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Putting In The Work To Build The Best Team

Reflections on the US Mens National Team's months of preparation, including training camp weekends in San Francisco, Columbia, and Washington, DC, leading up to WUGC in London.

US Mens National Team Head Coach Alex Ghesquiere. Photo: Alex Rentzis -- UltiPhotos.com
US Mens National Team Head Coach Alex “Dutchy” Ghesquiere. Photo: Alex Rentzis — UltiPhotos.com

This article, written by guest author Nick Stuart of the USA Men’s National Team, is the second in a series on the road to London. Read Nick’s first piece about the national team tryout process here.

Even under the best circumstances, building a strong, cohesive team is hard, as any captain or coach can tell you. Trying to do so over the course of just a couple months when your team is geographically spread out and you only meet up in-person three times? We’ve had our work cut out for us.

Ever since USAU announced our roster, the US Men’s National team has had a singular focus on becoming the strongest team possible before WUGC starts. With the tournament nearly upon us, I’m reflecting on how I think we’ve done and what it has been like to go through this process.

San Francisco

Before our first practice weekend as Team USA in San Francisco back in April, the coaching staff had given us our initial roles, playbook, and offensive and defensive strategies. I was definitely nervous going into the weekend; not only was it a new team with new players, but I knew that my job on the D-line was going to be really tough. Matching up on the O-line cutters on this roster was going to be a real challenge, and I wasn’t sure how I’d stack up. Since switching to offense my junior year at Carleton I haven’t thought of myself as a “defensive” player. That being said, I struggle to find arguments advocating for me over one of the other offensive cutters and am excited for a chance to play D-line.

Saturday

Our first day of practice started at 12:30 pm and the schedule was great. We warmed up, then scrimmaged all day. There was no drilling or anything, we just played ultimate. That’s not to say that there weren’t specific things we were focusing on during those scrimmages, but at its core, we just got to play.

Just like at tryouts, Dutchy and BVH were quick to stop us and offer compliments and suggestions. They weren’t shy about telling us to hurry about, jog to water or the bathroom, and generally to handle our business faster. That being said, we could see the trainer at our discretion, sub on our own, and were given a lot of freedom.

Still, the play on the field was kind of… a mess. It could have been the weird crosswind or that we were a new team figuring out the kinks. Ultimately, there were just drops and turfs. Many of us struggled to throw and catch — personally, I had at least three drops and at least one throw-away. Even with the absurd talent on the field, it felt to me like we were a new college team at our first fall practice.

Then again, across the board, Team USA’s defense was phenomenal. The D-line finished 3-0 in scrimmages. On the surface, the O-line just wasn’t meshing very well, but after talking with some of the O-line players, they expressed that it was more that the D was just everywhere. Whenever they got free of their man, someone would always flash the open lane. If they ever got a step deep, there was a switch and someone was right back on them. Marks were stifling and smart.

Playing on the D-line, the most notable change from other teams I’ve played on was that I felt switches came easily and naturally. Often, I wasn’t covering the same person against whom I started the point and it seemed like we had been switching together for years. The D-line players were smart and more often than not the switches came because they offered an advantage, not because someone was beat or being lazy.

The O-line’s defense was equally suffocating. Wide-open looks for any significant amount of yards were rare and hard-won for both sides of the disc.

Sunday

We had an early start on Sunday — 8:15 am — and got to work on four set pull plays. We had some trouble at first with what we were calling the plays, but the plays themselves are straightforward.

Then we played against Revolver. The game went well for us overall. We won, but more than that we got to play together. This was our first time playing together rather than against each other. After playing against the same people on your own team for seven hours, it was nice to be able to support them on and off the field. That’s not to say that we didn’t support each other during our scrimmages and drills, but coming together towards a common goal is different. Above anything else, I felt this game helped bring us together as a team.

The Revolver squad we played are truly great players and they provided the perfect test for us at this point in our development. Because the Revolver team we played against wasn’t true Revolver, they had some of the same miscues as us, which I think helped us get our feet under ourselves.

We learned some of our weaknesses and I think this scrimmage gave us some fire to work even harder than we had been. There were still some growing pains, but I think we showed ourselves that we can grind through mistakes and long points. We proved to ourselves that as a team we can always fall back on playing hard, gritty person-defense.

The weekend overall, five hours on Saturday, five hours on Sunday, was grueling and incredibly fun. The majority of my matchups were on Beau Kittredge, Jimmy Mickle, Mac Taylor, and Simon Higgins — a tall order, literally and figuratively. My body felt just like it does after a brutal tournament weekend.

After the weekend, I talked with Dutchy, BVH, and some teammates about being a D player again, my frustrations and excitements about my role on the team. BVH reminded me of an article by Lou Burruss that explains my feelings about playing D almost exactly. I started the weekend wanting to get blocks. By the end, I started to crave that opportunity that Lou talks about, that I didn’t need blocks, I needed the opportunity to create blocks: both individually, and covering my man so that my teammates are in positions to get blocks. We, as a team, did a great job at creating those opportunities that first weekend, and those chances have only increased as we continue to play together.

