Altador Cup VIII Pre-season Report
For most Neopians, melting snow is merely a sign of the coming Spring, but for a dedicated few the end of Winter marks the start of the Altador Cup pre-season. Each of the eighteen Yooyuball teams held their first official practice sessions of the year this past week, and select Neopian Times reporters were given exclusive league-wide access to both players and support staff.
One of the first teams to open their training facilities this season was last year's third-place finisher Meridell, and MD's head coach spoke with reporters in between speed training drills. "ACVII wasn't a perfect season for us," he told them. "But for the most part I was extremely pleased with the improvements we made. I think we finally found the toughness and determination that had been lacking in years past. Our plan for this season is to stick with what works for us, with just a little fine-tuning here and there." Later in the day, one reporter spoke with MD player Gregorio about the ongoing prank war between them and team Brightvale. "It's all in good fun," he replied with a grin. "'Wizard' Windell got this great idea to dump a whole bunch of beets into the cisterns supplying Brightvale's team with water. It didn't last as long as we'd hoped, but for a few hours the entire team was forced to drink water tinted Meridell red."
Also getting an early start to the season was the team from the Haunted Woods, which saw major upheaval following the close of ACVII. "I have a lot of respect for our former head coach," HW's third-year owner told reporters. "But after some soul-searching, I honestly felt that he was not a good fit for where I wanted the team to go." No hints were given as to who the new head coach might be, but staffers within the organization have indicated that top coaching prospects from across the league have been brought in to interview for the position. Following the official statement from the owner, reporters also got a chance to interview one-on-one with members of the team. "The mood around here has been a little subdued," Zo Junior admitted. "Not only did we lose someone we admired, all of us know at some level that a new head coach will probably mean at least one of us won't be playing for HW this season." Goalkeeper Fanetti echoed the sentiment in his own interview, but added, "We'll all remain Haunties for the rest of our lives, even if we end up finishing our careers in colors other than the Black and Orange."
Far on the other side of Neopia, team Shenkuu knows only too well the problems that come along with replacing a head coach. "It was pure chaos last season," one staffer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It took nearly all of the pre-season for the owner to pick a coach, and by the time the new coach finally arrived it was pretty much too late for her to implement the new system she'd brought with her." Further complicating matters was the last-minute decision to trade Foltaggio for Timu, a move which may have been one of the reasons SK finished in a disappointing sixteenth place. "All of the changes probably made it tougher for us to function as a cohesive unit," player Larcy Phu mused while tending to the team's rock garden. "Timu's really been a big asset to the team, though, and our head coach has some innovative schemes she wants to bring to ACVIII. If we can get everything perfected in time for the Cup, it should be a good year for us."
At the top of the world, Terror Mountain has an entirely different set of problems to contend with. "This winter has been unseasonably warm," TM's General Manager commented, "Which has caused all sorts of disruptions to our team practices. The day before we were supposed to hold our first team meeting of the year, a massive mudslide sealed off nearly all of the routes up the mountain. We finally managed to get everyone up here, but only a few days later we had a major snowstorm, which quickly melted and flooded out both the training field and team dormitories." Later on in the day, TM's head coach spoke at a press event, and during the question and answer session he spoke briefly about strategy for the upcoming tournament. "We've been steadily consistent over the years," the Lupe said, "But that's only a good thing when you're at the top of the leaderboard. I'm not going to give away all of our plans for ACVIII, but one of the things we're thinking of doing is moving the whole team to Altador a week earlier so they can adjust to the warmer climate." He went on to confirm that the team was still using their proprietary energy drink, but refused to comment either way when asked about rumors that the team was entertaining offers for longtime player Rinok Fitel.
While posed around the Altador Cup, one reporter mentioned TM's plans for ACVIII to team Kreludor. "They must have swiped that 'early-move' strategy from us," Jurin T. laughed when told of the idea. "Yeah, they ought to pay us a royalty," Qlydae Wegg quipped. After a long session of photographs and interviews with the head coach and GM, reporters finally got a chance to sit down for a one-on-one interview with team captain Derlyn Fonnet. "It was a long time in coming," she said of their dominating victory in ACVII. "We came so close to winning year after year, and it was difficult to hold on to the belief that we really could be the champions after falling short so many times." When asked if she thought Kreludor would suffer the same fate that so many past winners had, the Gnorbu sat thoughtfully for several seconds before answering. "You know, I'd really like to think not," she finally said, "Especially since we've spent a lot of time getting into top form, but so far no team has been able to withstand the pressure to become repeat champions, not even teams like DC and KI. We're going to do our best not to put too much pressure on ourselves, though, which should help alleviate some of the stress of the Cup."
