Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Becoming a Champion: Northeast Fantasy 2014

Sometimes, fairy tales do come true. A 15-year-old kid can put together team of quidditch players who have never played before. The players can drive from as far as Minnesota to compete. Through tips, scouting reports and handling substitutions, the kid can gain the respect and adoration of his players and his opposition. A million different things can go right when hope seems lost. A million different things can go right when the kid had doubts from the beginning. By the end of the day, the kid can hear his name chanted on the sidelines, feel the exhilarating rush of storming a field in his first tournament and be hoisted in the air by his team. 

I arrived at Randall's Island 30 minutes before the scheduled start of Northeast Fantasy 2014. For some reason, I always get nervous before attending quidditch tournaments. I get afraid that I will attract more strange looks than friendly waves. That nervous feeling was amplified at Northeast Fantasy. Ever since World Cup V, I've gone to quidditch tournaments as a reporter. I've followed teams and rooted for teams, but I had never been affiliated with a team. I had no idea how much my Northeast Fantasy team would want me involved and I was planning to stay away from the sidelines. As I walked on to the fields, I knew that I had a team waiting for me. It was new. It was scary.

I found most of my team in a classically awkward, pre-fantasy-tournament circle underneath the bridge. We forced a conversation about our nickname, the Blues Bludgers. When I did little to initiate any ice-breakers or introductions, one of the elected captains took the lead and started a warm-up. However, the tournament was running on quidditch time and another elected captain called the warm-up off. The team dispersed. I took out my notepad and started scouting teams from Pool A. I felt comfortable doing what I normally do at quidditch tournaments. I wasn't looking forward to our first game against Ethan Sturm's Bright Green Team. I was afraid we'd get mauled, my players would be angry and our chances would be out the window by 10:30.

As our first brooms up approached, I hovered near the bench and near the warm-up, but I didn't take control of anything. When the game started, Harry Greenhouse put my team ahead by a couple of goals. We were playing good defense and converting on offense. Then, one of my captains came over to me and I suggested a substitution of our entire chaser line. We made the substitutions and Sturm's Bright Green Team pounced. We conceded three or four goals and lost our lead. We were suddenly in danger of going out of snitch range. 

By the time the snitch was released, we had lost all momentum. From my position around midfield, I thought we needed to switch our beater line. I jogged over to our bench and proposed the substitution. I turned to jog back to my position away from the bench, but within seconds, I saw Bright Green's seeker make the snitch catch. None of my beaters were in sight. I whirled around, looking for blue shirts with black headbands. I looked back at the bench and there were my beaters, making the substitution I had suggested. I immediately felt terrible. I had assumed someone else would make the judgement call on when to conduct the substitution. However, at that moment, I realized that my players were relying on me to make that judgement call. My beaters probably knew that I was calling for a substitution at a bad time, yet they followed my suggestion instantaneously without questioning it. My players' trust in me cost us our game against the Bright Green Team, but ultimately, it won us Northeast Fantasy.

I walked away from the field with the captains, discussing strategy and personnel changes. I tried to hide my doubt and reinforce positive-thinking. Sturm's Bright Green Team had more depth and we weren't organized well. I realized that if we were going to win, we couldn't have bad substitutions or miscommunications. We had to be managed to perfection. I was reluctant to start coaching, but since my team seemed to trust me, I decided to give it a shot. 

Photo by Michael E. Mason
As we warmed-up for Clay Dockery's Orange Team, I started to participate in the drills. I retrieved shots and no one seemed to mind. When I gave a scouting report in our pre-brooms-up huddle, all eyes were on me and my team was listening intently. As the game started, I positioned myself in front of our bench and way outside my unmarked technical area. All communication between the field and the bench began to go through me. I managed the chaser lines better, bringing in one player at a time. If our offense or defense didn't look right, I could easily figure out what was wrong and reverse the substitution. My team jumped out to a lead against Dockery's Orange Team and didn't look back. A Greenhouse snitch catch locked up our 100*-40 victory. 

