Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Talking with Trainor- Moses Rifkin


Something special is happening out west.

Sockeye, the mens A team in the Emerald City (Seattle), just finished winning their 3rd UPA title in four years. Their roster is stacked with strong players from all over the country. These players have great experience already from their respective college teams, and they seem focused on holding their UPA title for many years. A second team, Voodoo, had many great performances last season and might possibly have joined their A team in Sarasota were it not for being stuck in the hardest qualifying section/region in the country. With Worlds 2008, it is important to focus on Sockeye. They will represent Team USA in the open division, and they will look take the title away from Canada.

I was fortunate to chat with Sockeye's very own Moses Rifkin. At age 28, Rifkin has accomplished much in the game. He's played for one of the greatest college programs (Brown), one of the greatest vertical stack teams (Death or Glory) and a great horizontal stack team (Sockeye). He has won everywhere.

Pictured: Moses Rifkin
Photo Courtesy: and original photographer

At what age did you start playing? Who introduced you into the game?

I first played organized Ultimate when I was 14. Jamie Epstein, a player for Ozone (Atlanta women's team) and coach at my school, was the first person to teach me the basics of Ultimate, and the following year Mike Baccarini took over for her at Paideia.

You've had high level experience with teams that use both vertical and horizontal stack strategy. Conceptually, Do you prefer the horizontal stack or the vertical stack? Do you think new players need to be introduced to both?

I feel most comfortable in a vertical stack, but I think that's more a function of experience than of superiority.

I think Sockeye has a roster that makes horizontal stack offense a good fit for it, and DoG had a roster that made vertical stack a good fit for it. It feels to me now that horizontal stacks are harder to defend against, that vertical stacks are more easy to adjust to stop...but I also think that the dominance of vertical stacks gave rise to those ways of stopping them, which helped encourage the spread of horizontal stacks... In other words, I wouldn't be surprised if things swing back and forth.

I think that offensive cutting isn't so much about one stack or another, but general principals of finding space, making space, timing, being opportunistic, etc. I think introducing new players to both is more likely to teach them that there isn't one recipe for offense. At the same time, though, a lot of new players really do benefit from having a framework to start with. I guess it doesn't feel like it really matters one way or another, I think.

Who was/is the most important teammate coach from your Brown, DoG and Sockeye days?

Nathan Wicks demands that I say it was him.

That's an impossible question for me to answer, so let me just rattle off some thoughts that spring to mind. Mike Baccarini taught me much of what I still think about today as a player, and helped me and my teammates to fall in love with the sport at the same time. Playing with my friends on Paideia clearly established Ultimate in my mind as being about community and teammates. My teammates at Brown, and Nathan, helped teach me how to compete to win. Playing with DoG was what turned me into the player I think I am today - it was a long-time dream to play with them and I feel incredibly fortunate to have played with that group of players. And playing with Sockeye has been one of the most _fun_ Ultimate experiences I've had.

So I know that's not what you were looking for, but that's how I look back on my ultimate days.

What's your best moment/experience in the sport?

Again, it's hard to say: my life as a player has gone through so many different stages, all of which were wonderful in the way that they were for who I was at that time. I guess if I had to pick one, it would be winning college nationals in 2000. I don't know if it was the best by any standard other than it was the one I was most singularly focused on for the season ahead of it, and so winning was as close as I've come to setting a goal and doing everything - absolutely everything - that I could to achieve it, and then achieving it. By that standard, it was the best.

A strange highlight for me was losing in the semis to Furious George in 2003. It was an unbelievable game - a total of 5 turnovers, and just one in the second half. I felt proud of how I'd played, and how we'd played, and to lose a game like that taught me a lot about why I play the game. It wasn't fun to lose...but it did help me get some perspective on Ultimate and what my goals really are.

What's your worst moment/experience in the sport?

I think losing to NC State in the semis of college nationals in Boulder in 1999. It was deeply, deeply emotional, and I don't think I've ever felt so bad after a game. I had plenty to think about for the next 364 days leading up to 2000.

What's your best ultimate skill?

