Photo by John King – UltiPhotos

The previously undefeated San Francisco Dogfish traveled to Portland to play the winless Stags last Saturday. The Dogfish controlled the game until there were three minutes left, and then they dropped four straight points to Portland to suffer their first defeat of the season.

The Portland loss stings. I spoke to Ryo Kawaoka about key plays and decisions and their effects on the game’s outcome. While Ryo was polite and said appropriate things about teamwork and experience and mistakes, his frustration was palpable. San Francisco Ultimate teams have high expectations and letting a win slip away the way they did Saturday is an annoyance. Ryo told me “You can’t expect to win every game in a season,” but his but his clenched jaw revealed otherwise.

The Dogfish will point to a couple of issues to explain their lapse against Portland, but all of it can be traced back to missing several key players. It’s not an excuse that Ryo was fond of. “We had proven that we could beat Portland with the team we had. Our third and fourth lines were able to score and get Ds.” Nonetheless, strategic decisions, match-up problems and experience were factors that could have been better controlled with a full roster.

San Francisco was playing its second weekend without Beau Kittredge, Mac Taylor, Ashlyn Joye and Martin Cochran who were teaching Ultimate at a camp for youth players in Moscow. In addition, first line handler Cassidy Rasmussen had a foot injury, and Sam Kanner, Patrick Baylis and Russ Wynne had other commitments. The missing players represent a skill set and athleticism that San Francisco can duplicate with others on the roster, but the any team would struggle to replace the experience and focus those eight players provide.

The main consequence of the reduced Dogfish roster was that Portland’s top athletes could take advantage of their defenders’ lack of familiarity. Portland star Timmy Perston in particular had himself a game. Perston is one of the top goal scorers in the MLU this season, and his confidence against the Dogfish was unwavering. Ryo said, “We focused on keeping Timmy from going deep and keeping him out of the end-zone but he made plays again and again. The times we did force him under he would still get a 30-yard gainer.”

Without their big guns, San Francisco could not establish a dominant lead on Portland. Strategically, Coach Justin Safdie dealt with the close game by making an occasional gamble. This paid off early but may have cost the team as well. Safdie had his defense force the backhand throw most of the game, since the Portland long throwers are especially good on the forehand side. Safdie switched to force forehand at one point and earned a break, but keeping the forehand force on the following point led to a quick Stags goal.

Safdie also put his defensive line in for an offensive point in the third quarter that led to an easy score. However, this same strategy backfired in the waning seconds when Safdie had his defense on the field to try to comeback from 18-17. “At that point, remember the offense had been on the field for three straight, so it was a risk putting a tired O line out there,” added Ryo.

A timeout at the end of the third quarter is another strategic decision that the players continue to debate. The Dogfish were going to receive the disc in the fourth quarter and scoring at the end of the third would have put them in a position to extend their lead to three. With less than 30 seconds on the clock, the team had gotten a block only five yards from the goal line and it is possible they could have scored easily off the turn. Understandably Safdie called a timeout to control the play and run down the clock, but the Dogfish lost yards on the first throw out of the huddle and were unable to get the score before time ran out.

In the fourth, consecutive O line turns led to quick scores by the Stags. A two-point deficit turned into a two-point lead for the Stags in under three minutes. Discussing the turnovers that led to the Portland win, Ryo had a tight grin on his face that was simultaneously polite and furious. “You can’t blame the loss on any one throw or any one drop. You win as a team and you lose as a team.”

It would be easy to say that the missing individuals would have made the difference in the game, but for Ryo and the Dogfish team on the field, that excuse misses the real issue. The Dogfish that played on Saturday know they were good enough to win; their collective dissatisfaction stems from not reaching their potential. I asked Ryo if a loss like this makes a team better and he said “Definitely.” Lessons were learned in Saturday’s loss that won’t be forgotten.

The Dogfish will be at full strength this Saturday against the Vancouver Nighthawks, playing at home in Boxer Stadium at 3PM. The last game against the Nighthawks was close, but unfortunately for the Canadians, they picked the wrong weekend to try for a win on the road. The Dogfish will be playing with an edge after losing to Portland.

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