Is this the year Temper finally sheds the weight of Regionals failures past?
September 21, 2018 by Hugo Sowder in Profile with 0 comments
Heartbreak is available in endless variety in ultimate. Pittsburgh Temper has found its own unique brand that has reared its head at too many Regionals. In 2015, they took half 8-6 on a Washington DC Truck Stop squad that nearly made the National semifinal later that year. They failed to score a single point during the second half, ultimately losing 11-8 and falling to Philadelphia Patrol in the second place game-to-go. It was an ignominious end for a team that featured the likes of Tyler Degirolamo, Trent Dillon, and the Thorne brothers. It was the beginning of a bleak run for Temper that featured getting eliminated before the game-to-go (2016) and losing in two straight games-to-go against Truck Stop and Patrol again (2017).
Looking back at that spate of painful ends, it might be easy to forget Temper’s team quality when they first took the field in 2014. With a record like that at Regionals, you can make a case against #12 Pittsburgh Temper’s early success this season when they got to the final of the Pro-Elite Challenge by beating a very talented and full-strength Sockeye squad. But that marquee win and Temper’s overall regular season performance are also impossible to write off. Before Pro Champs on Labor Day, there was a fairly strong case to be made that Temper was the best team in the Mid-Atlantic. There still is, and a lot of that has to do with Temper’s long, exciting, and sometimes painful effort to put all the pieces together inside the Steel City.
Two Views of Pittsburgh
For an area so renowned for the college teams it has produced over the past ten years, it may strike you as odd that the city of Pittsburgh hasn’t experienced the same kind of club success. The landscape of Pittsburgh’s club scene is much larger than Pitt, however.
“You kind of have two contingents of players,” explained current Temper captain Max Thorne. “Obviously you have your contingent from the University of Pittsburgh, but you also have players from a lot of other universities that want play high level club.”
For many years, those groups competed on a separate basis. As far back as Thorne can remember, Pittsburgh men’s teams were either comprised of players from University of Pittsburgh who were largely focused on getting more reps before the college season or players outside of that nucleus who wanted to focus on competing with a high level club team. Bridging these priorities was a very important piece for merging the best talent.
“There’s this consistent story in Pittsburgh of club teams emerging and not working,” said Thorne. “There were definitely people who wanted to form a merger team with all of the talent from the city but just had different aspirations for club.”
Every merger attempt made before Temper failed to generate any sort of long term traction. Matters came to a head around the same period that the Pitt men won back-to-back college championships. While many of the Pitt players competed for the club outfit Oakland, Tad Wissel, Ben Banyas, and West Virginia alum Jared Manzo formed Dire Wolf with other players who were determined to compete at the highest possible level. Oakland, who ultimately rebranded as Temper in 2014, and Dire Wolf quickly found themselves knocking on the door of Nationals. When Temper qualified in 2014, they put on a great first year performance with wins over Ring of Fire and GOAT, two semifinalists.
“We definitely did not have high expectations headed into that first Nationals, and that may have helped us perform as well as we did,” said Thorne. “We had an underdog mentality going up against every team we played. And players weren’t afraid of playing outside of themselves because we knew we’d have to grow as a team and individual players if we wanted to do well.”
With so many young high caliber players and a convincing Nationals showing, Temper had become the premier men’s team in the city. During the offseason, it was decided that Dire Wolf and Temper would merge and keep the Temper name thanks to their finish in 2014.
Burnout & Bid Wars
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Temper has failed to get back to Nationals.
“I remember, in 2015 and 2016, I was kind of almost dreading those club seasons because the season was so long,” said Thorne.
To understand why Thorne and other young Pitt players got so burnt out before the club season even started, you simply need to look at the kinds of teams En Sabah Nur was fielding during those years. Pitt players were putting in an insane amount of time and effort into competing in college.
“The players from my year were putting in more time than we had in the years where we’d won championships,” said Thorne. “Nick Kacazmarek loves putting in more and more effort if the players are willing, and we all were. Especially Trent Dillon. He thought the more effort we put in, the more likely we were to win college Nationals, which was totally fair.”
The strain it put on Temper’s Pitt contingent was enormous, as well as a cautionary tale about the strain that playing ultimate almost year-round can put on players.
“I think tensions grew for me and the other college guys,” said Thorne. “We got kind of burnt out from the college and club commitment.”
Cohesion at Regionals in the Mid-Atlantic was critical, but, even with stretches of strong play, Temper couldn’t close big games at Regionals. Temper also demanded a lot of utility out of their top players. Both Thorne and coach Andrew Willig noted how one of the big differences this season has been Temper’s depth.
“In previous years, we’d play with a rotation of maybe 14 players in big games and maybe that was a mistake by our leadership,” said Thorne.
