Pulling The Flag

Buttonhookers go close at Pink Bowl

Sure, you can spend your year playing flag tournaments in the UK. But then you’d be missing out. In our eternal quest to find out what’s going on beyond these shores, we asked Baker Street Buttonhooker Vince Machi for a bit of inside knowledge about the Pink Bowl charity tournament in the Netherlands.

(Selected images from Pink Bowl Facebook page)

So you’ve heard of Big Bowl, the 60-team flag football tournament that’s widely regarded as the best in all of Europe. They say there’s nothing like it. Well, the Baker Street Buttonhookers just returned from Pink Bowl in The Hague and can definitively say that there is something special brewing on the canals.

Before getting into the action, I have to talk about the city quickly. If Big Bowl has one drawback, it’s that Walldorf isn’t exactly the most lively town. The Wanderers do a tremendous job of creating an oasis of energy and a bumping players’ party to boot right on the fields. Pink Bowl – on the other hand – takes place in the Hague.
As Bryan Zindrick observed (and I am paraphrasing): “The Hague has all the charm of Amsterdam without the inebriated American tourist crowd wandering about.” While travelling abroad for a flag football tournament is awesome, doing it in a city with tons of great restaurants and bars makes it even better. And it’s all for a good cause.
As for the football, the quality was very similar to Big Bowl. The 18 men’s teams included five national teams and was littered with experienced clubs such as the aforementioned German National Champion Walldorf Wanderers. While the ‘Hookers were seeded 2nd in our six team group, we knew that a trip to the quarterfinals on Sunday was far from a guarantee.
Saturday started out a little rough. The sports complex is very large and unbeknownst to us, and our cabs took us to the opposite side from where the fields were set up. It took us 20 minutes to make our way through all the soccer games and find the gate lined with pink balloons that we were looking for. As such, we had about 15-20 minutes to get ourselves situated before a showdown with the two-time champion Dutch National Team (Lions). The shortened warm-up coupled with a wet field led to some sloppy execution. After our defense stopped them on the first series, my first pass slipped through a receiver’s hands for an interception. Our second drive wasn’t much better as drops on third and fourth down prematurely ended that possession as well.
With 12 minute running halves and facing a two score deficit, things weren’t looking good. However, our defense came up big in what would turn out to be a theme of this tournament as Pat Maynor made a tremendous interception at the goal line. Our offense finally clicked and I hit Dan Knisely for a touchdown and the extra point to follow. Down 12-7 at the half and getting possession out of the break was an extremely positive result given our start. We looked to have turned the game around completely in the second half, driving down the field to take a 13-12 lead on another TD for Knisely. However, we suffered a huge loss on this drive as we lost our newest player and former Oklahoma University receiver to a pulled hamstring. His first tournament as a Hooker was over almost as soon as it began. Losing his speed on defense was evident as the Dutch hit us over the top for a quick answer, taking a 19 – 13 lead. On the ensuing possession, we had another pass slip through a receiver’s hands for a back-breaking interception. A Long TD to Steve Mongey would not be enough to come back and we lost 31-19.
Losing the first one in a tournament like this is always tough but we took solace in the fact that we weren’t outclassed nor out-athleted. We were out-executed by a national team that practices much more than we do and in reality, we beat ourselves. So game two against Belgian side Coal Miners was going to be much different, right? Following another dropped pass for an interception, we were only up 6-0 near the end of the first half. On the final play of the first half, the Coal Miners got the ball to their best athlete who weaved his way through our entire defense. He nearly scored but a tremendous hustle play by Mongey saw him make a diving flag-pull to preserve our halftime lead. This play seemed to ignite the whole team and we finally began to play to our capabilities. We ran away with this one 34-0. Highlights included picks by Seelye Arms and Pat Maynor (Maynor returned his for six) and me scoring my first official Buttonhookers’ TD as Bryan Zindrick hit me up the sideline. Zindrick also intercepted a pass in the endzone at the end of the game to preserve the shutout.
