Teams that don't make Nationals don't stick around for two decades. Baltimore Med Men did.
September 18, 2019 by Tad Wissel in Profile with 0 comments
There were some rumblings at 2019 Fool’s Fest that the team might not happen. I didn’t give it much thought. Baltimore Medicine Men had always been extinction proof. In much the same way that opossums, cockroaches, and a few of the natural world’s heartiest reptiles would one day inherit the earth after humans were gone, it seemed more likely that USA Ultimate would redraw the Mid Atlantic out of the club landscape entirely before there would be a Regionals without Med Men.
It wasn’t until I saw some troubling social media posts…
…and then this, from a decade-long staple of the Med Men offense…
So uh, anyone looking for a handler?
— White Hat (@WhiteHat94) June 9, 2019
…that it hit me: Medicine Men, a true relic of the Mid Atlantic men’s division, would not be back for a 20th season.
As an opponent who spent so much mental energy gearing up for matchups with Med Men—energy that could’ve been used doing any number of productive things had I chosen a more traditional or successful path in life—I was, inexplicably, saddened.
For fans and students of men’s Mid Atlantic ultimate, this is a big deal. Medicine Men is our oldest team and only missed the regional tournament once in the team’s entire existence. It was the culmination of their second season, in 2001.
Medicine Men was not a blue chip club. Yet the team is old enough to sign its life away to the military, buy tobacco, and vote. There are certainly older teams: the SoCal Condors (playing in their 45th season) or Atlanta Ozone (33rd)1 or Raleigh Ring of Fire (30th). There aren’t many more senior teams, but they exist. But, unlike those historic programs, Medicine Men’s long term survival was not predicated on Nationals success.
Red Tide in Portland, Maine, is probably Med Men’s closest relative in terms of archetype; both are about an hour from a much larger metropolitan area, though Red Tide is significantly older (founded in 1987) and went to Nationals twice in the late 90s.
For teams that don’t regularly go to Nationals, sustainability is nearly impossible. And that is the significance in what Medicine Men has accomplished: incredible longevity. In team history, they never qualified for the national tournament and played in only two games-to-go.
Medicine Men survived the constant upheaval and reinvention of the Capital section, were periodically raided for talent by Washington D.C. Truck Stop, and yet miraculously persisted for two decades. Med Men was a gutsy outlier, and they deserve to be celebrated for it.
We are unlikely to see another club like it any time soon.
A Not-So Quick History
Baltimore Medicine Men was founded in 2000. It was mostly a cobbled together pickup team. There were some older Baltimore players, a sprinkling of Navy kids, and a contingent from Salisbury University out on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.2
Following the 2003 season, turnover hit Medicine Men hard. Electric Pig out of Washington DC had made Nationals three straight years and a bunch of Med Men’s top guys elected to play (and qualify) with them. Traveling to compete in DC with a shoo-in like E Pig was easy enough to do coming from Baltimore. By the will of the I-95 gods, it’s about an hour drive between cities. E Pig made their play two years before Truck Stop formed–and three years before Truck first qualified for Nationals. E Pig was just the first big DC club to lure away the upper portions of the Med Men roster.
But amid the uncertainty of that bare cupboard, the Shaman secured their most foundational recruit, a high school cross country runner named Ryan Vance.
“When I started in 2004 we had basically nobody. I played my first tournament in July at Ottawa and we had eight people,” said Vance. “I don’t think I played a tournament out of state with more than maybe 10 within my first two years playing.”
In his day, Vance was an excellent handler with a stifling mark (he slammed an around backhand right back in my face at Chicago Heavyweights in 2007), who was athletic enough to release downfield and could keep his cool during calls and through the inevitable confrontations that followed when many in the division did not. Vance was, as the kids say, a real one.
But what really set Vance apart is that he kept coming back.
He went on to play a total of 102 tournaments in 14 seasons with Medicine Men before retiring after 2017.
