“Red zone, red zone, red zone!”
The players pace the sidelines. They can smell a score coming. They yell as their team works the white plastic disc down the short turf field, four players weaving, cutting, creating separation from their defenders. Catch, throw. Catch, throw. Catch, throw. Find the open man. They’re patient. They keep the disc moving in front of the hoop, circling like sharks.
And then one of them breaks free, streaking toward the back of the key. A short upside-down throw floats through the hoop a bit long, but the receiver reaches out, dragging his foot, snagging the disc in a full extension, his toe still in the key. Score. Seattle is on the board. And on an overcast Sunday morning in early March, Oakland is down 1-0 in the first round of elimination play at the first ever Golden Gate Goaltimate Games.
If ultimate frisbee is a fringe sport, then goaltimate is the fringe of the fringe. Played almost exclusively by ultimate players, goaltimate uses many of the same rules and principles, but compressed into a tighter, faster-paced, and arguably more physical game. The goal of the offensive team is to move the frisbee from person to person via passing and catching until the disc passes through the plane of an upright semi-circular hoop and is caught by a player on the other side while still staying inside an endzone-like arc, called the key.
While many of the same principles may apply, goaltimate utilizes a somewhat different skill set than ultimate. Instead of just being able to run fast and jump high, it’s all about being able to work in a very small area. Can you cut in five yards quickly? Can you pick and roll into a tight gap? Agility and quickness count more because there’s less space to work with. Unlike in ultimate, basketball-style picks are allowed, making for more contact and increased physicality. Also unlike ultimate, there’s no stoppage of play between points, so stamina is really important. Older players usually have to make up for their waning athleticism with precise, crafty throws to stay competitive.
Oakland’s goaltimate team, called Team Try Hard, is made up mostly of players who get together around the East Bay once a week to play pick-up games, which with the exception of this tournament, is about as organized as the sport ever gets. At least around here. The Seattle crew, whose team name remained TBD throughout the competition, plays together a lot, and it’s visible in their team chemistry. Seattle looks young and athletic—most of the players are sporting white basketball-style jerseys and trucker hats. Oakland is in blue, though none of their jerseys match. Their players range in age from 23 to 41. Most of the younger guys look like they’re still hitting the gym, or at least the track, but some of their older teammates look like this is the most exercise they’ve had in a while.
The two teams already played six pool play games the day before, and a pre-quarters game earlier that morning, to see who will advance through the tournament toward the title of Golden Gate Games champion. That makes this everyone’s eighth game of the weekend.
Five minutes in to the game and it’s make it, take it, so the Seattle player who just scored hops up to his feet and lays off a pass to one of his teammates, who sends the disc sailing forty yards into the clear zone (this is the equivalent of going over the line in half-court basketball) where another teammate catches it. Every time the disc changes possession or a point is scored, the players must work the disc back to this clear zone before they can begin to attack the hoop again. But the thrower in the clear zone has run into a spot of trouble. Oakland’s Josh Wardle is on the mark, meaning he’s doing everything he can to stop a throw from getting off without touching the thrower or the disc. He counts out loud: “Stalling one, two, three…” Each player gets six seconds with the disc before they must get rid of it.
“…four, five … ”
The Seattle player panics, tries to throw around Wardle, but he’s springy, and one of Wardle’s long arms gets in the way. Point block. Oakland’s sidelines cheer. Seattle’s get frustrated.
“Hey come on guys—we’re not in dick-around mode,” yells Seattle’s Ben Wiggins, chastising his teammates. Seattle, now on defense, switches to playing zone, each player marking a space rather than a person.
Oakland struggles for a second to find their rhythm, but strings together a few quick give-and-go passes to move toward the hoop. They see a window and try to force one in, but the hoop, rising somewhat flimsily out of two sand-filled buckets gets in the way. Turnover.
It gets messy, each team hastily throwing incompletions. But then the disc is back in Oakland’s hands, specifically, in Pat Corneille’s. He zips a quick little blade (a vertical forehand throw) to Wardle as he just beats his defender into the key. Oakland has evened it up 1-1. They’re already doing better than anyone thought possible.
If you want to play ultimate, the Bay Area is the place to be. There are adult and youth ultimate leagues all year-round. Many high schools and even middle schools have ultimate teams now. During the club season, hundreds of elite-level players compete in four divisions—men’s, women’s, mixed, and master’s (for men over the age of 33). Bay Area ultimate has been a national powerhouse for a while now, but has been especially dominant in the last two years, sweeping national championship titles in three out of the four divisions (everything but the master’s title, which has gone to Minneapolis’s Surly team the past two years). The women’s team—Fury—has seven national championships under their belt, the most in ultimate history. And since ultimate frisbee is so huge in the Bay Area, it’s no surprise that goaltimate thrives here as well.
Goaltimate was invented about thirty years ago, by some Wellesley College ultimate players, and it has since spread all over the country. (Ultimate has been around since the 1960s.) Most cities that have ultimate teams and leagues also have some kind of goaltimate, but it tends to be much less organized and exists only in a pick-up capacity. In the past twenty years there have been a few tournaments here and there, most notably in 1999 when a San Diego entrepreneur and goaltimate devotee subsidized a national tournament with a $30,000 prize for the winning team. It didn’t quite bring fame to the sport that as he had hoped, but it did help spread the game along the West Coast.
