Alumni Cup

Published in Ultimatum 2012


Many inaugural tournaments run the real risk of failing to secure the attendants to warrant a repeat of the event. While the Alumni Cup attempted to side-step that issue by being conjoined with University Nationals, the disorganised nature of Ultimate players combined with increased responsibilities and reduced fitness with age made it difficult for alumni squads to field the 'dream teams' that had fuelled pre-tournament hype. As the TD issued monthly updates approaching the tournament, each list of entries differed from the last by three or four teams, culminating with two changes in the week before the event. As such, the first action of many of the teams after getting to Manchester was to take a good look round and size up the opposition. With some of the power houses of university Ultimate (Warwick, Edinburgh) missing from the field, there was definitely room for some surprises in the quarter-finals. However, early showings suggested that Loughborough had brought back enough of their championship-winning side of 2005 to be very strong contenders (and they were wearing kit printed for the event!); that Sussex had a great deep game; and that Cambridge had done well to get a lot of players who'd spent time together both at university and on the Strange Blue club team.

Personally, my mission had always been to get a range of players from Leeds' past back on the field: I was happy that we fielded a player from the 90s on both days (albeit only for one game each), while conversely Si Hill was slightly disappointed that there wasn't anyone on the team younger than his shirt. With our first game against Oxford, I thought a rivalry from my past was about to be resurrected, only to discover that there were no returners from 2002-2004, and that there would be little to gain from reminiscing about past results in the post-game speeches. After our first victory, Leeds spent the rest of the day playing teams that I'm sure we'd never met in my student days, though it was interesting to discover where regular club rivals had studied. Across three rounds of pool play, the value of familiarity was demonstrated, as we spectacularly failed to implement a zone defence and then struggled with communication trying to integrate someone for just one game.

While our anecdotal experience on this front is compelling at a personal level, the graph accompanying this article does suggest that teams with multiple players from one original team were stronger, with an arguable correlation with championship winning players. For this inaugural graph, the strongest observation is clearly that the three teams with the biggest squads all made semis - and that the semi-finalists with a smaller squad didn't progress – but as the tournament matures, different patterns may emerge.

Alumni Cup - Roster Data: Alumni Cup - Roster Data: Bubble chart showing the number of players from each graduation year within the squads at the 2012 inaugural Alumni Cup, ordered by final finishing position within the tournament. A gradient fill to gold identifies where any player from that year won an Outdoor Championship (Mixed, Open or Women's)

Alumni Cup - Roster Data: Bubble chart showing the number of players from each graduation year within the squads at the 2012 inaugural Alumni Cup, ordered by final finishing position within the tournament. A gradient fill to gold identifies where any player from that year won an Outdoor Championship (Mixed, Open or Women's)

The quarter-finals – re-arranged to Saturday evening following the torrential rain preceding the weekend – showcased a good range of established and recent university teams as Brighton met Manchester, Leeds played KCL, Loughborough took on UCL and Cambridge faced Surrey. Manchester confirmed that their strong showing in the pool play sudden death loss to Loughborough was no fluke, nullifying the big plays to convincingly beat Sussex. The Loughborough machine rolled through UCL, and Cambridge were informed by their captain that going up a few points early could decide the game, so took it to Surrey and maintained a convincing lead throughout. In the last of the quarters, a short-handed KCL were overwhelmed by a strong Leeds start (Rob Littler scoring the Callahan off his own pull to go 3-0 up).

Thus, Sunday morning's semi-finals saw a Northern derby on one side of the draw and (if one looked back to the 2001 regions) a Midlands rivalry on the other. After a tight start, the idea of home field advantage was quashed, with Leeds getting a number of big blocks to pull away from Manchester. The Cambridge-Loughborough affair stayed closer for longer, but with steady hands at the back for Cambridge, the more expansive style of their opposition provided enough opportunities to take the game. In the consolation brackets, the disappointed Mohawks swept comfortably to 5th place, and there was a very vague trend towards better results for more recently established teams, with the historically strong institutes of Southampton and Sheffield being bested by the likes of the London colleges, Birmingham and Bangor.

With conditions leading the finalists to bring the game forward, few spectators saw a real spectacle of a game, as the soft ground encouraged big defensive bids. While Cambridge were patient on offence, the defensive intensity of Leeds gave them enough possession to be 10–8 up when the cap went on. Securing a break in the next point gave the northerners four game points, but Cambridge hung in, capitalising on errors to bring it back to sudden death. A miscommunication led to a Leeds’ deep shot sailing into an empty end zone, and for two passes the ghost of St Andrews 2004 (when Aberdeen recovered from 9–3 and 13–9 down to win 13–14) hovered over Leeds. A punt from the brick mark was met by a flying defender, and after a quick swing, the third huck of the point was completed to avert the choke. For Jon Middleton, one of the Cambridge alumni, this became the 8th Ultimate title he's contested as a runner-up: University Mixed Indoors, University Open Indoors, University Mixed Outdoors, University Open Outdoors, UKU Tour, UKU Nationals, EUCF Finals, and now UKU University Alumni. Hang in there, Jon.

Talking to a few other players since, I believe the minimum criteria for the tournament to achieve a pass mark were met comfortably. The organisation was something of a given (with bonus marks for handling the preceding week’s downpour); Lookfly's support with the team photos was excellent (albeit with a predictable penchant for bare skin in the 'silly' photos); there were competitive games throughout (including, with no bias whatsoever, a great final); and most importantly, the tournament represented an opportunity to lure retired players out for a run around. So what lessons should be learned to make the Alumni Cup a first class tournament? UKU's objective when launching the event was to provide a retention mechanism for Ultimate players who drop out of the sport after leaving university (the data displayed in the graph confirms that the field was dominated by recent graduates) and sadly we won't be able to measure that impact for a number of years. Nonetheless, the fact that the event generated a high level of interest, in a congested calendar, during such a wet spring and with only a few months notice, augurs well for the future of the event. It is feasible that the dual nature of the tournament will even foster closer links between alumni and the current student teams, a situation that should benefit both parties. Once the event is sufficiently established, it may even be worthwhile searching the schedule for a 'Champion of Champions' game, where the University winners play the Alumni winners. It's not exactly the NexGen Tour, but it's an idea...

Rich Hims