by Tony Leonardo, Sarasota
By Tony Leonardo
The 1998 U.S. Nationals was held October 22-25 in Sarasota, Florida. 28 Men’s and Women’s teams and 7 Master’s squads competed over four days for the National Championship, considered by many to be the pinnacle of the sport.
Is U.S. Nationals the premier tournament for Ultimate Frisbee? From an American perspective, yes. Worlds is almost considered a bonus – a fun and competitive experience with teams from around the world. But how do teams from outside the U.S. regard the tournament?
1998 Worlds’ Champion Furious George from Vancouver, Canada, evidently thinks highly of U.S. Nationals, even after claiming the International Crown and besting top American team Death or Glory, twice.
Furious co-Captain CJ Harmer explained to me the team’s perspective, “I understand that a lot of U.S. teams don’t like Canadian teams because it’s their Nationals in a sense. But it is the best tournament. We’d have a hard time not being able to come. It’s an incredible showcase of top talent and good spirit.”
Continued Harmer, “There’s better quality teams here. With Worlds there was us, States, Sweden, Japan, then it kind of dropped off.”
In fact, Furious was so intent on proving themselves at U.S. Nationals that they chose to skip Canadian Nationals in favor of attending the Chicago Tune-Up tourney – an early season battle grounds for National-caliber teams in the U.S.
But there will always be discussion. Strong squads like Sweden and Germany will never have an opportunity to play in this tournament – so how can it truly be considered the best the sport has to offer?
“Well, to me the World Series is not even remotely a World Series, and the Super Bowl is a debatable topic,” explained Bob Byrne, Executive Director of the UPA.
Byrne’s implication is that the World Series and the Super Bowl may be played only among North American teams, but they are considered the pre-eminent tournaments worldwide for their respective sports. Another example would be the NBA Championships for Basketball.
So how did the first real threat to American dominance stand out in their rookie appearance?
It is extremely difficult coming to Nationals for the first time. It can be a grueling tournament and every team is capable of pulling off an upset. Add the fact that Furious traveled 14 hours in a plane to reach Florida and one can see how they ran out of steam on the second day and fell to bottom-seeded Red Tide to end their first Nationals campaign at 3—3.
Still, they were a remarkably good-natured bunch and enjoyed the competition. But they will have to wait another year for the chance to win the “Big One.”
On the Women’s side, the tournament once again focused on the East Coast versus the West Coast. Could two-time defending World Champions from Seattle, Women on the Verge, finally put a stop to Boston’s Lady Godiva – winner of three consecutive U.S. titles?
Like Furious, the Northwestern women had beaten Boston at Worlds. Could they beat them again in Florida?
The Women’s field featured several teams with legitimate chances of taking home the title. Besides Verge and Godiva, Atlanta’s Ozone, San Francisco’s HomeBrood, Chicago’s Nemesis, Philadelphia’s Philly Peppers and Denver’s Rare Air all possessed the talent and dedication needed to win.
Ozone especially has been on the doorstep – making finals in 1994 and semifinals every year thereafter.
But once again it was Women on the Verge and Lady Godiva that rose to the challenge. Godiva, behind a host of veterans and a team history that includes 11 straight Nationals’ appearances and 5 Championships, rolled over pool competition en route to making semifinals as expected. There they defeated a spirited HomeBrood team to advance to finals.
Verge, too, crushed opponents, outscoring the competition 45-9 in the first three pool games (including a pasting of last year’s semifinalists Nemesis). They finished pool play unblemished and faced Ozone in the semifinals.
Ozone picked up new talent in the off-season to keep the team fresh and it worked. They advanced confidently and were ready to square off against the talented Northwest crew.
The winds were strong, blowing across Western Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. It hampered play for teams like Ozone and Verge who were unaccustomed to playing in such conditions. The semifinal became quite a dogfight as both squads fought for every possession. Verge missed several chances to take commanding leads, only to watch Ozone’s 6’ 0″ power-forward Chris O’Cleary throw score after score for Atlanta.
Verge finally changed their defense on O’Cleary and scored a fast-break upwind goal to pull out of 13-13 tie to win 15—13 and advance to the Finals against rival Godiva.
The final proved to be a great game for the sport of Ultimate. Great layout defenses, huge endzone skies – and a seven-point turnaround in the second half.