Who else has played over 100 tournaments with one team? Mike Caldwell on Sockeye? Katherine Wooten on Ozone? Jim Parinella and Alex de Frondeville with DoG?
People have done it, yeah. Though typically on elite teams that regularly make or win Nationals. To play that much without being on a surefire qualifier? To play a bunch of them with less than two lines of players?
“I’m pretty stubborn,” Vance admitted. “For sure, it was tough some of those years but we always played well at Regionals. It was always a team that got a ton of reps together throughout the year.”
There’s a fine line between stubbornness and loyalty. I can’t delineate it but it’s refreshing to know that someone like Vance can’t either.
A silver lining of the team’s short bench was that they had plenty of unit cohesion when they got to the postseason. The results bear that out. Since 2002, Medicine Men has always finished in the top half of the field at Regionals.
There were other strong regulars that made it easy for Vance to come back every year. Core guys who could (and absolutely had to) play both ways on a light roster, like Mike “Jraffe” McAndrew and Perry Gorgen (both did brief stints with Truck Stop before returning to the team), and Mike Stephen, who was a top three thrower in the region for several years3. Stephen disappeared for a while and then resurfaced with Truck in 2011. Those were guys you expected to see with Medicine Men. Vance was a guy you knew you would see.
“If it wasn’t those same [core guys] returning every year, I don’t know that I would have,” said Vance. “It was worth it.” And a quickly-established rivalry with D.C. fueled his commitment.
“There was some bad blood with some of those early Truck Stop teams that probably kept me from considering that as an option.”
Even in his prime Vance was never going to go play in the District. His teammates knew it. And in that fact was stability: he was a leader who was going to make Med Men happen the next year, even in the face of tremendous uncertainty. In 2009, they returned only four players from the previous campaign but still found a way to regroup.
Stability is a hard thing to come by in the Capital Section.
Med Men has watched on, in relative safety as the Deleware-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) area has cannibalized and reconceptualized itself time after time in the naturally brief life cycle of mid-region teams. HOV Violators, AC/DC, Capital Punishment, Swell (those jerseys, my god), Virginia Squires, Eastern Motors, Wiretap, RUNTIME…there is no shortage of tombstones in the graveyard of Mid Atlantic challengers.
Longer than the list of now-defunct Capital Section contenders is the growing roster of former Med Men who have become heavy contributors on Truck Stop. Players like Delrico Johnson, David Cranston, Max Cassel, Christian Boxley, Keven Moldenhauer (who was on the inaugural team and part of the think tank that came up with the name “Medicine Men”), and Tom Doi (who won a title with Revolver in 2017) to name a few. Truck was there, waiting in the wings, for Baltimore players to come up through the ranks, though that migration was usually more sporadic than steady. Vance added clarity.
“Our year-to-year turnover to Truck is probably less than some people think it was,” said Vance. “When we lost people to Truck it was in bulk after three years.”
Eventually DC and Baltimore–who was quite clearly never going anywhere–fell into a symbiotic understanding. Vance laid it out in simple terms.
“We were helped in later years with a better relationship with Truck Stop,” he said. “Also with Truck Stop’s level of play getting higher, there was a much greater talent level available.”
Logically, a stronger DC squad would have to mean a stronger Medicine Men. A guy who would be near the end of the bench for Truck might choose Med Men to get more playing time in a place that still had structure and balance.
A Decade In
2010 was a watershed year. Baltimore Medicine Men had a reasonable footing in the region and they started to have real numbers to flesh out the roster. The Shaman’s call began attracting more young players than ever before–players that fit the demographics of the nearby college scene.
“I always thought it was people with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. Around DC, Maryland, and Virginia, there’s a lot of smaller schools and not a lot of state schools,” said Joe Patterson, a long-time player and leader on Med Men.
“A lot of people that put in a lot of work to be able to hit above their weight [against D-I teams]… we attracted a lot of people that sort of wanted that opportunity at the club level as well.”
Patterson’s Med Men career started in 2011, which was a formidable time to be a rookie in the Mid Atlantic.