An hour later, we repeated our performance against Erin Mallory's Black Team. We had developed a routine. We went through the same warm-up, same pre-game huddle for the scouting report, same starting lineup and similar substitutions. My team played even stronger against the Black Team. Greenhouse played practically all game, scoring goals at will and catching the snitch within seconds. Matt Cardarelli, Mike Iadevaia and Lulu Xu were anchoring the beating game and fighting for control. Hofstra's Adam Kwestel was a force on and off-ball and Maryland's Cody Nardone was the king of loose ball recoveries and gritty offense. Aaron Wade, a chaser for Old Dominion and a former cornerback, became our go-to off-ball defender. Harvard's Carli Haggerty showed terrific ball security, expert decision-making and could always find an opening for a pass or shot. 
  We defeated the Black Team 100*-30 and improved to 2-1. Morale was high and my team was determined. Having a winning record was an awesome feeling and I tried to savor it. I knew we had two tougher games coming up against Jayke Archibald's Pink Team (2-1) and Andy Marmer's Gray Team (2-1). I wanted to focus on the positives but I kept having flashbacks to our loss to Sturm's Bright Green Team.

Photo by Michael E. Mason
After we went through our pre-game routine and I stopped complaining about a couple of drooping hoops, it became clear that the Pink Team was on another level. The Pink Team systematically dismantled my team. Xu was double yellowed around the five-minute mark and Luke Changet and Robert Vortherms seized bludger control. Changet and Vortherms played conservatively and took Greenhouse out of the game. Watching my 340-galleon player spend the majority of his game running back and forth from the hoops was an incredibly helpless feeling. Meanwhile, Archibald was deadly on the fast break and ruthlessly efficient in the half-court. Pink's best off-ball weapons, Tim Keaney, Andrew Zagelbaum and Sam Medney, shook off our defenders too easily and hauled in pass after pass from Archibald. Greenhouse miraculously summoned the strength and energy to lead a comeback near the end of his chaser shift, but Zagelbaum caught the snitch for a 90*-40 Pink Team win. 

With our loss to Pink, my heart sunk. We had dropped to 2-2 and things didn't look bright. Only the top two seeds from each pool were advancing to bracket play. I had told my team prior to the Pink game that it was a must-win. As one of my players remarked, the s**t smell drifting over the Northeast Fantasy fields from the Wards Island Water Pollution Control Plant was the least of our worries. 

Nevertheless, I tracked down the official scoresheet and started furiously calculating records and point differentials. Archibald's Pink Team was at 3-1 and would face Dockery's Orange Team in their final game of pool play. Assuming the Pink Team took care of business, it would be through to the semifinals as a top seed. Here's where it gets complicated. My team was playing Marmer's 3-1 Gray Team in our final game and Sturm's 2-2 Bright Green Team was matched up against Mallory's 1-3 Black Team. If my Blue Team and Sturm's Bright Green Team won, it would come down to a three-way tiebreaker between Blue, Bright Green and Gray. I quickly figured out that if it came down to point differential, my team was in very good shape.
Photo by Michael E. Mason
I spread the news amongst my team and by brooms up, my team was determined and ready to pile on the points. Cardarelli, Iadevaia and Xu held a firm advantage over Gray's trio of Matt Eveland, Jimmy Pritts and Julie Fritz. Gray's defense left a lot of space and Haggerty exploited it, tallying three or four goals. With the final score of 120*-40, my team had bolstered our point differential and made it nearly impossible for Sturm's Bright Green Team to advance. Somehow, a 3-2 team was headed to the semifinals.

In our first elimination game, we would be playing Ricky Nelson's Union Jack Team. I couldn't believe my good luck; I had scouted the Union Jack Team heavily and was confident that my team could pull out the W. The Union Jack Team's stellar beating corps hadn't clicked like I thought they would and its offense wasn't quick or skilled enough to push my team out of snitch range. I started to believe that my Blues Brothers could win Northeast Fantasy. I didn't have time to give a long, motivational speech, but I wanted to articulate my new expectations to the team. I told the team that if we won Northeast Fantasy, I would put a big team photo with the caption "Northeast Fantasy 2014 Champions" on my blog. I was hoping it would be a silly, little thing that my team could rally around. I peered around our huddle and saw wild grins. The idea of winning a tournament for a 15-year-old's blog was too good. With a boisterous cheer of "For the Blog!" we were off and running. Our beaters played another fearless game, never letting Scott Axel or Aaron Wohl take control of the game. Greenhouse had another absolutely phenomenal performance and Luke Zak and Kwestel each put in effective shifts at keeper. A snitch catch from Greenhouse capped the victory. 

