May 20, 2014 by Alec Surmani in Other with 2 comments
Amidst plenty of stories to follow throughout the year — the shaky bid allocation, the parity of the top six or so teams, and the excitement of a one-bid Regionals — there remained but one constant in the Southwest Region that ultimately came to be the deciding factor: the unflappable chemistry of the UC San Diego Air Squids.
You can come up with all the reasons you want for why UC Davis was too tired to three-peat, why Cal blew their golden chance in the semis or how if only Arizona State cut out a few execution errors it would’ve been a different finals. But none of that really changes the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the region in 2014. The Squids were just too good.
Perhaps the most interesting part of their excellence came from how they achieved it. They didn’t ride the back of a NexGen star like UC Davis or the collective backs of three different players who played in a Club Nationals final in 2013, like Las Positas.
Sure, UCSD’s roster includes at least five guys worthy of All-Region status in James Lai, Trevor Purdy, Jesse Cohen, Paul Morimoto, and Nick Smith. But those players, as great as they are, were not the team’s identity.
The Squids dominated the Southwest with selfless play, good decisions, and, most of all, dynamite chemistry. As anyone who’s played a good amount of pickup basketball will tell you, often times a group of dudes who look like a collective Rogaine ad will rout a bunch of cocky youth pulled straight out of a Nike catalog — simply because the old guys have been playing together for years and know each other’s games inside and out.
That’s not to say that athleticism and physical fitness don’t matter or that the Squids don’t have them. It merely means that such attributes are not UCSD’s crutch. When the game gets tight or the players get tired, they trust in each other and dig harder to work it up, rather than ripping a huck to the 6’6” Purdy and expecting him to come down with it — regardless of how good a percentage such a move likely yields.
As noted by Aaron Lee, one of the key handlers on the Squids’ O-line, a number of the passes thrown by his teammates derive out of a place of intuition rather than sight. Watch any film of the Squids this season, their O-line in particular, and you’ll see this concept in fluid action.
Rather than running a strict horizontal, vertical, or even split stack, UCSD essentially…plays ultimate. Elements of common structure are surely present, in particular the vertical lanes that tend to define horizontal stack, but for the most part it’s like seven guys out there playing together and having fun. Purdy refers to it as a “spread offense.” Their cuts arise more from the watching of game flow, anticipation, and general know-how than the typical turn-based system of most college squads.
What this essentially means is that regardless of whose turn it might be, where the disc is on the field, or who’s in the lane, the cuts more often than not tend to fall into place pretty smoothly. No system is perfect, of course, even at the elite club level. But what UCSD excels at better than most college teams is something that’s tough to illustrate or imbue with any kind of diagram or exercise or drill: ultimate IQ. It’s the kind of thing you can really only get from playing a lot of ultimate over a long period of time. And for the Squids, a lot of that experience came from the same group of guys playing together for years.
Lee and Sean Wilkinson are in their fifth year donning a Squids jersey. Purdy and Cohen have been playing together for the last four. Lai and Chris “Frey” Liu for three. And most of the time spent playing together by this crop of guys has been on the same offensive unit.
Lee said that the handlers in particular can sometimes almost see three or four throws ahead, knowing where cutters are going to be before they even set up their next moves. He added that despite their improvisational style of play, they rarely cut each other off or trigger picks. This leads to the kind of fast-moving gameplay that ensures the angles of the field frequently change, thus freeing up more lanes and open cutters. All the while, the stall count seldom breaches the six or seven mark.
The cohesiveness allows players like graduate students Justin Lin and Alistair McIntyre or sophomore Cody Kirkland to transition smoothly into their system, making it hard to spot the relative newcomers without prior knowledge.
With the added bonus of Purdy, Cohen, and Wilkinson (as well as some of the Squids’ D-line) playing San Diego Streetgang and a few others playing club in the Bay Area during the summer, there’s rarely a time when the core of the team have not been working hard to get better and further build up their on-field dynamic.
Moreover, with an experienced coaching staff led by Kevin Stuart and a well-established infrastructure of alumni and local support in place to provide additional bolstering whenever needed, the team doesn’t have an opportunity to stagnate.
This determination to improve and grow as a program permeates everything UCSD does. Example: on the Saturday evening of the Squids’ three-day home tournament, Pres Day Invite, the captains sent out a message to the team that if they didn’t best Oregon in the semis the next morning, they should expect to do a track workout later that night. And they were serious.
While one might make the argument that such a requirement would be overkill, such a criticism somewhat misses the point. The point being that UCSD wants to win, and they’re not hesitant about putting in the work to earn each and every one.
They may not have the same star power or impressive results as some of the other top teams going into this weekend. Given their tireless work ethic and unmatched chemistry almost five years in the making, however, one may not be too surprised if the Squids upset their fair share of teams at Nationals. All the while sharing the experience and good vibes as the close-knit team they are.