It was perhaps the wildest and most hyped Mid Atlantic Regionals ever4, and for good reason. There were four bids for 15 teams and EVERYONE was going for it—old and new teams alike. Top to bottom, 2011 was the best field the tournament ever saw. Cash Crop bubbled up as the new Not Ring Of Fire team from North Carolina and were gunning for one of those bids, with an impressive patchwork roster that included Cole Sullivan, Hensley Sejour, Ben Dieter, and Raju Prasad. They also had the young 1.0 versions of guys like Justin Allen, Shane Sisco, and Joey Cretella, who later made names for themselves with Ring.
This was also the last year that North Carolina was part of the region, and the final was basically one big going away party. Truck Stop and Ring had an old fashioned slug fest for the ages, as Noah Saul pulled off an improbable sky over Jeff Wodatch on double game point (truly a rare sight) to send Ring off to the Southeast in style, 15-14.
Med Med actually took Cash Crop (the three seed) down in pool play and advanced to semifinals before running out of steam and finishing two spots out of the money in sixth place.
The victory over Cash Crop was Baltimore’s biggest win to date. Their semifinal appearance was a 15-8 loss to Truck Stop, but with four bids that was also technically a game-to-go. They had proved something that weekend–if only to themselves. Much like a lot of the new blood they were recruiting, Med Men was willing–and able–to punch above their weight.
The influx of grinders from schools like Towson, Georgetown, and American University (Patterson’s alma mater) raised the floor on the quality of practice, player development, and potential. Medicine Men finally had depth. They even had practice players. And for the first time a sustainable pool of eager young players to develop and hopefully retain.
“We were trying to achieve the highest possible outcome we could, but it was a pretty big focus just on developing talent within the team and being able to see improvement for players year to year,” said Patterson. “It was pretty obvious that those core guys cared about that… and I think that kind of commitment was really crucial in bringing people back.”
People did come back. The eventual migration to Truck Stop was still there, but it wasn’t an exodus. Med Men had home grown a roster of committed soldiers and quality role players who were ready to make a push.
The hard work paid some measurable competitive dividends: Med Men was awarded Select status for the 2016 season, which earned them invites to some Triple Crown Tour events. Though they only played two Nationals teams before the postseason5, they performed well on Sunday of Regionals–taking half 8-6 on Philadelphia Patrol in the game-to-go. They eventually fell 13-10 to Patrol, a tough loss, but it was a huge step forward for the team and their goals.
Playing in that game to go gave Medicine Men a major shot in the arm in terms of recruiting talent from other teams in the area. Without a doubt, this was their strongest roster to date. They played Top Select in 2017, competed at better tournaments, and went 2-8 against Nationals qualifiers, with wins over PoNY and Doublewide–the biggest in program history.
“We thought… we can beat PoNY. We can beat Doublewide. We can beat Temper. Let’s get to that game and I think it it’ll be ours,” said Patterson.
Baltimore readied for Regionals with confidence and momentum and…ran into a hotter team in the backdoor semifinal. That’s just how it went. Med Men fell 16-15 to Patrol, who cruised to Nationals one round later. But the game was lost in the strange and heartbreaking way that can keep a player up at night.
“[We] fell short by a point against a good team,” Vance remembers. “But we had 15 straight offensive holds in that game. We had a turnover in the endzone on the first point of the game and then held out.”
Med Men gave up a break to start, they had the disc on double game point, Billy Sickles of Patrol6 got a block, and Baltimore lost. You’ll have to trust the sources on this one. The Score Reporter page is worthless, as is historical convention.
I would never challenge Vance’s frisbee memory and I especially won’t here. Some games you just remember. This one was his last with Medicine Men. He quietly retired that afternoon, as did seasoned vet Perry Gorgen.
“Vance is Med Men,” eight year Shaman Joe DiPaula said. “When he hung ‘em up… it was tough. The culture wasn’t quite the same. It was still good… but it certainly didn’t help not having him around and having him out there.”
