Friday, August 01, 2008

Going For Gold: Missui Article on Junior Worlds

Going for Gold

USA juniors teams seek to repeat double-gold from 2006

At the WFDF World Juniors Ultimate Championships in 2006, Team USA steamrolled the competition in both the Open and Women's Divisions through the Semifinals, winning their games by an average of more than 13 points in games to 17. In the finals, the Open team won gold in similar fashion, dismantling Canada to the tune of a 17-9 victory. The Women won a squeaker over a surprisingly resilient Canadian team on double-game point, 14-13. But that was in Devens, Massachusetts, at a juniors-only tournament on the United States' home turf. In Vancouver next week, the atmosphere will be vastly different, as Team Canada will have home-field and home-crowd advantage, and there will be hundreds of games over the course of the week for the 75 teams in attendance - a far cry from the 12 teams that played at WJUC 2006.

For some members of the 2008 USA Juniors team, the Worlds dream began nine years ago. Josh Cincotta (Columbia HS) is the most experienced player on the US roster, with 10 years of ultimate under his belt. For Josh, Worlds has been a long time coming. "I have been thinking about making Worlds ever since I heard about it when I was 10. It has been my dream ever since," Cincotta says. He redoubled his efforts after not being invited to the tryout camps in 2006, as a sophomore in high school. "I knew right away that I wasn't going to give up and that I would try again two years later, and here I am."

For other members of the team, making Team USA was not even on their radar until last summer. Julian Childs-Walker (Lakeside HS) did not entertain ideas of Worlds until deciding to take advantage of the UPA's scouting program at the 2007 Youth Club Championships. "I thought it was way out of reach until last summer." The coaches of the teams, Berend Van Heuvelen and Eileen Murray, asked prospective tryouts to identify themselves and watched them play over the course of the weekend. For the coaches, scouting proved to be valuable. "It's always good to see people in real competition situations. Some people thrive in this situation, and it's nice to know who they are," Murray explained. "YCC scouting was very helpful in deciding who made it to tryouts. You can tell a lot about a player from a written application and recommendations, but it's always better, if possible, to see a player for yourself," Van Heuvelen added.

The coaches each selected 80 players to attend the tryout camps in Seattle and Atlanta, from a pool of approximately 160 male and 120 female applicants. Both coaches enlisted several high school coaches from each coast to help out at tryouts and aid in narrowing down the list, in addition to having their assistant coaches at their side. For BVH, his assistant coach is long-time teammate and friend Jody Avirgan - they have played together since high school at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C. They're currently both counselors at Tiina Booth's National Ultimate Training Camp (NUTC) and co-captains of PoNY with Alex Masulis. Derek Gottlieb, formerly of Johnny Bravo, NUTC, and Denver's Open YCC coach in 2007, was supposed to be a second assistant coach until a serious car accident sidelined him for the tournament. He has not been replaced. Murray is aided by Minnesota's long-time youth coordinator John Sandahl and Oregon star and 2003 Callahan winner Chelsea (Dengler) Putnam.

At the two tryout camps, many of the country's best Juniors players showcased their skills for the coaches, although there were some notable absences. Zander Padget, who along with Josh Cincotta led Columbia to a 2008 Easterns championship, chose not to apply for Worlds, despite being the top player on the east coast. Ben Funk, a star for North Hills, also declined to try out, while Pennsbury's most dominant player, Dennison Bechis, was not even invited to tryouts despite shining at YCC's last year in the Mixed finals against Atlanta, who placed four players on the both the Open and Womens teams. Matt Rehder, who made RSD headlines after making Sockeye as a junior in high school, attended tryouts but was not even designated as an alternate for Team USA. He will be at Worlds, but playing against Japan's Buzz Bullets and Canada's Furious George instead of various juniors teams. According to BVH, the requirements for players to make the team included great spirit, potential to be great teammates, and great fundamental skills, athleticism, and field sense. He also said, "We had far more than 27 players who met these criteria. We had a lot of world-class players at tryouts."

Since the teams were announced in early April (more than a week later than promised, due to many difficult selection decisions), the coaches have been communicating with their players over a variety of mediums, including email, phone, and Dan Cogan-Drew's website for teams, So far both teams have been sending out workouts and conditioning together, but the Womens team has also posted offensive and defensive playbooks, perhaps mindful of avoiding another nailbiter like the 2006 Final. For the Open team, most of their strategic work will come in an intense three-day training camp in the week before Worlds, as well as over the course of the week as they learn to gel and play together as a successful team.

