The first ever Israel Ultimate Championships, Passover 2005
Lions of Zion TIED the Tel Aviv DiscDragons
Enter the Tel Aviv Holylanders. The last time they locked horns with the Jerusalem Lions, last Hanukkah, they made Lion-pie out of us. The Lions were pummeled 15-4 in a game that wasn’t even close. Clearly deserving their #1 tournament ranking, the Holylanders were the team to beat. In their nylon and mesh professional Ultimate jerseys, and in obviously good shape, you had to respect the Tel Aviv Holylanders, who had easily won all of their previous games.
The Lions had plenty of reason to doubt themselves. Although we had been playing well throughout the tournament, we were also without Brett, one of our best players and the backbone of Jerusalem Ultimate for several years. We also had not had a full practice. Most of the Lions were not in great physical shape either. We were much less a “team,” in the conventional sense, than the Tel Aviv squad which practiced several times per week. But we were a solid collection of Ultimate players who were hungry to represent the City of Jerusalem and play our hearts out. The stars must have been aligned for us, or maybe it was the sphirot (From Kabbalah). Or maybe it was due to the third day of the counting of the Omer, Netzah Sh’B’chesed, that “righteous victory” would be the ultimate result.
Rabbi repeatedly reminded the team how important it was to get off to a good start. Surprising everyone, including ourselves, we raced out to a 4-1 lead. Could this have been the same Holylanders team we played during Hanukah? Or was this just a different Lions team? Equally shocking was how the Holylanders would often do a wholesale substitution after almost every point. They seemed to have over 20 players on their team and they were all getting playing time. This would enter into the picture later. The Lions had no such luxury as we had a full contingent of only 12 players.
עוד גול ירושלמי, הפעם של הנציג האוסטרלי
What separated this Lions team from the last team to face the Holylanders was defense and fearlessness. I said in the huddle, “We need to play the hardest man to man we’ve ever played. Dave Mason, what are you going to give the first layout D-block? An ice cream.” Who was going to get that first lay-it-all-on-the-line layout D-block? I kept shouting over and over, “I want that Ice cream.” In the huddle Rabbi reminded us that the last time we played this team, we played “with fear in our eyes”. In his pre-game speech Rabbi made a special point to say we’d all be winners no matter what the score was as long as we gave it everything we had. So we were playing with good intensity, good kavanah (spirited focus), for ice cream , D-blocks, and most of all — for fun. Our words and attitude seemed to impact our play in a way that we never thought possible.
The game was fiercely competitive. Fast counts, picks and travels were all being called. Fouls were contested almost as much as they were uncontested. Play was physical. Defense seemed to dominate this matchup. It was all man to man. The crowd seemed to really appreciate the defensive effort. Big cheers would sound off after Tomer, in full horizontal position, would make a huge D-block. People were leaving their feet early and often.
שלב 1. תומר קופץ לצלחת גבוהה שלב 2. תומר מוריד צלחת גבוהה
But there was also plenty of strategy. For the defense, after each point, Rabbi nearly drew delay of game penalties as he carefully matched up players to make sure we didn’t have any mismatches. For offense, the Lions generally stuck to our classic stack with a dump offense. But near the end zone, we started executing Michael’s end zone O. He told us before the tournament that this end zone play, a simple isolation (iso) and clearout, could score us an extra 5 points a game. He was right on. We were scoring at will with the endzone offence, but after about 3 times falling victim to it, Tel Aviv started adjusting. At one point Rabbi made an iso for Michael, and Tomer decided to take measure. He asked, “Who please is Michael?” Michael, stunned and guilty, raised his hand and said “me.” Tomer responded with a thank you, followed by a laugh both on the field and off, as the Holylanders knew exactly where Rabbi intended to throw the disc. Dave and I quickly realized this and I shouted “broken” and cut to the broken side. Dave anticipated my move and cut right off me for the easy score. We were ahead by 3 again. But our main end zone play had been revealed.
I personally really wanted that ice cream. I wanted to have that first D-block. So much so that we made “ice cream” (“גלידה גלידה גלידה!) our cheer after Tel Aviv’s timeout. I wasn’t the only one hungry for that D-block. Josh L. had never layed out on D before and seemed poised. Never before had a Jerusalem team been so committed to playing such tough defense. But the most impressive part of the Lions game was actually their decision making. We were taking advantage of every opportunity to score. Every Holylander mistake was turning into a Lions point. The sideline was going nuts. My glasses got crushed after a score, but I didn’t care. Something special was happening on the field.
The score was 9-6 with the Lions on top. The sun was going down and dusk was nearly upon us. The 10 minute warning went off. The Lions started feeling that victory was within our reach. But then, in what could only be described as mass confusion, we made our biggest mental blunder of the game. We assumed without checking that this game would end when the time ran out. Some of us assumed maybe there would be a 1 point cap. Most of us heard that the game would be played to 15, or to an hour and a quarter – whichever came first. We were following the format from the rest of the tournament. Since we were up by three and in command, we assumed the result of the game was a foregone conclusion. The Holylanders had different plans. After we scored the next point and were up 10-6, it was announced to us that after the NEXT point, a 2-point cap would set in. So if we scored, the game would be to 13 and if they scored, the game would be to 12. Somehow that news didn’t set in until we scored the next point. Rabbi skied for one more point and it was – 11-6. Game to 13. Or so we all thought. But many Lions were still confused, including fans and spouses. Why hadn’t we won? Why wasn’t the game over? These were the questions everyone was asking on the sidelines. The game was far from over, and the sun had nearly set.