Behind veteran captain Abbi Nilssen and star players Kathy “KP” Porter, Kathy Scott and Pam Kraus, the Seattle women surged in the first half of play. They beat Godiva to discs, sent long throws that were pulled down for scores, and shut down Godiva’s superstars Christine “Teens” Dunlap and Molly Goodwin.
When it was over, Verge had opened up a commanding 10—4 half-time lead and Lady Godiva looked to be on the verge of cracking. One more scoring sweep for Verge and they could have all but locked up the game (played to 19).
But Dunlap and Goodwin didn’t see it that way. Goodwin especially has a fierce competitor’s determination. If Lady Godiva wasn’t going to step up and play big then she was going to do it herself.
While Verge put points on the board in the second half sparingly, Godiva ran off spurts of three and four going both upwind and downwind.
Behind Goodwin (who would throw or catch 9 of Godiva’s 13 scores in the second half) Boston came close to Verge at 10—11. They scored to tie, but it was called back. Verge completed the turn and took a 13-11 lead.
Godiva responded and Verge did too – but it was called back on a mysterious call. Godiva scored and the game was tied at 13s. It was going to be tooth and nail to the finish.
Godiva’s furious comeback gave them confidence and something even more important – the downwind advantage. They scored again when rookie Vicky Chow found the endzone and suddenly Godiva held their first lead of the match, a 14-13 advantage. They had outscored Verge 10—3.
Nilssen and KP refused to let the game slip away for Verge. They scored downwind on a Pam Kraus layout. Godiva responded downwind. Both teams were playing well as the game drew to a close. The two-and-a-half hour time limit was approaching.
Neither team could punch in an upwinder. Goodwin was everywhere for Godiva. At 15s the cap was announced.
At 16 all, game to 17, it looked like trouble for Verge. Godiva received the disc going downwind. They moved through a Verge zone and found their money player, Gwyn Tracy, in the endzone. Tracy has caught the final goal in each of the last three Godiva Championships. Make that four.
In a spectacular comeback Lady Godiva won 17—16.
Verge was devastated. They had played a great game, only to find their winning margin evaporate in the second half. Godiva’s tough attitude again provided them a victory. They refused to get down on themselves after the disastrous first half. They got angry instead, and that anger fueled the come-from-behind win.
Lady Godiva is a very tight-knit group. And they have no plans on disrupting their dynasty, “People are going to be playing until they are menopausal,” says Peg Hollinger.
The Men’s division was just as exciting. Besides World Champs Furious and four-time defending Champions Boston there were Raleigh-Durham’s Ring of Fire, 1997 semifinalists and winners of Tune-Up, San Francisco’s Jam, who had plastered Furious George in the Northwest Regionals, New York’s WSL All-Stars, re-tooled and in prime contentious form, and the Santa Barbara Condors – undefeated in the regular season and winners of all tournaments they had played.
Of course there were plenty of other talented teams as well. In fact, this might have been the strongest field to compete at Nationals ever.
East Coast versus West Coast was still active incentive for teams, but this year the defining line of the tournament was old versus young.
For most games it was actually youth versus youth. Across the nation the collegiate teams have been getting stronger and stronger. There is a very tangible youth movement in the United States and it showed at 1998 Nationals.
Besides Furious George, whose average age is 24, there was Minnesota’s Sub Zero, carrying only two players who had previously been to Nationals and twenty who were two years or less out of school. San Diego’s Los Guapos could form a line with players still in college. From Philadelphia to Houston, from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, New York and North Carolina, key positions were filled with recent college grads.
Only Boston remained a team without youth. Their average age was 34. But where they lacked fresh legs there was savvy, talent and conviction. They wanted this tournament.
There were several excellent pool play games. In pool One, Furious George sneaked by Sub Zero 17—15 but lost to Boston 9—16 and the Condors 9-13. They were having trouble with the wind. And the best game of the tournament was played in the last round when the undefeated Condors faced undefeated Death or Glory.
In pool Two, San Francisco Jam outlived the WSL All-Stars 15—14 in a cranky, foul-plagued match. Ring of Fire came from five back to defeat Jam 17—13. Ring put away New York and Houston to finish undefeated. Houston stunned heavily favored San Francisco 14—10 to force a tense game-to-go final round versus rival New York. New York strode to victory 16—9 to earn their first birth in semifinals since 1994.
