And now we’re on the other side of the holiday, and I have another recap for you from Underdog’s Stephanie Hicks. Her prologue is: “So I’ve been listening to this book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” by Michelle McNamara, about the Golden State Killer, which is amazing and disturbing and it’s stuck in my brain and so I wrote my recap in a similar style. But really everyone should go read that book. Or listen to it. The audible reading is captivating. And so is my recap.”
SHUNK. A pause. Then in quick succession, SHUNK-SHUNK-SHUNK. Bulbs go out, plunging the fields into eerie blackness. Darkness so complete, the hairs stand up on the arms of the remaining players scattered across the fields. Cell phone flashlights click to life. Small pools of light illuminating the errant cleat, half-filled water bottles, a pair of white gloves with black stripes, a small stuffed dog with a large U on his shirt carefully tucked in a bag.
July 2nd , 2018, Van Nuys, California.
It is a hot and muggy Monday night. Cars pull into Sepulveda Basin Sports Complex, pristine turf fields clustered at the end of sprawling mass of ill-kept-gopher-infested baseball diamonds, tennis courts, bisected by the LA River. All part of the 2,000-acre Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area, that most of us merely call, Balboa. It’s a beautiful respite of green lakes, Japanese gardens, running trails and dog parks. But the Recreational Areas function is not merely to create an oasis of green in the otherwise steamy concrete jungle of the San Fernando Valley. It was originally created to save lives.
In the early 20th Century, approximately every ten years, Southern California was hit with heavy rainfall that devastated the developing Sepulveda Basin. After the floods of 1914, public outcry began to address the problem. But no solution was funded until the deluge of 1938 claimed the lives of 144 people. With the nation in the grips of the Great Depression, federal assistance was required, and the Army Corps of Engineers swooped in and built the Sepulveda Dam which sits at the southeast corner of the complex. With the dam completed in 1941, the surrounding Recreation Area — where the Los Angeles Organization of Ultimate teams have played Summer League games for countless years — is actually a flood control basin.
A city of transplants, many scoffs in disbelief that such elaborate flood-prevention projects are needed in this dry and dusty state, beset by wildfires from its lack of rain. But “native”
Californians, like myself, are attune to the cyclical nature of the droughts and the floods.
Acutely aware that our infrastructure and drainage ditches are woefully unprepared for the
rushes of water cascading down from burnt, barren hills. After every drought that seems
never-ending, there follows a torrent of rainfall in approximately ten-year cycles that persists to this day. I vividly remember in 1998, my senior year of high school, the El-Niño winter where it rained non-stop. Everything was soggy and green. People needed canoes or surfboards to paddle out of their houses. Businesses were devastated. Trips to the store or a friend’s might leave you stranded when the roads became impassible. Or worse, your car abandoned as the water you thought was a puddle, actually was a river that washed you away. The High School closed for a flood-day. One month of rainfall eclipsed the yearly average.
Similarly, in the winter of 2017, after years of drought, California was hit in the second wettest season in recorded history and like clockwork, despite the dam and its subsequent 51 miles of engineered waterways, the Sepulveda Basin once again flooded and swift water rescue crews spent January and February fishing people out of the LA river, now thankfully with no fatalities.
The first few weeks of Winter League games scheduled at Balboa Sports Complex were
cancelled due to rain and with the ability to reschedule on the turf fields to the south, with little fanfare, Balboa was abandoned and the knees and ankles across LA County sighed in relief as we bid farewell to the days of arriving with bags of dirt to fill in holes and extra discs to mark the gopher-pocked fields. In the summer, turf fields a mile down the road on the other side of the river at the Sepulveda Basin Sports Complex were secured and thus we continue our legacy of playing at Balboa, unhindered by rain.
Tonight, there is no rain in sight. A bright orange sun sinks behind the power lines as the stadium lights flicker to life. Barely a breeze, discs float through the air, only slowed by the humidity, as two girls’ soccer teams finish their practices with shots on goal. Underdog’s team trickles in slowly. Low on ladies, we’re supplemented by “Rad” Radka and new mom Jeni Kwok with baby Jack in tow. We fall into an easy go-to drill. Sweat starts to bead on foreheads. Merlin complains to me of the excess of corn chips and salsa he’s consumed. I tell him he should go throw up. He laughs, but I wasn’t joking. We win the flip. Start on defense. Our opponent, Felix the Cat, sharpens her claws, ears poised at the ready…
But Underdog comes out with speed of lighting. Matt gets a D (I think) and fires it to Kelley for a score. Felix fires back and scores. Underdog once again hucks it to Kelley, this time from the steely hands of Cortez. Felix hucks back. 2-2. Then, Underdog, with the roar of thunder, buckles down on defense, forcing dumps and high-stall-count-hucks that fly wide of their target. On offense, the ladies crush. So does Merlin, laying out on his chip-filled belly on a huck from Matt. Underdog takes half 8-2.
Merlin quietly ducks out and relieves his stomach of aforementioned chips and salsa.
Felix’s Kirkham shows up at half. I jokingly encourage him to not warm up and throw it away. He does not warm up and unleashes his impressive hucks on the field. The first few go astray. But then they start to reach their target. Felix scores three in a row. I call a time out. There is no need for a pep talk. Just a breather. We come out and score easily. Our rhythm returned.
Merlin hucks it to Cortez who epically lays out to score. Armand is not nearly as sweaty as
normal. When I point this out, he takes it as a sign to play more. We trade points with Felix. At 14-7 we’re on offense and I tell the line that I want Pat to score the winning goal. He does. I’m clairvoyant. And very happy. Underdog wins 15-7.
It’s only 9:35pm so we take advantage of the lights and play some lazy pick-up. We mix and
match teams. T-Tom comes and plays some points while his game is still going on the other
field. We practice our lackluster zone. Toph gets a layout D in the endzone. Kirkham hucks it to me and I miss it a few times. Eventually we connect. Everyone comments that Felix is a really fun team, and playing pick-up with them embodies the spirit summer league is all about. As we tick down the last remaining minutes of lights, Armand awards the Underdog award to Merlin for his boot and rally. I linger on the field, enjoying the warmth of the night, the exhaustion my body feels. Until, SHUNK…SHUNK-SHUNK-SHUNK. And we’ve plungerd into darkness.
I do love a good history lesson, especially as one of the LA transplants from the East Coast. Many of us who’ve played for years in LA know all too well that Balboa is on a flood plain, as even a small trickle of rain could cancel a game, and a consistent drizzle could knock out the next two days of games. A rain over the weekend has been known to kill an entire weeks worth of games, and that was the frustration of Balboa.
So glad those days are over.