Revolver, As Usual, The Heavy Favorite: Men’s Nationals Pool A Preview

Pool A has rarely been the fan-favorite “Pool of Death”, but three different competitors will all bring a unique approach to taking down the San Francisco kingpin.

Revolver v. Ironside at the 2015 Pro Flight Finale. Photo: Alex Fraser --
Revolver v. Ironside at the 2015 Pro Flight Finale. Photo: Alex Fraser —

Pool A is again headlined in 2015 by the three most deadly words in the division: San Francisco Revolver. In 5 of the last 8 years, the Bay Area powerhouse has held the #1 overall seed going into Nationals. Two of the others, they were just a lowly #2.1

And that’s why Pool A easily gets written off in recent history. It’s no slight to the three teams ranked below the overall #1 — after all, they’ve made it to Nationals — but San Francisco has repeatedly shown that they can achieve one of the hardest goals in sports: be consistently great.

This year, at least on the outset, might not look much different.

Upon closer inspection, there are some intriguing connections and results that should at least give some pause to those who have Revolver going all the way untouched. #8 Chicago Machine is one of only two teams to deal Revolver a loss this year.2 #12 Philadelphia Patrol may well be 2015’s version of Pittsburgh Temper:3 the Pennsylvania city with a rebranded program, looking more positive and stronger than ever and ready to play the unexpected spoiler. At #13, Madison Club makes their first trip to the tournament since it moved to Frisco, bringing with them a heap of scouting against Revolver from two years of postseason AUDL, where slightly altered versions of the teams have competed as the Radicals and Spiders.

Expect all three challengers to bring it against San Francisco, because all three believe they can get the upset. But then again…it is Revolver. And they’ve got a blemish on their 2014 record to wipe away.

Being The Best Of The Best

This 2015 trip to Frisco isn’t just business as usual for San Francisco Revolver, a team that has been in search of “the Perfect Game” for almost a decade since its inception. In spite of their dominance in the division, this year’s Nationals comes after an historic early exit at the hands of Toronto GOAT in the 2014 quarterfinals. Speculation ran rampant around the FC Dallas complex: had Revolver rested players, especially Beau Kittredge, too long? Had they been too confident?

“I think it’s ridiculous when teams baby their best players…Beau can wear his pajamas pants all day for all I care,” Denver Johnny Bravo 2014 captain Ryan Farrell said of Revolver the night before his team won the title.

But a history of great wins and losses seemingly factors little into San Francisco’s game plan, or culture. According to Coach Mike Payne, that’s just now how the team defines itself.

“We don’t talk about winning very much at all outwardly — it’s much more the search for the perfect game for us, which we haven’t done in nine years,” Payne said after an early Sunday morning practice in the Bay Area. “To be honest the goals for Revolver pretty much never change. We never set the goal of winning anything, interestingly.”

What’s incredible about Revolver is that no matter how constructive the team’s attitude, regardless of how well Payne and his players control their expectations about winning and outcomes, it never leads them away from striving for absolute excellence. Of course they want to win another national title and expunge any doubts about the program’s greatness, they just don’t talk about it.

2015 Revolver brings a threatening combination of veteran talent with young phenoms. Kittredge, who is healthy after two seasons of nagging injuries, returns with a suite of other household names in the division: Cassidy Rasmussen, Robbie Cahill, Russell Wynne, and others.4 The young guns — Simon Higgins, Christian Johnson, Nathan White, and Eli Kerns — add talent and depth at every position. Payne believes the entire roster is healthy for Nationals, the first time that’s been the case, he thinks, since his last year playing in 2010.

Along with their health, Revolver players have spent the last week getting up an hour or two earlier, calling each other to make sure they’re awake in the morning. Payne is well aware that his team has started slow at tournaments where they travel east into different time zones, so the entire team in conditioning themselves to the change. The intensity at practices has been consistently high all season, Payne says, but now there’s less joking and a lot of focus. “It looks like guys are putting on their blue collars and going to work together,” he said.

On the field, the Revolver system is alive and well. Higgins and Johnson have fit in well in cutting roles on offense, and other than in the heavy wind at Pro Flight Finale, the team has showcased its impeccable timing and spacing to isolate the next downfield cutter with swaths of wide open space.

Defensively, the wins for San Francisco have come with both stifling man defense featuring great athleticism and on the back of a well-balanced zone defense than does more to frustrate and change the mindset of opponents than to generate blocks.

Height, something Machine and Madison Club have a fair amount of, could cause Revolver some trouble in the pool this Thursday, although Payne will be quick to use Nathan White on defense to help neutralize that factor. Perhaps the one real apparent weakness the team has shown was a lapse into carelessness with the disc on resets and hucks during their loss to Sockeye in the final of the Pro Elite Challenge. But that was back in early August, and the team has had two full months to condition themselves to stay focused.