It was the Condors-DoG match that outdid everyone’s expectations of seeing great competition at Nationals.
The Condors, led by captains Steve Dugan and Andy Crews, came to Nationals with a somewhat novel player subbing strategy for high-level competition.
“We don’t call subs, players can walk on when they think they’re ready to go in. People play when they’re fresh, not when someone else thinks they may be fresh, and it builds a lot of confidence,” explained Crews.
I don’t think many people gave the Condors a chance. After all, Death or Glory has never lost a game at U.S. Nationals since forming in 1994. They have been that dominant.
But Santa Barbara was unfazed, “Half of why they win is that they count on a little bit of a choke from the other team. They rarely play against teams that have been under as much pressure as they have,” suggested Crews.
The Condors got ahead of DoG early and stayed ahead. All the way, in fact, until the final point.
At Halftime it was 9—6 Condors. When the cap was enacted to 18 it was 16—14 Condors.
DoG scored two to tie at 16s. Santa Barbara responded going downwind and DoG returned the favor. 17 all, next point wins. The Condors were receiving the disc going downwind.
Moving patiently through a deceptive DoG zone, the Condors found themselves 5 feet from the goalline. But the Boston defense was covering all the angles. It would take a great look or a great throw to break through. Dugan decided to go for it and he flipped a scoober to Crews in the endzone. Crews caught the disc heading out of bounds…
Did he get his feet down? In or out? Several spectators were on top of the play but no one could make a ruling. Neither team appealed to the observers. The disc went back to thrower.
Perhaps the tenseness of the situation caught up with S.B. They could not find a way to convert the point. Finally DoG forced a turnover. Boston marched the opposite direction and scored to win the barn-burner 18—17.
It was quite a show by both teams. Santa Barbara looked calm and yet determined even in losing. Boston felt lucky to escape with the win – but it still fed their confidence, knowing that they remained King of the Hill.
The semifinals were set. Boston matched up with arch-rival New York (albeit without Ken Dobyns) and North Carolina played Santa Barbara.
The WSL All-Stars, behind captain Josh Faust, managed to stay with Boston in the first half. They were primed for playing their rivals in such a high-profile game. But they had to keep up the intensity for the whole game. DoG would be ready to capitalize on any mistakes.
At 8-8, DoG found the miscue they were looking for, baiting a New Yorker into putting the disc in the endzone on a high count. Instead of New York taking the half, DoG took the stanza 9—8.
DoG focused intently on the start of the second half. They wanted to win the game right then. One misread, a dropped pass, and suddenly DoG opened a 13—8 advantage. New York was not keeping pace. They closed to within two at 12—14 before Boston turned up the heat and won 17—13.
Both Santa Barbara and North Carolina carry integrated squads of players, ranging in age from 19 to 39. Almost half of Ring of Fire’s players come from the local colleges – NC State, Duke and UNC. Several of Santa Barbara’s high-profile starters played this year for University of California Santa Barbara.
Ring of Fire was the favorite, but they did not know what to expect from Santa Barbara. They hadn’t seen them in 1998.
Ring of Fire relies on spurts of defensive blocks to spark the offense and overpower teams. They often score bunches of points in bursts of energy. When they get fired-up they are tough to beat.
Santa Barbara scores rhythmically. They rarely lose focus or play less than the best they can. They don’t make many mistakes. When they play their game they score.
Something had to give. Santa Barbara established pacing early, scoring on consecutive upwinders. Ring of Fire kept up but they failed to get the burst of points they needed. Every time they looked to get a big defensive spurt, S.B. would find a way to score.
The Condors took a 9-8 halftime lead. Like the DoG–WSL game, the start of the second half proved to be important. The Condors started with the disc and scored. Ring got on the board, but then the Condors went on a streak and put in three consecutive for a 13—9 lead.
Ring closed to 12-14 behind co-captain Augie Kreivenas. But they could not stop the Condors. The game ended in Santa Barbara’s favor, 17—13. They were headed to a re-match with Boston.
Santa Barbara had proved that they belonged in the finals. But could they be the team to knock Death or Glory from their throne?
