PoNY's championship is built on years of culture-building and New York hustle.
October 29, 2018 by Patrick Stegemoeller in Profile with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the Men’s Division at the 2018 Club Championships is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the authors. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate!
“One of the most shocking things is the speed with which PoNY took the leap,” said PoNY lifer Jody Avirgan, still working to contextualize the past week. “We were a ‘lose in prequarters’ team so consistently for so long; and then bam, quarters; bam, win the region; bam, win fucking Nationals. It’s nuts.”
It really does seem kind of nuts. New York PoNY, yes that PoNY, won Nationals this past weekend in San Diego after beating San Francisco Revolver, yes that Revolver, 15-7 in a final that felt more like the fall of Rome than a game of ultimate.
Amidst all the speculation about what all this means for the future of the Men’s Division, it is perhaps getting lost just how stunning this news would have been even two years ago. PoNY are national champions. Up until the moment they scored that final point, this seemed impossible: PoNY just didn’t exist in the same atmosphere as teams who could actually win a title. They filled a different niche in the ecosystem, that strata of teams whose purpose was providing some color for the real protagonist’s montage.
This characterization seems doubly true for PoNY. No team in the modern era1 has won a title in the Men’s Division without making semis at some point previously. But more than that, when was the last time that a team cast so narrowly in a role was able to break out of character? Up until this season, PoNY was, to most of the community, a Twitter account first and a team second. The biggest story involving PoNY last season was this one, which at the time seemed like a good use of the internet. They were the pranksters in the back of the classroom, throwing spitballs and cracking jokes, always featured in the yearbook but never on the honor roll.
Yet here we are.
While waking up to find PoNY at the top of the podium was surprising, it would be an oversight to dismiss what has happened as an accident of history. The team’s story, while not steeped in immense on-field success, has been setting them up for this moment. Just like life in the city it comes from, PoNY’s continued existence in the face of unenviable circumstances has been a victory. Through years of trial, PoNY’s players have developed a team culture that made this team the perfect home for this moment. For what is now, somehow, their moment.
From the very beginning, PoNY’s biggest obstacle has been the brutal realities of playing competitive ultimate in New York City. The sheer size of the city, the hallucinatory nature of the transportation system, and the challenge of finding fields better than a patch of dirt somewhere under a bridge in deep Queens make for a logistical nightmare that weakens the body and kills the soul.
Luckily, there have been a few people in New York crazy enough to give it a try.
As the last vestiges of the legendary NYNY teams were burning out in the early 2000s, some young players looking for a fresh start grabbed a few drinks in an endearingly scuzzy spot in the East Village. They left having formed a new team, with visions of grandeur fit for the city that would provide the backdrop. It was one of those nights, as PoNY founder Alex Masulis reflected, “that everyone has, where you have the spark of an idea and after a few rounds it builds on itself and starts to seem realistic.” But while most of us never end up writing that screenplay or starting that business, this barroom reverie became a reality.
Oh, and the name of the bar? The Pink Pony.
“Pride of New York came later,” retold Avirgan. “Pink Pony was the original name, but DQ veto’d it. It was after the fact they added the lion ‘pride’ stuff.”
“I went to UNC Wilmington,” said Daniel “DQ” Quaranta, one the team founders who was at the Pink Pony that first night. “The guys used to tease me that I was fine with tie-dye but wouldn’t play in pink. But yeah, we weren’t going to be from New York playing in pink as Pink PoNY.”
With pink dropped from the title, the team set out to create an identity that went beyond a name. “We were young upstarts,” said Quaranta. “Trying to change a New York team that was great in its heyday but ran its course a bit.”
PoNY first took the field in 2005, steadily improving until they made Nationals for the first time in 2008. By that point, PoNY was the preeminent team in the New York area and was becoming a fixture around the country. But the same challenges that made getting a team off the ground in New York were magnified as the team’s ambitions increased. It’s tough to get people to commit to playing at all in New York. It’s really tough to get the kind of commitment that is needed to make a team the best in the world.
“If you had a car, you were probably going to make the team,” said Quaranta with total sincerity. “No one moved to New York to play ultimate. If you were here, it was for school or a job or something that meant you couldn’t do frisbee. And if you could, you couldn’t commit all the way.”
Even those committed to the team’s success where hampered by the realities of New York life. Field time was always a struggle, as Masulis recounts needing to bribe a city official with bottles of bourbon to ensure access to a reasonable playing site. As for the field sites that didn’t require a bribe? “A field in name only,” recalled Masulis. “You’d be lucky to touch a blade of grass. Plenty of rocks, possibly syringes.” The team spent years practicing on a field in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that is now condemned by the city as an environmental disaster site. The Pink PoNY is closed, too, driven away by rent increases.
These struggles forced PoNY to create an environment that made the sacrifice and commitment of playing elite ultimate worth it. Talking to veterans of the team, it was the camaraderie and personality of the team that kept PoNY alive. “You need to get guys excited about the idea of the team,” said Masulis. If it seemed like PoNY was inventing the most fun persona of any elite club team over the past several years, that’s because it was true.
Investing in their own identity when it became hard to invest in the the results on the field created an atmosphere that supported a complete squad of players. A team that was able to take everyone’s strengths and abilities and meld them into a unified whole.
From 2008, the team’s first bid to Nationals, through 2016, PoNY never made it to the quarterfinals. Two years later, they became one of four active teams to have won a Men’s national title this decade. According to players new and old, this isn’t a coincidence.