All we needed were two measly points. But all of a sudden, scoring became impossible for the Lions. The only part of our game that was faltering was our scoring. We could work it all the way up the field, but we couldn’t punch it in. We must have made a turnover in every possible way – ill advised hammers, right throw wrong person, hot D-block by a Holylander, badly executed iso calls, just barely missed layouts in the back of the end zone, throwing out of bounds, or just simple doinks (drops). The combination of Holylander defense and our ineptitude with the cap-rule translated into our inability to make the right combinations of throws and catches to score a goal. All the good karma we had at the beginning was disappearing as fast as the sun and transferring to the Holylander team. Soon it was 11-8.
And then the sun set. I took off my visor and sunglasses. I no longer needed them. The game had been going on for over an hour and a half. Fatigue was setting in, and players started getting injured. First there was Rabbi’s leg cramp. But thanks to the Holylander, Shimone, and a little massage, Rabbi was ready to continue. Mickey from the Holylanders was already limping. Yonaton from the Lions had already twisted his ankle. But no one was ready to concede. Maybe Jerusalem wasn’t scoring goals, but they weren’t going to let Tel Aviv control this game. Defensively, we somehow kept it going, despite having played over 4 ½ games that day. Both teams wanted to win so badly. The crowd knew they were witnessing something special. As it got darker and darker, our offense weakened as the Holylanders cranked up their defense. Still hungry for that ice cream I made a layout bid which just missed. Then I made another– I deflected the disc to the ground but was called for a foul. Our defense was still holding up, but we could not score.
The Holylanders defense was just too strong. While we were moving the disc freely up the sidelines, they totally shut us out of the end zone. Tomer was literally flying everywhere with his insane layout D-blocks. He single handedly prevented goals with his stellar defensive performance. But the Lions were not going to be overshadowed. Josh L. decided this was the perfect time to make his layout D-block debut. The crowd roared when he went completely horizontal to deflect a Holylander pass onto the next field near the home sideline. The ice cream was his.
Although the Lions were not scoring, Tel Aviv’s points were coming very slowly. They could have nicknamed the Lions “slow-death.” Each point took at least 10 minutes and it was getting darker and darker. Standing across the field you could only see shapes and not really people. 11-9. Momentum had shifted considerably to the Holylanders, but darkness and injury also started to play a role along with a restless sideline that was wondering how this game could be fast approaching the 2 hour mark. I was the next player to get injured as my left calf cramped up. Thank goodness for Shimone who knew this injury well and brought my calf back to the point where I could continue. I took a sub when it was 11-10. Another slow point, but the same result. 11-11. I came back in. Traces of daylight were leaving rapidly. It was getting cold too. I was approached by Ofer before the next pull. He asked me if we’d settle for a tie. I was shocked and not ready to make such an important game and tournament ending decision. The decision was, accept a tie or play to 13. I asked for a hard cap to 12, but he refused since we were receiving the disc on the pull and would have the first chance to score. After consulting with my team, we opted for the tie. But when I told Ofer, he had a new counter-proposal for negotiation. The old proposal was off the table. We could either play the game until 13, or for another 7 minutes and the game would be over no matter what. Feeling cold, achy and totally delirious, I forgot what we opted for. Probably for seven minutes. Stars were in the sky. Many of them. And perhaps too, the outcome had been in the stars.
The Holylanders made what would be their final pull as the third hour of this epic final game began. I let the disc drop and made the first pass to Michael or Josh. Maybe it was Hillel. I couldn’t really see. But I did see a Holylander with a ponytail hit the ground. He got up and started limping. It was clearly a darkness related fall. And then, it was as if a collective decision had been made at that moment by all the Holylanders and Lions, by all the other teams watching, by all the spouses and friends bundled up on the darkened sidelines. This game was over. The Lions and Holylanders would end the first Israel Ultimate Championship in an 11-11 tie. It was a win-win decision. People started clapping in approval (and in relief) of the decision to end. Holylanders and Lions hugged each other. I was almost in tears. The Tel Aviv Holylanders and the Jerusalem Lions of Zion – the first ever co-champions of Ultimate Frisbee in Israel. How perfect. Symbolic of this unity was a group human pyramid made up by players on both teams. Ultimate was indeed born and blessed in Israel on this day, and consecrated in an exhilarating final game.
You could not have asked for a more storybook ending, especially for a place like Israel where win-win always seems out of the realm of possibility. A tie for first place was, by far, the best of all possible results. I was lucky enough to have my mother at this tournament visiting from the U.S. for Passover. She summed it up perfectly. She said, “You wouldn’t have wanted the Israelis losing to the Americans. Or the home team losing the tournament they worked so hard to organize and create. On the other hand, you don’t want the mostly secular Jewish team [Holylanders] beating the mostly orthodox Jewish team [Lions]. There is enough tension between religious and secular, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, West vs. East.”
Not only that, but you would not have wanted to see Jerusalem lose by blowing a 5 point lead. A result was needed that would enable both teams to finish the day (or night) with their dignity intact. Both teams played like champions and were rewarded with that title. At the championship ceremony, which was completely dark, the final trophy for first place was presented. It was a wooden disc that both the Holylanders and Lions captains held high for all to see. They told us we could keep it until Rosh Hashanah and then they get it. They added that we would of course know when Rosh Hashanah falls in the calendar!
So a big Mazal Tov to the Holylanders for an amazing effort both on and off the field, but especially for making this tournament happen. With all the people who stayed to play all five games and watch the final game, this is the beginning of Middle East Ultimate Frisbee. What next? A women’s tournament? An Egyptian team for next year, perhaps? A Jordanian team? With the Spirit of the Game soaring the way it did in this tournament, perhaps the first ever inter-regional sports league in the Middle East could be established–through Ultimate.
May it be the will of the Ultimate Force in the Universe, for Ultimate to continue to be a pioneer in sports and, if I may so humbly ask, may it help bring peace to the Middle East.
Ezra Weinberg, Jerusalem, Israel