This year's Paganello tournament in Rimini, Italy marked the beginning of a new era for the continued acceptance of Ultimate frisbee. In an auspicious change of venue, Paganello 2002 was moved to the beachfront property of the decadent, pretentious and fantastic Grand Hotel, one of Italy's most famous four-star hotels.
The Grand Hotel, an eternal symbol of pomp, circumstance, wealth and fame as envisioned by no less an expert social critic as Federico Fellini (born and raised in Rimini), cut a deal with the Paganello organizers to sponsor the tournament and thusly buy into a rejuvenating crowd of Epicureans to re-stock their aging and silver-haired clientele. There weren't any disc players staying at the Grand Hotel, but the close approximation was apparently good enough for both sides.
The move to the Grand Hotel beachfront space may have been more symbolic than anything because the 5-on-5 games hardly changed. The same teams were there as last year, the same faces, the same good vibes, maybe new cap warnings broadcast over the speakers, but the same voice was calling out . "Some flash, revenge, the time is now over."
Games began at 8:40 am on Friday, March 28. The night before was a bacchanalian feast of the usual Rimini fare: grilled sardines and endless amounts of red wine. A new visual splendor (in addition to the annual fireworks) served to keep the stoners on point: performance art. A stage was erected for a show that combined the best of Balinese, Native American, and Japanese traditional cultures with a whole lot of pyrotechnic tubes that shot wicked jets of fire. Bird-like creatures on stilts, samurais on stilts, and a fake castle wall all beckoned to the crowd with extravagant odes of flame. Spooky music crowed from loudspeakers as the stilt creatures danced euphorically. Sadly, there was no narrative.
The morning after was bright, sunny and warmand parked next to the fields was a skid with some 400 cases of Harp lager that would be completely drained by the end of the tournament.
Paganello is a very exciting tournament. There is a wide-range of Ultimate skill levels but a very comparable latitude for partying. People like to come to Rimini to dance, drink, and wander the beach. Even the teams looking to win the title must bring it to the linoleum just ask Alfie, Damien Scott and Mike Grant, those press-loving houndz whose pseudo freestyler comic routine brought down a packed house at the Saturday night party. Or Coastal Tendencies captain Deganit Shecter, "I think we proved that you can win a tournament and party all night."
Every team coming here likes to have a good time, and its hard not to. But there was the faint sense of rampant commercialism in the Adriatic air. As Americans, we are overly sensitive to this sort of thing, because we have seen corporate-sponsored events that have the lifeblood sucked out of them. Here on the Rimini beach you could see it all.
There were masses of bodies and beer and loud, cheesy music. There were circus performers. There were bad tie-dyes and cheap plastic frisbees for sale. A fake African-themed dance troupe performed and looked no different than the Knick City Dancers. There was a giant bouncy mechanism sponsored by Eastpak, positioned by the bleachers by the main field.
But herein the difference: there was a halfpipe a skateboard halfpipe. Instead of Ultimate being the curious and geeky activity on the side, it was skateboarding. Paganello may have been a circus atmosphere, but it was Ultimate under the big top. Everything else was a sideshow act, brought together to compliment Paganello.
Throughout all the madness and corporate sponsorship (Renault donated a new car model to the tournament and gave free driving exhibitions) the play of Paganello and the spirit of the game never diminished. Over the years it has only grown stronger.
So let us then worry about matters of Ultimate more to our concern: the competition and the parties.
Like last year, the most prolific Ultimate countries sending teams to Paganello were the United States, Germany, Italy and England. The U.S. has recently been sending top squads that have been winning, but Germany and England have a longer history of success in Rimini.
You can't count out the tournament's founders either, the club teams Cota Rica for the men and Tequila Boom Boom for the women. Consistently undervalued, they consistently find a way to win games.
Jumpi has long been seeking an increase in the competitive level of Paganello in the hopes of one day bringing about a true "Beach Ultimate Championship." It comes as no surprise that teams from around the world bring their best to Italy for this tournament.
Naturally, the top American teams recruited some big time players. Tom Street's Hee Haw-based team Collard Greens confirmed Stu Downs' plane ticket at the last minute and added Boston's Moses Rifkin and the Condors' Steve Dugan to replace the quartet of Seattle players from last year's finals run. Sean McCall's Houston-based team again brought Chris "Cash" Ashbrook, Mike Grant, Damien Scott, Woody and added Condors Peter Rive and Mike Namkung. It's no surprise these two teams made it to the finals.
The English also mixed and matched as no less than four strong squads exchanged players and added American ex-pats like New Yorkers Rob Alpen and Aram Flores. Last year the London-based Under the Influence outran Houston in semifinals and took home the championship. But perhaps the co-mingling was too much in 2002 as several UTI players joined Clapham which seemed to deplete both teamsenough to keep them out of semis.
