To start the college season, one of the Men’s qualifiers from the previous season (Eastern Michigan Hellfish) leaked out that their two star players – Johnny Bansfield and James Highsmith – wouldn’t be returning to the team. It was a move that baffled everyone. Ultiworld reported they would be opting out of playing despite having eligibility. A team that was penciled in by many as a legit College Nationals contender was now being penciled out, with questions of ‘why’ flying everywhere. We now know why they did this, and finally have some thoughts on their choice.
Bansfield and Highsmith were one of the best duos at College Nationals last year in Cincinnati, so their departure from Eastern Michigan this college season came as a surprise. Ultiworld is reporting the reason why though: they want to focus on the club season. The short story is that they will be focusing on the club season, playing with Michigan’s High Five, who will be following recent models of bringing in large amounts of out-of-section and out-of-region talent to push themselves closer to the top.
I think it’s a bold move, and not necessarily a move that will pay off for the Michigan team. Several factors will help determine the move’s success.
Factor 1: Logistics
I’m going to keep this short and sweet. Johnny Bravo this past season was able to bring in a lot of elite-talent and make it work. Logistically, they figured out how practices, conditioning, etc. would work, and it did. If High Five can’t find a way to make all practices – and all players – do meaningful work both leading up to the start of and during the season, then the entire move is wasted. However, the real test is what happens on the field and the Ultiworld article brings up how the team will play strategy-wise. Huck-and-go type team? Or will they adapt something new and different? Given the importance of gaining a leg-up for the rankings to earn a bid (more on this next), it’s vital that they figure it out early and that it translates to on-field success. I think strategy is more important than the logistics of practice, conditioning, etc., but neither should be overlooked as a hurdle for High Five going forward.
Factor 2: Earning a Bid
Can High Five even earn another bid to Nationals? Improving upon last season hinges upon this important detail. During the 2013 season, High Five succeeded in earning an extra bid, but wouldn’t make it to Nationals after a close game with Machine in the regional finals and a loss to Mad Cow who usurped High Five’s place in the region. In 2014, they lost again to Machine in the game-to-go, and largely didn’t earn a bid on what has been chalked up as some weirdness in the rankings algorithm.
You can question their performance in 2014, I think. Heavyweights was a plus for them, and a huge improvement on earlier tournaments, but that tournament was played in adverse conditions and clearly wasn’t an indicator on how teams they beat (such as PoNY and Truck Stop) would eventually perform. Still, if you factor in the roster additions that are mentioned (top-end talent from Indiana and Ohio) then you have to think High Five will improve upon their results in a similar schedule this upcoming summer. And regionals should be less of a drain, theoretically, if the talent that had driven other teams to compete with High Five now sits on their roster instead. However, thinking that simply adding more talent will result in a bid is a dangerous thought. The end of regular season rankings has other teams that can be thought of as capable of improving their talent in similar ways, that could position themselves in the same kind of situation. These are teams like Pittsburgh’s Temper, Philadelphia’s Patrol, Kansas City’s Praire Fire, Florida United and all of those teams from the California area (Boost, Condors, etc). Especially now that this news is out there, doesn’t it (theoretically!) become possible that these other teams also find players to add to their rosters to boost their ability to gain a bid? A lot of those teams also sit in the Elite Flight for the Triple Crown Tour – meaning better access to higher competition, and an easier way to inflate their TCT Ranking.
Bid or not, how they perform against Chicago Machine will still go a long way in predicting where the team finishes.
Factor 3: Beyond 2015
In the Ultiworld piece, there is a lot mentioned by James Highsmith as this being part of a larger, long-term plan for the club and college world within the section. That they are thinking long-term and hoping that this move will establish High Five as a contender on the National scene year after year. That’s all fine and dandy, and it may turn out to be a smart move, but the reason I think that beyond the 2015 club season is a big factor, is what happens if the team doesn’t establish themselves after this season? What happens if the team ends up losing out on a bid to Nationals and fails to make it? Or gets to Nationals and doesn’t make much of an impact?
If the answers to those questions include the phrases “blow it all up”, “mass exodus”, or “High Five denied more than Tom Brady (one, two, three-ish times)” than this decision did not pay off. If the team doesn’t reach where it set outs to reach this season, and next off-season conversations hinge on the team changing their culture again, then chalk this up as a failure. This is only one possible outcome, and of course they could fail to meet any and all expectations and still come together again in the 2016 season, but I think this is the most worrisome outcome for High Five.
And to finish, some random thoughts on this move in general:
- “I wouldn’t trade the experiences and time I had with Eastern ultimate for the world,” he [Highsmith] said. “The memories created and lifelong friendships are something we’ll both have for the rest of our lives.”
- Not sure I would’ve made the same choice if I was in the same position (but will never be in that position). The time in college, with the specific group of players I was with, is something I would never trade in the world, and something I wish I could get back to each and every time I play.
- This kind of team news is something USA Ultimate needs to tap into more. A roster makeover like this is more exciting, I think, than anything the two semi-professional leagues can tap into. Yes it was surprising to hear of the Denver guys going down to San Diego to play. But this is surprising, exciting, all of that and more. It throws a giant wrench into the club season, and we’re months away.
- Will this (eventually) push USAU to change their rules on what a club roster can consist of? Would the organization rather have talent spread over several teams in one region, or the top-talent centered with specific teams? I think centered talent is better for short-term growth, and spread-out talent is better for long-term.
- Random note: Going through the USAU tournament/team system is annoying as heck to find past results. Add that to the list of complaints of ditching score reporter.