San Francisco Wins Inaugural Cascades Cup, Envisioning New Frontiers For Semi-Professional Ultimate

For those in the stadium, the AUDL's first foray into mixed ultimate felt like an overwhelmingly positive experience.

The San Francisco FlameThrowers’ Audrey Lyman lays out for a catch at the 2017 Cascades Cup. Photo: Daren Ruiz

On a cold spring night in Seattle, more than 850 people packed into Seattle’s Memorial Stadium to witness a small piece of history, and a gamble. They were there to witness the AUDL’s first game of mixed ultimate: the Cascades Cup.

Last Friday’s exhibition was the brainchild of the Seattle Cascades’ owners, the Titcomb siblings. The Titcombs have made gender equity a central value of the professional team, even as they acknowledge the inherent contradictions of owning a men’s professional team.

The Cascades Cup featured ten men and ten women from the Seattle community, facing off against the same numbers from San Francisco. All of the male players currently compete on the Seattle Cascades or the San Francisco Flamethrowers, and the women were selected during a separate, Cascades Cup-specific tryout. From Riot’s Hana Kawai to Fury’s Meeri Chang and Katie Ryan, to Mixtape’s Bert Abbott and PBR’s Margot Stert, both teams featured marquee names from the women’s and mixed divisions.

Under the lights of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, the two teams competed for four quarters using AUDL rules, with a full team of referees and alternating gender ratios1 each quarter. All the female players were paid an AUDL season’s salary, even if this is the only game they’ll play.

The win for San Francisco and loss for Seattle won’t show up on either team’s league record, but there was no doubt that it was a professional game of ultimate. They were playing to win, yet many of the players spoke about the game in terms of the night’s legacy instead of the outcome.

Let The Game Begin

San Francisco pulled to start, and Kawai gave the crowd something to cheer about early by ripping a backhand to Mark Burton for a quick Seattle hold. San Francisco responded with a clean goal of their own and the teams would trade long holds for most of the first quarter.

“What we saw during first part of the game was a lot of people who aren’t used to the pro rules getting used to the pro rules, and a lot of people who aren’t used to mixed getting used to mixed,” commented Seattle’s Cascades Cup captain Bert Abbott after the game.

Indeed, the first half featured several tangles in the stack as cutters and defenders navigated around each other on the bigger field and with different rules. Offensive movement was still fluid — these are, after all, some of the best players on the West Coast — but everyone needed some calibration early.

Seattle and San Francisco each pushed the deep game on the big fields. Handlers lobbed up long balls for streaking cutters to carve into highlight reel plays. San Francisco broke twice late in the first quarter to build a lead they would retain through their eventual victory. San Francisco played loose, efficient offense that forced Seattle to create their own defensive chances.

“There are clusters of us that play a lot together and so our offenses are similar,” Meeri Chang said when asked about the team’s adjustments for mixed. “In the offseason, there’s a lot of mixed in the Bay Area, like there is in Seattle — there’s winter league, there’s goalty. So people have some of that chemistry.”

San Francisco was particularly effective denying Seattle’s deep shots, in large part because they had Antoine Davis patrolling the deep space.

Davis was a monster downfield for the Flamethrowers. He reeled in four goals and an assist, while matching up against Seattle’s Khalif El-Salaam in the air and winning the battle with a pair of thunderous aerial blocks.

“That’s kind of my role: guard the deep, definitely win the jump balls,” said Davis. “[At practice] I have to guard Beau [Kittredge], Greg [Cohen] — all those great jumpers. So I just brought that on the field and it turned out well for me.”

San Francisco marched into half with their two break lead intact, 10-8. A decisive point block by the FlameThrowers’ Magon Liu gave them another break, 12-8. Meeri Chang — always a tough matchup and skilled thrower — turned on extra booster jets in the game’s final two quarters. Her quick backfield cuts and even faster release allowed San Francisco to keep their stall count low until they found a deep option they wanted.

Seattle tightened up their offense by pushing the pace and throwing to better matchups, but they had a deep hole to climb out of.

The crowd cheered every big play on the field, regardless of team or gender. The cheers for Kelly Johnson’s nasty layout D to regain the disc matched the surprise and joy of watching Michela Meister point block Kawai, or witnessing Sam Kanner tear the field up. The Cascades owners made a conscious choice not to promote the game as a showcase event — they wanted it to feel as much like a regular season game as possible — yet at times the crowd energy felt like they were watching a spectacle instead of a competition.

The Seattle squad battled back in the final quarter to try to bring their hometown a win. They broke late in the game to close the gap to two at 15-13, then they broke again to end the game 17-16, just as time ran out in Memorial Stadium.

