By Pat Niles
Saturday Morning: CLX
Waking up and driving to the fields on Saturday was somewhat familiar and somewhat foreign for Drag’n Thrust. The team had been mentally and physically preparing for a four-day grind but the experience of a tournament longer than two days can take a toll on the body and spirit. Having come out victorious in all of the games thus far, and having already secured a spot in semis, Drag’n (6-0) had a lot to be excited about, but that didn’t mean they were looking past any of their opponents, especially their Iowan neighbors, the Chad Larson Experience (5-1).
Since Drag’n Thrust’s inception in 2009, the rivalry with CLX had been tight, heated, and slightly in CLX’s favor. In fact, Drag’n Thrust has played CLX more than any other team in it’s 5 year history. CLX had won 8 out of 13 games but had only outscored Drag’n 172-165 in those 13 meetings. Somehow, regardless of how each team’s season was progressing, these two teams would always come out battling, tooth and claw, until the last point was scored. This storied history between the two teams would provide the fire for the battle as they played to see who would win the pool and become the 1-seed in semis.
The game started with Drag’n Thrust on defense, pulling into a steady, constant wind that might have been the strongest of the tournament to that point. Drag’n put on a hard man defense and quickly got a turn and punched in an upwind break . The battle was just starting however, and the first four goals scored were in the upwind endzone, until CLX finally connected downwind to break and go up 3-2. More trading occurred downwind until 5-5, but then Drag’n found it’s stride and confidence going on an 8-2 run that couldn’t even be slowed by halftime.
In the end, Drag’n Thrust recorded their largest victory ever over CLX, 15-9, but the game was a lot closer than it appears on paper. CLX had opportunities to take control, where mere inches could have changed the outcome of the game. Their ability to break the mark, control their throws, and open up space in the middle of the field pushed Drag’n to play their best and improve during the course of the game. The tall CLX recievers (both men and women) proved to be difficult to defend and racked up the majority of the stats. Drag’n will certainly have to keep watching out for CLX and the play shown by Kurt Brorsen, Melissa Gibbs, and newcomer Ryan Tucker. Congratulations go out to Jordan Hupps for his 6 goals, Dave Klink for his 4 assists, and Jess Haller for coming down with some swill and skyballs in the upwind endzone!
Semis: Wild Card
Going into Semis, Drag’n was riding high spirits after winning the pool over a regional foe and also finding out that we were awarded the ESPN 3 Broadcast game in the NSC Stadium.This would mean announcers, cameras, and more fans watching the game, all of which could be potential distractions for the team. As players entered the stadium, it was also clear that the ever-present wind this weekend would be a big and challenging factor with the shape of the stadium. As the team warmed up again and practiced throws in the new venue, it was readily apparent that the walls and bleachers around the field made for unpredictable disc flight patterns, causing the disc to rise or drop suddenly. It was a new factor that both teams would have to adapt to quickly.
When the game started, it was clear that the elements were taking a toll on the teams. A previously crisp looking Drag’n Thrust had very uncharacteristic turnovers while trying to battle through Wild Card’s tight handler pressure and down field defense. Wild Card had similar problems trying to find the flow and deep shots that had gotten them to the semi-finals match.
In what turned out to be a very sloppy match riddled with turnovers, fouls, and pick calls, Drag’n went down 2 breaks to start the game. After regrouping and finding some focus amidst the chaos of a couple 15+ minute long marathon points, Drag’n rattled off a couple points of their own to tie it up at 3-3. The teams traded downwind points, finding it difficult to connect on long throws in either direction, until it was 5-5. To score their 5th point, Drag’n Thrust’s Mike Clark came down with this spectacular low one handed hammer catch in the endzone. This might have been the excitement Drag’n needed to turn up the defensive intensity, as they were able to punch in the next two scores for an upwind and a downwind break to go up 7-5. Drag’n took half 8-6.