One of many teams hoping to join the elite group of winners this season hails from the tiny nation of Kiko Island, who saw their best season ever in Altador Cup VII. "To be honest, we really didn't expect to do as well as we did," Ditan Colb said while taking a water break. "We all thought it would be a good year for us, after the success we had in ACVI, but the best we were hoping for was the middle of the pack, not anywhere near the top six." During the same break, one reporter talked with a newly-hired assistant coach. "There was a huge amount of improvement last season," the Peophin said, "But the owners were concerned about the fact that the team faded down the stretch in both AC VI and VII. So the organization brought in myself and a few other assistants, to work on building the players' strength and stamina for Altador Cup VIII." When asked how a team that was forced only two seasons ago to take up side jobs in order to pay for the trip to Altador could now afford three new coaches, she merely grinned and shook her head. "I'm really not authorised to comment on team finances," she said, "But I would like to mention that the newly christened Cocoa Juppie Training Fields sure do look beautiful this time of year."
Almost directly south of Kiko Lake lies Faerieland, where the recovery efforts have been all but completed. "With so many important buildings having been ruined, our team training facility was one of the last to be fully repaired," FL's Delma Harrence told one reporter. "It's nice to finally be able to play on a real Yooyuball field, rather than a farm pasture." The same sentiment was stated nearly an hour later by FL's General Manager, as she cut the ribbon to officially re-open the headquarters for Faerieland's Yooyuball team. Both fans and gathered media were allowed to wander the halls, talking with current players and gazing upon portraits of past FL Yooyuball greats. "Pretty much everyone in Faerieland had a hand in helping us rebuild, and we wanted to show them how much we appreciate everything they've done for us," team captain Kakoni Worrill said during an interview the next day. "Not many teams have fans that would give their last neopoint to help them out."
Down in Mystery Island, beaches have been abandoned, ruins lie unexplored, and vessels of all sizes sit moored and empty along the docks. For a newly-arrived visitor, the silence can be puzzling, until they follow the sound of faint cheers deep into the jungle. Mystery Island has been gripped by Yooyuball fever, and most of the local populace can be found early each day watching the open practices outside of MI's training facility. "The entire nation turned out to watch last year's tiebreaker match between our team and MD," one fan said to reporters while waiting for the next scrimmage to start. "Ever since then, it's been 'Yooyuball' this and 'Yooyuball' that around here. Almost everyone has a poster of at least one player on their wall, and there's even been fights about whether Lor Benneveldt's speed or agility is more important to blocking goals." Following the last team practice of the day, reporters finally got a chance to speak with the players. "It's certainly an unusual experience, preparing for the Cup this early in the season," Vela Binal said. "Normally this time of year, we're either working on our tans or practicing for the annual beach volleyball tournament." Selmon Wolf, the team's newest player, declined to speak with reporters, though he was mentioned by veteran Teylor Nix during his interview. "You'd never guess it, but Selmon is one of the biggest strategists on our team," the Nimmo said. "He's got an uncanny sense of what other team's weaknesses are, and he's extremely good at exploiting them."
For Roo Island, their own player switch for ACVII didn't work out nearly so well, though reporters quickly learned not to bring up the subject of last season to local fans, many of whom were still sore over the final standings. "We were robbed, to put it bluntly," one fan fumed. "Okay, yeah, we weren't gonna win any trophies last year, but there's absolutely no way our team deserved fourteenth place." The players themselves were more circumspect, though they did admit to a certain amount of confusion regarding the new ranking system. "We really didn't understand everything that went in to each team's placement on the leaderboard," goalie Clutch Billaban said, "But even if we hadn't ended up 14th, it still wouldn't have been a very good year for us." No press conference was held, as the team's GM was away on business, but she did leave an official statement which was read by one of RI's staffers once the media had gathered inside the team offices. "I was greatly encouraged to see the advances made last year in our side game play," the statement read. "Our goal this season is to improve just as much in Yooyuball, while maintaining our gains in the three sides."
The bitter taste of ACVII also lingers for many fans of Tyrannia, though a pervading air of unease has taken precedence in that prehistoric land. "We've tried to ignore it, but yeah, all the stuff going on around here lately has really put a damper on our practices," TY forward Wila Benne said during a team interview. "Not only is it hard to put everything happening right now out of our minds, there's also the fact that many other teams with this kind of worldwide scrutiny end up doing really poorly in the Cup. After all, Faerieland was finally starting to show some improvement before Xandra wrecked the place, and to be brutally honest, Altador still hasn't recovered from the brouhaha surrounding their discovery." After continuing on the theme of recent events in their homeland for a time, the talk eventually turned to Altador Cup VII. "We had some really proud moments last season," "Scrap" Taggert said. "Not only did we beat both Kreludor and Mystery Island, we went the entire second round without losing a game of Yooyuball." "That's probably why some of our fans were a little upset," Harlis Neyhbol interjected. "Under the old system, our record would likely have resulted in a slightly higher placement." At the close of the interview, the team's head coach spoke of a few changes he planned to make for ACVIII, though it is interesting to note that he left open the possibility of not attending the Cup at all, in the event that things in Tyrannia got too far out of control.