This year’s first ever Golden Gate Goaltimate Games were co-organized by Bay Area and Seattle players Peter Washington and Matthew “Skip” Sewell as an opportunity for the best goaltimate players from around the West Coast to get together and compete against each other. “Locally we think the game is fun, and we like the idea of playing more than just the guys we always play pick-up with,” Washington said.
In the twelve-team, two day tournament, Oakland’s Team Try Hard is one of three teams from the Bay Area. The other nine teams have come from around California and as far away as Texas, Colorado and Portland. Each team in the series brings its own style of play and flare to the game. San Diego is known for being wily—sneaking precision throws into seemingly impossible spaces. They are also the first to take off their shirts to soak up a few rays of sunshine during the brief ten minutes of the day when blue sky can be seen. Colorado uses their advantage of altitude, tiring out other teams with their endurance. Seattle loves the no-look throws. Oakland likes to try for what’s called a “power move,” which is when a player uses his momentum to power right through the middle of a herd of defenders and into the hoop. If you do it right it can be very effective, since the only way to stop it is to lower your shoulder and take the hit.
Oakland’s Team Try Hard are underdogs in every sense of the word. The other two Bay Area teams playing in the tournament are made up of mostly elite club players– players that have won multiple national championships, both in college and in club competition. Team Try Hard, as Wardle puts it, is “kind of what was left over.” Or as team captain Daniel “Shy” Chazin says, “We’re a best-of-the-rest team.”
Most of the players belong to an East Bay pick-up group that gets together once a week with about a dozen players. Right now it’s the off-season—the club ultimate season runs from the summer through late October—so they can play on the weekends. During the season when there are tournaments and practices most Saturdays and Sundays, they rent fields in Berkeley to play during the week. Chazin, who lives in Oakland, and has been around the scene for a while, says he noticed something at all these pick-up games. “There’s always a bunch of guys that try hard, you know, that really try hard, and from the get-go that’s what I wanted this team to be,” he said.
Chazin doesn’t have illusions about where Team Try Hard stands going into the tournament. “We’re very solidly the fifth seed,” he says. But that doesn’t mean they play the game any differently. Whether they’re taking on a team like Seattle, or one of the more casually thrown together teams, they always go out looking for a win.
“It’s really cool to play people from other cities,” says Chazin. “I think it’s a really cool event.”
Wardle says that personally, he prefers the pick-up games. “It’s more casual, and we play on smaller fields.”
“Yeah, but this is cooler though, because of all the chicks,” counters Corneille, looking around at the entirely male tournament contingent. But he can’t manage to keep a straight face. The rest of Team Try Hard laughs along with him.
In this game they are certainly living up to their name. Even though they’re outmatched athletically by Seattle’s younger players, Team Try Hard continues to generate turnovers, forcing Seattle to keep subbing their players out, hockey team-style, as they grow tired. Things start to get really physical in front of the hoop, Oakland’s tight defense and a few foul calls slowing down Seattle’s flow, but Wiggins finds a receiver with a crafty, no-look backhand throw and Seattle is up again, 2-1.
Oakland makes a few attempts in front of the hoop, trying to power through from close range, but they’re not able to convert, and the Seattle team’s younger legs churn out a quick three more points. That’s the end of game one, 5-1 Seattle.
But in the elimination round, teams play games to five, best of three games. So Oakland isn’t out just yet. They have two minutes to huddle up and regroup before the next game starts.
They’re playing better than they did the day before, when Seattle stomped them 15-5 in pool play. Today they have a better sense of Seattle’s movement; they like hitting long, diagonal runs to the back of the key. Team Try Hard’s game plan is a little more direct, going right at the hoop. “We don’t have a lot of ideas about how to put together a sophisticated game strategy,” says Washington. “But we can put a few plays together.”
Two minutes go quickly, and game two is underway. This time Oakland draws first blood. Seattle comes out of the break looking a bit sluggish and Team Try Hard surprises them. Chazin controls the play, getting the disc back every other throw, before finally finding Washington with a short, leading blade, putting them up 1-0. But Seattle isn’t stunned for long. The squirrely Nate Castine is able to slot one in to a Seattle receiver to even things up.
Oakland keeps playing tough defense, and thanks to a few miscues Seattle keeps turning it over. But Team Try Hard’s older players, showing their fatigue, give it right back and it’s not long before Seattle gets three quick goals, bringing the score to 4-1.
“Ten minutes!” yells Skip, the tournament director.
Even though games are played to a score, there’s a time cap of forty minutes, after which the game is over and the team that is ahead at the time wins.
“Hey, this is it guys,” says Wardle to his teammates. “Gotta get this.”
Everyone tightens up on his man. Seattle works their way toward the hoop. Pass, pass, pass. They’re taking their time. The end is in sight. But Oakland isn’t going down without a fight. A space opens, the pass goes up, and Team Try Hard is there. The defender blocks the pass. The disc drops to the ground. But Castine comes out of nowhere, throwing his body at the turf and catching the frisbee before it makes contact. Oakland is surprised and caught out of position. Seattle throws the goal. Game over.