Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Just Call Me Vargo

(WARNING: long post ahead, which may contain Aussie Rules footy jargon)

It was a strange sensation flying into Las Vegas for a non-gambling visit. The Official Airline of the Tao of Poker did not disappoint, Jet Blue allowing me to knock back a couple of beers and watch the Detroit Tigers dispatch the Yankees before we taxied to the LAS terminal. Nonetheless, it was strange. Instead of counting down the minutes until I could be sitting at a table stacking chips I was mentally going through a checklist and digging out my contact list to start trying to locate team-mates.

I managed to get to the hotel without too much trouble, locating my team-mates, luggage and a rental car in quick order. The New Frontier hotel lived up to my (low) expectations, but I was able to order some late night pasta from a flyer shoved under my door, which was more than I had hoped for. I hit the hay at 1:30am, the alarm set for 6:15am so I could make the team meeting before we headed out to the tournament grounds.

US Footy holds a national tournament every year, open to all the Australian Rules Football teams in North America. The field is assigned to three divisions of 8 teams (usually), to allow teams of relative strength fight it out for supremacy. Each division is split into two pools of 4 teams apiece, which play a round robin to determine the pool representative to play in the Division National Championship. Each tournament game is played in twenty minute halves (a normal game has twenty minute quarters), as it's hard enough to play(let alone schedule) three games per team plus a divisional final in a single weekend. Each team plays two games on Saturday (one morning, one afternoon), one game on Sunday morning, and then the final is played Sunday afternoon.

Sunday night? Oh, well that's to get highly intoxicated.

My team, the Baltimore Washington Eagles, had been assigned to Division 2, something which had been up in the air all season. Despite having high aspirations we only logged our first win 6 weeks before the tournament. We had kicked off the year by getting crushed (unexpectedly) by North Carolina, and despite putting up valiant efforts against the strong New York and Boston teams we only had a late home win over Philadelphia in the win column. Nonetheless senior members of the team, including myself, felt good about our chances. A catch-cry of the club for as long as I have been part of the club has been: "If we could only field our best team." The Eagles have players from Northern Virginia, Washington DC and Baltimore, and being able to get everyone to be at a game is difficult, but for this year's tournament we had managed to do exactly that.

Standing between us and a potential finals berth were Calgary, Seattle, and Dallas. I didn't know too much about the other teams, and what I did know was worrying. Calgary, our first opponent, had steamrolled every team they had faced (which included Seattle), apparently had a couple of players who had played reserve grade for the Australian pro-leagues, and to top it off had a player (Tim Brasher) who used to represent Australia in Rugby League. Yes, that's right, my team was meant to play someone who had their own Wikipedia page.

Unsurprisingly we circled the first match as being all-important. A loss to Calgary meant an effective end to our Nationals campaign, while a victory boded well for our chances to take down the whole show.

I felt good prior to the match. I normally don't get worked up about too much, and this was no exception. Having said that, I did feel some pressure. Being Captain I take a lot of responsibility on game day, leading warm ups and trying to say the right things to get everyone going, and ultimately it is my job to lead the players on the field. Last year I felt that the team, and myself, had fallen short of the mark. Now was time to atone for the sins of the past.

At the Nationals we either play 16 or 18 players a side (yes, an Aussie Rules ground is huge). We had spoken to the umpires beforehand and ascertained we were playing 16. As we took our positions for the first bouncedown I looked down the ground... and there seemed way too many Calgary players on the field. As play commenced, I began screaming at our coach (who also plays) that I thought they had 18. As the chaos swirled around us he yelled back to make sure and if so to ask the umpires for a count (as Captain I am the only player on my team allowed to actually have a formal dialogue with the umpires).

What to do? Well, I guess I may as well ask the guy who was defending me.

"Are you guys playing 16 or 18," I asked my opponent conversationally, hoping he hadn't noticed my screaming two seconds earlier.

"18," my opponent replied. Bingo.

I raced up to the nearest umpire, bellowing for a player count, and was told to wait for the next play stoppage. As it turned out, the next play stoppage was a goal for us. That's right, we had just scored within two minutes of play starting against a highly touted team who looked like they were fielding two extra players.

The umpires lined up the two teams, and Calgary was indeed playing two extra players (accidentally - they weren't looking for an unfair advantage). The extra players were sent off, and we were awarded a free kick for goal. Though we missed the shot we were able to score a goal shortly afterwards. We were up two goals early, and now we were playing 16 on 16. Things were looking good.