Does teammatesmanship count? I think I'm a smart, intuitive cutter - not the fastest, not the best with the disc, but I have a knack for helping offenses to function more smoothly. I'm proud of that.

What are you working on this off season?

Getting stronger and fitter while staying healthy.

Obama, Hilary, or McCain?

I'd rather not say - not because I feel sensitive about it, just because I keep those things to myself.

How does Sockeye convince players to move from all over to play in Seattle?

We don't, as far as I know. It may seem that way from the outside, but there's no effort that I've seen to convince these folks to come here. It's also worth mentioning that for every Ron and Tim and Skip and me, there are amazing players on Sockeye (and waiting in the wings) who are the products of the Seattle-area college, high school and middle school scene.

How does Mose Rifkin enjoy Seattle weather?

Moses Rifkin is learning to enjoy Seattle weather. I'm learning to be patient through the winter, to stay active, to get outside when it's nice, and to invest in plenty of tea and a nice pair of slippers. And when it's nice out, Seattle is spectacularly beautiful. So it's going well now, which is a shift from the last few winters.

How does the team manage so many stars, and to a certain extent, egos?

The Sockeye team culture that I joined three seasons ago was shockingly close-knit. This is a team that works very hard, but also has a lot of fun - pure, goofball, stupid fun - and really cares for one another as teammates and friends. That's a wonderful thing, and I think it renders the egos either irrelevant or at least quiet. I think there's a great competitiveness that people share, everyone wanting to be the one to make the play when the opportunity arises and to push one another to make it, but I think everyone seems to buy into the team mentality.

That being said, I think our defensive and offensive strategies are uniquely suited to the roster that we have. It's an amazing set of tools that we get to work with, and I think our approach to playing tries to use that as an asset instead of a detriment or a non-factor.

How would your teammates describe you?

I hope they'd describe me as a good teammate, as a hard worker, and as a solid, strong player. I think they would. They'd also say something embarrassing in the process of doing so.

Who is the leader of the team?

Another unusual thing about Sockeye, I think, is that there are different leaders at different times. We have four captains, as well as a host of other people involved: running drills, speaking in huddles, organizing things, mapping out our season's direction. So I don't think there's a single answer, which isn't necessarily a good or bad thing but has worked well for us.

What were your thoughts on UPA Finals 2007? What teams surprised you?

I don't really know what to say about this. It was neat to see GOAT do so well, as well as the other typical surprises etc. I was sad to see Furious struggle so much with injury, and I thought that Jam and Johnny Bravo were all exceptional teams.

Do you have any political thoughts regarding the UPA and the progress of ultimate?

Not really. I don't pay as close attention to the inner workings of the UPA as maybe I should, but I appreciate the difficulty of the task that they're facing: being a variety of things to a variety of constituencies, all of which have very strong opinions about a sport that they dearly love. On a selfish level, there's so much work that goes on behind the scenes to produce the Ultimate experiences I have, and I'm grateful for that.

Will Team USA (open) beat Canada at Worlds 2008?

We're planning to.

How will Sockeye select team USA? Are there lessons learned from the Condors in 2004?

That's still up in the air. With the addition of the Dream Cup, this season is a strange one: we started training in January, are going to an international tournament in March, will train to compete in a World Championship in August...and then set our sights on Nationals. It's a great problem to have, but a challenge nonetheless. We're still working out how to choose our team as a result.

Will worlds gold mean more than a UPA title?

No, I don't think so. It means something different. It is, of course, pretty amazing to put on a jersey that says USA and think about what that means. So winning gold on the world stage would be a lifelong highlight for sure.

What is your take on the Buzz Bullets from Japan? Do they bring different strategy/tactics to the game than North American opponents?

They are a tremendous team. They bring a jaw-dropping level of skill and athleticism, and play with extraordinary heart. Strategy-wise, they do operate differently than most teams we encounter - a different set of throws and cuts to defend, a different approach to zone defense which makes throws that might seem open suddenly not - and that's a cool problem to try to wrap our minds around. We're all really looking forward to playing them in a few weeks and then hopefully again at Worlds.

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