It was a matchup of loose, game-faced cocky Californians versus self-assured veteran strategists from the competitive Northeast.
Both teams came with their pedigree. Steve Mooney, Boston’s co-captain, has been playing in Nationals since the early 80’s. He can recall the days of Ultimate when 90% of teams resided on the East Coast.
The Condors hold the distinction of keeping a team intact for nearly 20 years. The team was founded by Ultimate pioneer Tom Kennedy in 1979.
DoG always gives the opposing team some slack to open the game. They prefer to find out how the opponent operates. Often their lax demeanor will give the other team a false sense of confidence.
The Condors took advantage and opened a 6—4 lead. They weren’t concerned with DoG’s head games. But DoG finally spotted an opportunity and rallied for a 6-2 run, giving them a halftime lead 10—8.
When DoG started the second half with two straight after the Condors repeatedly failed to score upwind, it looked as if the game might head to its predictable end.
Santa Barbara was unnerved, but they were not panicked. They finally got on the board. DoG responded to keep the four-goal lead. And then they waited.
Death of Glory’s veterans will often rest up at times during games, hoping to psychologically take advantage of opponent mistakes. But the Condors were not so willing to give in to Boston.
Instead they closed the gap. Boston held a 14—10 lead when they dropped down a notch in play and Santa Barbara coolly focused on scoring.
A downwind point was followed by a silly DoG turnover, converted by the Condors quickly on a 50-yard upwind huck for the goal. Going upwind, Boston again made a throwing error, allowing Santa Barbara to score downwind easily.
The next possession was huge. DoG was moving downfield but couldn’t find an open cut. Jim Parinella was forced to come all the way from the back for a dump pass. JD Lobue read the pass from the beginning and flew in to just get a piece of the disc. It airbounced high, allowing Parinella and teammate Eric Zaslow to position themselves for the junk. Instead Zaslow sailed into Parinella and the disc scattered to the ground.
James Studarus picked up the disc for the Condors and unleashed a big upwind huck to the endzone. It was safely brought down and with it came DoG’s advantage.
The game was tied at 14s and the Condors possessed momentum and the downwind advantage. The California faithful on the sidelines were ecstatic. The horn sounded just before the pull on the next point. It was going to be a game to 17 no matter what.
Boston was clearly shaken. But Mooney pulled Death or Glory together and commanded victory. He would not let his team lose.
Paul Greff, nicknamed The Greatest Player in the Game, or TGPITG, made sure Mooney was not made the fool.
DoG moved patiently upwind for four passes before Greff found it reasonable to let loose a huge upwind huck to a covered Jeremy Seeger. The disc was placed perfectly and Seeger had a step on his man. He leapt and caught the disc high above the endzone, landing in and restoring confidence for Boston in a grand fashion.
But still the Condors would not die. In fact, they should have tied the game again. Working thirty passes through a tentative Boston zone, they found themselves five yards from the goal with an easy scoring opportunity.
Instead a forehand throw crept up in the wind and then leaped up in a gust over the wide-open Condor. Greff tracked it down in the endzone and tipped it away at the last minute.
That may have been the game right there. The should-have-been score would have ignited the Condors and put serious pressure on Boston. But fate had something different in mind.
Boston scored and Santa Barbara responded. 16—15 DoG. One more point. And now Boston was moving downwind.
The Condors played a zone. Boston had some nervous trouble with it but still managed to move within 10 yards of a fifth consecutive title.
Greff found himself with the disc and nowhere to throw. The count was getting high. Mooney went back for a swing, then snuck forward a step. Greff threw the disc anyway, a high-release shovel pass, up high where only Steve could get it. Mooney adroitly leapt up to catch the disc, kicked his feet out, covered the remaining five yards, and landed just over the line. Game over.
Five consecutive National Championships for Death or Glory. They are a powerful dynasty that refuses to lose.
It was a spectacular match, filled with great plays, spirit and competition.
Hopefully 1999 Nationals in San Diego will be just as exciting. I can guarantee that the competition will be even stronger.
Tony Leonardo covered 1998 and 1997 U.S. Nationals for the UPA. He currently lives a miserable, god-forsaken life trying to be a writer in the thicket of humanity that is New York City