What will the next chapter of Chain Lightning hold?
November 19, 2015 by Preston Thompson in Profile with 6 comments
In 1982, Atlanta Chain Lightning finished seventh at their debut Club Nationals. Thirty-two years later, in 2014, Chain finished seventh at Club Nationals. But what happened over the course of those three plus decades is anything but a linear narrative. It is a story of ups and downs, successes and failures, and even a national championship.
While not at Nationals every year, Chain was there more often than not through the ’80s and ’90s, clearly establishing themselves as a mainstay on the club scene. They produced and were led by talented, charismatic leaders like Stu Downs and Fred Perivier. They became a key part in building and maintaining a thriving hotbed for the sport in Atlanta, supporting early high school programs like Paideia in downtown Atlanta, which to this day maintains a national presence (both the male [George Stubbs] and female [Leila Tunnell] 2011 Callahan winners were alumni).
Ultiworld’s own Kyle Weisbrod remembers the Chain Lightning days of old as a young Atlantan. “I saw them as pretty fun-loving, athletic, and goofy,” Weisbrod said. “They didn’t take things too seriously and were big practical jokers.” It seems that over the years not much has changed. Beyond the joking and the carefree attitude, Chain was also boasting a plethora of athletes. Rob Barrett ran track for University of Virginia, and later went on to play for the legendary DoG club. Robbie “River” Brooks was a defensive presence that would later help lead a talented Ring of Fire team.
Practical jokers and ridiculous athletes: a culture that goes back an entire generation.
We pick up the story with Jay Hammond, who joined the team in 1998, the season after many veterans left the team and started a multi-year rebuild. Over the first few years of his tenure, Chain would add other young players that would eventually become local legends: Josh Markette, Dylan Tunnell, Jason Simpson, Greg Swanson, AJ Tiarsmith, the list goes on. This collection of stalwart players would ultimately serve as the backbone of the Chain team that won the 2009 National title. But the buildup to that championship really does go that far back.
“I think 2000 was really the beginning of the youth movement for us, and that core stuck together through most of the 2000’s,” Hammond told Ultiworld earlier this fall. “Practice became a lot more about fundamentals and playing together as a team, because many of us were still pretty new to the game.”
As the seeds of this rebuilding process began to take hold, Chain earned a trip to Nationals in 2002, ending a drought that had begun in 1998, the longest drought since the team’s inception. That appearance started a Nationals-qualification streak that spanned every year since — until 2015.
“The expectations were certainly elevated,” Hammond said in reference to the impact that first Nationals appearance had on the core of Chain’s 21st century revival.
But in a way, they were almost lessened simultaneously. “These teams were a lot more laid back. At some point we got rid of warm-ups as a team,” Hammond said. “We spent a good amount of time away from the fields and I think our camaraderie was as strong as I can imagine any team being. Everyone enjoyed going to tournaments, partly because of ultimate and partly because it was a chance to hole up in a hotel for a weekend with buddies and watch football, drink, and other shenanigans.”
Consequently, the core group stayed together. They slowly chipped away at the barrier between them and truly elite status, but they weren’t done adding talent or progressing just yet.
“As a team, I think our confidence grew and we kind of expected to win Nationals before we hung up our cleats.”
A Championship Team
Mark Poole joined Chain in 2008, when the momentum was building towards something special. Growing up just outside of Atlanta, Poole was familiar with the program’s culture already. And very quickly, he was thrown into one of the best Chain Lightning teams ever.
Take the core of Dylan Tunnell and Josh Markette, add one of the fastest players in the game in Asa Wilson and the inexorable AJ Tiarsmith, and you have a very good team. Maybe even a contender. Throw in Josh Ziperstein — who only a few years earlier had won the Callahan and led his Brown team to a college title –and you have a championship level offense. But then there was the defense.
“The defense was made up of young, athletic players that were relentless,” said Poole of Chain in the late 2000s. “We had this Junkyard Dog mentality that said ‘We are gonna give you our best shot. It isn’t unique or complex; see if you can beat it.'”
That style had been bred over the course of nearly a decade and is still a signature element of Atlanta ultimate. The grind-it-out attitude even extended into practice, according to Poole.
“It was a gritty, hard-nose, man-to-man defense that relied on athleticism, footwork, and not caring who you were up against because you guarded the best players every weekend for six months,” he said.