Hearing the final whistle, my team went crazy. I was jumping up and down. My team mobbed me and we shouted out an exuberant "One More!" We were going to the 'ship! I quickly realized that many of my players had never been close to championship in quidditch. The feeling of the later rounds of bracket play was as foreign to them as it was to me. However, a rematch against Archibald's Pink Team loomed. Suffering another humiliating loss was a real possibility. I heard someone suggest a team picture (#ForTheBlog, of course) and we summoned over Michael E. Mason. As we posed for the photo, I couldn't help but wonder if we'd be posing for a happy photo again. I needed to focus on the Pink Team and I knew I would have to make a few changes.
Photo by Michael E. Mason
With darkness enveloping the Big Apple and tournament organizers trying to get the final underway, I had to gather my tired team. We skipped our usual warm-up and focused on staying loose and being mentally and strategically prepared. I told my beaters that we simply couldn't let the Pink Team dominate bludger control. The Pink Team had neutralized Greenhouse in pool play, but in the finals, we were going to use bludger control to take Archibald out of the game. We also changed our starting chasing line. Nardone took the green headband and I inserted Wade at chaser to defend against Keaney and Zagelbaum. 

Following brooms up, we traded blows with the Pink Team like two long-time rivals. Pink's passing game was clearly superior and Archibald continued to air out half-court passes to Keaney and Medney. The Pink Team played stout defense around the hoops, making forceful tackles and blocking shots. However, my Maryland duo of Greenhouse and Nardone kept grinding out second and third-chance points. I was holding my breath every offensive possession and jumping for joy every time a Blue chaser muscled through for a dunk or scored a mid-range shot. I began to notice that thanks to my animated celebrations, the crowd was getting behind my team. I kept the sidelines antics coming and snuck in a nice joke about Luke Changet. During a stoppage of play, Greenhouse motioned for me to run onto the field and stretch him out. The crowd loved that.

As the game progressed, Greenhouse and Archibald locked into a riveting duel at both ends of the field. Each star chaser was determined to out-do the other on each possession. The twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth minutes rolled around. I knew that I needed to get Greenhouse out of the game to rest. As I pulled my 340-galleon star, I held my breath. Archibald, Keaney and Medney were still in the game for Pink. For the next few minutes, my team kept the game in snitch range by pouncing on Pink's missed opportunities and slowing the game's pace. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that my chasers had the game under control. 

I surveyed the field. Snitch Jamie Lafrance had trotted out onto the field and was waiting for Greenhouse and Zagelbaum to charge at him. Both sets of beaters were ready. When the eighteen-minute mark struck, all I could do was watch. As Lafrance fended off the seekers, it was clear that Greenhouse was getting more time with the snitch and he was using it well. I was watching the chaser game when play suddenly stopped and the crowd got really quiet. I turned and saw Greenhouse on the ground, holding the snitch sock. There weren't any beaters in sight. I was about to start nervously pacing when the snitch catch was confirmed! We were Northeast Fantasy 2014 Champions!

The instant I saw head referee Ethan Sturm's arms raise an inch, I was bolting onto the field to mob Greenhouse. I don't even remember hearing the whistle. I could have run to Lower Manhattan if I had to. Rushing the field after a championship is such a unique, purely happy feeling. Time for reflections would come later. I savored all the happy, triumphant, validated and proud thoughts, enjoyed the post-championship photo shoots and thanked everyone for their congratulations on my way out.

Looking back, the win feels even better. We weren't the tightest team. Our Facebook group had no activity prior to the tournament. My team rallied around one outstanding individual performance and trusted their teenage coach to put the right pieces in the right places. Not once did I hear a complaint about playing time or an obnoxious remark. My team was the perfect team to coach from the first brooms up to the final whistle. I will always remember Saturday, August 9th. It was the day I made my successful coaching debut. It was the day that I became a Northeast Fantasy champion.

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