At half-time we were up by three goals, and the half-time huddle was fiery. We had these guys by the throat, and we knew it.

Calgary came out hard in the second half, and things became heated. One of our star players was reported for striking one of the Calgary players, and one of the Calgary players was also sent off. Ignoring the disruption we were able to hold our equilibrium and finished up winning by just over 4 goals.

After the game we were all ecstatic. Such a strong result to begin with boded well for the rest of the weekend. We tried to rest in the 4 hour break inbetween games, chugging water to try and stay rehydrated and eating bananas and the like. Most of us sought shade to avoid the Las Vegas sun.

I hadn't been happy with my own game, however. I was playing out of my normal position (the half forward flank, instead of centre half forward as normal, for those who know what I'm talking about, which is probably no-one), and wasn't able to find my flow. But we had still won, and I had two more games to get into it.

Warming up for a second game on the same day is never fun. Muscles are a little stiff, bodies are a little bruised. More than that, I was keenly aware that we needed to avoid becoming over-confident. I knew that not only was Seattle a good team, but they had also brought about 30 guys, meaning that they could keep themselves fresh. That could take its toll as the game wore on. Even worse our player who had been reported for striking had been suspended for the next two games, which meant that we would be missing one of our best. The good news for me was the coach had decided to move me back to my normal position on the field.

As the game started it was immediately obvious that we were not paying as close attention to our opponents as we should, ignoring some of our defensive responsibilities. We managed to take control of the game late in the first half, going out to a two goal lead, but it was still worrying. In the huddle at half-time the coach chastised us for our attitude, demanding that we respect Seattle or face losing and scuttling our tournament hopes.

That seemed to do the trick, as we took over the game in the second half, kicking clear by three goals. I was personally very happy, as I had been able to get a lot of the football and done damage with it, despite having two opponents taking turns coming off the bench to play on me. My only concern was a problem that had emerged as the season had gone on: kicking for goal. A similar thing had happened last year; as the season went on my kicking for goal became more and more erratic, and no shot for goal became a certainty. I did not want this to happen at the Nationals. In the second half of the Seattle game I had a shot for goal that I should be able to kick most of the time, but hadn't even been able to register a score. The good news is that I still had time to get over it.

After the game we all got changed and returned to the hotel. Saturday night had a casual function scheduled for all the teams, with a couple of special guests speaking at an outside function featuring Coopers beer (an Australian beer that Australians actually drink, unlike Fosters) and meat pies. Our team had decided to do something a little bit different for the function, deciding that we would all dress up like Steve Irwin. In tribute, of course. Amy, the wife of the coach, had organised iron-on transfers for our outfits, just to top it all off. We created a bit of a stir upon entry, strangely enough, though everyone seemed to enjoy the costumes.

"Have you seen a stingray around here?"

The speakers at the function were two champion Hawthorn players from the 80's, Peter Schwab (who also coached Hawthorn) and Robert DiPierdomenico. DiPierdomenico (known as "Dipper") is famous for continuing to play in a grand final after sustaining broken ribs and a punctured lung. That, my friends, is hardcore.

For most teams the end of the first day meant the end of their Nationals hopes, as they were effectively eliminated from contention as a result of their first two games. This meant that most teams, despite having to play a game the next morning, were in the business of getting drunk. I have been in that position the previous two national tournaments I had attended, but this time we were well in contention.

No one on my team was getting drunk.

Have I mentioned we were in Las Vegas?!



The Baltimore Washington "Steve Irwins", featuring Dipper and Schwabby. Also shown: crocodile. Not shown: stingray.

After the short speeches we all headed off to the surprisingly good value Mexican restaurant in the casino. I managed to eat perhaps a third of my serving of chicken fajitas before crying "Uncle!" and crawling off to bed. Tomorrow was a big day.

Our 10am Sunday morning opponents, Dallas, had gone 0-2 the previous day by losing to both Seattle and Calgary. Despite these results they were definitely no easy-beats, almost coming back to beat Calgary late in that match-up (they were actually ahead with about a minute remaining). I was aware that only a minor miracle would prevent us from making the divisional final, no matter what the result of our game (which was confirmed after Calgary beat Seattle narrowly in the game before us), but the aim was to win out to ensure our spot in the final and go in on the right note.

