On a rainy Thursday night in northern Washington four young men careened out of control in a rental car and flipped twice before finally coming to a stop. Those four men were Atlanta, Georgia’s Asa Wilson, Rob White, Paul Vandenberg and David Berendes, all members of Chain Lightning. Wilson, White, Vandenberg and Berendes all emerged from the vehicle unharmed and unwittingly stumbled into the perfect metaphor for their team’s history.
The Ultimate community has long since known that the powers at be in Atlanta have underneath them a powerful vehicle. Chain Lightning and Atlanta itself, largely thanks to Paideia High School, has been a hotbed for young Ultimate talent for many years. However, for some unknown reason, that vehicle has often careened out of control when it comes down to the slick roads of UPA Nationals at Sarasota.
Though Chain has occasionally made it as far as the Semifinals of the UPA series, the boys from the Dirty South have never graced the Finals of the UPA’s mainstage event. However, as the years have gone by, so too has Chain’s fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants persona and it has been replaced by a serious (only when necessary) attitude that has resulted in a good amount of Championship talk for the team this season.
One of the men in charge of navigating the slick roads of the UPA series is Chain Lightning captain Rob Barrett. Barrett himself is a marvel of a player as he continues to lead and contribute on the field for Chain at the age of 39 (as the team’s website points out, 40 by Nationals). Barrett himself feels that Chain is just now, just prior to the start of Regionals, beginning to realize where this season could lead.
“I think the team’s expectations for itself may have changed over the course of the season,” Barrett wrote in an e-mail. “We’ve started to realize how well we have the potential to play.”
That potential has started to take shape in the form of tournament wins at Heatout and The Chesapeake Open and a strong performance at The Emerald City Classic. Barrett believes that a new, young group of players, along with the returning elder contingent are to thank for the performance of the Atlanta team so far.
“While we had some personnel losses from last year – which have to hold some significance given that this has been a run of Chain’s most successful three seasons ever – we were fortunate to retain almost everyone who was considering retirement,” Barrett wrote, giving examples such as AJ Tiarsmith, Jason Simpson and Jay Hammond. “That said, our additions, Brandon Perales, David Berendes, Nick Lance, Peter Dempsey, Robert Runner and Will Lokke have been tremendous as well, likely competing with 2008 and 1995 as Chain’s strongest rookie classes.”
No doubt that assessment is true as Chain’s entire rookie class, with Dempsey excluded, comes into this season with at least one season of Club Nationals experience (Runner in mixed) and read like a veritable who’s who among graduating seniors in the Southeast Ultimate scene.
That rookie class, along with veteran experience came in handy during East Coast Club Sectionals. A competitive affair, compared to most Club Sectionals, that challenged Chain. A challenge that Barrett welcomed and was thankful for.
“I think we were fortunate to have such a competitive Sectional this year (I’d say our section’s strongest field ever),” Barrett said. “We were reminded that teams like Tanasi, El Diablo, and Duel won’t roll over just because they see green or purple on the other line.”
That reminder will come in handy as Chain enters into a dogfight this weekend. The South region, though not the strongest in the nation, will be a highly competitive affair as the 16 teams in the field will battle it out for only two bids to Nationals.
Though most of the talk and scuttlebutt around the Ultimate community has Chain easily advancing Barrett thinks that his team is anything but complacent.
“Hopefully as a team that has never played on Sunday at Nationals, made semis only twice, and not won its region in three years, we won’t be complacent just yet,” Barrett said. “To me, hearing or reading that sort of talk should be a positive motivator for a team still trying to reach the top level, but nothing matters in the end besides what get done on the field.”
Barrett acknowledges that even Chain has areas to improve in before the end of the season in order to play at the top level of Ultimate.
“As we enter the last month of the season we’ll really be trying to lock down the areas we’ve been working to improve,” Barrett wrote. “Occasionally using the other 38 yards of the field, putting defensive pressure on handlers, pulling in-bounds, etc. I want us to play like a championship team – focus on complete games, be involved on the sideline, execute what we’ve talked about.”
As the city of Atlanta prepares to host Club Regionals, Barrett admits that, while Nationals is the goal, this year may mean a little bit more to some Chain players.
“We’ve done well in recent seasons at peeking for Sarasota, whether or not we had great Regionals,” Barrett wrote. “Nevertheless, especially since it’s in Atlanta, I personally want to win this one badly.”
While the ending of this season may still be as clear as mud. What is clear as that the members of Chain Lightning have taken control of their vehicle and are steering it with steady hands and bright eyes into the slick and curvy road that leads to the final point in Sarasota.