Instead it was the Italians who once again charged energetically through the crossover pools to earn a spot in semis. Founders Cota Rica, fourth-place finishers last year, faced the Collard Greens in semis and provided one of the tournament's best matches.
The large stands on both sides were packed with raucous local fans bearing Cota shirts and shorts (apparently the team paraphernalia is quite fashionable in the area) and banging their feet on the aluminum bleachers. Cota stayed down by to or three nearly the entire game, just a few steps behind Atlanta. But just when it looked out of reach at 10-8, game to 11, they rallied for two straight points with a flurry of hucks and defensive stops. The crowd, numbering in the thousands, was as loud as I've ever heard at an Ultimate tournament. Finally, Stu Downs scored for the Greens and ended the game. A hearty round of applause followed the match as both teams huddled together to thank each other for the game and spirit.
It was almost the same way for the Coastal Tendencies in finals. In a game that seemed locked up, their Dutch opponents fought back courageously to narrow a five-point gap to one. But Coastal ringer Shar Stuht insured a victory for the California girls, "There's no way I can lose to players I don't know."
The rest of the team was familiar with the Old Ones, all seven of them (the Dutch women played with only two subs over all four days). Last year at Paganello, the unheralded Old Ones surprised Coastal Tendencies in semifinals and earned a one-point victory. This year was going to be different. "We were kind of bummed about that last year, I don't like losing by a point. I think we really wanted to win this time," explained captain and founder Deganit Shecter.
In a defensive twist, leader Rachel Noble devised a method to neutralize the Old One's tremendous advantage in height and accuracy, "Basically we strategized a three person cup D, with two people in the back field. It was your standard three person cup, but instead of having the off-point play over near the swing, we let them have the swing, and the off-point was always in the lane, preventing any upfield gains. This did two things, it forced them to throw high and far, rather than right to one another (they are an incredibly accurate throwing team), and forced them to throw more passes than they normally would, which in the sand is difficult."
Coastal won that finals game 11-8 to take home the Paganello beach umbrella. And they did it the proper way, going through three-time defending champions Bliss in semifinals. England's Bliss is a powerful team, but a five-goal deficit to start the game against Coastal was too much for them to overcome. Plus Coastal Sarah Welsh was playing fiercely in honor of her 30th birthday.
Big Ethan and his Philadelphia-based crew Horned Melons came to the mixed division with high hopes. Surprise semifinalists last year, they looked to make finals. The competition was quite fierce with defending champions Thrill Ride, finalists Poughkeepsie, and a powerful Swiss combination team called Fingers. Behind no less than four pairs of Ultimate couples, they accomplished their initial goal by making finals, despite not having any big-name stars beside Citizen Gorgeous and Tse Tse 2K2.
Comprised mostly of Philly summer league players and a few from Rage and the Peppers, the Horned Melons' brand of chilly offense and effective defense took them past San Francisco-based Huck Finn in semifinals. In Finals they lost to Poughkeepsie, an English team and one of the best-kept secrets on the planet. Poughkeepsie has some real players and a great sense of calm in crunch time.
Americans could also be found on defending champion Thrill Ride, Holly Wright's Colorado squad Spaghetti Western, and the mostly New York combo Odd Job. All these teams fared well, with the exception of Odd Job, as pickup Johnny Flandrick of Trigger Hippy had for the team "the worst tournament of my career." Flandrick promises that next year we won't "ride the bus" as often, trusting the duties instead to Tischler, CP and lover Drucifer.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament was the first collegiate team from the U.S.: Yale Ramona. One of the team's co-captains Becca was studying abroad for the year and heard only raves about Paganello. She relayed the enthusiasm back to New Haven where the Ramona team sucked it up and made the decision to attend. In order to raise money for the airfare, the ladies sold t-shirts and paraded them on campus in their skivvies.
And for coming all this way and considering that the entire team was college-eligible, they did quite well, finishing seventh of twenty-one teams. The camaraderie no doubt helped them in the Spring, as they made a surprise run at Regionals (this was considered a rebuilding year for the team) and made Nationals.
So who won for the men? It wasn't four-time champion Mir San Mir, who were effectively knocked out by Akira Yamaguchi's Chicago Scandal team behind 19-year old phenom Xtehn Titcomb and his brother, but rather those pugnacious Houndz, calling themselves No Tsu Oh.
Everyone knew that they were going to be unstoppable this year. It was an easy call to make. Bitterly disappointed in last year's 7th place finish and the negative press they received, one report from yours truly calling them "emotionally overconfident sissies," they were clearly of the 'take no prisoners' mindset. Defying the ten-year tradition of no open team winning Paganello without first losing a game, No Tsu Oh blasted every opponent off the sand, including the Collard Greens in their closest match of the tournament, a 15-11 victory. Next year look for these hard-partiers to return to form and tank in quarters. No, just jokingplace a bet against them if you dare, this team is stacked.
Paganello 2003 just around the corner. Get your bids in early, because this is one sweet tournament.
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