Drag’n Thrust and Blackbird: Two Paths to Three Titles

Drag'n Thrust and Blackbird are dissimilar in many ways, but the share successful runs and an opportunity to make Mixed division history.

Minneapolis Drag'N Thrust celebrates their first title at the 2013 National Championships. Photo: Alex Fraser -- UltiPhotos.com
Minneapolis Drag’N Thrust celebrates their first title at the 2013 National Championships. Photo: Alex Fraser — UltiPhotos.com

This weekend, two teams will both be fighting to become the first three-time national champions in the Mixed division. And they couldn’t be more different.

Minneapolis Drag’n Thrust and San Francisco Blackbird, the respective #1 and #5 seeds, each have a very legitimate shot at hoisting the trophy on Sunday. They’ve collectively won the last four national championships, each with their own set of back-to-back titles, with Minneapolis winning the last two (as well as a world title last year at the World Ultimate Club Championships in Lecco, Italy).

Such feats prove to be even more impressive when one considers the relative lack of consistency in the short history of the Mixed division, which only officially dates back to 1998. Although two other teams have also won two national titles — Tahoe Donner Party in 2002 and 2003 and Seattle Shazam in 2004 and 2007 — not only did both of those teams fold shortly after their prominence, but both also failed to really establish themselves as mainstays atop the division.

A handful of teams such as San Francisco RedFish BlueFish (now defunct), Ames Chad Larson Experience, San Francisco Brass Monkey (now defunct), San Francisco Polar Bears and a few others have amassed a nice collection of finals and semis appearances with an occasional championship scattered here and there, but as of yet no team has really asserted itself as legend.

Both Drag’n Thrust and Blackbird will be vying to become that first legacy program in the most mercurial of divisions. And it’s tough to imagine two teams taking more disparate paths toward that illustrious goal.

No One Way

There are a lot of people in the sport who think they know what makes a championship ultimate team. What you absolutely have to do. What you definitely, under no circumstances, can ever do or rely on. You have to all warm up as a team. No sitting on the sidelines during a point. Everyone has to commit the same amount. No same-third hucks. The list of dos and don’ts goes on and on.

This is obviously not unique to ultimate and is something you’ll find in just about everything from sports to how to tie shoelaces. It’s an expected occurrence in just about any field where people can attain a level of believed expertise, otherwise known as those kind of people who think they know everything.

Having such confidence in a sport that’s really only been studied, analyzed, written about, and even taken (somewhat) seriously within the last decade or so pushes that confused confidence even further into the territory of ostensible foolishness. And few things illustrate this foolishness more than the differing approaches of Drag’n Thrust and Blackbird that somehow both produce similarly championship-quality results.

A Model for Excellence

If there was an archetypal model for how a responsible and committed team would be run, it would probably look a lot like Drag’n Thrust. They practice almost every Wednesday and Sunday, work out together constantly, and demand and individually accept certain levels of responsibility and accountability. It’s something that the entire team takes very seriously.

“There would be unrest if we weren’t practicing multiple times per week, working out together, and generally pushing each other as hard as we do,” captain Austin Lien said.

Fellow captain Patty King said that in the past the team has actually had a few people effectively cut themselves because they realized that they wouldn’t be able to commit enough time and effort to the team as they would have liked.

A good portion of this dedication arises from the fact that Drag’n Thrust is the kind of team where everyone truly wants to be there. A view many have of the division – which admittedly does hold some water in numerous cases – is that many teams are the sort where players go when they’re not quite ready for masters or didn’t make their preferred single gender club. Minneapolis eschews this ill-conceived idea.

“There seems to be a prevailing notion that Mixed is a division in which to play competitive ultimate without committing as fully as an open or women’s team might require. Not every team buys into this concept, but there are many that do,” Lien said. “I say with absolute confidence that nobody on Drag’n Thrust feels this way. Each of our players is here because it’s his or her first choice.”

Drag’n Thrust has the kind of total buy-in many other programs, across all divisions, dream of but can’t ever seem to really string together. Led by their captains and coach Jake Henderson, the Minneapolis squad has cultivated a pinpoint focus that somehow manages to simultaneously avoid being overzealous or humorlessly serious. After making semis a few times and struggling to break through to the highest echelon despite being on the cusp, Drag’n Thrust brought Henderson on to help organize and lead in 2013 and it’s been pretty much nothing but success since.

Both Lien and King attributed much of the team’s recent dominance to Henderson’s leadership and guiding force. The coach helps call lines, orchestrate strategy and match-ups, manage timeouts, and various other logistical duties, thereby freeing up the captains to focus on playing and leading on the field. He makes it possible to have a single voice in the huddle and helps the team stay focused on the game.

Just having that kind of mature and organized director of the team can do wonders for a squad in need of finding that extra oomph to put them over the edge into championship contention. Yet, while the benefits of such centralized leadership and acute focus are surely numerous and of great value, not all squads require that method to achieve prominence.

Good Friends Having a Good Time

While Drag’n Thrust is akin to the kind of model student who always does her homework and approaches everything with the utmost responsibility and extensive hard work, Blackbird is a little more like her classmate that never appears to do things the way the other kids do and seemingly never tries that hard, yet somehow keeps getting A’s.

