Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hodag Love Part 2: The Ultimate in Columbus

A story so stupendous it took not one but two postings to encompass! Read on, True Believers....

Hodag - 1) A legendary beast first observed in the state of Wisconsin. 2) The University of Wisconsin 2007 Ultimate Champions.

Originally called "Ultimate Frisbee," the team sport played with a flying disc is now usually just called Ultimate because of trademark hassles with Wham-O. Ironically, and perhaps deservedly, discs made by Wham-O competitor Discraft are now the most commonly used in the sport.

According to Wikipedia, there are over 600 college Ultimate teams in North America. Teams compete in the UPA (aka The Ultimate Players Association) Championship series during the Spring. Sectional and regional champions advance to the Nationals to compete for the Championship title in May.

And seeded #1 in the Nationals this year were the Wisconsin Hodags. A juggernaut in 2007, Wisconsin held a 49-1 record coming into the Nationals, its lone loss by one point at the hands of its arch-nemesis, Florida.

Off the Skybus in Columbus, Peggy and I found our ground transportation (a.k.a. Peggy's sister Roberta) had thought we were getting in an hour later. But a quick phone call and we were at the fields of The (you must always use the article) Ohio State University, just in time to watch the Hodags give Kansas a 15-5 thrashing, an indicator of things to come.

A Quick Ultimate Tutorial

Ultimate combines elements, of soccer, rugby, football, hockey, and basketball. A non-contact sport, the objective of Ultimate is to score points by receiving a teammate's pass of the disc in the opponent's end zone. Intercepting a disc in the opponent's end zone by a defensive player gives the defending team a point. The disc can only be moved down the field through passing. A player catching the disc must stop within a few steps, and can then only move their non-pivot foot when passing. Incomplete passes cause a change of possession.

One of the most charming things about Ultimate is that the players are self-regulating. There are no referees or judges, only Observers who can be called in to resolve a call when the players can't agree on it themselves, which in the Nationals only happened maybe 20 to 30 percent of the time. In most cases, after a relatively brief discussion - occasionally highlighted by a slow-motion reenactment of whatever the claimed offense - the players would nod and get on with the game.

Back to the Games in Columbus

So, on the one hand, you have these very serious, very competitive, kids who are playing at a championship level. But on the other hand you don't have that win at all costs Bear Bryant 'tude that you often see at other college-level games. They want to win, but you don't get the impression that they'd happily kill their opponents if that's what is needed to beat them. It's kind of refreshing.

The whole thing is kind of refreshing. I don't remember the last time I've spent so much time with so many healthy, focused, and generally nice college kids. I'm somewhat of a cynic about the whole college spirit, "rah-rah" sort of thing, but these guys could make the most dismal character want to put on a raccoon coat and beanie, grab a pennant, and sing a few fight songs.

The Hodags put away North Carolina as easily as they did Kansas, and we're done with Day #1. We head back to the hotel, welcome Roberta and Ted's other son, Dan - and help with the preparations for the Hodag Dinner for team and parents.

Day #2 - the Quarter- and SemiFinals - is a repeat of Day #1 for the Hodags. In the Quarters they took out Oregon 15-9, and in the Semis blasted away the bloodthirsty Stanfordites 15-6, never falling behind in either game. By this point, under the careful instruction of our brother-in-law, Ted, we've learned that when one team pulls ahead of another by 5 or 6 points, that's usually the game. Even though they'll play on until the winning team hits 15, it's usually near-impossible to both protect against the other team scoring while also making up a large deficit. In Ultimate, you tend to see very close games, only separated by one or two points, or runaways. Wisconsin is running away with its games.

Day #3 - The Championship

The only thing more intense than the Hodag players by Day #3 are the Hodag families, of which there are many here. Only Stanford has had anywhere near the crowd of supporters that are cheering on Wisconsin today. Roberta and Ted have blown off breakfast in the morning, both looking pale and nervous as they drive us to the field.

And they're one of the calmer set of parents.

By game start at 3:30, after an interminable championship game between the Stanford Superfly and UC Santa Barbara's Burning Skirts women's teams (Stanford would win 13-7), the stands were a sea of Hodag baby blue, and the cry of "HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-DAGS" was heard upon the land.

Not only overwhelming in numbers, Wisconsin also has one of the better chants. Oregon ("e-GO") was pretty cool, and Stanford amusing. "We want blood," the mostly graying Stanford supporters surrounding our littler group shouted yesterday, prompting a Hodag parent to state coolly, "Hodags LOVE their opponents." But the Hodag friends and family - often spanning three generations - were determinedly louder than anyone else, certainly louder than the Colorado supporters who didn't seem to have any chants at all for their strangely-named "Mama-bird" team.

Colorado - who had taken out Florida to get to this point - looked for a time as if they would give the Hodags some trouble, matching Wisconsin, point-for-point and even - for a moment - taking the lead, the first time we had seen the Hodags fall behind in four games.

But by the half it was 8-5 in Wisconsin's favor , and the Hodags, dominant all year, and dominant throughout the tournament, threw themselves into over-drive.

At game point, 14-7, to quote Chris Spittal's wrap-at at the UPA site,

"After the pull, Dahl was pinned on his own goal line and ripped off a huge backhand that went much to far and fell into the area being patrolled by Wisconsin’s Miller. The Hodag handlers worked the disc down the field until Matt Scallet was able to find Cullen Geppert with a huck from near midfield for the win."
And yes, that would be our Matt Scallett, our nephew, Roberta and Ted's son, making sure that we got our money's worth for taking him up on that Christmas invite by delivering the pass for the winning point.

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