We started the first half with the aid of a breeze, and we were determined to stamp our authority on the game early. I personally was determined to play good footy and try and sort out my kicking for goal problems. The first aim appeared to be realised as after an early arm-wrestle we kicked a couple of goals. The second aim appeared to be in trouble as I once again missed a goal I should have kicked. Undeterred I reaped the dividends of lax marking by my opponent and the hard work of Josh, one of my team-mates up forward. Josh and I like to style ourselves as the Old Firm, two of the senior members of the team who enjoy playing next to each other up forward. After hard work to get the footy he found me right in front of goal, and I made no mistake. A few minutes later I got free again about 45 metres from goal, and accepted a pass to kick another goal on the run.

We continued our dominance in the second half despite playing against the breeze. The Old Firm was again in action as Josh found me close to goa once more, and I chalked up another score. Five minutes later I grabbed a loose ball in traffic and kicked a checkside goal. We romped home for an emphatic victory, and all of a sudden I was feeling good about my kicking.

The divisional final was to be played on the Main Field (where all the Division 1 games had been played, complete with commentators on the PA) at 2pm. The good news for us was that our potential opponents for the final were playing at 12pm for the right to play us, so hopefully they would beat each other up. The better news was that one of teams was Philadelphia, who as mentioned earlier we had beaten earlier in the year, and we had a better side while they were unchanged. As it turned out Philadelphia didn't make it and our opponent in the final was going to be Minnesota. Whom I knew nothing about.

We warmed up for the game listening to the sounds of the Division 3 final being played. As game time approached I found myself getting a little nervous, but I was able to concentrate on getting everyone ready for the game. We ran out onto the field for some final shots for goal as the Division 3 winners, Las Vegas, celebrated on the field. I took a few more kicks, and continued with my good form.

Before too long we were called over by the umpires, and we lined up as the national anthems of the US and Australia were played. There was a reasonable crowd on the sidelines, and we had quite a lot of support. We had our own people, plus the teams of Philadelphia and New York, cheering for us loudly. Both teams were out of the tournament and hoping that we would represent the Eastern AFL proudly.

All tournament I had won every coin toss before the game to choose the end to start from, but I finally lost one. I hoped it wasn't a bad omen, and I felt better when the Minnesota Captain chose to kick to the end they would have even if I had won the toss. And don't you try and tell me that being superstitious is bad luck.

I gathered the boys for one last rev up before we ran out to take our positions. We were all extremely pumped up and ready.

To a noisy crowd the first bounce was made... and one of our top players (an American only playing in his first season!) raced through from the backline and after a few passes took the ball and kicked a goal in the first thirty seconds.

Nice start.

At the subsequent restart our player who had been suspended for the previous two games gave away a free kick and 50 metre penalty to allow Minnesota to kick the next goal, which was exactly what we did not need. But true to form we shook that off and completely dominated the first half. It was not even close. At the end of twenty minutes we were 5 goals ahead, and looking good. I had been involved but hadn't had, or needed to have, a shot at goal.

At half-time I exhorted our players to keep up the awesome effort and put the game away. Our coach was extremely happy with the effort, but demanded we continue on and finish it off. Everyone remained psyched up for the final sprint.

We kicked a couple of early goals in the second half before I got onto the end of a kick, right on the left boundary about 35 metres from goal. I am left-footed, which made it a difficult proposition, but I decided that I would give it a go anyway, and settled down to have a shot at goal. As I was lining up I could hear the commentators over the PA talking about it. As I was right on the boundary I had people right next to me... who of course were all offering advice.

"Have a goal son!" encouraged one.

"Just kick through the ball, mate!" exhorted another.

"Can I just freaking kick the ball?" thought I.

I settled down, trotted forward... and kicked the fucking thing. I jumped higher than I had all weekend, and celebrated with my team mates who all came running in. It felt like we were home.

Ten minutes later it was over. Anti-climactically I totally missed the siren, and only realised it was over when I saw the umpire giving the signal.

We were Division 2 National champions. God it felt good. Funnily enough, through all the bumps and tackles I had sustained during the weekend the only bad bruise I sustained came from the post match pile-on. In the huddle a couple of long time players spoke about how special the win was, which was pretty touching. We jogged over to the sideline and thanked our supporters. And then set about the task of getting trashed.

The official presentations occurred after the end of the Division 1 final, which (strangely enough) we weren't really paying attention to. The presentations started with the women's runner-ups and champions, and I realised that the Captains were being asked to come up, accept trophies and medallions, and say a few words. I had better get my shit together.