That’s not to say that the two-time defending Southwest Regional champions don’t work hard and don’t earn their accomplishments. Just that, to the naked eye of the outsider looking in, it can be tough avoid coming away with that impression.

They practice less than probably all but a few of the top teams in the country. Their recruiting process is personal and unorthodox. They tend to pick up, as if by magic, veteran stars out of nowhere (see Mac Taylor in 2014 and three former Fury players this season alone). And they seemingly always show up big in the postseason, regardless of how scattered their regular season results can be.

But much of that outsider skepticism tends to fall into the category of jealousy and/or just general bitterness. Because, really, the story and larger context of Blackbird as a program includes much more than just picking up ringers and showing up at Regionals and Nationals. Understanding Blackbird’s idiosyncratic identity and method necessitates being reminded of their inception.

“We started with a group of people that had come from very successful teams (Fury, Zeitgeist, Jam, Revolver) and all bought into what the team was going to be about, not fully knowing if it would work out or not,” captain Nick Slovan said. “So in that light, we’ve been working up to where we are now for many years prior to 2011.”

Which is to say that, although the team has technically only existed for five years, the wellspring of experience and training and expertise goes much deeper than their storybook blasting to the top in 2011 and all that’s happened since then.

“A majority of our players come from teams where they have already developed fundamental skills, and because of this we are able to use deliberate, focused practices to develop team strategy and on field chemistry,” Slovan said. “Our combined experience and talent allows us a lighter commitment and practice schedule through the regular season, but enables us to bring our full intensity on and off the field when we are together.”

Part of what this means is that, unlike most other teams Blackbird isn’t really in the business of teaching fundamentals or introducing basic, or even intermediate concepts, to the team during valuable practice time. Since most everyone comes in knowing the building blocks of ultimate, all the team has to work on is chemistry and strategic concerns.

While that might seem like almost a given for at least the most elite teams, when one really considers how much time is spent by most teams early in the season on laying and drilling a certain groundwork — and the fact that Blackbird has to do essentially none of this — that comparatively smaller practice time seems to, in essence, level out. Also consider that, while Blackbird may not practice as much as other teams, the amount of pod workouts, mini, and high level pick-up that members of the squad attend together on a regular basis tends to further close this somewhat illusory gap of preparation and training time as a team before the postseason.

Moreover, to circle back to the difficult-to-overemphasize point about experience, all of these touches together as a team are adding on top of a wealth of big game experience that not too many other teams have, at least not to the same degree and pervasiveness.

“Leveraging big game experience is an intangible that we lean on heavily as we get into the series,” Slovan said.

This might seem less important than it is, but as just about every up-and-coming team has learned the hard way, all the practice preparation in the world can sometimes feel almost useless if a team hasn’t played in enough high-pressure situations and can’t execute when it matters the most.

Thus, Blackbird’s recruitment model of testing out prospects in games of high level mini and various other situations that simulate how tryouts might play when the pressure is tight comes off as an effective apropos approach. Particularly since knowing that all of your teammates have been in those big games before and have the skills and experience to close out when it matters probably relieves a lot of potential tension and concern, theoretically leaving more room for everyone to, well, just be good friends having a good time together.

“We’re just a group of friends getting other friends to be on the same Frisbee team,” Slovan said.

And on some level, even amidst all their eccentricities, that’s what Blackbird really seems to boil down to: friends getting to have a great time playing a great game together. Which, it turns out, doesn’t seem all that radical.

The Unlikely Overlap

Though they clearly have different initial approaches and general team cultures, there’s probably a good reason why Drag’n Thrust and Blackbird have both been able to rise to near-legacy status in the division most infused with crazy upsets and wacky outcomes even at the national level.

Those secrets essentially boil down to two key concepts: trust and friendship.

While one could probably make the case that just about every team embodies this at the highest levels, something about the deep internalization of these two concepts within these two teams sets them apart in the division. When talking to the leaders of both squads, the basic mantras of each team found a curious amount of overlap. So much overlap, in fact, as to be nearly identical.

If pressed, both Drag’n Thrust and Blackbird would likely summarize their in-game philosophy as this: Love the Grind.

Lien mentioned that Drag’n Thrust would take a 16-17 loss over a 15-0 victory almost any day of the week. Slovan talked about how Blackbird is all about smiling in the grind and giving plenty of “Top Gun” high fives, making sure they have fun whenever they’re on the field. While they each included other concepts such as trust, humility, togetherness, intensity, and balance, a genuine pleasure at the mere idea of grinding it out in the thick of it seemed to be the happy refrain of both champions.

And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. After all, what’s better than fighting it out in the game you love with the people you love and you know have your back?

  1. Alec Surmani

    Alec Surmani and some close friends began playing ultimate in high school and started Hercules Jabberwocky. He played college ultimate with UCLA Smaug and has played with various Open and Mixed club teams in the (former) Northwest and Southwest divisions. He started and now leads the team Bay Area Donuts.

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