By the 2009 season, Chain knew they had something special. Others recognized it as well.
“We came into every season feeling like we had the talent to win a any given tournament if we played to our full potential,” said Ben Wiggins, whose Seattle Sockeye teams of the mid- to late-2000s won three titles and were among the most consistently excellent programs in the club division. “2009 Nationals was the first first tournament I’d played where I knew that our best was not as good as someone else’s best on that day. That Chain team was just stacked with talent from top to bottom. They were in great shape, playing within themselves, not trying to be fancy when tough was working, and the weather gauge was strongly in their happy place. If they played their best game, no one was beating them that weekend.”
It all culminated in Sarasota. Chain blitzed the field, steamrolling teams throughout pool play and power pools, giving up double digits only once before entering the bracket. The domination continued with a 15-11 victory over Revolver in the Championship game. At last, Atlanta had their title that was a decade in the making.
The Post Title Woes
The years following the 2009 title saw the legendary core of players splitting up. Ziperstein moved to Boston to further his medical studies, and Josh Markette moved up north as well. Tiarsmith relocated to Texas and the Hammond brothers retired from Open Division play.
“Life happened,” said Poole.
Still, Chain has successfully maintained a national presence, with the former champions managing a quarterfinals appearance in 2014. Mark Poole holds strong to his hometown club, and a new youth movement has kept things rolling as usual in Atlanta.
That is, until Regionals this fall. For the first time in 14 years, Chain failed to qualify for Nationals.
It’s hard to look back on such a disappointing year and pinpoint where or how it went wrong. But for Poole, there’s a pretty good idea.
“For me, personally, it was pretty tough as I know it was for a lot of guys,” he said. “I think many of the veterans came into this year knowing we lacked a lot of firepower offensively. It showed throughout the year in that we didn’t get very many easy points, less than five pass points. It’s hard to grind out 10-12 points offensively in a game to 15 when you are having to make 15-20 passes to score every time…You need those short points to allow your defense to get into a rhythm. And when they get close to blocks you want to send them back out there to capitalize on those near chances. We didn’t get those opportunities all that often this season.”
It’s hard to imagine going from a team that for more than a decade defined itself by its “junkyard defense” to a defense that couldn’t find its rhythm.
Chain now enters into a rebuilding phase, needing more than just a few small roster tweaks. A re-emphasis on the team culture that brought Chain their greatest success is on its way.
Getting Back To The Junkyard
The team culture spreads beyond the roster. Their long standing presence in the community puts them in similar status as a Sockeye or a Doublewide, in that elite players in the area are only truly considered elite when they make the final roster. A crop of youth talent was looming during Chain Lightning’s 2009 run, waiting for their turn to grab the torch.
Brian Moore is part of that new talent in Atlanta. After playing for four years at the University of Alabama, Moore made his way to Georgia to play for Chain Lightning.
“Before I was on the team I would see Chain at tournaments and they looked just like everyone else,” Moore said. “A bunch of silly guys who are best friends and who also happened to enjoy chasing a piece of plastic with those friends every weekend.”
This vision made Chain Lightning the end goal for Moore, in the same way that Chain is the end goal for most players in the area. Chain reloaded with nine rookies in 2015, and they’re looking at returning most of their roster next season.
Beyond that young talent, there’s another important addition already in the works. Martin Aguilera has been involved with Chain Lightning for several years now, but in 2016 he’ll be stepping in as an official coach.
“[Martin] is an incredible coach,” said Moore. “His pairing with the current leadership is what will be taking Chain to the next level in the future.”
The addition of Aguilera, along with the presence of veterans like Poole, will only help the younger players improve as they increase their roles and grow together on the path back to elite status. Luckily for them, elite status is familiar territory.
Poole knows what it’s like to build a championship caliber team and believes that all of Chain’s new elements will only come together and result in renewed success with a collective buy-in from the entire squad, especially the younger players.
“Chain has a rich 30 year history that is well known in the ultimate community from our success and the vast number of great players that have passed through,” he said. “But now it is our opportunity to turn the page and begin writing the next chapter for the story of Chain Lightning. And that is what has us the most excited.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Chain’s Nationals drought began in 1996. In fact, it started in 1998. Thanks to Will Deaver for the correction.