US Footy had put out a program for the tournament that contained information about the teams, a list of their players, and some information regarding the club. It was also small collection of typographical errors. On the cover it was noted that this was the "2007 Nationals", despite it still being 2006. Minnesota was spelled "Minesotta". San Diego had a player listed as being named "934264.14352", so it was not surprising that they won Division 1 as they clearly had a robot on their team. Our side was not unscathed, as the listed President, Coach and Captain had been accidentally copied from Vancouver. This meant that I was referred to as "Doug Vargo".

Forewarnedis fore-armed, so I was ready to be called up to accept our trophy and medallions as someone else. Sure enough "the Captain of the Baltimore Washington Eagles, Doug Vargo!" got me out of the audience.

"Say a few words, Doug," encouraged the MC. Nice one.

But hell, I didn't care, and didn't really mind what I said as all the other Eagles emergerd from the crowd to accept the trophy as one. It felt good.

This man looks entirely too satisfied with himself. Douchebag.

We headed back to the hotel, and some of us hit the pool before meeting up in a suite to continue getting our drink on. After some more celebrating we headed to down the strip for some quick food and more alcohol. For some reason we ended up in some bar called "Kahunaville" at Treasure Island, where a lot of drinking and bad dancing was done, before we headed back to the New Frontier. We closed up the "club" they had there , before heading back to the bar on the main casino floor.

By this time it was was pushing 2am and a hard weekend's football combined with a bunch of alcohol was taking its toll on my team-mates. People were floating away to pass out, but I was determined to punch on. I found one of team-mates sitting at a 3 card poker table with some civilians. I received a two second primer on the rules and plonked a Benjamin down. I quickly determined that this was a poor man's Pai Gow, and proceeded to scream "Pai Gow!" every time the dealer made a hand that didn't qualify (i.e. had a hand that was less than Q high).

I was busy explaining to the table at large that much like Pai Gow this was a drinking game; that is, the object of the game was to try and break even while consuming as much alcohol for free as possible. And who knows, you might get lucky. Which I did within the first hour, hitting a straight flush which paid out 40 to 1 on my $5 "pair or better" bonus bet. Awwwwwwwwww yeah.

Now and then a drunken team-mate lurched by to see how were doing, usually signalling that they were about to crash, though one did leave straight to go to the airport... which was a signal that it was getting late.

By 6am I was beginning to flag, and waved to my team mate that it was time for sustenance and bed. A quick run to a nearby Denny's followed by hitting my bed extremely hard rounded off a highly enjoyable evening.

Not so enjoyable? Getting called by a team-mate at 8:45am to see if I needed a lift to the airport. No thanks, especially since my flight didn't leave until 1pm. Checking out of the hotel and getting to the airport was essentially uneventful, and I arrived back at my DC apartment at 11pm. After a long, hot shower I crawled into my bed and sank into a blissful sleep. What a weekend.

Go Eagles!

11 Comments:

  • nh Mr. Vargo... nh.

    By Blogger BG, at 6:37 PM  

  • How many homeruns did you hit this weekend?

    By Blogger Dr. Pauly, at 6:47 PM  

  • I cant beleive I read that whole thing.. heh.. good job man..

    By Blogger SirFWALGMan, at 6:54 PM  

  • Congrats! So how many field goals was that?

    By Blogger Falstaff, at 8:51 AM  

  • Actually I scored three tries and an under.

    By Blogger Garthmeister J., at 12:19 PM  

  • So you rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings?

    That's awesome man :)

    By Blogger Drizztdj, at 2:01 PM  

  • Well done babe...as the person reading this who actually understood the lingo! Nice to see you got your kicking sorted out just in time and that you didn't "do a Freemantle" and not take it all the way.

    Nicely played Mr. Vargo.

    By Blogger Jules, at 4:50 PM  

  • need an agent to field the endorsement deals?

    Congrats.

    By Blogger Joe Speaker, at 6:24 PM  

  • Congrats !

    By Blogger mookie99, at 2:32 PM  

  • Didn't that little guy redeem himself for his over zealous, passionate displays earlier in the day?!!? Every teams gotta have one lol....

    By Blogger selfproclaimedsuperstar, at 8:18 AM  

  • There's only one Aussie Rules playing Doug Vargo - and that's me buddy !!!

    Nice work though on the win to you guys though !!

    By Blogger Doug Vargo, at 6:36 PM  

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