Wind, Turnovers Define Day One Of World Games Tryouts

"It was essentially pick-up at the highest possible level."

Fury's Claire Desmond winds up a big backhand at the 2016 Club Championships.
Fury’s Claire Desmond winds up a big backhand at the 2016 Club Championships. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

It is theorized that black holes are created when the gravity of a group of stars collapses in on itself, resulting in a entity of such compact mass that it deforms space and time. The conditions for such a cataclysm were ripe on Saturday morning in Dallas for Team USA World Games tryouts, with a collection of ultimate superstars that rivaled any tryout ever.

But while the sheer amount of talent on hand was staggering, the level of play didn’t match the pedigree: the weight of the talent prevented most players from standing out above the others.

To get a good idea of how incredibly stacked the player pool at this event is, look at the list of four teams that the players were separated into first thing on Saturday morning. It’s all killer, no filler.

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Any one of those teams looks like a potential world champion on its own. Choosing which players will make the final roster is an unenviable task, and team USA coaches Alex Ghesquiere and Matty Tsang have their work cut out for them.

To start the day, the coaches put each team through four different drills, both to assess specific talents and to prepare them for playing together as a unit later in the day. Each team rotated through breakmark, two different continuation and deep cut drills, and a two-on-two drill played on a mini field.

Intensity varied from drill to drill, but sparks of competition bubbled up. Alyssa Weatherford stuffed a high release flick from Rebecca Miller in breakmark, Beau Kittredge took some glee in roofing his club teammate Cassidy Rasmussen in the deep drill, and Claire Desmond went up and over multiple world class players in mini.

Two-on-two mini brought out the most competitive response from the players, for obvious reasons. It also offered some unique talent pairings that sparked early on field chemistry. In one sequence, Dylan Freechild and Alex Snyder teamed up to force a turn with good communication and smothering defense, before Noah Saul got the disc back with a stupendous layout point block, coming from out of position on the force side all the way around Freechild to cut off a break swing. Later, Chris Mazur and Desmond effortlessly switched across gender multiple times on the goal line to stonewall upline cuts and seal off the break space for a goal line stand.

That fluidity and intensity was more exception than rule, however, particularly in the cutting drills. Players just seemed a little off, perhaps uncomfortable in not knowing how hard to push it in drills that weren’t as clearly game-like as mini. It was emblematic of the day’s somewhat muted tone that fell somewhere between a practice and tryout.

In a life or death tryout situation, it’s not uncommon to see players hitting the deck from the first drill, desperate to earn a spot. But the intensity wasn’t there in the early going, with players acting more like you would at a practice where you want to work hard and push your teammates, but certainly not do anything that risked an injury.

This may be because the coaches were intentionally trying to cultivate an environment where competition for spots on the team was not the end goal. Tsang made it clear in the morning huddle that today was about building team USA, not about determining which players were good enough to go to Poland. With players this good, everyone is good enough, so the question becomes who fits the bill for this team’s needs. The players that stuck out during the early stages were not making crazy plays; they were the ones hustling and taking care to be as sharp as possible in every drill.

Things escalated somewhat when the players got their first taste of real scrimmaging with full field 4-v-4. While not an accurate representation of what actual ultimate looks like, eight of the world’s best players with a whole 70×40 yards to work in is a thrilling spectacle. With so much space and nowhere to hide, every point featured four simultaneously one-on-one battles that pushed players up another level.

The pace of play was so fast it became a little disorienting. One second Georgia Bosscher is coming under and launching a deep shot to Ben Lohre, then all of sudden Lauren Sadler is going step for step with Kelly Johnson in the handler space, just before Nick Lance brutally foot blocks Jimmy Mickle, and before your brain can process all of that extraordinary information, Jorgenson (Kaela) throws a goal to Jorgensen (Sandy) and reality just collapses in on itself from overstimulation.

Perhaps it was just becoming numb to how much sheer talent was on the field, but it seemed that an edge was missing. There was lots of impressive play, but it lacked an immediacy. Players were working hard and bringing positive energy from the sideline, but there wasn’t a sense of urgency, a feeling of high stakes. This may have come from a general discomfort with mixed ultimate, as most of those in attendance came from single gender club teams.

“One of the biggest difficulties we had [on the 2013 team] was cross-gender hucking,” said Seattle Riot’s Sarah “Surge” Griffith, one of Saturday’s most impressive players. “Matty told us,’women, as soon as you see the cut, throw it. And men, as soon as you see the cut, wait, and then wait, and then wait again, and then throw it with touch. But that takes some getting used to.”

The same seemed to be bearing out this time around, and cross-gender offense was not clicking nearly as well as the single gendered variety.

With flawed offense and a healthy amount of unforced turnovers, defenders weren’t forced to go all out in order to get the disc back the way they were for much of WUGC tryouts last year. Necessity is the mother of invention, and often the incentive for maximum effort on defense. Without needing to force blocks to get turns, the overall focus seemed to dip from the defense, which, in turn, meant the offense didn’t need to be as sharp either.

This phenomenon certainly wasn’t helped by Mother Nature.

Apparently, what they say about Texas weather is true. A blindingly warm and sunny morning turned ominous in a hurry, and by early afternoon the sour taste of a mid-March day had arrived. By the time the teams broke for lunch the fields were cloaked in the shadow of bulbous clouds and a healthy crosswind swept across the flat Texas horizon. Long sleeve jerseys and compression shirts started appearing under the player’s team reversibles as they returned to the fields for the big event: full field seven-on-seven scrimmaging.

It was, charitably, a little sloppy.

