their in-state rival, Texas Tuff, has made a point of emphasizing mismatches.

Turnovers 

Bennett loves to throw around. Why wouldn’t he when he’s got Dalton Smith and other explosive athletes on the other end of his hucks? Regardless of whether Texas A&M can run shorter lines, they will need to turn the disc over less if they want to win at an elite level.

“Our team sometimes doesn’t value the disc well enough,” Smith said. “When we do have the disc, we should treat it as if, once we turn it, we’re getting scored on, because you have one mistake and that can be the deciding factor of the game.”

The captains acknowledged Dozen is trying to make an attitude change in valuing the disc.

“The philosophy is to work it a little more, and we’re trying not to huck it as much. But when you have certain players, me mostly, who can’t control themselves,” Bennett said. “If the shots there, we’re just not afraid to take it … we have a lot of trust in our players.”

Coming out of Big D, Smith admitted the team still needed to work on reconciling the two styles and needed to improve their “decision making and overall offense.” That and protecting against the deep defensively (as a result of the Arkansas game) are two necessary adjustments for the higher-level tournaments. The Big D tournament win certainly benefits the whole roster, but we won’t know just how much until we see them at Warm-Up.

But the leaders are still the leaders. As Cespedes said, Dozen will “roll with Matt [Bennett]” and he will in fact be their “make or break.”

3-3-1 Zone Defense

This defense has swept through college in a sneaky manner. More teams use it than many think and every team uses it differently, so it gets dubbed “the mystery zone.” Both Arizona — who called it the “diamond zone” — and Texas A&M used it last year.

Teams that run short lines love this defense. It slows the game down and forces short easy throws – the defense doesn’t force blocks, it forces errors. It keeps players fresh and turns the game into a slow chess match – a tactical game of patience.

“This 3-3-1 actually started as just a junk zone look that was supposed to just last 5 throws. And then it ended up being so useful that it turned into our zone,” Bennett said.

A&M used this defense more effectively as the season went on, tweaking it and adapting it in accordance with their scouting reports of opposing throwers. Most importantly, it gets their best players on the field without draining their legs.

“We use it to change the tempo and try to use our athletic players as much as possible so they can make plays,” Smith said.

Smith usually plays deep-deep. Ben Lewis plays short-middle. Bennett said he plays all over the zone. A&M also tends to vary who plays cup. If a taller cup is working on a thrower, they have the players to do that. Sometimes they put both Bennett and Smith in the cup. The zone is so adaptable that “it kind of morphs into other zones as well,” Smith said.

If the cavalry has arrived for Dozen this season, perhaps they can rely on this less often and use it as a change of pace to what should be an elite man-to-man defense. Texas A&M is implementing change this season; it’s just a matter of how much and how quickly the changes become effective. If their win at Big D is any indication, Dozen’s improvements are happening sooner rather than later.

Coach:

Jose Cespedes 

Captains:

Matt Bennett
Dalton Smith

Tournaments:

Big D and Little D
Warm Up
Centex

  1. Henry McKenna
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    Henry McKenna is a reporter for Ultiworld. An experienced sports journalist, he played ultimate for four years at Colorado College while pursuing a creative writing degree. He played for Inception and has coached in China and Spain.

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