The Eighth Man

The West Coast’s Identity Crisis

The rest of USQ may have picked their side on the “competition versus whimsy” scale years ago, but this debate is still very much alive on the West Coast and may be the region’s biggest source of drama and self-sabotage. 

Last season, UC Berkeley placed second at USQ Cup 12 and the Los Angeles Gambits earned the second highest historical Elo Standing of any team outside of the Southwest, proving that some players in the West take the sport seriously and achieve results. Meanwhile, other teams accidentally turned the region into the community laughingstock with a game of Duck Duck Goose, and years of poor commitment forced MLQ to remove the West from their league entirely. 

The West’s ongoing identity crisis only got more complicated this past summer, and the state of the region has never been more in question.

Credit: Shirley Lu

The end of the 2018-19 season marked  the retirement of the Gambits and the graduation of top-tier college players from UCLA and Cal. These changes led to the creation of the Diablos QC. Co-founder Badal Chandra was quick to approach every one of the region’s top players to fill its roster, and secured Cal’s Ryan Pfenning, UCLA and USNT’s Elizabeth Ng and top athletes from the 2017-18 Arizona State University team like Ryan McGonagle and USNT 2018’s Vicky Sanford. These pickups alone made the Diablos a force to be reckoned with, but they didn’t stop there. The Diablos also claimed several former Gambits and various skilled players from less competitive programs. By the end of their recruitment process, the regional newcomers had taken enough players and pickups that several other teams in the area suddenly found themselves with rosters too small to compete this year. The Diablos emerged  the region’s clear top team before they even stepped onto a pitch together, and their Neverland Classic victory and resulting ticket to USQ Cup was all but guaranteed.

In theory, if members of the Diablos all played for their local community teams instead, the region as a whole would undoubtedly be stronger. The former Arizona State players could bolster an already impressive Arizona Scorpions; the Rain City Raptors would benefit from Chandra’s coaching experience; the Lost Boys and Long Beach Funky Quaffles certainly could have been enhanced from the numerous SoCal players who opted to join the West’s new all-star team. But the Diablos also gives the region its  greatest chance for a championship, and a promise of leadership more dedicated, proven and organized than can be found elsewhere in the West. Each member of the Diablos made it clear where they stand on the “competition versus whimsy” scale upon joining, and challenged the rest of the West to evolve if they hope to stand a chance to compete.

The Lost Boys and Long Beach Funky Quaffles have always seemed to care more about inclusiveness and fun than straight-up winning, but an underwhelming 2018-19 season and the creation of the Diablos forced these top West club teams to re-evaluate their priorities and identities. The Lost Boys found Southwest transplant Azeem Hussain as their new dedicated coach, and managed to pick up several of SoCal’s best players that decided against the Diablos. The team’s newfound drive and dedication propelled them to victories over every Neverland Classic opponent other than the Diablos. And when they faced off against the Diablos in the finals, they held the all-star team in range, a feat they couldn’t have accomplished without their new pickups and focus.

Long Beach, meanwhile, committed further to the whimsy side of the scale and as a result lost several of the team’s staple players: Shea Hillenger, Andrew Burger and Kelly Concepcion to the Diablos and Michael Aguilera and Douglas Tran to the Lost Boys. They lost every game at Neverland Classic and looked like a shadow of the program that once proved capable of defeating elite teams like the Bosnyan Bearsharks and Gambits. 

Credit: Savannah Heller

In an attempt to fill the void left behind by MLQ and build up morale in a region with dwindling excitement for the sport, a Western Championship Quidditch league was formed. The league’s goal was to once again allow people to represent their home location and participate in an event that would make dedication mandatory and produce guaranteed tight, focused competition. This project might have seemed doomed to fail in a region that couldn’t get organized enough for MLQ, has several USQ teams that don’t regularly practice together and often seems unable to take things as seriously as the rest of the country, but the West fully embraced this new opportunity. Every team bought official jerseys, players attended tryouts and mandatory practices and four full all-star rosters showed up in Torrance, Calif. ready to compete. 

Everything about the WCQ Cup exceeded expectations. Participants performed at the highest level they’ve ever played; MLQ’s set score endgame forced athletes to play the best quaffle defense in West history and the competition was exceptionally tight throughout the tournament. Players who typically represent  less driven, “whimsical” teams proved that they are fully capable of giving their all and prioritize winning, and that made for potentially the most impressive and exciting all-West tournament in years. 

Top-level performances by college players like UC Irvine’s Daniel Belton and Kobe Kendall, UCLA’s Justin Van Ligten and Dana Dixon and SJSU’s Elijah Franklin and Maxine Gutierrez proved that–despite the large number of players who recently graduated from Western programs–the college division in the West still looks promising. College and club participants alike will be able to go back to their USQ teams with new knowledge and experience, as well as hopefully a newfound love for competitive play and increased dedication to the sport. And the success of a project in which participants practiced with and played for a local team might inspire the region to trend toward this novel idea in the future, rather than adopt the Diablos’s super team model of rostering players who live too far apart to train as a unit.

With all that said, only time will tell whether or not the success of WCQ will actually change the overall state of the West or have any lasting impact on the region moving forward.

Where the West goes from here is entirely up to them. This past weekend proved that teams unsatisfied with their performance last USQ season can commit further to the sport and consequently improve. Players unsatisfied with MLQ’s decision to leave the West can prove the league wrong by demonstrating increased dedication; the commitment shown for WCQ shows that they’re off to a great start in that regard. However, there’s also the sad possibility that the West might continue to play the victim and complain without actually owning up to their own role in recent regional tragedies or doing anything to create positive change, and this could have catastrophic consequences. 

The West has had a variety of teams achieve success on a national scale thanks to dedicated leadership and players who were willing to train and work hard, but they’ve also lost various teams because that drive simply wasn’t there. No one wants to see historic programs fade out of existence like USC did once their leaders moved on from the sport, but unless new leaders step forward or current players double down on their dedication level, that’s the trajectory many Western teams are on now. 

The Lost Boys’s refocus and recruitment for Neverland Classic and the West’s overall showing at WCQ Cup 2019 showed that one of the U.S.’s most questionable regions can accomplish great things when given the right opportunity and incentive. WCQ’s collegiate players never looked better, and the club league players showed dedication and talent at a higher level than demonstrated  for USQ or MLQ in the past. If players can find a way to continue this momentum and keep up enthusiasm for the sport, the West’s future will be bright. The Diablos may be the only team considered nationally relevant right now, but if teams and players stay on the upward, competitive upswing started this weekend–one of the most interesting in West Coast history–we could see a rise from the Lost Boys, UC Irvine, UCLA, the Bay Area Breakers and several others soon enough.

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