The team’s culture took pride in the beauty of just continuing to exist. It wasn’t a failure if the team didn’t win Nationals; it was a success that they were able to take the field together at all. This healthy outlook prepared PoNY to channel all the new talent acquired over the past year into a positive environment, where it could survive and thrive in moments of peril. The old guard was able to absorb the new without losing the best aspects of either.
The coaching staff encapsulates this balance, of insider and outsider making something better than what either could do alone.
Ben Van Heuvelen is a dyed in the wool Pone who played with the team for nearly a decade before becoming a coach. Bryan Jones is an outsider to the system, who worked his way into the orbit of the team by grinding as a coach in unglamorous college positions and doomed AUDL efforts2 before hooking up with PoNY.
Both BVH and Jones bring something essential to the table. It was Jones’s defense that managed to finally solve the Revolver riddle that has stumped the Men’s Division for the past decade. Jones had been spending years dreaming up schemes for how to break Revolver, the biggest challenge in the sport, and PoNY gave him the opportunity to take his shot. Meanwhile, BVH’s history with the team and relationship with elite players has made him the perfect coach for an offense that found itself needing to blend together a staggering mix of talent and personalities. Both pieces shone in the final, with the offense going nearly turnover free and the defense dismantling Revolver brick by gold-medal-adorned brick.
The players had something to do with it as well.
The easiest place to look for how PoNY managed such a rapid change of fortune is the arrival of the best player in the world. It is rare for PoNY to pick up such a blue chipper, as New York doesn’t have the same level of college programs as other major cities and people have moved to New York for a million reasons but almost never for frisbee. Things have started to change, with the team’s tight-knit culture creating a legitimate recruiting pull.
Of course, just having Jimmy Mickle doesn’t guarantee a title.
“The obvious thing to point to is that we got some really great personnel added, but I think that can happen and have it not be successful,” said Jack Marsh, former PoNY captain who just finished his eighth year with the team. “What’s cool is, it felt like we’d been building a really nice base in the program for a long time and I think because of that we’ve had the ability to absorb some really great players who can then come in and make an impact and keep the team culture like where it was and keeping it positive.”
Keeping that culture intact while adding new pieces is more difficult than it may seem. But according to the players, the culture on the team is what made the wheels turn all year. The same attitude and camaraderie that DQ and Jody were building over the past decade came to fruition.
“More than any other team I’ve ever been on, we truly believe in each other and celebrate everybody’s individual achievements and accomplishments,” beamed two time National champion Sean Keegan moments after PoNY clinched their championship.
It wasn’t just in moments of success. After Beau Kittredge committed a crucial turnover in PoNY’s semifinal against Sockeye, the entire team supported him immediately afterwards. As recounted by coach Bryan Jones, “Beau told us that he had never been on a team where, if he threw that turnover, the whole team would come up to him and say, ‘it’s alright dude, we got your back.’ He said he’s never had a team that showed him support like that.”
For the founders of PoNY, seeing their vision of the team on display like this was emotional. The team that they set out to create and the identity that they worked so hard to nurture was what they saw in San Diego. Avirgan speaks appreciatively of the way the current crop of players are keeping the spirit of PoNY alive, and how much it has moved him to see their success. “I sat there on the couch and cried for about 30 mins after the final,” he said.
Quaranta feels a sense of closure for the mission of PoNY that began back in 2005. “Alex [Masulis] and I talked about wanting to build a team that would outlast us. Wanting to build a team that would be around long after we stopped playing,” he said. And after this season he believes the goal has been fulfilled.
“Man, mission accomplished. Just the team still existing is incredible,” he said. “But to have them win Nationals, and keep up our culture and what the team is about…mission accomplished.”
Maybe this seems unintuitive, for unity to be a defining characteristic of a team that has so often been shaped by its physical separation and inability to literally come together. But in that way, PoNY’s story is the story of New York. A city defined by the diversity of its people and the hardship of living there, integrated by the accomplishment of survival. Playing for PoNY is at once an impossible thing to do and also the only way the players can now imagine wanting to play, just as New Yorkers believe strongly that the struggle of making it in New York is what makes it undeniably the best city on earth.
“I think it’s that we live the greatest city in the world and we get to just have that little bit of swagger and knowledge that we’re doing things in a better way than the rest of the world is,” said an ecstatic Marsh on the field after the title game. “I think that breeds a great group of people who live in a city where you have to rub shoulders with people when you get half an inch of space in the subway every morning, and I think that breeds some great people. That attracts the right set of dudes to come and also play this crazy sport.”
Avrigan was similarly emphatic. “New York is the best city in the world,” he said. “Boston is the worst city in the world. That’s on the record.” With a chuckle, he continued, “I understand that this is exceptionalism, and that every successful team has something that makes them exceptional, but coming together the way this team did and being the team they are is so special because of New York.”
Sure, this may be exceptionalism, but isn’t it refreshing to have some exceptionalism to talk about that isn’t Revolver’s?
Getting from that night at the Pink Pony to the pinnacle of the ultimate world wasn’t easy. The team has changed from the guys that ran around the Lower East Side back in the early 2000s. But ultimate is different, and frankly so is New York. What hasn’t changed is a culture born out of adversity, that learned to survive and eventually thrive, because of it.
PoNY has beaten Revolver. They’re king of the hill. Top of the heap. They made it.
Trigger warning for everyone who played before ho stack and good flick technique about using the phrase “the modern era.” ↩
shout out the Rochester Dragons ↩