July 3, 2013 by Charlie Eisenhood in Preview with 8 comments
When I spoke to Ring of Fire captain Taylor Pope, he, at one point, compared his team to the San Antonio Spurs, the team that just lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat. He noted the Spurs’ reliance on playing together as a team, a necessity in a series where they lacked the star power of a LeBron James.
But his comparison was apt in other ways. San Antonio is a small-market team that is largely underestimated by players and fans; few expected them to make the finals, let along drag it out to a Game 7. Ring of Fire is…well, you get it. Not many picked them to make the semifinals last year.
“Nobody expecting us to get to the semis is no surprise, because no one ever expects us to do well,” said Pope. “But here we are, every year. At Nationals every year.”
He has a point. Since 2002, Ring of Fire has made it at least to the quarterfinals at the Club Championships every year but two. Last year was their highest finish since 2003.
They have maintained that consistency, said Pope, by staying true to their team identity. “Ring of Fire has a long history – a really long history – of blue collar, gritty ultimate,” he said. It’s the sort of perspective you might expect from Pope, one of the team’s older players and a true mainstay of the North Carolina (and elite Atlantic Coast) Ultimate community. His playing style — Pope excels at using his big body and big throws aggressively against opponents – is representative of an old, gritty Ring style.
But don’t expect him to embrace too much of the publicity. “We’ve always been kind of a faceless mob,” he said.
It is true that they don’t have a lot of the superstar names that other top teams have. Brett Matzuka, Ken Porter, Noah Saul and Tommy Lamar — all great players — are the biggest names on the team. They don’t mind that at all.
“To be honest, we wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Pope. “We love to be the underdogs. We love for teams to come in and think we’re going to roll over for them. Because they’ve got another thing coming.”
Although their goal is to finally win a Championship, they are excited about the prospect of intermittent goals like the US Open in the Triple Crown Tour format. As the home team at the Open, they will have the distinct advantage of having a full 27-man roster on hand along with local support. “We’re doing our part to get our fan base geared up to come out,” said Pope.
The team has added some young, home-grown talent this season to help them retool for another run at a title, much of it from UNC. Tristan Green (UNC’s Callahan nominee) and Jonathan Nethercutt join the roster after outstanding seasons with Darkside, and Andrew Ryan joins after a few seasons playing mixed. Of the three, the lengthy Ryan is most likely to make an immediate defensive impact. And Eric Oliver, a former primary cutter for El Diablo, is now in his second year on Ring and is posed for even more on-field impact.
The two most important departures are former offensive line handler Dave Snoke and defender Mike Moore. Pope called them “irreplaceable.”
The team, though, is largely intact from last season, turning over just four players from a year ago. The combination of Team USA’s Matzuka and former UNC captain Paul Weeks probably gives Ring the most dynamic and interesting handling duo at the US Open. In order to take home the championship, they will need to be more than interesting – they will need to be efficient. Ring has traditionally played some of their athletic and feared cutters (like Porter) on offense, and they will want their offense to stay in control of games as much as possible.
A team whose history lies somewhere between consistency and contentment, Ring’s semifinals appearance and recent bouts against Revolver suggest that they may be on the verge of breaking through. This tournament and season should be a great test, and they sound ready to dive in and bring their grind-it-out style to the US Open.
“We take pride in our work ethic and the brotherhood that is Ring of Fire,” said Pope.
Pope had some final thoughts about building a true team — something Ring of Fire always focuses on. They’ve always developed talent in the Carolinas and built the team from the ground up. His comments were eloquent enough to deserve to be shared in full.