Photo by Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com
What do you do when someone offers you the chance to see a dream realized? Take a deep breath, pinch yourself and ask, “What happens next?”
When the MLU announced they’d be establishing a team in San Francisco, most people in the local Ultimate community found out through word of mouth. The true test would be whether anyone took it seriously. But on a Wednesday night in February, a bunch of hopefuls dragged themselves from day jobs or internships to a community center in downtown San Francisco to learn how they could be part of the Dogfish dream.
General Manager Chris “Woody” Sherwood and Coach Justin Safdie had barely been on board two weeks when they faced a room of people wanting to know how this thing would work. Both were honest about what they didn’t yet know, but their commitment and enthusiasm were already building a foundation for a community of people willing to figure it all out together.
Coach Safdie says now, “I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I first heard about the MLU.” That sentiment was evident on the night of the town meeting, but when more than 70 of the Bay Area’s best open and mixed players showed up for the combines, faith had clearly overcome fear.
The challenge in San Francisco isn’t talent, it’s time. When you’re competing with the beach, the mountains and an amazing amount of parkland, limiting the athletically inclined to one activity is a hard sell.
Unless it’s Ultimate.
The combines brought the reality home as players sized up the competition and the fledgling staff saw the potential for greatness. The Dogfish rode into their inaugural season on a high wave of expectation. They had some of the sport’s top players on the roster and a fan base strong enough to draw 1,300 people to their opening game. Yet the secret sauce that rallied them to victory in some close home games may have been the missing ingredient when they played away from their hardcore Fish Faithful.
In week four the Dogfish were handed their first loss. The wave they’d been riding crashed, and the team fell hard. At the time team captain Ryo Kawaoka would only say that they needed to “play better,” but absences due to injuries and other Ultimate commitments seemed to have disrupted the team’s momentum.
Decisive home victories, another in-season loss and the unsuccessful showdown against the Boston Whitecaps in the MLU Championship reinforced Safdie’s observation, “We struggled in all of our road games, and that carried over into the championship as well.”
Yet the many months of hard work paid off in other ways. The Dogfish ended the season as the Western Conference Champions. Dogfish player Patrick Baylis won the Western Conference Spirit Award. A new generation can daydream about playing the sport they love in front of a stadium full of fans. And the Dogfish staff enjoyed an experience that some might call “once in a lifetime,” but most will look back and point to as just the beginning.
Sherwood says this first season was “a lot more work than I bargained for, but a great learning experience. I really appreciated all the effort and time people put into making the season a success. It’s great to see so many others as passionate as I am about the game.”
There are always things you look back upon and want to change, yet Coach Safdie says, “The first season was challenging but very rewarding. I learned a lot about the players, the game and the Bay Area Ultimate community. It was a great group of people to work with, and I feel like we accomplished something amazing together.”