Play Ultimate: See the World. Memories from the Dream Cup 2013 USA All-Star team.

“Play Ultimate.  See the World.”
On February 8th I received a most unusual email from Satoru Ishii, an employee of Club Jr., inviting me to play in the Dream Cup in Fuji City, Japan:  “In 2013 for 15th anniversary, we’re trying to form ‘USA all-star team’.”  I decided not to question too much where things went right for me (or wrong for Club Jr) in order that I should be invited, and quickly accepted.  

The roster was finalized a few days later:
Bart Watson (*captain)
Martin Cochran
Max Cook
Brodie Smith
Will Driscoll
Dalton Smith
George Stubbs
Peter Prial
Ken Porter
Dylan Tunnell
Jimmy Mickle
Dylan Freechild

I think most would agree that the roster lived up to it’s billing.  This was clearly going to be a fun weekend.

Headless wandering
Most arrived as expected in Tokyo Narita Airport by Thursday afternoon; some delays in Bart’s itinerary meant that he would be a day behind the rest of us.  The first signs of Club Jr’s, and Sat’s in particular, preparedness and meticulous planning for the event and our participation in it began to show in the way of a chartered bus to our hotel.

Without prior Dream Cup participant and captain Bart, like any beast without it’s head, we proceeded clumsily towards Fuji City that evening, getting to know each other and discussing various timely topics like the AUDL, MLU, and Team USA rostering along the way.

A pit stop during the drive yielded more foreshadowing: we were recognized by a player also traveling to the Dream Cup and had our pictures taken with him.

Finally at 11pm, exhausted from international travel, we arrived outside the hotel and began to unload our bags and proceed to the hotel foyer.  Upon entering we found, in what kicked the surreality into high gear, a group of Club Jr staff who applauded when we entered the room.  I guess if you’re going to call a team “All-Stars” it makes sense to treat them as such.  Another round of classiness expertly played by our hosts Club Jr.

Welcome to Fuji City
We arrived at the fields several hours earlier than our first game to ensure there was enough time for… autograph signing.  Although probably more common to the super-stars in our sport, this was a new phenomenon to me and others on the team, but delightful.  The requests continued over the course of the weekend, and I estimated that I signed over 100 autographs.  At other times there was also palpable, over-the-top excitement at our presence: on several occasions players literally jumped up and down when we said they could throw or take their picture with us.  Again, happenings that were totally surreal, but also unique and undeniably flattering.

Ladies love Peter Prial

Taking the Field
Finally, we got to start playing together, still without Bart, on Friday afternoon.  We scrimmaged two college teams and built some chemistry.  It was remarkable how quickly a team dynamic developed over the weekend: there was the younger cabal, with Dalton being the clear rookie (sorry, Dalton – you know I love you).  And then there were a bunch of older veterans swapping war stories (Dylan and I spent the entire flight back to the states doing this – quality stuff), but no real “middle”.  We joked that the team was “NextGen + Used-to-be-Gen.”  Bart arrived that evening to bolster the old guy crew.

Me with… something

The Japanese style of play
Saturday brought the first tournament games that counted in the single-elimination bracket.  As we started off playing the 64 seed, we weren’t expecting huge challenges on the first day but the Japanese teams quickly surprised us.  During previous Revolver matches against the Buzz Bullets it was evident had a very distinctive style of play relative to American teams: low, flat hucks to speed and / or across the field, long handler cuts to the break side, quick first steps, and no clear separation between the handler and downfield roles.  To my horror, all Japanese teams seem to play this way, and play it well.  The U-23 team gave us a great game in the quarters, and we barely survived semis 12-11 with a timely D as the clock expired (hard caps were effective immediately, basically).  As I knew Buzz played this style the best, I also knew it’d be a challenge to win the tournament.  This, I later learned, was a gross understatement: Buzz had won the tournament 13 out of 14 times, including against Sockeye the year they brought the whole team and one in which they won UPA nationals.  No American team had ever won.

The Brodie question
“What’s it’s like playing with Brodie?”  This was the most frequently asked question I received after the tournament.  However, to answer that question I think you really need to ask a wider question: Who is Brodie Smith and what is his role in the sport?  I think it’s fair to say that he’s one of the most talented throwers and players in the game.  He’s also, and let’s make no mistake about it, the ambassador for the sport: his video view counts sum to over 30 million, and there may be many “pro” ultimate players in the MLU and AUDL these days, but Brodie is the only one I’m aware of who is truly making a living playing the sport.

And herein lies the line Brodie has to walk: for him Dream Cup is not just a weekend for fun and travel.  It is a professional obligation and opportunity, and one of many at that.  Brodie wants to play well and win, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure to have a highlight reel at the end of it, even at the expense of a few turnovers here and there.  It also means that when the team is getting to know one another over beers, Brodie was in his room editing film, nurturing his substantial social-media following and otherwise being the professional that he is.

To get back to the original question, I had a great time playing with Brodie: he was easy to read as a thrower and cutter, and he made a bunch of big plays, saving his best game for the final.  But I think he also hasn’t quite figured out how to walk that line between his professionalism and being the ideal ambassador for the sport: there’s one highlight (play #8) from the finals where he makes a great play over his defender, then does a punch-spike from the ground, watches the disc rise and fall in the air, then remembers to try to give his defender, who has walked away at this point, an encouraging hi-five.  I think with a little more hi-fiving and a little less punch-spiking he’ll find more success, on and off the field.

Finals vs Buzz (video)
Living up to expectations, Buzz gave us one hell of a game in the finals.  We were pumped to be the first American team to win the Cup, and they were equally determined to not let that happen.  It was back-and-forth for most of the game, with one interesting point where George Stubbs made a heroic greatest attempt.  Despite standing 10 yards away on the sideline, and watching the video replay, I’m still not sure if he was in, but the Buzz coach called him out and Satoru came over to mediate the disputed call.  “He says he was out,” Sat explained.  “So he was out.”

Eventually we pulled to 12-12 and called a quick timeout to muster up a final rally.  Subsequently and even more quickly, Buzz rattled off 3 points for the win.  Let me just close by saying that they are a very good team.  (Their national mixed team also looked extremely strong – team USA and others will have their hands full.)

Closing ceremonies and Dinner with Club Jr.
Opening and closing ceremonies bookended the tournament, with all teams respectfully present along with several city officials and representatives of Japan’s governing body of ultimate (side note – one of them showed me his application to the IOC to make ultimate an olympic sport!!).  The language barrier prevented the full impact of the ceremony from reaching us; Dylan Tunnel won some individual award (spirit?) and Dalton tried to collect an award that didn’t exist, much to our amusement.  Rookie.

The highlight of the tournament for me was the dinner and shenanigans with the Club Jr staff that evening.  We gave away a bunch of swag and toasted to many things while wearing silly hats.  It was an incredible cultural experience and one that is impossible to convey in writing, but one that I will never forget.  If you ever run into someone from Club Jr or associated with Japan ultimate in any way, please thank them for what they are doing for the sport and generally be helpful.  I guarantee you if you travel to Japan the favor will be repaid ten times over.

Thanks to everyone involved and especially Yoshida-san and Satoru-san for the amazing weekend!