Photo Courtesy of John Pettersson.
At the 2017 U.S. Kubb Championship the Kalifornia Kubbers (Wayne Busick, Julian Petrillo, John Pettersson) started the day by going 0-3 in group play. What they did after that could be considered an upset. They beat everyone else the rest of the day, advancing to the top 16 on Sunday and proving that California can kubb too!
Before the tournament, on Friday, you met with the Kubb Society and played some friendlies. How did this help you for the weekend to come?
John: Last year our LA contingent stopped by the Summit Brewery to play with the St. Paul Kubb Society crew after landing at MSP and had a blast. The guys were super nice, gave us pointers and most importantly, gave us our first chance in ages to play with experienced kubbers outside of our own club. After playing mixed friendlies for a couple of hours, we had a six-on-six Cali-sota match which we all enjoyed. This year they had the same event and once again it worked perfectly with our travel plans, so the six of us from the LA Kubb Club (our team plus Marshall Dostal, Rich Fineza and Kris Johnson of Kubb LA) stopped by to play for a what ended up being more than four hours! It was really fun to see our old friends, meet some new ones, and watch some crazy-good players in action.
From a practical standpoint, it was certainly a great opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with the lush midwestern turf (our grass is usually much harder) and get used to the feeling of playing some highly skilled and experienced kubbers!
Julian: For me, the St. Paul/Summit Brewery meet-up was an eye-opening come-to-Jesus moment, realizing the quality of play we’d be up against. In LA, our competition is each other, and we’re a small group. To show up at Summit and see a couple dozen excellent players doing battle was really exciting. It was a fun chance to measure our game a little bit, and like John said everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming.
Going into this years’ championship you had two players who had never played in Eau Claire. What were expectations going into championship weekend?
John: Coming to this event is eye-opening for all of us, regardless of whether we’ve been before. Unlike much of the Midwest kubb community, who seem to have tournaments nearby every weekend throughout the summer, we don’t have many opportunities to go up against experienced players. So even though we had been playing weekly amongst ourselves in our local one-versus-one league and felt like we were getting pretty good, there was always uncertainty about how our skills would stack up against some of these experienced teams. Although they hadn’t been before, Wayne and Julian have spent their entire kubbing careers hearing at great length from some of the others in our club about how ridiculously good the competition is in Eau Claire, so I think expectations were probably pretty realistic!
Julian: As John said, the guys have been telling Wayne and me for a while now that we’d have to be at our very best to be anything but cannon fodder at Nationals. When Saturday morning rolled around and I saw hundreds of players stretched over the scores of kubb pitches on that field, I definitely had butterflies. Then the play started, and we had our hats so thoroughly handed to us over the course of that first morning that I thought to myself, “well I guess the guys were right—we are cannon fodder after all.” When things turned around for us in the afternoon, it was definitely a feeling of some amount of redemption, as in “hey, I guess we can hold a candle to some of these guys after all.”
You ended up with a really tough draw, Evan Fitzgerald even called it this year’s “group of death” on the Kubb United podcast. How aware were you going into Saturday morning of the tough teams you were about to face? How did you feel about that?
John: Ha! “The Group of Death” sounds about right. We didn’t hear that episode until after the tournament, but Evan gave us a very helpful heads up beforehand that we had a tough morning in front of us. Intellectually, it was good to know what we were up against, but it didn’t make it any less disheartening to take three consecutive beatings from Kubb Life, Kubbaholics, and the Kubb Squirrels. It’s hard to have a bad time playing kubb, but it was a pretty stressful morning and our batons were just not finding their targets. Thankfully, everyone was very friendly and forthcoming with tips, advice, and great sportsmanship.
Julian: I’d say John was more aware ahead of time regarding what we were up against than I was. I’d heard some talk about how we had a tough group, but I was caught completely flat-footed by the whippings we took that morning. We didn’t win a single game. I’d say we never hit any more than three baseline kubbs down against any of those opponents, in fact. I myself was cold as ice, and I kept waiting for my touch to return to some semblance of where I thought it should be. I asked Wayne to play me in a one-on-one match during the lunchtime break, just to get some feeling back in my game, particularly at 8 meters. I guess it helped at least a little, but the truth is that the quality of our opponents on Saturday morning really convinced me that we have a lot of room to improve our game.
So after group play Saturday morning you were 0-3 and you didn’t even win a single game. What happened between then and the upset of the Grass Kickers to get over the hump and not only win, but beat a tough number one seeded team?
John: Hard to say. Part of it was surely due to the fact that the tough group play was over and it was kind of a clean slate. We were all nerves all morning and I think we finally started to loosen up after lunch.
Julian: Well, it helped to play a meaningless friendly against Wayne over lunch. I sort of said to myself, well, I can’t play any worse, so I may as well start fresh and try to climb back on the horse. As John says, it did feel a little like a clean slate, and we knew we were a four-seed at that point, with very little to lose.
One specific thing did happen at that point: The wind really kicked up after lunch. I remember thinking that it would be a factor, and it really made a difference in the Grass Kickers match. We won the lag-toss, and we chose to take the side with the wind at our backs. The other guys went first, but we immediately hit at least two baselines with our first turn of four baton throws, going on to win that first game. The Kickers won the second game with the wind at their backs, and then we closed it out with the wind in game three.
How did it feel to finally get that first win?
John: Boy was it sweet. The Grass Kickers are a tough team and that win really turned things around emotionally for us.
Julian: We were down to our last baseline kubb in game three of this match, and they still had something like four left. So when we rallied and pulled it out, it was definitely a relief, to say the least. I remember thinking, damn, I knew we could play this game! It also gave us momentum going forward, because we knew we’d knocked off the number one seed in our afternoon bracket, and so we had their draw going forward. It felt a little like Butler handing an upset to UNC or something. We could definitely breathe again after that.