Beneath the scorching Lost Desert sun, several reporters mysteriously got lost on their way to LD's training facility and had to be rescued by the locals. The reason, apparently, was that an unnaturally high occurrence of windstorms had recently swept across the desert, completely obscuring the landmarks normally used to navigate in the vast wasteland. As the first press conference had to be delayed until all the reporters were accounted for, the few members of the media that did safely arrive on their own took the chance to conduct informal interviews with staff and players. "It was amazing to me, how quickly we bounced back after ACVI," forward Derbi Azar commented during the team dinner. "I wouldn't say there was any one thing that contributed to our success, it was probably a combination of a lot of little improvements. For instance, it was Rhee's second year on the squad, and I think we all played much better as a cohesive unit with a whole season together under our belts. The fact that we finally got a cooling system for this place probably helped too, by easing the transition between lands." One industrious reporter, suffering from nighttime insomnia, struck up a conversation with one of the midnight watchmen and uncovered a bit of inside information. "The owner's been planning something big for months now," the guard told her. "All sorts of bigwigs have been in and out of this place at all hours of the day, and part of the facility has been completely sealed off to everyone except the players and head coach." No one else questioned within the organization would confirm or deny the guard's statement, and other than hazy rumors regarding the modification of team equipment, nothing of any substance was discovered.
Floating high above Neopia, visitors to the Virtupets Space Station can't help but notice that the halls are already decked in festive Altador Cup regalia, despite the fact that the actual tournament is still a few months away. "Everyone says they have the best fans, but we really do," star forward Keetra Deile laughed when questioned about it. "They had all of that stuff put up before a single one of us even stepped foot on the practice field." During the team's lunch break, VP's owner held an impromptu press conference. "None of us were really disappointed with last season's results, since most winning teams have a bit of a letdown the following season," he said. "This year, I'm more than confident that we've shaken off any lingering malaise and are ready to compete for the highest honor this sport has to offer." The Tuskaninny went on to describe some of the changes the team planned for ACVIII, which included syncing the team facility's atmospheric simulation to that of Altador rather than Neopia Central, and possible software upgrades for both Goltron Mk I and XL Striker 3.8.
In the birthplace of Yooyuball, the entire city of Altador has already begun preparations for the eighth annual Altador Cup, though the mood there isn't nearly as festive as it has been in years past. "The Altador Cup was originally developed as a way to draw in visitors and introduce the rest of Neopia to Altadorian culture, and that goal has succeeded admirably well," the owner of Legendary Petpets told one reporter, "But it's hard on everyone here to see our team struggle season after season. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the hope that we had in the first few years has slowly morphed into a kind of resignation." When asked about reasons for the lack of improvement over the last several seasons, AD defender Lyvon Cibaire merely sighed. "It's inexplicable, to be honest," he said. "We've tried just about every kind of strategy you could think of, both on and off the field, but nothing's worked. It was pretty hard to take finishing in a tie for last place, but we did at least have a few bright spots last year, like getting our first victory of the season against Moltara and stealing that upset win from Krawk Island." After having struggled mightily for the past seven years, there are strong indications coming from within the organization that the team is heading for yet another shake-up, though no official statements have been released.
"Yeah, we lost to a last-place team two years in a row. Yeah, we let our guards down. You might want to come up with a new storyline one of these days," KI's head coach grumbled while on his way to a team meeting. For the hapless reporter who broached the subject, there was nothing he could do but stare at the coach's retreating back. "Don't mind him, he takes every loss as if it was personal," Nitri Cassale consoled the reporter. For team Krawk Island, ACVII was a solid, if unspectacular, year. "We were hoping to do a little bit better than seventh place," Ealyn Hawkshanks commented during an interview. "For us, the only color that really matters is gold. I mean, c'mon, we are pirates after all," the Quiggle added with a grin. KI's head coach refused to be interviewed, but reporters did manage to catch up with retired player "Dasher" Soley down at the Golden Dubloon. In between flagons of Tchea Grog, the famous Krawk talked of the team's plans to upgrade their training gear, as well as a much-needed re-seeding of the practice field. "We play pretty rough here, and that sissy Neopian grass we used just couldn't handle it long. The field turned into a mud pit, which lead to the Big Mud Fight of '12. It was all fun and games until a wayward mudball took out the team refreshment table. T'was a sad day, let me tell you."
