February 2, 2015 by Charlie Eisenhood in Analysis with 2 comments
In many sports, there is a clear path to a prestigious head coaching position. You pay your dues as an assistant or a high school coach, then maybe you get an offensive or defensive coordinator job, then, just maybe, you earn the head coaching gig.
It seems only appropriate, then, that such a path might come to be in ultimate some day. Perhaps it’s already here — at least in Seattle, home to one of the most well-developed ultimate communities in the world.
You may not know Alex Wells, but he’s had an influence over some of the best talent in the country. In 2007, he was hired as the junior varsity coach at the Northwest School, a powerhouse ultimate program out of Seattle. He landed the head coaching job in 2009 and stayed with the program through the end of 2014, leading the team to two High School Westerns championships (’11, ’14). He has also coached the Seattle YCC team, starting as an assistant in 2009 before becoming the head coach of the boys team in 2010.
Wells is moving on up. Due to time constraints from his full time job, he has decided to leave the Northwest position and has begun coaching the University of Washington men’s team. He just led the team to its first major regular season tournament win in many years with an impressive performance at the Santa Barbara Invite.
“I think very highly of Alex as a coach,” said Britt Atack, the Northwest School Athletic Director and a former player for Seattle Sockeye.
“He was very impressive from the get-go as a really conscientious type of person,” he said. “Detail oriented and enthusiastic.”
Wells, Atack said, was not just a good game manager but an excellent leader and motivator. Wells’ long-time assistant coach at Northwest, Reid Koss, echoed that sentiment now that he is the head coach.
“My job, I feel, is to do exactly what Alex would do,” he said. “He was a huge part of us winning so many titles that I just want to emulate what he was doing over the last six years of coaching with him.”
The early success Wells has had with Washington is no fluke. The players on the team were quick to point out that there has been a total change in the team’s approach in just the few months he has been with the team.
“All the time I’ve been at UW we’ve had coaches that don’t really think about us as a team but think about what other teams are going to do and make defenses to take away with other teams want,” said junior captain Khalif El-Salaam. “I think our coach did a really good job of getting us into a process-first [mentality], teaching us the basic steps that we needed and focused on us. And then when we were bought into that system, he then taught us how to defend things from other teams.”
That process-first approach — a favorite of sports psychologists everywhere — and a eye on fundamentals has brought success to Wells’ teams for years.
“The biggest thing going for Alex is not necessarily his win-loss record,” said Disc NW operations manager Rusty Brown, who renewed Wells’ contract as the YCC coach in 2013. “It’s how he works with the kids and how he’s able to take players from many different backgrounds and integrate them into a system that gets results.”
It was clear, watching from the sidelines, that Wells knew exactly what he was trying to do with his team. He spoke clearly on a single point of emphasis during timeouts. He reminded the team to play their style, not the opponent’s one. He explained tactical decisions directly.
During the finals against Arizona State — the team’s toughest opponent of the weekend — he showed nothing but confidence in his players late in the game. During an ASU timeout during soft cap, he checked with the observers to see how much time remained until hard cap. It wasn’t much. So he decided to force double game point.
“We are going to take another timeout,” he told the team, “so it will be universe point. We’re receiving. We’re going to win the game on offense.”
Although a goal-line turnover threatened their chance, El-Salaam come up with a big block at the other end before the team worked it up the field to win.
Wells was pleased, of course, but was focused — just as the captains were — on what they had learned and how they could improve. “I thought we had a chance to do pretty well,” he said. “But with it being the first tournament of the year, there are just so many unknowns. I just wanted to see how well we could do and see our team try to adapt to the different issues and problems that cropped up.”
At times, the offense struggled to convert at a high enough clip and there were moments where the team lacked energy in bad spots (like a look-ahead game versus Tulane in the quarterfinals). But Wells helped lead the team through rough patches and guide them to a big January victory.
“I had questions about whether it was the pedigree of the players at Northwest that was leading to [Wells’] success, but to take that group and have that kind of performance early in the season speaks leaps and bounds about his coaching,” said Brown.
Washington hopes to continue their success at the President’s Day Invite in two weeks.