What followed was a difficult offseason. There was another one of those bulk roster turnovers and three more starters left for D.C. No more stable old guard guys like Vance and Perry. And there was another unfamiliar obstacle: the taste of success without quite breaking through.
The 2018 regular season was less impressive than the last. There were new players and growing pains, like going winless at Colorado Cup. Yet, in driving rain and bitter cold at Regionals they (maybe surprisingly) found themselves in the same position as the previous year: having the disc with a chance to win on double game point before eventually losing to Patrol in a backdoor semifinal (otherwise known as “The Game To Go To The Game To Go”). Final score 14-13.
It was kind of an overhaul season…though (probably a testament to the strength of the club) they still got close. But 2018 was different. Harder. More draining. Tiresome for veterans going through yet another rebuild. There was a sour taste.
“I think it’s just over time, three years in a row of being that close and never getting over the hump,” DiPaula said of the 2018 campaign. “There was just a lot of frustration amongst some of the guys at the end of the year.”
Patterson felt much the same way.
“ was disheartening from a different perspective. You go from  where you’re trying to compete at the highest level– fantastic roster– and you feel like you can finally get one of those bids and beat those teams. Then you go another year where you’re struggling to play at the year you’re capable of… a lot more rebuilding throughout the year… and then you have the same result.”
The Beginning Of The End
There was some mutual frustration around the DMV. Soon after 2018 Regionals, the once tribal teams (and team leaders) began to talk about the future of the area.
“For the first time, I think in a long time, people were all talking together,” said Patterson. “It wasn’t just within their teams. People were feeling out what other people wanted to do.”
Before the new year, the conversations between leaders on Oak Grove Boys (Arlington, Virginia), Floodwall (Richmond, Virginia), and Medicine Men had intensified and feelers were put out to top players about consolidating and starting a new team.
Interest was apparent from the beginning, according to Patterson.
“Especially last year where there were three teams in the Top 30 in one pool at Regionals (Med Men, Floodwall, and Oak Grove Boys), it kind of felt like we should try and bring that talent together,” he said.
Thus, Vault was formed7. The squad claims Hampton, Virginia, as its home base but they have a pretty even distribution of folks from the 2018 iterations of the above teams: seven players from Med Men, seven from Floodwall, and six from Oak Grove Boys.
As a first year club, Vault is considered a Classic team in the eyes of USA Ultimate. They have summarily smashed all comers, posting a 26-1 record as they head into the series.
Earning a bid to Nationals for the region as a Classic team is difficult. Vault was unable to earn one but that was basically a foregone conclusion. Ahead of 2019 Regionals, the Mid Atlantic sits at two bids, obtained by Truck Stop and Pittsburgh Temper. If the goal of this group was to go to Nationals right away, it seems silly not to recruit targeted guys to play under the Med Men flag with their Select status and try to earn a bid, but that would have been A) disingenuous and B) a nonstarter for Vault’s founding core.
Up until early June 2019, there was also the possibility that Medicine Men might run it back for another year. DiPaula had some interest in the new merger but after some conflicts didn’t make the cut. He and teammates Daniel “White Hat” Selwyn and Danny Dennin tried to carry on, but after low tryout interest and DiPaula suffering a serious ankle injury, they decided to call it.
There wasn’t another dramatic rebuild in the cards, partly because the standard of the program had changed. Med Men was done, after 19 seasons.
“I’ll never feel good about how it ended,” said a somber DiPaula. “I understand it and I get it but I’ll never feel good about it. There’s no other way to put it. It’s a tough ending.”
“After building it for that long and getting that close, we’re not going to keep it alive unless we’re going to be a team that does what we did the year before.”
The New Face Of The Mid Atlantic
Vault is on to Regionals to play spoiler and attempt to steal a bid. Any reasonable oddsmaker would have them as the fourth best team in a two-bid region. If the seedings hold, they will not qualify. The burning question becomes: does making Nationals this year matter?
