The eerie thing about the Finals was how it had been played before. Twice. Once, though, the ending was different.
Two teams meet. One team has been absolutely dominant all year and rolled through its competition at Nationals. One team has had its ups and downs, including a disappointing Regionals. But this team has shown up at Nationals playing beautiful ultimate and beating great teams in the process, including an upset of a title-contender the round before. This year's finals? Sure, but also last year's semifinals. Just reverse the teams. Instead of a fresh and rested Oregon taking on a tired UCSB just off of a rousing win over contender Wisconsin, you've got a fresh and rested UCSB waiting for an exhausted Oregon just off an emotional win over contender Ottawa. In 2009, was the game even (11-8 Oregon, actually) except for a 4-point run and a 3-point run to end each half? Yes. In 2010, was the game even (8-8) except for a 3-point run to open and a 4-point run to close the game? Yes. Did the underdog fight and battle behind some superb individual performances before eventually succumbing to a deeper, fresher team? Weirdly the same game...
Two teams meet. One team immediately dominates by playing fast and aggressive and athletic. UCSB falls quickly into a deep hole. Desperate to stem the tide, they switch to zone. The game slows, then begins to turn as the UCSB zone generates one turnover after another. This could be the semis versus Wisconsin or the finals versus Oregon. But at 12-8, the story splits. In the semis, Wisconsin's defense falters and they drop 8 of the next 10 points to lose 14-16. In the finals, Oregon speeds back up and runs away to the 15-8 victory. But boy, that hinge moment was so strangely the same...
I kicked myself later for not watching the USAU highlight video or Dugan's interview, as either would've helped me prepare the team a little better. I had spent so much time all season watching video and heaps leading up to Nationals, that I feel sheepishly stupid for leaving this opportunity unwatched. Dumb.
Longest, strangest warm up ever. We got there in time for a leisurely warm up should the men's game end in time for us to start at one, but as we all know now, the men's game was incredibly slow. So we farted around and cagged and danced and farted around some more. Our posse came through with sandwiches and we made everyone eat, even if they didn't want to. We made everyone drink ice water even if they didn't want to. (Aubri: "What if one of us has mono?" Me: "Then next week, when it doesn't matter, we'll all be sick.") After we'd been there for a while, Santa Barbara came through looking for the warm-up field. We were prepared to share with them, but they looked like sour milk when they saw us and I knew they were in trouble. It probably didn't help that we were singing and dancing when they came through (yeah, Papa!) Anyway, they moseyed on to another field around the corner. I wanted to prep us for SB's big cup (both tall and loose,) so Jackson came over to be Karba. A couple of our handlers like to throw little scoobers and backhands over the middle-middle and I wanted us to get a good view of 6'1" before game time. We didn't talk about dealing with Kaela's style of deep-deep. Dumb.
All through the interminable warm up and then the pre-game show, we were focused and cool. (I was nerve-city, but that's par for the course. As a coach, I hate warm ups; nothing to do but get nervous.) The whole first half of the game went exactly like we wanted: fast, fast, fast. They came out and played a poachy man-to-man and we walked through it. Then, they dropped the third pass and we scored just like that. Both teams were playing man (us fm and them flicks) and the points were flying by. The air temp was probably 80, but the field itself was 110-115 (too hot to walk on barefoot,) so both teams were hurting from the heat. Halftime 8-3 in a heartbeat.
We made two mistakes at half. First, that little ten minute break let the realization that we were going to win set in. We didn't say anything, but we all felt it. So for the first time in two days, we took our foot off the gas just slightly. Our defense out of half would suffer from that lost anxiety and urgency and our offense would suffer from the lost sense of need-to and focus. Second, I strategically lost the battle. Dugan and the Skirts desperately needed to slow the game down and we wanted to keep the pace high. I chose for us to come out playing fm to force them to run, but it wasn't successful. They were able to create space and clarity for their big cutters (notably Finney and Madaras) and score easily on it. A quick transition would have been a better choice - the junk to muddy the waters and then man to make them run. Hm. I also didn't specifically address the SB zone. Big mistake. Without that little piece of discussion, we did what we'd practiced: inside the cup and then through the cup and then huck. The problem is that Kaela is lurking back there waiting for the ill-advised shot and we obliged her.
They got two quick out of halftime to make it 8-5. We immediately righted the ship defensively and started playing tough, but we continued to throw jump balls on offense. We missed a lot of them. Neither team could score upwind. The wind wasn't that bad, but it was just enough. From 8-5 we traded all the way out to 11-8. I was getting more and more agitated. I talked individually with our throwers about chewing up the zone in the soft-spot underneath Kaela, but I wasn't getting the message through. I was talking to too many individuals and not the team and that was keeping the deeps and target on a different page from the throwers. Finally, I lost it. Right in the middle of the point, I start yelling and carrying on. I don't lose it very often as a coach, so everyone was surprised, including myself. We scored. Whew. I called time out. and what proceeded was one of the most memorable huddles I've ever been a part of. We come together and I am trying to figure out what to say...so I say, "Sorry." Then I turn to Julia and say, "Julia," meaning "Your huddle" and I walk away. I have no idea what she or anyone else said, but it must have worked, because we scored the next three to win, the last coming on a high-count jump ball to Malina, who went up over T and Kaela. 15-8. Champs.
There's a moment that comes after you win, after that initial mind-blowing exaltation, where you feel "Now what?" There's nothing more to push against, nothing more to figure out, no more sprints to run or rehab to do or cool down even...no more any of that. I knew that moment was coming, but I also knew it was going to pass and be replaced by a deep and abiding satisfaction. So when Malina caught the game winner, I just stood and watched the celebration and felt really, really, really good.