Player Profile: Zane Rankin

Zane Rankin’s path to the AUDL playoffs started in a coffee shop across the street from the UC-Berkeley campus this spring. The Cal standout—captain of UGMO his senior year and member of USAU’s All-Regional First Team for the Southwest Regional—rode the bench last year as a practice player for San Francisco’s other pro team, and wasn’t sure which team to play for in 2014. He only took a meeting with San Francisco FlameThrowers Director of Player Development Matt Tsang to talk up his fellow UGMO teammates, and with no intention of playing for the FlameThrowers himself.

“No one thought the FlameThrowers would amount to anything—the other teams in the Bay Area were signing stars and the FlameThrowers were an unknown,” Rankin (#7) said. “When Matty Tsang first emailed me, I was first paying lipservice to some friends. He deserves a lot of credit for building the FlameThrowers.”

They talked for 20 minutes. Rankin saw past Tsang’s twinkling smile—the type of smile that masks the confident swagger of someone who has seven national championships on his resume, as Rankin describes it. Tsang’s conviction that he was building an AUDL championship-caliber team impressed Rankin, and he started to think more seriously about joining when he saw the names of those who signed up early for the FlameThrowers (Ryo Kawaoka and Cassidy Rasmussen in particular). Throw in a little pestering from his former Cal teammate Andrew Hagen over GChat late at night and some additional pressure from Tsang, and Rankin was sold.

Rankin bought in, and he’s really glad he did.

The 22-year-old defensive cutter is an integral part of a FlameThrowers team that has a legitimate chance to upset the dominant San Jose Spiders in the first round of the AUDL playoffs. For the FlameThrowers, he’s been the catalyst behind a number of big plays on defense. He’s the first to tell you that he isn’t a unique player, and that he plays within the system. Modesty and fundamentals aside, Rankin is a dangerous playmaker—he can boost flick hucks deep, and just as easily make a cut, shake a defender and free himself for the big play. His decisions, with the disc and without, are fluid, without hesitation and cutthroat.

“This is the highest level of ultimate that I’ve ever played,” Rankin said, obviously excited to make a roster alongside some of the Bay Area’s elite club talent. In the beginning, Rankin figured he’d lose playing minutes to the guys on the team from Revolver, the defending U.S. Club Champions and two-time World Champions (2010 and 2012), but Tsang adheres to a model that divides playing time fairly.

“I was very surprised to feel that I was as important to the team as the Revolver guys,” Rankin added. “That’s incredible, to feel that you are playing on the same level as them.”

In addition to being a key part of the FlameThrower’s defense, Rankin also brings a competitive zeal and intense determination to make it to Toronto that he thinks gives him an edge on his matchups. Unlike many players in the AUDL, he solely focuses on prepping and playing in league games—he doesn’t play for an elite club team, and isn’t thinking about the World Club Championships in August or the U.S. National Club Championships in October. To put it in perspective, the Spiders and FlameThrowers collectively have 19 worlds-bound players on their rosters. Rankin’s next move is for a public health fellowship in Seattle.

“There’s something unique about having that one game a week be a beginning and end of your ultimate,” Rankin said. “[The AUDL is the] only ultimate that matters to me. I think that’s why I’ve had such strong games. I’m ready to go—I wasn’t tired, I was always ready to go.”

“I don’t want my season to end on July 18,” he continued. “I don’t have Worlds to peak for—this is my one chance to win a national championship this season, so I'll leave it all on the field.”

He’s not the only one who wants to make it to the final in Toronto, and the FlameThrowers have a tough road ahead. First, they need beat a San Jose Spider team that boasts one of the AUDL’s deepest rosters. The Spiders took the regular season series 3-1, and handed the FlameThrowers a 23-17 loss in their final home game while securing the number two overall seed and home field advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

“I don’t want to lose to [the Spiders],” Rankin said. “I think we’re regarded as the underdogs. They have the big names, and it’s fun to beat the big guys. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

A David-and-Goliath style upset would be the perfect ending to a season that Rankin almost missed, and he’s ready for the game. The FlameThrowers are approaching the next Spiders matchup differently than any other game this season, he said. They play with incredibly open lines and have used a similar subbing scheme to pick up games, and pride themselves on being 28 players deep. Expect big plays from unknown players. San Francisco is ready for what Rankin expects to be an uphill battle—something Rankin knows a thing or two about (his undergraduate thesis examined the migration habits of salmon in an estuary in California).

The FlameThrowers face the Spiders at Foothill Stadium in Los Altos Friday at 7:30 PM PST. And the Spiders better be ready—Zane Rankin and his teammates don’t want their season to end just yet.

- Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen and Adam Ruffner