Our next test was Colombia; It was going to be a big one as Team Colombia, Team Australia, and Team Canada were all going to be there. Still, we left San Francisco with no doubts that we’d rise to the challenge.

Colombia

If you’re ever given the chance to go to Torneo Eterna Primavera, take it. What a tournament! From the beautiful mountains and city of Medellín to some of the most passionate ultimate players in the world, TEP should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Socially, Team USA really came into its own in Colombia. Spending hours together playing ultimate, getting rained on, playing mafia, going out on the town, and sleeping in rows of bunk beds one foot away from each other is a great way to force twenty five grown men to get to know each other. I don’t think Cricket and Kurt Gibson have ever been closer than when they were both trying to convince Jimmy Mickle that the other was Mafia1.

Much like our game against Revolver, playing together for an entire tournament was awesome. Being on the sideline supporting teammates rather than playing against them day after day was the best part of TEP. The tournament was also the most polarizing I’ve ever been to in terms of opponents’ talent levels. Our first game was against a team whose average age (I’d guess) was 11, and our last game was against Team Canada. I’ve never seen two more different teams in the same tournament.

Our big games this tournament were against Colombia, Australia, and Canada. These were great tests for us. We won all three, but these teams showed us what we still need to work on, as well as some of our strengths.

I think we showed our biggest strength against Team Canada. They were the first team to really push back against us, and we responded really well. We went down early, and then fought back, then they had a run, and we responded. We hadalready shown we can cruise through teams without much trouble, and that game allowed us to show we can stand toe-to-toe with a team and trade blows. I was never nervous that we had the potential to do this, but showing that we can — and will — come out of a close game on top gives me that much more confidence in Team USA.

All in all, I think the most valuable tool we took from Colombia was a new-found sense of comfort with each other. While San Francisco was a great weekend, we all stayed in different places in groups of 4-6; in Colombia we were all in the same three-story hostel with no one but ourselves. I think we found the ability to tease each other and have some friendly O/D-line trash talk, something that we seemed a bit nervous or hesitant to do in San Francisco.

With two-thirds of our training weekends done, it was starting to feel like a cohesive team.

Washington D.C.

There are few times I’ve been as excited to play ultimate as I was leading up to our DC trip over Memorial Day weekend. I definitely went into some Team USA withdrawal after Colombia and couldn’t wait for the culmination of our training camps a few weeks later. While we still had some strategic points to smooth out, the play in DC was better than before.

That being said, our new found comfort in Colombia gave us a slow start on Saturday. We were happy to see each other, joking around, and our intensity took a little while to sink in. It took us a few hours, and some words from Dutchy, to get us back into form. But once we hit that form, the play was as fast and gritty as ever.

We used our time in DC to put a focus on some junk and zone looks we might use in London. It was a frustrating process at first, as junk and zone typically take some time to work on together as a team — time being the one thing we had in short supply. But by the end of the weekend, I think we all felt comfortable with the looks and are ready to give them a try if the occasion arises.

Much like our weekend in San Francisco, we used a lot of our time on focused scrimmaging. There was some drilling, but mostly game-type scrimmages. On Monday morning, we hosted a scrimmage against ourselves for the local ultimate community who came out and really showed their support. Then we kept practicing for a couple of hours after that.

The last scrimmage was a game to three, O vs. D. It was clear that both teams wanted to win very badly — the effort, especially after three days of hot, intense practices, was crazy high. This experience — and especially this game — was the fastest, most intense ultimate I’ve ever played.

As had become the norm, the defense was stifling everywhere, though by now the offense has had a lot more time to play together. They found seams and were able to find flow through the pressure. Despite the consistently high level of defensive play from both sides of the disc, it was very rare in these practices for teams to get actual blocks. In the end though, the D-line prevailed and won the scrimmage.

Sunday night we had a great opportunity to spend time with the rest of the US delegation to Worlds. All three teams convened at a bar in downtown DC where we had dinner and drinks. I got the sense that the other teams are getting along as well as we are, though I can’t say too much in terms of their on-field cohesiveness as I was so focused on our own practice. Still, after spending that time with the other teams, I feel more connected to “Team USA” as a whole than just the men’s roster. I’m excited to cheer both the Women and Mixed teams on in London whenever we get the chance.

***

I’m not sure it’s quite hit me yet that the next time I’ll see my teammates, we’ll be in London for the real thing. The months of individual preparation going into tryouts, the grueling practice weekends through the spring and early summer, the effort and openness to build camaraderie and trust — all of it has brought us to this point and will need to be called upon as we compete against the best in the world. Just as it was in Columbia, I’m excited to play together rather than against each other for three days straight. Just as it’s been throughout this crazy process, I’m proud to be a part of this team we’ve built.

Way back in April, it was hard to see all the way up to this point. It’s hard to envision the hard work that a whole team puts in when they’re working towards a common goal. It’s finally here and if there’s one thing I know going into Worlds, it’s that we’ve definitely put in the work and done everything we could have to prepare. Time to make sure it pays off.


  1. Cricket won. 

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