“That really isn’t one of the things that we had at the forefront of our minds when we formed the team,” said Patterson. “People really wanted to play with talented players in the area and build a program that, down the road, could be very good and be sustainable.”
Program sustainability is not typically Topic A in a merger, particularly a three team affair such as this. Mergers are usually about winning right away. While getting to Nationals in year one would obviously be a welcome result, Vault has to keep happening to achieve this new higher ceiling. They’ll need to remember that this weekend regardless of how they finish.
I’ve been a part of two club mergers. One (nearly both) went completely sideways on me. The nuances of the new team culture, managing playing time, the pressure to win immediately…it’s just a tough thing to do well. Look at High Five, who folded this offseason: the goal of the team changed, the results did not, and…poof.
Vault has some legitimate talent and is largely untested. That’s usually a recipe for a fun follow at Regionals…and as someone who played on a Grateful Dead themed team for five seasons, I appreciate their Phish-related branding.8 Their schedule and season to this point has certainly embodied Phish’s chill nature. At Regionals, Vault will don jerseys with the quote “Whatever happens just relax.” They’d be well-served to keep that mantra in mind on Sunday and as they prepare for 2020, trying to emulate the year-over-year standard of success achieved by Med Men.
I write this as a long time player, many time intoxicated game-to-go spectator, and disciple of the Mid Atlantic region. It is the only regional tournament I have ever known.
I’ve lost five times to Medicine Men at Mid-Atlantic Regionals. Four of them were season-ending games that sent me to watch elimination play from the fence at Pratt Park or the hillside at the Kennett Square polo fields or whatever awful place that was in 2016 which should be seized by the state and turned into a facility where game commissioners can euthanize deer that have Chronic Wasting Disease.
And as was customary, I hated Med Men. I mean, fuck Med Men. I hated their stupid maroon jerseys… the biological oddity that like half their players in the last six years were left handed…and above all, I hated how routinely they improved throughout the season. How tough they were to face at Regionals–and how they were ALWAYS at Regionals.
But I have an incredible amount of respect for Medicine Men. When I heard that they had folded, I had this strange conflicted feeling. Sure, an all-timer rival had folded. But I was bummed. I felt bad for the future piss-and-vinegar hotheads who would not have the pleasure of having their season ended by Med Men at Regionals. I felt bad for the guys I played against and what they had created. And I felt bad for the region.
Baltimore Medicine Men was a shooting star. 19 year programs don’t just happen. Captains have to stay up at night and work hard to make it so. Players have to want to come back and keep playing. It’s a special thing. The Mid Atlantic was lucky to have them.
Longevity in club ultimate is its own form of success.
What’s old is new again (as I’ve noticed recently with force middle). Maybe there will be a resurrection…It only took Vault 15 years to get back on the scene.
Ryan Vance sent out an email a few months ago looking for recruits to play on a Medicine Men pickup team for Sectionals (and now Regionals) to get to year 20.
I’m a (retired and out of shape) Pittsburgh ultimate guy. I always will be. But I want to believe in something…tradition…anything. And even though a 25 year-old version of myself would consider it sacrilege, I have an ugly maroon jersey picked out to join Vance in his 104th tournament this weekend.
A Mid Atlantic Regionals without Med Men is nary a Regionals.
Let the record show that we’re giving them credit despite their one year rebrand in 1999. ↩
The Salisbury group included the great Danny Clark, who went on to become one of the most feared deep cutters in the division with New Jersey’s Pike and then later Boston Ironside. ↩
Go ahead and say he wasn’t, but you better sign your name. ↩
Aside from the two years that Los blew it and lost to Pike. ↩
Which, as far as I’m concerned, is an indictment of the TCT and how hard that system is on up-and-comers. ↩
Sickles is now and since 2015 has been the most underrated mens player in the Mid Atlantic ↩
Hopefully they make Nationals at some point and beat Sockeye in a really chippy game, then spend a year dragging Seattle on Twitter about being “the real fish/phish” or something like that. ↩