At what point did you feel like you could make it to Sunday?
John: After squeaking past the Grass Kickers, we found out we were up against some of our friends from St. Paul—Kubb Riot—who we knew were excellent players, so I don’t think there was too much hope at that point of us making it out of the round of 64 alive. Then after somehow getting by them, we started our third match down a game to Trial & Error. So it probably wasn’t until late in the third game of the third match that it really felt like we might make it to Sunday.
Julian: I had hoped that beating the one-seeded [Grass] Kickers would mean we’d get a breather. But then I saw on the board that we’d be playing our pals from St. Paul, guys at whose knee I’d just been learning the lay of the land a scant 48 hours earlier. I knew they were a great team, but I also knew we’d held our own at Summit on Thursday, so we just shook hands and came out swinging. It was another close match, and I remember game three took an inordinately long time to finish. Then when we got to our third match of the afternoon (Trial & Error), I honestly think we’d gone full circle and started to feel just a little cocky—or at least again I can speak for myself and say that was true for me. We dropped the first game to those guys, and we had to knuckle down to come back for the next two. It was sweet when we pulled that one out, because we knew we’d be coming back for competition the next morning, instead of slinking back to the airport with our tails between our legs. Honestly, playing on Sunday was our farthest-horizon goal, and when we knew we’d reached it, it was a terrific feeling, especially with the start we’d had.
How did it feel showing up Sunday morning knowing that you were going to get to play against at least three of the best teams in the country?
John: It felt great. Making it to Sunday was the stretch goal for the tournament for us. The idea of actually winning any games at all that day wasn’t really something we were thinking about. It was great just to be playing against the likes of the Ellringers and the Kubbanite guys from Chaska. We don’t get to see a very wide variety of baton throwing or inkasting techniques in our little isolated pocket of kubb in Southern California, so watching and learning from some of these top players—and seeing their well-oiled teamwork—was very instructive.
Julian: It was a kick to show up at 7:59 Sunday morning and see all the teams that had obviously been there since the crack of dawn, not the least bit hungover like we were, practicing and honing their touches. It still felt like we were the Butler of the sweet 16—playing for a lot of fun, with very little to lose. The competition was great, and John had an absolutely amazing day of drilling, keeping us in several games that we otherwise would have been obliterated in. I felt like some of the previous day’s nerves and butterflies returned to plague me, but as the morning went on, I felt like we were able to put our best foot forward.
How did you do on Sunday?
John: I don’t think we could have asked for more out of our Sunday showing. We lost 0-2 right off the bat to the Ringers, but I think it was a respectable showing, given the competition. I think we had 10 kubbs in play by the end of our second game, which was better than any of us expected to do against such a dominant team.
We actually won our second match pretty handily against the Team Formally Known As Kubb Kitties, which was totally unexpected.
That victory gave us some extra confidence as we faced Kubbanite in match three. That was by far the most exciting match of the tournament for us. Those guys have an intimidating level of skill and teamwork. We ended up losing the match, but won the second game in just over three minutes and took game three to 35 minutes with eight kubbs in play. During that intense game, we needed several visits from tournament officials to help figure out how to disentangle some serious field kubb piles!
In addition to the thrilling play, it was a new experience for us to have so many people watching us. By the end of our dramatic match against Kubbanite, there was quite a crowd of onlookers and live-streamers.
Part of what’s great about the kubb community is how friendly and supportive everyone is. People cheer for great throws and exciting plays regardless of who their favored team is. And between the kubbers we’ve met over the last couple of years in Eau Claire, St. Paul and at our own tournament back home, we’ve gotten to know a lot of amazing people and it really felt great as we finished up our final match that Sunday to have so many friendly faces looking on and cheering for us. The encouragement we got from the sidelines during that match and high-fives and congratulations we got afterward from some of the best players in the sport really made it a special experience for us.
Sadly missing from our group this year was our LA Kubb Club commissioner and global Kubb evangelist, Joe Zenas. He couldn’t make it to Eau Claire this time around, but was with us digitally all weekend. He was watching live streams and getting play-by-play updates for all of our big matches and was offering encouragement and bracket analysis from afar, so while it was a bummer he couldn’t be there in person, he was definitely happy for us and excited to see our little club get as far as we did.
Julian: John said it all. I will add that when we had 10 in play against the Ringers in our first match, I had another moment of thinking to myself, “hey waitaminit, we actually can hang with these guys.” And then I think everything came together for us when we took that game from Kubbanite. That’s how you dream of a game going—I don’t think we missed more than one baton! Wayne and I had switched roles at that point too (at his smart suggestion—I took over the 4 meter throws, and he became the swingman), and it definitely felt good to hit the challenging triple that started our winning turn.
As John alluded to, it was also a kick to see the different styles, outfits, and idiosyncrasies of some of the top players come out in spades on Sunday morning. The different baton throwing styles were very cool to see, and some of the rituals that other guys have are definitely interesting. I’m brainstorming on what I might be able to stick in my own bag of tricks for next year!
So, will we being seeing the Kalifornia Kubbers in Eau Claire next year?
John: Wouldn’t miss it!
Julian: Ditto that! Can we pretend that the tournament starts on Friday this time, though, so the butterflies are gone by the time the real games get underway?
The Kalifornia Kubbers are part of the L.A. Kubb Club that hosts the West Coast Kubb Championships next year on Sunday April, 22nd in South Pasadena, California. For more information about the L.A. Kubb Club or the West Coast Kubb Championships, visit their website and follow them on Facebook.