The biggest problem wasn’t necessarily the wind itself, but the way that wind exacerbated the fundamental problems the players were having. The unfamiliar throwing windows of mixed play became tighter, and general lack of offensive structure to cope with the athleticism of the defenders was exposed Add to that the fact that the field was now full of players instead of empty space, and it was a real mental and physical test for everyone.

The spacing was a big problem, as even players who normally have a preternatural nose for open space couldn’t seem to find much. You can chalk a lot of that up to the lack of structure that the teams played with as they were getting to know what it was like to play with each other.

“It was essentially pick-up at the highest possible level,” said Ghesquiere after play had concluded. “We’re trying to look at player’s approach to these situations. Are they working it out with their teammates? Are they diligently searching for the right answers to situations? We’re not expecting it to be clean, but we’re expecting people to be dedicated to the process of improving.”

With multiple wind-aided turnovers on many points, it was hard to tell which players were struggling because of a lack of familiarity with their teammates and which were failing because they weren’t playing well.

You had to look at the little things to get a picture of which players were succeeding because the stop-and-start hell points made it difficult for players and teams to build momentum. Who could deliver crisp around backhands into the wind? Who was consistently dictating their defensive assignment’s movement with positioning? The problem is, everyone was so good that they all did the little things right over the course of the afternoon and it made it difficult for players to stand out for positive reasons.

The players that acquitted themselves the best were those that didn’t need the disc in their hands to demonstrate their value to the team. Stanley Peterson and Jack Hatchett both had impressive days, consistently winning battles downfield and gobbling up floating hucks that got caught in the wind. Both are clearly athletic marvels, but their positioning and intelligence stood out as they almost always ended up with their body between their man and the disc.

Similarly, Kami Groom and Desmond made their presence felt by playing to their strengths. Groom was all over the field, elevating for floaty discs and using her speed to find the sweet spots in the endzone at just the right time.

Desmond put more than one player on a poster and never did more than she needed to with the disc, cutting hard for in cuts and distributing efficiently before cutting again. These weren’t the kind of performances that would make your jaw drop under normal circumstances, but with the caliber of the competition and the helter-skelter atmosphere, it was notable.

An encouraging sign for tomorrow was that by the end of the day things were looking up, and players that had begun somewhat hesitantly were showing more confidence.

One of the teams (Team Four) had noticeably improved their chemistry and performance over the course of the day, and got a shout out from the coaches when the teams huddled up in the evening. On paper, they may not have had the most talent — a Twitter poll of what they literally looked like on paper seemed to indicate that they did not — but they won their last scrimmage with the best-looking offense seen all day.

Johnny Bansfield, a member of Team Four who showcased some of the most ambitious bids and throws of anyone, put the nail in Saturday with an absurd I/O flick huck from the break side of the field that held its line straight through the wind before fading perfectly into the hands of a streaking Robyn Wiseman, who plucked the disc off a platter for the goal.

It was a showy end to a curious day, and there is still a lot at stake for most players. In the huddle before the players broke for the night, the coaches stressed that they are looking for players who can fit their talent into the team structure, that results matter less than cohesion.

“We’re not trying to make one play work,” said Tsang in the huddle. “We’re trying to make the whole team get better. To get the whole team doing the same thing.”

Few players really stood out on Saturday, and perhaps that was by design. Evidently the coaches aren’t looking for players who stand out, they are looking for players who fit it.

Stray Thoughts

Injuries: Thankfully, no one suffered anything on Saturday that will knock them out of contention for a spot on the roster. However, several players came to the tryout nursing one injury or another, which put a ceiling on some of their ability to perform. Kurt Gibson, while still looking like one of the best players in the world, wasn’t quite up to his usual standard of excellence as a bum left arm appeared to hold him back on a couple occasions.

Energy: It’s important to say that while there wasn’t a strong competitive edge to the play on Saturday, it wasn’t for a lack of energy. Both coaches noted that the sideline energy and general spirit of the players was where they wanted it, although the focus could improve.

Margins: Sloppy play opened up the margins for players to be aggressive. One of the most aggressive on the field was Jaclyn Verzuh. The Dartmouth star was ready to run and gun all day, and she pushed the pace whenever she got the disc. This led to some moments of brilliance, but also a handful of turnovers. It will be interesting to see how that aggression is viewed by the coaches, as every decision she made may not have been sound but her turnover numbers don’t stand out from everyone else who was having troubles with communication and the wind.

Big Guys: Any prognostication about who will make the team should start by looking at what roles individual players are competing for. One of the most immediate is “the big guy” because every team needs “the big guy.”

The title of “best young big guy” has changed hands frequently over the past few years between Simon Higgins, Matt Rehder, and Nick Stuart. After today, the scoreboard read that Rehder had the best pure ups, Higgins was the quickest, and Stuart showcased the best throws. Stuart probably has more of the total package than the others, and his ability to read flight paths in the wind showed a real nose for the disc.

Socks: There isn’t really a consensus among elite players on what we should be doing with socks. While most people seem to agree on length of compression (3/4 length) and gloves (no), the sock game was all over the place, with disparate lengths, styles, and colors.

There were some noticeable patterns however, and I charted them out at 1:53 AMwhile slowly going insane trying to finish this recap as daylight savings loomed, ready to steal a much needed hour of sleep.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller

    Patrick Stegemoeller is a reporter for Ultiworld and a law student who lives in Washington DC. He captained SUNY-Geneseo Snail and began playing ultimate in high school with AUDA of Albany. He hopes that his degree in History will prove to be valuable at some point. You can find him on twitter at @patstegs.

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