The first Mexican Open team to ever win a pool play game in international competition is also building for the future.
July 26, 2022 by Jesse Strod in Profile with 0 comments
If you are reading this, it is likely that you love playing ultimate (or at least know someone who does). The question is, would you drive for four full days in order to play seven days of ultimate and then have to do all of that driving again?
If your answer is “yes,” there might be a future place for you on Baja Ultimate (MEX) from Tijuana, Mexico. Ten players in two cars of five drove for 36 hours over four days from Tijuana, stopping in New Mexico, Texas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, before finally reaching Cincinnati for the World Ultimate Club Championships. In the last round of Sunday, Baja got their reward when they upset Melbourne Juggernaut (AUS) on universe point to become the first team from Mexico to ever win a pool play game at WUCC in the Open Division.
The journey to Baja Ultimate’s historic win started not too long ago. The idea for an ultimate team in Baja started in just 2015. “People started playing ultimate because we saw a YouTube video. One day we had a pick up game between two improvised teams. After this, we had a pick up game on Fridays… I loved it,” said Alberto “King” Camacho, a founding member of the team.
Baja competed at the Mexican National Championships for the first time in 2016, finishing 10th. They kept working and practicing and came back the next few years, improving each time and working their way to 5th in 2019, but never breaking into the elite tier. In 2021, they took a big leap up and won the tournament, which was set up as a qualification tourney for earning a bid to WUCC. In the final, they beat Fenyx, a Mexican ultimate powerhouse out of Mexico City that has won the national championship 13 times and has represented Mexico at WUCC in the past. To win that national championship, Baja certainly put in a lot of work on the practice field but they were also helped by a decision that originally had little to do with them.
“Carlos moved to San Diego for work and started playing with Baja,” Alberto said about Carlos Ruiz, who has been the Baja Coach since the end of 2018. Carlos is originally from Tijuana but had been in Mexico City for years, playing for Fenix while he lived there and traveling to WUCC himself as a player. When Carlos moved to San Diego at the end of 2017 and started commuting back home south of the border for Baja, he brought more than just his on-field skill and experience.
“He brought the gringos to Tijuana, and this is key for our team,” said Arath Elenes, a 17-year-old player on the Baja squad.
San Diego and Tijuana are separated by essentially only the United States-Mexico border, and it is a very bi-national community. Living in San Diego, Carlos was embedded in the San Diego ultimate community while also traveling to Tijuana often to visit family and play with Baja. Connecting the two communities, Carlos brought some experienced players he knew from California Burrito, a Regionals-level mixed club team in San Diego, to come play with Baja. Adding the players from San Diego was a game-changer for the program. “They give the team so much energy and a lot of experience. [The] gringos make the team different from every team in Mexico… we play more of a US-style,” said Arath.
It is common for Americans to be playing with non-American club teams at WUCC but it’s not often for them to be full-time members of the team. And that’s what the San Diego players are; they have been playing with Baja for a year and a half and will continue to play with them in the foreseeable future.
“They know Mexican culture because Tijuana is very close to San Diego, and it is a good complement,” said Camacho. When asked about the “gringos,” Carlos replied, “They are a part of the team. They know all the nicknames, they stay with us when we travel… they are part of the community in TJ (Tijuana), helping with youth clinics and tournaments and they know all the inside jokes. I am very proud of them and they are our friends.” The team has built close bonds and chemistry with each other, and their success does not look like it’s stopping anytime soon.
“I think we need to win another national championship. We won the first and we need to keep the high level… in order to get to another WUCC,” said Camacho. And aside from external goals like winning championships, there is a focus on the internal development of their younger players as well. In Camacho’s words, “those guys are the future of this team.”
When discussing the development of their younger players, one has to put the Baja area youth programs front and center. The Mexican sports federation recently recognized frisbee as an official sport, just like soccer, baseball, and other more popular sports. This has given the ultimate community in Mexico more infrastructure to grow the game. With the recent recognition, Alberto has been able to help set up a summer camp in Tijuana where kids can learn how to play frisbee. At the end of the camp, Alberto and other members of Baja Ultimate involved in the programs invite the players to come to play with the more structured youth teams, called Baja Sunset and Scorpions. Alberto has also worked with the state ultimate association to create a program where he and a few others teach physical education teachers the rules of ultimate. The teachers then go on and teach their students ultimate in schools.
As a result of these efforts, Camacho says “the number of players is increasing every year.” Right now, these programs are unique to the state of Baja California, and the Baja Ultimate club is certainly benefitting. Arath himself has played in Baja’s youth programs for years and was invited last year to try out for the Baja Ultimate Open team. Alberto hopes that something like what he has set up in Baja could exist as a national plan as early as next year.
Outside of youth development, the competitive landscape of ultimate in Mexico is also changing with the recognition from the national sports federation. There will now be a State Championship and Club Championship, where the Club Championship will operate much the same as the current National Championships and the State Championship will involve teams of all-stars from each state in Mexico competing against one another.
While plans for the future of ultimate in Mexico are bright, there are also big opportunities to focus on right now for Carlos, Alberto, Arath, and the whole Baja Ultimate team. That brings us to the 5 PM game with Juggernaut on Sunday. After a tough loss to Ghent Gentle (BEL) earlier in the day, Baja started out the game firing on all cylinders, getting two breaks on their first two tries. Abe Emmanuel-Shklar had the assist on both of those, first shooting to Rodrigo Zeleny and then Alan Ruiz for the second. They rode that early advantage through some bumps to take half 8-6.
The second half started much the same as the first. Baja were able to pick up two breaks in the first four points, and this time it was Peter Osseward with two assists. Baja thought they might win comfortably with a 14-11 lead but Juggernaut showed their grit as the wind picked up. After getting a hold to make it 14-12, the Aussies threw a zone which gave Baja some trouble and resulted in two Juggernaut breaks. That put the game tied at 14-14, to be decided by an all-important universe point. It was a grinder. With the wind gusting the most intensely it had all day, universe point lasted 8 minutes and 32 seconds – the longest point of the game. Cool under pressure, Jordan Harmer was able to get the disc into the hands of Rodrigo Zeleny to seal the deal for Baja and for all of Mexican ultimate.
After the game, Carlos was elated, “we are so happy, so thrilled.” Ruiz also would have felt remiss if he did not shout out his experience coaching the semi-pro team Superbloom in the WUL.
“That gave me a lot of tools and I want to thank my co-coaches on Superbloom,” Ruiz said.
However, his main focus was to shout out the many players on his team who “killed it:” Alberto Camacho, Rodrigo Zeleny, Abraham Emmanuel, Peter Osseward, Samuel Meza, Arath Elenes, and many more. “It was so great to see them on the field, and I am so proud of them.”
Baja’s win on Sunday was enough for Baja to finish 4th in their pool, meaning that they played on Tuesday in a Power Pool with a chance to make the bracket. Not so bad for the boys from Tijuana.