Sunday, March 1, 2015

Yellow Journalism: The Tennis Ball Talks West Edition

By George Williams

In my first season as an aspiring snitch, I’ve learned a lot. I snitched somewhere around 20 official matches this season, and so far I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to do four finals matches, including the West Regional Championship. Here are some of my experiences and observations from snitching so far.

What was it like snitching the West Regional Finals?
I glanced toward the score table, and a rock dropped in my stomach. Only 30 seconds until I hit the pitch, and it was still very much a snitch-range game. Not too excited to have a regional title hanging from the back of my shorts, I grabbed my oversized bag of Skittles and showered the crowd with multicolored candy. I jogged out to the pitch with a few seconds left on the seeker floor, and I could feel the energy from the crowd growing.

Photo by Monica Wheeler Photography

Once again, I found myself in the middle of the most exciting matchup in the West Region. I watched for the first 18 minutes as another installment of the Lost Boys-Gambits rivalry unfolded before my eyes, but this time the score was closer and the stakes were higher. For the second time in a month, I was getting ready to square off with some of the best seekers in the West.

As the seeker floor expired, I could immediately tell a lot about how the rest of the seeker game would go. Alex Richardson stared me down with a look I never would have expected from his normally friendly face. If he looked anything more like an angry bull ready to charge, he would have been pawing at the ground. Or, perhaps more appropriate, he looked like a player who had been sitting out until the end of the championship match, waiting for his chance to grab the regional title for his team.

In quite the apparent contrast, Brandon Scapa grabbed his broom and took the field a few seconds late. Scapa had been playing most of the hard-fought game as a chaser, and as a result he wore a weary but determined look as he followed closely after Richardson.

The amount of pure energy the seekers had this late in the tournament came as a surprise. After having snitched all weekend and played several games for my own team, Utah State, I was hardly near full energy myself. After the initial seeker charge and a few minutes of seeker throws, I was already starting to get sloppy. With my energy waning, I could feel the game-ending grab getting nearer and nearer with each fresh run from the seekers. I could tell from the amount of hustle coming at me from both directions that this final wasn’t going to be the marathon match I was hoping for.

It was at this point that the Gambits kept up their sense of urgency that would go on to win them the match and, of course, their Regional Championship Title. Richardson unselfishly subbed out, passing his seeking responsibility to Edgar Pavlovsky. On the other had, the Lost Boys seemed to be missing a couple of their seeker subs, and Scapa was forced to try to compete single-handedly against two elite, fully-rested seekers.

And that made all the difference. After a run that ended with both seekers sent back to hoops by beaters, Pavlovsky’s fresh legs carried him back faster for one more try. A quick move and an impressive reach combined with a favorable swing of the snitch ball was all it took for Pavlovsky to come away with the West Regional Title in the form of a tennis ball inside a sock. Nothing fancy. Just a quick move and a lot of finesse.

Photo by Monica Wheeler Photography

A Two-Minute Final, Huh?
Yep. I only managed two short minutes on the pitch in the biggest snitching game of my career. In retrospect, this doesn’t surprise me; it seems like snitches rarely have their “best performance” in finals matches. But why is that? Why do finals matches usually seem to have relatively short snitch-on-pitch times?

While it’s common to associate snitching skill with the amount of time he (or she) is on the pitch, that’s a very narrow definition of snitching ability. I don’t know if anyone has ever done statistics behind it, but I’m sure game length correlates just as much with seeker blocking, seeker beating, and seeker skill level. With the right beaters in and a seeker blocker, I can fend off even pretty talented seekers with two hands behind my back for several minutes (see: L.A. Open semifinals). I think a much better (but less definable) indicator of snitch ability is the quality of the snitch catches that are made. If a snitch is constantly getting caught with his back turned, by getting snuck up on, or simply being overpowered, he probably needs more practice even if he has a 25-minute game. If the catches consistently result in impressive dives or people getting thrown in the dirt but still somehow coming up with the catch, it’s obvious that the seekers actually had to earn their 30 points. And if they earn their catch, you’ve done your job as a snitch regardless of if they got it on their first run or their 50th.

That being said, snitches still don’t always have great games in the finals match even by this definition. After having snitched a few finals, I’m starting to understand why. Contrary to popular belief (right?), snitches actually get tired too, especially by the end of a tournament and especially while fending off a constant stream of hot-handed seekers, as is common in finals matches. Seekers in a snitch-range finals match also have a particular sense of urgency that simply doesn’t exist in pool play or out-of-range games.

Snitching the finals also brings a lot of pressure, obviously (see: “All The Pressure” chant, West Regional Championship). And the difference between pressure on the seekers and pressure on the snitch is that snitches only get one screwup. If a snitch screws up or does something too risky, the game is over. A seeker can screw up indefinitely as long as he just comes away with the grab before the other seeker. If you’re expecting a snitch to not screw up for an extended period of time, you’re playing with fire because…

A Snitch Owes You Nothing (Except a fair game)
As a team, the rulebook entitles you to no more than 18 minutes of game time (plus however long it takes the seekers to get from the sideline to the snitch). You have 18 minutes to prove you’re the better team, and if you don’t want the other team to catch the snitch in the first few seconds, then you make sure you’ve got a beater on the seekers as soon as they’re released. Even good snitches get caught quickly sometimes. It’s as much your team’s responsibility as it is the snitch’s to make sure he doesn’t get caught by the other team. I can imagine really rare circumstances in which it is purely the snitch’s fault that he was caught by a particular team, but in all my years I’ve personally never seen that happen. But that being said…

Snitches Need to Step Up Their Game
The role of the snitch as defined by the rulebook is to (impartially) “prevent the snitch ball from being caught by either team’s seeker for as long as possible.” I say impartially because every good snitch I know tends to stick around the midfield line as much as possible, regardless of whether that’s the best strategy to avoid being caught. Not only is the midfield line the most neutral territory, but staying near it is paramount to the success of a snitch—beaters are frequently running past the midfield line, and by staying there you’re maximizing running distance for seekers after they go back to their hoops. But that’s basic snitch strategy 101.

Game strategy aside, snitching needs to be the next big thing players and USQ focus on. Improving refereeing has been in the spotlight for several years, and although a lot of people would argue that the reffing system is still in need of an overhaul, what’s inarguable is that reffing is incomparably better than it was a few years ago. We’ve explored requiring certification and paying refs, which is a great start. I’d never say we need to stop paying attention to increasing the quality of refs, but if we want to finetune quidditch as a competitive sport, snitching is a major issue that needs to be addressed.

With only a handful of “certified” snitches this season, most snitches you talk to will agree that we need to come up with a better system next season. Heck, I’m not even technically certifiedI don’t personally own any game footage of me snitching, and admittedly I’ve just been lazy about it. My bad. But regardless of whatever efforts USQ puts into certifying snitches, what snitching quality really comes down to is the training and effort of individual snitches themselves. You control your decision to try out snitching. Only you control your athleticism, practice, and your conditioning. You don’t need someone to tell you that you’re a good snitch in order to be a good snitch. 

As a sports league, we need more quality snitches. I would personally rather see a snitch be qualified than certified. Teams need to encourage players to try snitching and to practice it. We also need to find a way to get quality snitches to travel. If we don’t start focusing on increasing the quality of our snitching, we’ll almost definitely see a major plateau in overall game quality. With inexperienced snitches, we’re leaving more room for snitch error and less room for earning victories with incredible feats of diving snitch catches that everyone loves to see in an intense match. All snitching really takes is athleticism and experienceI promise it’s not that hard. Just get out there and do it.

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