What We Did Right: Depth

There are many pieces of our 2014 season that are highlights, but one of those that I’m most proud of is the depth of our team. At Nationals, the least any healthy player saw the field was 15% of our points. In other words everybody on our team played at least 60% of an even share of playing time.

From the start of the season, we were aware that nationals is eight or nine games, with the most important ones at the end. Teams that have to rely on their best players to win all those games will not have legs left for Saturday and Sunday. Everyone knows this, so the the real question is how do you develop the depth to save your legs? Crash made three decisions that helped us build the depth of our roster for regionals and nationals: making depth a goal, playing our whole roster even if we sacrificed wins and giving all of our players the green light to work on new skills in games.

Team Huddle!

At our start of season meeting, we set a goal of developing all of our players to be ready to beat teams at nationals. Having that kind of clarity made it easy as a line caller to run open rotations. No one questioned why they weren’t on the field in tight games or why we called an iso for a less experienced player. With the whole team behind it, everything about building depth became easier.

We lost quite a few close games at non-series tournaments. In every one of those games, we played the whole team. Our entire roster got experience against the best opponents and gained reps in crunch situations. At regionals, we could already see the results. Our top lines had plenty of legs with the other two lines shouldering most of the burden. In the finals, our fourth line got the turn and scored the game winner.

As well as playing our whole roster, we green-lighted players to stretch beyond their skills. Working on a flick huck? Throw it if the cut is open. Working on an IO break? Take the chance. It meant more turnovers early in the season, but more solid options late.

By nationals, our bench was rolling through pool play and into power pools. Then in our quarterfinal game, up by 4 with about fifteen minutes left, our O line got broken, then broken again. We were still up 2 with three minutes to go, but we’d lost momentum. If our opponents scored quickly they opened a sliver of daylight to win and eliminate us from the tournament. It was one of those moments that can become a team’s nightmare. Our O line had been on the field for two long points and was not clicking. Our top D line was cold from sitting once we’d opened up a lead. Calling the line, I had to figure out if I believed in our depth enough to bet our season on it.

I looked at Chris as we huddled up to call the line. He wanted to play, he knew he was ready, and we both knew that he would set the tone for whatever line he took out onto the field to get the job done. We put out our bench, moved the disc most of the way before turning it, worked like crazy to get it back, called the timeout to seal the game and then scored the final point. On the outside, no problem, three point margin of victory. On the inside, relief that our depth had pulled us out of a tight situation.

What We Did Right: Good Decisions

I teach math. I like patterns and I like certainties. In Ultimate, one certainty is that the difference in points between the two teams at the end of the game is the difference in turn-overs, plus or minus one. If your team turns the disc less than the other team, you will never lose the game.

We identified three places that most turnovers happen: drops, bad hucks and endzones. With catching incorporated into practices, we were already working to minimize drops, so it was time to get rid of bad hucks and endzone turnovers.

Jake catches the disc over LP right at the back of the endzone.

We had three rules for a good huck. It had to meet the rule of thirds, it had to be thrown from behind half so that the yardage gain was worth the risk and it had to be from flow or from a player designated as a static hucker because of their throwing skill.

It took a lot of work to build the right habits. We ran scrimmages where any huck that didn’t meet the rules was automatically a turnover. We set up our huck drill to meet all the rules every rep. We even ran our huck drill against the rules to show ourselves how much harder it was to complete the throws. At one practice, a player put up a flick bomb from one step behind the half line and then turned and grinned at me as it was caught in the endzone. Our awareness of what was a good and bad huck was becoming ingrained.

Our biggest challenge was training ourselves to take good endzone looks. Most of our players had habits from previous teams and league play of taking risky endzone throws. We had great throwers who could run 80% completion rates on the hammer to a player cutting away, high loopy throws in wind and threads through a crowd. We didn’t want to settle for 80% completion rates, so we set about changing our habits. Drill, drill, drill and eventually we were taking better choices here as well.

I’d love to say that our completion rate in the finals was great, but it wasn’t. The good news was that those turnovers generally came from gusty wind, poaches or excellent defense. We rarely lost possession because of throwing into too small a space, choosing an angle that made the read too hard or trying something too fancy into the endzone. Given the small margin in the game, we didn’t have a lot of room for bad decisions.