That, combined with a lingering knee injury to Tyler Degirolamo, the team’s best all-around player, made it hard to get those big wins.
Renewal & Retribution
After the brutal back-to-back losses of 2017, the team reconvened in the offseason to lay an early foundation for the kind of direction they want to head in. “We told everybody to look around the room and trust whichever 7 of our 27 guys will either leave everything out on the field. When they can’t get it done and when they can, they’ll do it with flare,” said coach Andrew Willig.
Willig and the team’s leadership had good reason to believe in Temper long before the season began. In addition to the prospect of having a healthy Degirolamo, Temper received an important boost with some very good pickups from Boston Dig and Philadelphia AMP. More than ever, creating a team culture in which every player felt valued was a huge priority heading into the season. Thorne noted how, in previous seasons, the team felt much more cliquey. Part of creating that cohesion that Temper lacked is coach Willig himself.
“I’m not from Pitt. I’m not from the city of Pittsburgh,” said Willig. “I went to Carnegie Mellon. I kind of have a different point of view when it comes to tactics or team culture, and I think that definitely helps.”
Willig’s preseason vision of playing with trust and flare fit is a good description of Temper’s offense. At Pro-Elite Challenge, far and away their best tournament this season, Temper’s backfield — powered by Pat Earles, Jonah Wisch, and Thomas Edmonds — was very aggressive with their hucks. They could rely on an army of athletic receivers to make big plays. They capitalized very successfully on oppponents’ mistakes, showing off what a full strength Temper squad can potentially do down the road at Nationals. Their depth showed in their marquee win against Sockeye, and they also found a mental edge against as the bottom seed at the tournament.
“Being the no. 16 seed really made us feel like the underdogs and we were willing to take more risks,” said Thorne. “That really fueled our play.”
That underdog mindset wasn’t really available at the Elite-Select Challenge where Temper’s seeding was the exact opposite: no. 1.
“That small mental change was something the leadership addressed but I don’t think we addressed it enough and it’s something we’ve been working on,” said Thorne.
Temper’s experience at ESC bears weight when you consider their chances this weekend at Mid-Atlantic Regionals. While they showed some very concerning vulnerabilities against teams that had clearly scouted their offense, they also notched a convincing win against Patrol. That win points to a larger factor that has been driving Temper this season and which will be critical going into Regionals: confidence.
Part of it comes from the fact that there are two bids on the line this weekend. That wasn’t the case a few weeks ago. The missing piece from the larger Mid-Atlantic bid picture for most of the regular season was Truck Stop. Before Pro Champs, Truck was sitting just outside the bid cutoff at 17th. That weekend, they locked up a second bid for the region and opened a very realistic second chance for Temper to go to Nationals if they lose in the first place bracket. Temper won the other bid for themselves.
“The thing I’ll say about Truck Stop is you always expect a Darryl Stanley coached team to get better as the season progresses,” said Willig. “Obviously it does make us nervous going into Regionals because they’re getting better, but I think we are too. We want to come in with the mentality that it’s not so much our bid to lose as much as it’s ours to earn.”
Absent a second bid in the Mid-Atlantic, it wasn’t hard to imagine Temper falling to a reloading Truck Stop after the vulnerabilities that Temper put on display at ESC. With two bids in the Mid-Atlantic’s possession, Temper and Truck Stop are the favorites to go to Nationals, just as they were four years ago when the team made its first Nationals appearance. Just like that inaugural season in 2014, Temper can derive confidence and belief from a successful regular season. While the slips of previous seasons are far from distant memories, the adversity they’ve faced before and the joy they’ve found playing together this season have bridged the gap that existed for so long between different teams from Pittsburgh.
“The past three years we’ve been trying to figure out the team culture and with all these great players how we can actually form a team together,” said Thorne. “Not just Pitt people but also how we can cater to all of them as one whole to have a great team culture that we can all buy into because, honestly, we haven’t had that in previous years.”
“Pitt’s obviously a great college team that can feed players into the club but we’ve got these other smaller schools–like Edinboro, like Carnegie Mellon, like West Virginia–that are producing good players that come to Pittsburgh,” said Willig. “Coming out of this season, more than anything I want that unity to continue, but I also really want to see Pittsburgh get in that conversation of top 6, top 8 teams from year to year.”
At Regionals, nothing is set in stone. There are players tenaciously clawing for a chance that will remain elusive for all but the 16 teams that qualify for Nationals. The journey of Temper is one of several stories that has made this particular club season so compelling. It seems serendipitous that one of the focal points for an extremely compelling postseason is the drama set to unfold at Mid-Atlantic Regionals between Temper and the other contenders. For Temper, there really is a sense that the best has yet to come.