Having finally found our groove, we proceeded to roll for the rest of the day. We beat the Barbians II 47-12, the Bucharest Warrios (Romanian National Champs or National team, I heard conflicting reports) 44-7, and the Wolfpack 61-12. Our offense scored on every possession for the rest of the day as Steve Mongey and Dan Knisely caught a boatload of touchdowns each. The defense, led by captain Ryan Loftus, continued to shut people down and give the offense a short field to work with. Oftentimes, they didn’t even let us on the field as each member of the starting defensive backfield (Loftus, Maynor, Arms, and Mike Netter) recorded at least one pick-six on the day. Netter recorded two in the midst of a single three interception game against the Warriors while Arms led the way with six picks on the day. Many of these picks were owed to the relentless pursuit of rusher Tait Becke. Becke moved back to Ottawa after Big Bowl but flew out just for the tournament and was an absolute menace. He recorded five sacks against the Wolfpack alone and forced countless bad throws throughout the day.
The Buttonhookers finished our group stage in second place at 4-1 and were through to the quarterfinals. Before I get to Sunday though, I must talk briefly about two other UK-based sides that came over with us. Firstly, The Stormers, led by Justin Huxter and Will Hourican are essentially a scratch team made up of some guys that played Sevens together in London, two Northants Titans, and a London Ex Pad. Half of the guys hadn’t met until Saturday morning and despite drawing a tough group, they posted some very admirable results. Losses to the Walldorf Wanderers and the Iron Nuts (comprised of over half of the French National team) are nothing to be ashamed of and despite the 0-2 start, the team didn’t pack it in. They rallied back, winning their final 3 group stage games including a nail biting 13-12 victory over the US Armed Forces “Team America” side. This would see them nab the final wild card birth in the quarterfinal stage as the 8th seed, a remarkable achievement for a scratch side in a quality tournament.
On the Ladies side, the Sirens made their second international appearance. As a team that gets very little chance to practice together given that half of them reside in Northampton and the other half in London, it was always going to be an uphill battle. Then the day of the tournament, one of their players had to pull out due to injury, leaving only six girls to play eight games on the weekend. With established sides like the mighty team Mexico awaiting, the odds were impossibly stacked against them. Only no one told the ladies that. They exploded out of the gates, trouncing the Walldorf ladies team 26-0. Jenna Whiteley aka Jenna J Watt and Tendai Chieza led a fierce defense all day that recorded two more shutouts, 33-0 over the Warwick Wolverines and 40-0 over Dutch side GZB.
In the Sirens’ second game, they would come up against the mighty Mexican National team who had a team three times as large. Again though, no one told the Sirens that they had no business competing in this game. Mexico started with the ball but couldn’t manage a first down and just like that, the Sirens had the stop they needed. Jade Archibald quarterbacked the team and picked up some short gains to get them in 4th and manageable. She then looked deep to Lindsey Johnson who made a tremendous catch with a Mexican corner draped all over her for a first down inside the five. On the next play, Archibald looked Johnson’s way again on a nifty Wham route and just like that, the Sirens had a 6-0 lead. Mexico doesn’t have one of the world’s most feared ladies’ teams for nothing and answered back with a strong drive and two point conversion to take an 8-6 lead. The Sirens were back on the ball and staring into a fierce and now angry Mexican defense. After a few short completions and runs, the Sirens again faced a fourth down. Once again, Jade went up top to Johnson who did her best Randy Moss impression, going up and over the corner to make an absolutely impossible catch. This play yielded the biggest roar of the entire tournament and deservedly so. Archibald then found Whiteley in the back of the endzone and the Sirens led 13-8 at halftime. Unfortunately, the Sirens, down to 5 players now after Kathy Boate twisted her ankle, were unable to keep up with the breakneck pace of the Mexicans and fell short in the second half. However, the inspired performance left the girls brimming with confidence that they could hang with the very best.
With the Hookers, Stormers and Sirens all through to the top playoff bracket, Sunday would arrive with all to play for.