As the crowd took to its feet to applaud the athletes and the event, the game’s rougher moments faded quickly from memory.

The Injury Bug Bites

Amidst the spectacle and the raucous and favorable crowd, four anxious moments slowed the game to a standstill and hushed the crowd.

Seattle’s Sam Harkness spent most of the game on the bench, shellshocked after attempting to block a deep shot he was tracking down the sideline in the first quarter. He was quickly evaluated by medical staff, but was unable to return and spent the remaining three quarters cheering his team from the sidelines.

In the second quarter, Margot “Radar” Stert was the next player down, sustaining an ACL tear and possible LCL damage on a routine cut. She was helped off the field, unable to move under her own power. Seven points later, Briana Cahn, Stert’s teammate and roommate, went down with a leg injury. She also needed assistance getting off the field.

Finally, played stopped late in the second half when Ari Lozano laid out at shoulder height chasing down a big throw. The impact left her shaken up initially, but she waved off the injury sub and continued playing.

Injuries are a part of sports. Fans are used to seeing star athletes absorb contact, battle through recovery, and triumphantly return, all on television and online. As visibility increases for ultimate, especially through the one-game format where players can dump an entire day’s worth of energy into four intense quarters (instead of spread out over four games), the injury timeouts gave the crowd enough pause to absorb another way that AUDL competition is different from the norm.

Ripples In The Pond

After the game finished, fans rushed the field, surrounding the home team with signs and pens ready for autographs. After emerging from her own throng of fans, Abbott reflected on the game’s impact.

“The game accomplished what we can only hope a game like that accomplishes, which is that after the game, a bunch of young fans — and older fans — are coming up to players asking them to sign their clothing, their discs. And they’re trying to find the women they idolized during the game. Not only young girls but young boys — people of all genders — were amped up by what they saw on the field.”

Seattle’s pre-existing ultimate network helped draw numbers for the Cascades Cup comparable to their regular season games. According to the Cascades’ media team, the livestream for the game drew more than 900 viewers, and there were more than 850 fans in the stadium, buying merchandise and concessions.

As the fan hubbub, team pictures, and frantic passing out of meal tickets to athletes subsided, owners (and sisters) Qxhna and Rohre Titcomb watched and talked about the event. The crowd was thinning out, but the excitement of the event had left a palpable charge in the air.

“We’ll use this as an example for other franchises to be able to replicate,” said Qxhna. “This is definitely not the final step, but it’s a step — among many, many more to come.”

“We’ve been talking to a number of owners all over the map about what might work in their cities, for their communities,” she continued. “But those discussions are happening, and those discussions weren’t happening two years ago.”

The Flamethrowers reportedly expressed interest in hosting the Seattle Cascades Cup in San Francisco next year, and the Titcombs hope that other cities and owners will see the streaming and attendance numbers and take notice.

Could a game like this work in other cities, like Madison or Austin? Seattle very well could be an outlier in the AUDL with consistent home game attendance and broader community support. Every AUDL team with similar ambitions has to reckon with the reality that their primary bottom line is filled seats at games.  

“At the end of the day, there’s the reality that every franchise is a business that has various degrees of sure footing,” said Rohre. “Being a small business is really freaking hard. It’s hard to put your money where your mouth is. Figuring out how far can you step out of your comfort zone, how far can you go, and feel like people are going to show up for you.”

Both sisters — who along with their three brothers own the franchise, the popular apparel company Five Ultimate, and the new disc venture Aria — have often set the pace for entrepreneurs in the sport. A dedication to the community and the values that the sport has instilled in the family continues to inform their decisionmaking.

“This is hours and hours and weeks and months and years in the making for us as owners. The only reason we are AUDL owners is to make this event happen, and to have it be one step of many,” Rohre continued.

“If the many steps don’t happen [after this], then this is a failure. And it would have been a failure if this step didn’t happen… There is such a long road ahead… There are friendships challenged and all sorts of social and political capital that goes into making something like this happen.” She paused.

“And yeah — there has to be more.”

  1. 4:3 and 3:4, men to women 

  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_ .

  2. Katie Raynolds

    Katie Raynolds took a break from Seattle ultimate to test out the Midwestern scene, but now she's back in the Northwest to investigate this "bubble" she keeps hearing about. She played for Northwestern Gungho, two seasons with Chicago Nemesis, and now plays for Seattle Underground. Katie serves as Ultiworld's Women's D1 College Editor, and is damn proud to cover women's ultimate. You can reach her by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@kraynolds90).

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