December 4, 2020
By Grant Lindsley
One of the most joyous moments I ever experienced on an ultimate field occurred about 15 years ago at the Youth Club Championships. Our team was getting stomped. A powerhouse collection of Seattle’s best boys had taken the tournament by storm. They were making quick of us, the ATLiens from Georgia, up something like 13-2 when one of our players caught a deep pass ten yards short of the endzone and called a timeout.
We huddled. We’d lost to Seattle once already earlier in the tournament and by an even larger margin. But for a team that knew victory was out of reach, our heads bunched abnormally close, our whispers unusually urgent.
“Should we do it?”
“The trick play?”
“Fifteen in the bucket?”
“How do we set it up again?”
At the end of the timeout, we dispersed, chewing our lips and trying to walk—not cavort—into position. We set a vertical stack in the endzone. No dump. The play involved everyone, 27-strong, and the rest of the team gathered along one sideline by the front cone on the flick side. The defense set. The disc tapped in. Game on.
From the back of the stack, I took off, sprinting to the front cone on the flick side. My defender stayed with me. I wasn’t open. But the thrower threw what looked like a flick out into space. I laid out as high and far as I could, even though there was nothing to catch. The flick had been a fake. The thrower had hidden the disc behind his back.
As I dived, one cue, our entire sideline exploded into cheers. The fake and dive and celebration did the trick. The entire Seattle defense stood upright and turned to see what had happened. At that moment, with the defense flat-footed and distracted, the thrower untucked the disc from behind his back, stepped out to his left, and floated a backhand to the far side of the endzone to another cutter whose defender wasn’t looking. Goal.
With that, our sideline broke into genuine ecstasy, rushing the field like we’d won the tournament and not brought the score to a meager 13-3. Seattle, for their part, were good sports about it. They laughed, jogged back to the line, scored the next two, and went on to win the finals.
I don’t know why the play was called fifteen in the bucket. When I search now for the video that inspired us, I find nothing. I love that play and others like it because they amplify one of my favorite components of the game: trickery.
On a less coordinated scale, players are constantly tricking one another on the field. Or trying to. Cutting is, in part, a prolonged sequence of attempted tricks on the defender. Three tricks—the fake, the dive to nothing, and the sideline celebration—combine to form fifteen in the bucket. The pump fake sparks the sequence, and it’s the only one of those elements that’s widely transferrable to regular gameplay. And yet it’s underutilized.
Every player knows about pump fakes, but far from every player uses them. Even great players sometimes stand upright for five full seconds, passively watching the field, communicating with none of their teammates, letting their mark rest. Fakes need no particular athleticism but do require muscle memory and/or presence of mind. This is a type of trickery that doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve always thought of myself as a receiver more than a thrower. For years, if I caught the disc and wasn’t in the endzone, I’d turn upfield and lock my knees and freeze. Chasing the disc felt blissful. Time slowed down for me. But holding the disc felt stressful. Time sped up. I’d get rid of the plastic as fast as I could, then sprint back to my comfort zone in the stack.
With fakes, I began to find that when I threw them, the complexion of the field changed. Defenders ran out of position. Teammates changed direction. New lanes appeared. Still, I often forget to use them and leave my cutters to shoulder all of the work of getting open.
The thing about fakes is you never know if they’re really fakes until it’s too late. About a decade after my first successful fifteen in the bucket, I tried to organize the play again. My team, Chain, was playing in the consolation bracket. My teammate Jason Simpson caught the disc outside the endzone and called a timeout. Basking in my own glory, I explained the setup to the team, who I knew loved tricks and who I noticed grinning to each other while I spoke. I placed myself, where else, as the center of attention again— the person who would dive to nothing. We broke the huddle. Set the stack. I sprinted to the open side. Launched myself into the air. Jason wound up and threw the fake.
Except the fake was a fake. He rocketed the disc at me. I wasn’t expecting it. Ducked in midair. Broke a fingernail on the plastic as it hurtled out of bounds. From the grass, I looked up and saw all my teammates celebrating, and the other team, too, who my teammates on the sideline had apparently tipped off in this meaningless consolation game that they were going to pull a prank within a prank. Suddenly it all made sense. That was why they’d been grinning while I set up the play. I’d been too engrossed in my own scheme to see theirs, and now I was a fox outfoxed. And that’s why fakes are important. Even when you think they’re real, they might not be.