This past weekend in the finals of the mixed division at South Regionals, Bucket jumped out to an early three break lead. Pulling at 7-4 I turn to a teammate and say,"if we score this point or the next one, Jukebox will start subbing deeper so they can rest their studs for the backdoor final." My teammate tells me I'm crazy, a team's got to play all out in a game to go . Jukebox ends up scoring that point and getting a break back on the following one to bring it to 7-6 before we take half 8-6, receiving to start the second half. Jukebox continues to sub tightly through the remainder of the game as we trade out to win 13-10. Jukebox then goes on to face Rival (in a game that has been written about elsewhere), a team they had beaten the previous day 11-4 and that on paper does not match up with them. At 6-6 in that backdoor final my teammate turns to me and says "maybe you were right." Jukebox ends up pulling the game out 15-14 (in controversial fashion) but I believe they could have locked up that second bid much easier by resting their top players in the front door game.
In most tournaments it's rarely a question if winning is your best strategy. But in some formats, particularly those where multiple teams advance to the next round are there times when losing is your best strategy? There are some obvious downsides to pursuing a losing strategy - the obvious one is that in most cases you are giving up an opportunity. In the Jukebox situation, sitting their studs in the second half means giving up the opportunity to take the front door bid and pinning all of their hopes on winning the backdoor one. Maybe a bigger downside than reducing your opportunity, there is a mental challenge to admitting defeat. How does it affect you and your team's mental game to at some point say "we have no chance in this game, let's rest up for the next one"? This can be discouraging to some, and it may be impossible to convince some teammates that losing is the best strategy. Finally, no one will ever fault a leader for trying to win. You try to win the front door and fail and then fail in the backdoor because you put your efforts in the front door and most people understand. But if you give up in the front door to put your efforts into the backdoor and then go on to lose the backdoor? ...well, I'll bet there'd be hell to pay for that one.
I don't have the games in front of me, but there were multiple situations in the late '90s in the Atlantic Coast college open division where the loser of the front door game to go would go on to lose in the backdoor game to go. Given UPA regional formats this is a frequent occurrence in two bid regions where the top three teams are around the same level and then there is a drop off. The front door finalists battle tooth and nail, while the back door finalist cleans up waiting for the front door loser to finish exhausting themselves in a tight finals game.
Another situation where I've experienced something similar is in the Club Nationals format. Club Nationals is a brutally long tournament where there are a handful of games that have little to no meaning beyond keeping a teams confidence up. As long as you are able to make quarters without going through the play-in game your chances are pretty much the same. In 2005, Bravo faced Jam in the final power pool game on Friday. The game was to determine who was the 2nd overall seed and who was the 4th overall seed going into the quarterfinals on Saturday. The winner had a marginally easier road in elimination play - either way though both teams would have to beat 3 good teams to win a title. The game was hard fought with Bravo subbing tightly throughout most of the second half. After we turned over three game point possessions Jam was able to punch in the goal on a sort-of greatest to win 17-16. Bravo was crushed. We had completely invested emotionally and physically. After the game finished the team acted like it had been completely eliminated from the tournament. Even though the champions the three previous years had each lost at least one game going in to bracket play, it felt like our season was over. At that point, playing DoG in the quarters and losing (15-8ish) felt like a simple formality. My take was that the investment in Thursday's Jam game had drained our ability to play. This probably was not a situation where we should have intentionally tried to lose, but in my estimation it was one in which we should have not put such weight on the game, subbed a little more openly, and kept better perspective of the long run goal. Others on the team have said that winning would have given us an easier game against Pike in the quarters and the mental boost from winning the tight game, winning the power pool, and beating a team we had frequently struggled against would have pushed our confidence and game to where we needed to be to make a run at the title. How should teams deal with games like this, both subbing wise and mentally?
In some situations, there is literally no format advantage gained from winning a game. In a four team pool if the 0-2 team plays the 2-0 team in the final round of pool play, the result of the game has no impact on the team's tournament match-ups going forward. In some situations, a team locks their pool play position up with point differential before winning a game such that points moving forward in that game have no practical impact on the teams chances in the tournament. One interesting situation like this occurred at 2008 UPA College Nationals. Pool D (as is often the case in this format where the 4, 5, 9, and 16 are in a pool together) was a mess going into the final game of pool play. The seeding stood like this:
D1. Michigan (1-1) (Loss to Georgia 13-15, Win against Harvard 15-12)
D2. Texas (0-2) (Loss to Harvard 16-17, Loss to Georgia 13-15)
D3. Georgia (3-0) (Win against Harvard 16-14)
D4. Harvard (1-2)
As it sat with the Michigan v. Texas game still to be played, Georgia had won the pool. In order to clinch second in the pool, Michigan had to beat Texas or lose by 1 point. Texas had to win by a point to clinch third in the pool, and two or more to clinch second. For Texas, at any point in the game the strategy was clear: win by as much as possible.
This game was an all out brawl with both teams going point for point. Harvard stood on the sideline, their day finished, knowing full well how the point differential worked out. They needed Michigan to win the game. At 13-13 Michigan held on offense to take the lead 14-13 and wrap-up the second seed. At this point, Michigan could gain nothing from fighting on. Like all of the teams in the pool they'd had a brutal day with all of the games being decided by three or fewer points. Michigan's top players including Will Neff, Dave Fumo, Ryan Purcell, and Ollie Honderd, were starting to show signs of wear only overcome by their competitive drive to win the game. Texas of course, had to continue to push. Without a win they'd be relegated to consolation, a bitter pill to end a promising season.
Michigan, either unaware of the situation, having decided that winning trumped the effort they would need to put in to win, or feeling like it was their duty to Harvard to play as hard as they could, kept their rotation at around 10 players. Neff, Fumo, Purcell and Honderd played almost every one of the remaining six points as the game dragged on to the final score of 17-16, with Michigan winning. And those six points looked like the hardest of the day for Michigan, long points with lots of turns. At one point Fumo got a goal saving lay-out block and landed hard on his hip. Neff was clearly struggling between points only to put his all in to each meaningless point.
Well, meaningless for Michigan. Michigan's win sent the Harvard team, watching on the sideline, into pure joy as they rode their own one point win over Texas in the first round to Saturday elimination play at Nationals falling to eventual champions Wisconsin in the quarters. Texas meanwhile, with 3 losses by a total of 4 points, wound up battling in the 9th place bracket. For Michigan, the fight at the end of the game seemed to have taken a real toll as they lost to Illinois, a team that Michigan had handled 15-11 in the finals of regionals, the following morning in the pre-quarter round.
I apologize for the length of this post. I thought it would be a good discussion following Martin's earlier one about when to play your top 7 and I've been wanting to write about that Michigan/Texas game for a while now. But I'm interested to know others' opinions on coaching/leading in situations like these. Have you ever found yourself in a winnable game but chose to pursue a losing strategy intentionally because of larger goals? What would you do in these types of scenarios? As a coach or captain, how did you communicate with your team so that they understood the choices being made?