As the 8th seed, The Stormers had the pleasure of facing the Spanish National Team. The difference in reps, rhythm, and chemistry between a scratch team and an established National side was evident as the Stormers came up short, 26-0.
On the ladies side, the Sirens came into Sunday battered and bruised. Boate was able to play only limited minutes while Johnson played with a noticeable limp. With only six total players, health was certainly a major factor and the Sirens fell in the semifinal to Den Hague Hyenas 20-6.
The Buttonhookers were drawn against the Iron Nuts in the quarterfinal, a French team made up of over half the national team. They started with the ball and we traded scores early. On our second possession, down 14-7, I hit Knisely deep over the middle for a sizeable gain. However, as the ball arrived, the Iron Nuts’ safety went through his back, the ball popped up and he grabbed it for an interception. This play is legal in contact but is interference or a contact foul in flag where jarring fumble-causing hits don’t belong.
Let me put this game on pause and digress on a rant for one moment….
I love flag but you know what really grinds my gears? Too often I have shown up to tournaments – whether it be Big Bowl, the Outlaw League, or Pink Bowl – where players complain about having to referee…or worse, say they can’t because they don’t know the rules.
Listen: none of us go to these tournaments to ref, we go to play. Part of what keeps these tournaments affordable is players taking the refereeing responsibilities upon themselves rather than hiring pros to do it. None of us want to have our games ruined because of a bad referee so don’t be the person to ruin someone else’s game by discounting your ref duties. Yes, you may miss a call but you should know what the rules are, what you should be looking for, and what the enforcements are. It’s unfair to other players to half-ass your reffing duties.
On that topic, I am consistently baffled by how even the best-intentioned flag refs get the pass interference call incorrect. Too often, refs allow defensive backs in flag to get away what would be considered murder in contact. The excuse I’ve often heard is: “Well, they were going for the ball”.
Now listen up. Are you listening? Okay.
That doesn’t fucking matter.
The only contact that is allowed by a defensive player on a receiver is when both have equal rights (i.e. equal position) to the ball and they may collide while going for it. That happens. I get it. Now if a defender dives for the ball but hits the receiver first, it’s PI. Simple as that. If a defender is face guarding a receiver and the receiver has to go back through the defender to get the ball and the defender never looks back for the ball, it’s PI.
If it’s PI in contact, it’s PI in flag. If for some reason you disagree, you are 100% wrong. Go re-read the rules and then also use some common sense. In my short 5v5 flag experience, this is consistently the biggest error I see made by refs. Stop the PI epidemic please!!!!!!!
(Okay, rant over)
So Iron Nuts get an interception and go on to score. So we are staring a 20-7 halftime deficit in the face. But we get the ball. And we’re fucking good. A textbook drive culminates in a second touchdown pass to Dan Knisely and we are back within a score at 20-13. Our defense forces the Iron Nuts into two fourth downs on the next drive but they are still able to score and go up  27-13.
With just over two and a half minutes left and no timeouts, it’s do or die time. I send Steve Mongey on a deep route and he shakes his defender with a beautiful double-move. I made my best throw of the weekend up the sideline and Steve hauls it in for the quick score we needed. Mike Netter grabs the conversion and we are within 7.
Now all we need is a defense stop….and BOOM we get one. Ryan Loftus makes an incredible play to knock away a fourth down pass and the offense is sprinting onto the field with under a minute left. Mongey gets about 12 on a first down catch and run, then Netter makes a tremendous grab to get us into their territory. Under 30 seconds left and Zindrick grabs the pass down to the three. We are quick to get onto the ball and I hit Knisely for his third TD of the game with two defenders draped all over him.
Down 27-26, we go for two and the win. We call a play that we ended up running 18 times over the course of the weekend. Fifteen times, it resulted in a completion. Unfortunately this instance ended up being one of the three we missed. We end up on the short end of a 27-26 thriller that Loftus described as “the best loss I’ve ever been a part of”.