The teams are a mix of experience and youth, with both teams returning several players from the gold-medal winning sides in 2006, as well as taking a few high school sophomores. There are more College and Club players on the Open team than ever before, who bring experience from the hyper-competitive College and Club Series to the Juniors' scene. By contrast, Team Canada returns only one player in the Open division, New England Freshman of the Year Andrew Vogt. Team Canada Women are missing the star power of Anne Mercier, but are still number one on Coach Murray's radar, who believes that Canada will still pose her squad the greatest challenge. BVH expects the competition to be stronger in 2008, and with the addition of Japan amongst the favorites, he's likely to be proven right. Regarding the competition, BVH said, "In my entire ultimate career, I have never seen a team give so much effort, and play with so much heart, as the Colombian juniors team did against us in the 2006 Semifinals. I'm sure they will be a force, and nobody should look past them. It was Canada who gave us our closest games in '06, and I imagine they'll be strong again. I'm really excited to play Australia and Japan, too. As far as I'm concerned, the stronger our competition is, the better that is for us. The greater the challenge, the greater we'll have to push ourselves to meet that challenge."

The Worlds format is different than the players and coaches are used to, with a maximum of two games per day, which could play into the hands of teams with less depth than the United States. But both coaches are optimistic that the drawn-out schedule will provide their teams with time to gel and work out the kinks before the elimination rounds on Thursday and Friday. The players agree, and Julian Childs-Walker says, "I'm pretty confident that we'll start clicking pretty quickly, which will be great. That being said, without a doubt we'll work out kinks throughout the tournament, but so will every team."

The opponents that Team USA faces will be determined to have a better showing than in 2006. Colombia burst onto the World scene with a scintillating display of quick disc movement, excellent break throws, and pure speed, downing the taller and huck-happy Australian team in the bronze-medal game in 2006. Australia has been doing well in international competition since 2004, with a runner-up finish at the World Games in 2005 and World Ultimate Club Championships in 2006 at the adult level. As their Juniors' Division begins to grow in Australia, more and more players have started to play in high school on youth teams, instead of in university or with adult Club teams. However, the forecast is bleak for Australia, as they lost 14-4 to the Seattle Open Youth Club team in a game on July 29th. Similarly, the Australia Junior Women team lost 9-8 to the Seattle Girls Youth Club team. Japan is an unknown factor in the Juniors' scene, as they skipped WJUC 2006. In 2004 in Finland, their Open team finished 10th and their Women's team finished 4th.

Canada is still expected to be the main challenger for both divisions, and with a youth setup similar to the UPA's, albeit mainly Mixed competition, many of their players have been playing for three or four years. Some teams even compete in American tournaments, such as the Hopkins Hustle, Paideia Cup, and St. Johnsbury Invitational. Canadian Nationals hosts a Mixed championship, with top teams from Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto. It's evident that the Junior national teams draw heavily from those teams, with most players based in Vancouver and Winnipeg. Vancouver's Backbone won the 2007 Canadian Juniors Championship over Toronto's Dirt, 16-15.

Going into the tournament, Team USA is the strong favorite in both Junior divisions, but there is always the possibility for a surprise. In Turku in 2004, the US Junior Women were shocked by Canada in the Finals after beating them in pool play, and it nearly happened again in Devens. A shock upset is possible but unlikely, as the United States has the most developed youth ultimate program in the world, and many of the men on the Open team started playing in middle school or even before. It's a difficult deficit to make up for many countries that barely have a high school division. Therefore the pressure on the coaches and players to deliver is immense - without a gold medal it's unlikely that the coaches will return for 2010, given the ability of the players at their disposal. The players are focused and driven and determined to bring home another gold medal. Josh Cincotta describes his mindset before the tournament as calm and collected. "I have made a decision to do my very best not to look at other teams or get overly excited about who we play and when, because I know that I will play my very best no matter who we are facing. The ultimate goal is to win, so I'm only focusing on what will help me help my team."

USA Juniors Schedule:

Sunday, August 3rd:

8:30 am, Field 8, USA vs G. Britian (W)
10:30 am, Field 8, USA vs G. Britian (O)
12:30 pm, Field 3, USA vs Colombia (W)

Monday, August 4th:

10:30 am, Field 3, USA vs Germany (O)
12:30 pm, Field 3, USA vs Japan (W)
2:30 pm, Field 3, USA vs Australia (O)
4:30 pm. Field 4, USA vs Australia (W)

Tuesday, August 5th:

9:00 am, Field 11, USA vs Japan (O)
10:30 am, Field 10, USA vs Finland (W)
1:30 pm, Field 11, USA vs Canada (O)
4:30 pm, Field 3, USA vs Canada (W)

Wednesday, August 6th:

Women begin power pools
9:00 am, Field 13, USA vs Colombia (O)
1:30 pm, Field 13, USA vs France (O)

Thursday, August 7th:

Open and Women semifinals

Friday, August 8th:

12:30 pm, Field 1, Junior Women Final
2:45 pm, Field 1, Junior Open Final

Saturday, August 9th:

11:30 am, Junior Women Awards
4:30 pm, Junior Open Awards