This Thursday, they’ll plan to go deep into their depth chart early, and get a full rotation of their 10-man offense line active and efficient early. Payne will watch closely and keep his adjustments ready for whatever comes: a team that stops gunning after going down a few breaks and sends in the reserves, or a strong opponent that doesn’t stop pushing until the final point is caught.

Discipline, the “D” in the team’s much-shouted IHD acronym, is deep in the fabric of San Francisco Revolver. If they stick to it, their depth and talent will be more than any team in the Pool (and perhaps even the tournament) can handle.

Fine-Tuning The Machine

This time last year, Chicago Machine was at the center of a whole lot of buzz. Taking on noteworthy transfers from Madison Club, they mounted an impressive regular season run, culminating in a near-flawless Sunday that won them the Pro Flight Finale. Taking the lone bid out of the Great Lakes, Machine arrived in Frisco ready for a title, and then misfired in prequarters.

The team faced some turnover in 2015, with some Madison converts heading back to Wisconsin, and rock-solid handler Tom Annen heading to Boston Ironside, but results have been largely quite good for Chicago Machine. “We always set a high bar for ourselves going into each season, and while we have not met some of our checkpoint goals (such as making semis of every tournament we attend or winning our region), we are still very pleased with where we are in our team development at this point of the year,” captain Kevin Kelly said.

Machine is strong again this year, as they are almost by tradition. As they’ve adjusted to some new personnel, Kelly and the consistent Chicago leadership have spent the season tweaking the combinations of players they send out depending on a given situation. At times they have favored deeper lines and more experience for the whole roster in the regular season, and it may have saddled them with a few more losses than they’d prefer. But the process has reigned supreme, and Kelly believes the results will show when they take the field this Thursday.

The Machine stunners remain the same in many ways. AJ Nelson has continued to be a downfield nightmare for opposing defenses with his height and athleticism, and opposing offenses will need to have a Nelson-first approach when matching up their deep defenders. Brett Matzuka (Johnny Bravo) joined Machine’s veteran backfield this season along with Adrian King (Rhino), buoying that talented core even in Annen’s departure. Savvy handler sets will keep the disc churning, while Nelson, Jonathan “Goose” Helton, and others work into open spaces downfield.

After an earlier-than-expected exit from contention last year, Kelly says that the team has further adjusted to be more patient in their attack this year. “We played a little more of a high risk/high reward style last year, which we’ve toned down this year to play a more discipline style where look for a progression of looks and try to remove the guess work involved on offense,” he explained. A variety of looks will make their offense harder to pin down for opposing defenses, opening new spaces across the field for handlers to throw into. It’s a more leveled approach, and with good reason — they want a better result in 2015.

Whether they’re saving special looks just for Nationals, or just plain peaking at the right time, Chicago Machine will take the field with plenty in the tank this year, unwilling to miss quarters again.

Not Just The “Happy To Be Here” Team

The last time Philadelphia sent a Men’s team to Nationals was 2011. The Mid-Atlantic was a four bid region, and it belonged to Raleigh Ring of Fire. Southpaw finished right behind their regional rivals, and then the City of Brotherly Love’s men’s ultimate division got tossed and turned with the advent of semi-professional ultimate.

Four years have gone by, and Patrol is not Southpaw.

A dedication to the grind and to selfless ultimate brought Philly Patrol to Frisco in 2015, after a steadily building set of impressive regular season results. If 2014 was the year the gang got back together, this year the part when it all starts to click –and it has. Now that Patrol can see their philosophy and culture working, they’re hungry for more.

“We have a lot of growth to do. We’re really proud of our season –if we had not made Nationals we still would have been proud of our season, but we’re not ‘happy to be here.’ We’re not like, ‘well, we made it, nice job everybody, good season, let’s vacation and have a good time in Frisco.’ We’re here to compete,” said coach Charlie Hoppes.

Patrol sent Pennsylvania rival Pittsburgh Temper packing to take the second Mid-Atlantic bid and they have a handful of wins over other teams in attendance (including a close one over Madison Club) to go with a bunch of building wins at lower level tournaments. Their experience and discipline set them apart in many of those wins, but as the season has worn on, Patrol has become a very cohesive unit.

Patience became the hallmark that helped Patrol rise back the national conversation. Plenty of teams will talk about always working to take the “right shots” to score and not being too risky — Philly has pretty much made their living on it. Well-coached resetting and endless running has defined the offense.

Likewise on defense, Hoppes’ players have embraced the nameless, faceless, army of defenders idea. “They’re going to hit you in the mouth, grind, and work hard. Even before they’re tired there’s going to be a new guy who going to do the exact same thing,” he said.

