I read my media guide at the pub before I got to the game. Last year the Pulse were last in all the good stats. Goal-shooting percentage. Shot attempts. Wins.
That's not to say they don't have Heart and Fight and other capitalised adjectives, (perhaps Gumption). They went to extra time three times last season, the most of any team.
Jed and I wandered up to the TSB Arena and it seemed deserted. There's barely any people coming in and the atmosphere is … well I was going to say gloomy, but it's not. The few people who are there are smiling and seem to be buzzing in anticipation. There just aren't many of them.
As they run out the Pulse seemed keen but inexperienced, smiling but not battle hardened. Still most players look like that when the opposition is Vilimaina Davu. Davu herself looked slightly disinterested and not exactly as fit as the Mystics pre-season fitness regime would suggest (in the end Davu only played the first quarter despite doing well against Pulse shooter Jamilah Gupwell).
The teams were going through their warm up drills and the deep booming voice of Frankie Stevens rumbled across the arena, instructing the crowd on how to use the "thundersticks" (hold them up and bang them together). The crowd did grow, and eventually both main stands were fairly full and raucous.
The loud and very camp man sitting behind me turned out to be someone from Dancing with the Stars. Frankie made him stand for scattered applause, while I realised that there is a large chunk of popular culture knowledge that I'm missing.
The crowd's early enthusiasm had slowed down, despite Frankie's best efforts, but the roar grew not long after the first centre pass-off as the Mystics committed some un-forced errors and the Pulse got out to an early 4-1 lead. It sounds terrible but this was a crowd that had seen some bad times with this team and anything good was worth screaming about.
The Pulse had some good combos running through the midcourt, Paula Griffin at GA was coming a long way out in defense, and their long range passes were getting around the tight Mystics defence. But long range passes also are a sign of a team that's desperate. Seventeen straight losses are bound to make you desperate.
It was clear that the Pulse really wanted to win this match, they had a finger hold on the victory and weren't letting go. So any Mystics fight back was met with shoulders and pushing and defence that skirted the edge of the law. This is why, after the match, Mystics coach Te Aroha Keenan and captain Temepara George complained that the umpires weren't calling a lot of the contact. I wondered how much of this was just complaining as late in the match rugby league-style shoulder hits and elbows at face height.
And there were injuries. The worst was Pulse defender (and one of the players of the game) Althea Byfield. The Jamaican defender leapt up for a block stumbled on the landing in the throng and fell back. The sound of the back of her head hitting the court was a dull thud. And I was able to hear it from the other end of the court.
After the injury break, Byfield was clearly still sore. One of the Pulse's courtside officials said later the Byfield might not make the next game. This would be a not insignificant blow to the Pulse's campaign.
I actually like the Pulse but little things annoyed me.
They lost by one point in overtime (I swear it was a coincidence I looked up the OT stats), yet they showed up to the press conference smiling and joking and seemingly pleased with their outing. I felt somewhat irked by that. Was it perhaps better to come so very close to winning (leading by two inside one min of regulation) only to lose by one point than be thumped by 20 points? I don't think so.
They also didn't pressure opposition players who seemed to be performing below standard. Pamela Cookey, who came here with the English team and sucked, was playing her usual confidence game (i.e. she sucked). In the final period and during overtime, Cookey was consistently undershooting. I wanted to see Byfield and Lichtwark pressure her.
Before I went to the game, I figured that the Pulse would be the plucky underdog, like Rudy or The Bad News Bears. And I was surprised to find out that's what they seemed to be. They all had discernable "quirks" they quickly became characters.
Centre Camilla Lees always seems to be smiling; Ngarama Milner-Olsen was a fire cracker who loves faking the opposition out with no-look passes, Jamilah Gupwell is a little goal shoot who thinks team comes first.
I'm going to follow this team and see where they go. Like the crowd, who were as loud as any crowd I've been in during the entire overtime, I want to be there when the Pulse win their first game. And I actually feel that the Pulse will win this season.
Temepara said they "emptied the tank" to win this game. If the Pulse had pushed just a little bit more, if they had to play another overtime period (which is the official rules) the Pulse may have taken it out.
… … … …
I feel I should report on what it was like being a "real" journalist for this game. Usually I wander the stands are tak with folks I know, and folks I don't, about the game. This time I had a courtside seat, official wi-fi and was surrounded by people who also had laptops but were also scribbling in note pads (I didn't have one and felt a little naked) and shooting photos with giant lenses.
But no matter what was happening on court the journalists remained professional. I, however, was trying incredibly hard to stifle "c'mon ref!" and general "woooo!"s. It took all the way to overtime before I cracked with cheers and claps for the Pulse. I'm sure frowns were aimed in my direction.
… … … …
As we walked out Temepara George stood outside visitors changing room talking on her cellphone. She leaned down to remove the padding that she has between her toes and that's when I notice, Temepara George has painted her toenails aqua. It makes me smile.
… … … …
All photos are copyright to Jed Soane