Coming out of half, the soft cap horn sounded and Wild Card scored downwind to make it 8-7, game to 10. With time running out and the end of the game in sight, Wild Card showed what they could do with their young athleticism and really put the pressure on. Luckily, the experience and poise of the Drag’n Thrust squad prevailed and they were able to score downwind points to win the game 10-8. Once again, this match with Wild Card came down to the wire and proved to be a gritty, hard fought match. Wild Card proved that their young athleticism could keep them in any game with the best teams in the country and as they will continue to get better as they gain experience and build chemistry with each other. Drag’n is looking forward to more competitive battles against this up and coming team as there’s a possibility of squaring off at three more tournaments this year.
Finals: Polar Bears
Playing on Sunday at a major Ultimate championship is a goal for any team and looking back at the video and photographs from the Wild Card win, it’s apparent how relieved and excited Drag’n was just for the opportunity to play for a US Open title. In 2012 in Colorado Springs and 2013 in Raleigh, they were eliminated in semifinals so just getting to the championship was a big deal. Drag’n knew that the 15-9 win over Polar Bears wasn’t an indicator of how this game would play out since the 2010 National Champions and 2011-13 runner-ups always fought with passion and pride. In the 4 times Drag’n played the Polar Bears before the 2014 season, the series was tied up 2-2 with Drag’n holding the slight edge in points scored, 54-50.
The game started off with winds similar to those seen the day before in the Wildcard semifinal game. The swirling wind in the stadium was a bit more gusty and changed directions a few times during the game. Despite the wind, it appeared that both teams had learned from the playing in these conditions earlier and the throws were adjusted to be more consistent and conservative. Drag’n started on offense, going downwind and scored to start the game. Both teams offenses had early success going downwind until the 2-2 point when a Polar Bears turn near their endzone gave Drag’n great field position but Josh “Shwa” Hemmesch and Jake McKean couldn’t connect for the first break and the Polar Bears were able to finish off the point.
The Polar Bears were able to get the first break at 4-4 when they decided to change up their defensive look and come down in a junk-zone. Drag’n Thrust wasn’t ready and turned the disc near the goal line and the Bears punched it in. On the ensuing point, a huck to Pat Niles was blocked by Adam Raty, who then launched a full field forehand for the downwind break. After trading a few more points, the Polar Bears were able to convert on another upwind break to take it to half 8-5.
During halftime, Drag’n players took time to practice throws and refuel, but what they really needed was a mental pickup as the team energy seemed to be at a low point for the tournament. They were down three breaks and starting the second half on defense against a great team so the challenge to get back in the game was a big one. Fortunately, the strong mental fortitude of the team was restored from inspiring talks from their leaders reminding the team that “We love the Battle” and that it’s important to “Win the Moment.” It was enough to get the defense pumped up and sideline energy was boosted immediately. They knew that they could compete in every single game against every single team and that it was time to believe they could win.
The first few points of the second half were a blur as Drag’n Thrust’s intense man defense stifled the Polar Bears at every reset, getting them to high stall situations and forcing them to throw into tight defensive windows. Drag’n scored the first four points out of half to make it 9-8 and it appeared as though they had taken control of the game, but the Polar Bears are a great team for a reason. Just like Drag’n, the PB squad has the ability to turn it on when faced with adversity and tough opponents and after trading downwind points, Polar Bears fired up and responded with three scores in a row to make it 12-10.
During the 13-12 point, Drag’n had numerous opportunities to score an upwind break of their own, but missed on a couple of out of bounds catches and miscues between players. Eventually, Polar Bears would score to make it 14-12. On the ensuing point, a quick turnover from the junk zone gave Polar Bears a short field opportunity to secure the win, 15-12.
Going into this tournament with a new squad we were largely untested. We didn’t know what the new faces on the team could contribute or how they would perform when pitted against the best teams in the nation. It is safe to say that after this weekend we’ve got high hopes for the rest of the tournaments this year. We’ve learned what we’re good at and our opponents have exposed some of the weaknesses that we’re sure to focus on. All the the time spent together and the high-profile games we played will be great experience for all of our players as we travel to new places and compete against new teams. We’ve learned that even when falling short during competition that we can respect and appreciate the teams and players we play against because they push us to be better, to learn, and to innovate so that we can push them equally as hard the next time we face.
It’s all about the journey and we’re just getting started. Battle, Battle, Battle! War, War, War!