This air of anonymity seems to suit Hoppes and his squad. There’s limited tape of their play style and as far as Patrol is concerned, that’s a plus. Though the city of Philly is no stranger to the national stage in ultimate, they’ll try take their pseudo-new-guy ethos to the bank. Hoppes doesn’t want to watch any one player on his team take over a game — he wants to see a full-team effort every time.

“Not only are we relatively unknown in terms of personnel…we’re 27 strong, which is awesome. I think that we’re one of the deeper rosters at Nationals, and we have to be, and we want to be,” he said. In fact, if Hoppes was cagey at all about his team, it was when asked if any players have stood out.

As for matchups, Philadelphia Patrol will approach Thursday’s schedule with playing their best ultimate in every game on the brain. Even as the #3 in the pool, no special schedule-strategy will guide them into an advantageous crossover round. “We don’t care. We’re just like, ‘Okay, 9 AM Revolver. Welcome to Nationals, everybody.’ And that’s it. We’re going to play with Revolver until the game’s over,” Hoppes said.

Patrol’s real goal, after all, is to grow men’s ultimate in Philadelphia back into the powerhouse that it once was. They just plan on stunning a few contenders in Frisco this weekend along the way.

“We’re not too worried about seeding or anything. We think if we put together quality games, we’ll have a shot. There are upsets that happen every year; we’d like to have a couple of them. We think we’re more than capable of doing that,” said Hoppes.

Frisco For The First Time

Madison, WI is an ultimate town, whether or not their men’s club team has been absent in Texas the last two years. A lot like Philadelphia, Madison’s biggest ultimate investment on the men’s side in recent years seems to have been the AUDL’s Radicals, who post consistent hometown crowds, trot out a ferocious zone defense, and have kept the midwestern city in the conversation.

Now, Madison Club is back and revitalized. Captain Bill Everhart, who will make his first trip to Nationals with the team this week, spoke about the team’s return after finishing up a double-practice weekend, where he said intensity was high, even if the practices were a little lighter than usual.

The team turned in a mixed bag of results, although somewhat limited in terms of the elite level, during the regular season, but has been honing its overall organization and leadership through the season. Despite some losses to top teams, Madison still walked away with bigtime postseason wins to take the North Central crow. Now they’ve reassessed and will leave everything out on the field in Frisco. “The goal that we had at the start of the season was to qualify for Nationals and we’ve done that. And we won the region, which was an added bonus,” said Everhart.

Experiencing the major scouting and game-planning in the AUDL with the Radicals has informed the process for Madison Club, and Everhart spoke positively about the program’s efforts to better prepare themselves in 2015. They’ve taken to the film room to study up on opponents, especially those looming on Thursday, and the team leadership has a good idea about how they’ll match up against which players and teams in Frisco. “Getting the basics down for scouting [has been] big in helping us out,” Everhart explained.

Game tape has also allowed the team to make adjustments to its own game. The Madison Club of 2015 takes more more shots deep, both by design and also by mindset. With a lot of young talent making their Club Nationals debut, some athletic and slightly more unconventional scores may help Madison stay tight in their games.

The well-known zone defense of the Radicals, however, features a double-team that won’t fly on the club field, so Everhart believes that the athleticism of their man defense will give them an edge, especially against Revolver. There should also be an intensity present in the defense that Madison has been busy engendering at practice. The leadership has leaned hard on every player to show up and, Everhart says, there’s been plenty of trash talk between the O and D-lines. “It’s been a lot more of busting people’s asses to show up at workouts and just embarrassing people when they do something wrong, to the point where you don’t want to get beat by your teammates and you don’t want to mess up,” he said.

Madison is in good company with Patrol in this pool as a more unknown quantity. Their best ultimate could be as good as anyone else, but their age and inexperience will need to be managed well to keep them in contention for an advantageous spot in the crossover round. Upsets aren’t out of the question by any stretch, but a consistently strong performance may be for Madison Club in their return to the national stage.

  1. Go back all the way to 2008 to find them lower — they were #5, and still ranked ahead of Jam. 

  2. It was a windy 13-12 win at Pro Flight Finale that didn’t affect Revolver’s status atop the pool. 

  3. And fittingly so, since Patrol took vengeance against Temper in the game to go at Mid-Atlantic Regionals. 

  4. Devon Anderson, a lightning fast cutter, also returns after an ACL tear in the middle of last season. 

  1. Simon Pollock
    Simon Pollock

    Simon Pollock is a former Contributing Editor at Ultiworld. He lives in Seattle and started writing for the site in 2014 while living in Baltimore, MD. Email him: [email protected] or tweet at him: @_simonpollock_ .

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