While we were disappointed to be out of the running for the trophy, we were looking forward to two more games against top level competition. Up next were the tradition-bound German powerhouse Walldorf Wanderers and their all-world quarterback Benjamin Klever. Walldorf had smashed the Iron Nuts 40-6 in the group stage and had built their offense around Klever. Not only can he whip the ball around the field but they were snapping to other players first to make Klever run-eligible. He has tremendous hips and was making rushers and defenders look silly all weekend.
We knew the task ahead would be tough but there was no one looking forward to the matchup more than Tait Becke. Our young rusher was eager to test himself against one of Europe’s best flag QBs. Let’s just say, Becke passed this test with flying colours. He sacked the tall German QB on two of the game’s first three plays and our defense held strong.
The offense took care of business as Knisely scored another touchdown to take a 6-0 lead. Our defense then got Walldorf into 4th and long before Klever made a sensational play, finally managing to dodge Becke and complete a deep pass that would lead to a TD and a 7-6 Walldorf lead. Becke then contributed on offense. After two incompletions, we faced 3rd and long. I hit Becke short and let our version of Darren Sproles do his thing. He made two or three defenders miss and was pulled just short of the first down. On fourth and short, I threw backwards to Zindrick, looking for him to give it back quickly as I crossed the line. Instead, he went big and found a wide open Mongey for a touchdown and a 12-7 lead.
Another defensive stop would see us getting the ball back to start the second half. On second and manageable, I sent Steve deep on the same double move that he beat the Iron Nuts on and the result was the same. Another deep completion gave us first and goal from inside the five. On second down, I threw a pass that, frankly, shouldn’t have been thrown. Rolling away, I threw high back across my body to the far side of the endzone. Netter appeared to be blanketed by the Walldorf defender but Netter was able to out jump the defender for the ball just along the sideline and tap his toes for a sensational acrobatic touchdown. Netter added the point after to make it 19-7. On the next possession, Becke harassed Klever again and he threw deep only to be picked by the weekend’s ballhawk Seelye Arms. All that was left to do was run out the clock. A late Walldorf TD made it 19-14.
We then were drawn against Team Mexico who had just defeated the Stormers 12-6. We started off well as Knisely and Mongey scored first half TDs with Zindrick and Knisely adding extra points. Our second TD was set up by a sensational diving interception by Pat Maynor who repeatedly displayed the closing speed that made him a star linebacker at Stanford University. We led at the half 14-12.
Unfortunately, I played my worst 12 minutes of football of the tournament in the second half. A promising drive ended when I threw my first truly bad ball of the weekend over Knisely’s head and into the arms of a Mexican defender. Mexico would come back and score to make it 18-14. On the next possession I made a very poor decision and threw a poor ball that was again intercepted. Our defense then came up big again. They got Mexico into 4th and long. They ran a gadget play and had their fastest player headed for a first down. However, Seelye Arms wanted it more and went flying across the line to make the best flag pull of the entire tourney, just in front of the halfway line. The offense ran onto the field and moved the ball just past halfway. With under 30 seconds, it was time to look for the endzone. We were able to take three shots but I will be ruing the second one for a long time. Steve Mongey ran a beautiful skinny post and split the Mexican safeties. The throwing lane couldn’t have been clearer and I just missed. Over the course of eight games everyone is bound to miss some plays here and there. It’s just unfortunate that I played a bad half of football right then. The game ended 18-14 to Mexico and we finished a very competitive and difficult tournament in 6th.
The Buttonhookers came away from this tournament very pleased with our progress since Big Bowl. We had never played 5s before May and have made some significant progress. We played Pink Bowl without 60% of the offense that started at Big Bowl and arguably without our four best players overall. Moreover, over half our players have been playing together, however sparingly, for less than 6 months. We have a lot of room to improve and I personally am looking forward to competing at an elite level at the next round of European tournaments. With a great format, location, plenty of beer and delicious food, Pink Bowl will be a fixture on the ‘Hookers calendar for years to come.

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