It is all seriousness in the land of Brightvale, where King Hagan has purportedly been mulling over a personnel change for some time. "Everyone who works for the Yooyuball team here in Brightvale has shown nothing but the utmost loyalty and dedication, but we have not seen the kind of improvement needed to compete with the top teams around the league," the king said while holding court. "I have no plans to replace anyone at this present time, but I intend to run a thorough evaluation of all parts of this organization following the close of the upcoming season." Both players and staff seemed to take the statement in stride, as it was not entirely unexpected. "We've been stuck in the same general area of the leaderboard for a while," team captain Montecito commented afterwards. "King Hagan expects his subjects to dedicate all of their energies to whatever they choose to pursue, and results like eleventh place just aren't good enough." Some levity still remains in BV, however, as the team talked about the ongoing war with Meridell later in the day. "The whole beets thing MD tried was a good idea, but it's not much of a prank when it wears off so quickly," forward Kayn Hireck said. "We've got a few tricks up our sleeves that will last MUCH longer." None of the players would give out any hints, with goalkeeper Orie Dinelle merely saying; "Just wait until the Cup."
The mood in Moltara is significantly more upbeat, as their team has shown steady improvement every season since their debut in Altador Cup V. "I guess you could say we were latecomers to the sport of Yooyuball," MT defender Zax Bannet said during ricochet shot practice. "Looking back, it's no real surprise that we lost every single match in our first season. Last year showed us that we really can compete with all these other teams that have been in the sport for so much longer, but we still have a lot to learn." After the final practice of the day, MT's head coach spoke with the gathered media about plans for the upcoming season. "I won't say we're not going to change anything, since it's crucial to always be adapting to trends within YYB, but for the most part we plan to stick with the same system we used during ACVII." When asked about what changes exactly the team planned to make, the Zafara responded with a chuckle. "Unfortunately for you, that's privileged information. But," he added, smiling, "If you really want to know, feel free to strap on a sling and try out for the team."
It was a rough journey for reporters attempting to reach Darigan Citadel, as the storms currently sweeping over the Neopian plains have completely engulfed the floating castle. "It's helpful that our practice facilities are so far down in the depths of the Citadel, since we haven't been affected by the weather," team Captain Layton Vickles commented. "But even those of us from Darigan miss seeing the sun from time to time." While waiting for the team press conference to begin, one reporter spoke with a senior staffer within DC's front office. "Despite finishing in fourth place last season, it wasn't very pleasant around here for several months afterwards," she told him. "There was a strong feeling of resentment that we had to face KD four times in the same year, while MI didn't even have to play them once." When asked about the tournament schedule for ACVII, DC's General Manager told reporters that the organization had in fact submitted a written inquiry regarding the formula used to determine team groupings, but had yet to hear back from the Altador Cup Planning Committee. "We're not in any way blaming the results of last season on our schedule," he said, "Since we expect to be able to beat any and all teams if we hope to win a trophy, but we do want to raise awareness of the situation so future tournaments will have a somewhat more equitable matchup schedule for all teams." He went on to reveal that the team was looking in to changing the current formation used during games, and openly admitted that they had auditioned players from other teams, but cautioned that the move was merely standard practice, and not an indication that they were planning to replace anyone presently on the roster.
The journey to Maraqua was no less harried than the one to Darigan Citadel, as the majority of reporters were not painted Maraquan and were therefore forced to use breathing apparatus in order to reach MQ's team headquarters located deep under the waves. "I'll bet you're glad we have to practice in an oxygenated environment rather than our native water," goalie Tonie Plessix chuckled as the last reporter pulled the diving helmet off of his head. Once all of the assembled media were fully dry, MQ's head coach kicked off the day with the official team press conference, where he went over standard fare such as reactions to the past season and possible changes for the upcoming ACVIII. Midway through the Q & A session, one of the reporters asked about rumors surrounding the retirement of Elon "The Black Hole" Hughlis. After a short pause, the coach responded that he knew of no plans on any of the players' parts to retire, but the only one who could know for sure was Elon. Later on during the mid-day practice, one of the Yooyu keepers revealed a possible reason as to the rumors going around. "After the successes of ACVI, most of the conflict within the team disappeared, but the struggles we had in ACVII brought all of the problems back full-force," she said. "There are some on the team that feel as though someone else should be made captain, and with Elon's desire to be perceived as indispensable, he may think it's easier to simply retire than face being forced into a supporting role."
One Neopian Times reporter was also able to speak with various members of the AC Planning Committee, though none of them would talk with him except on the condition of anonymity. "To be frank, we were a little surprised with some of the resistance the new system met with last season," one member said. "There seemed to be a lot of confusion about it, which means we probably didn't explain it as well as we could have." Another unidentified committee member told the reporter that the bracket system was one of the things scheduled to be discussed during the annual planning meeting, but added that it was unlikely they would be reverting to the format used in previous tournaments. Information gleaned from other sources within Altador indicate that the ACPC has received applications to join the Yooyuball league, possibly from up to two different lands, and is currently reviewing an official complaint regarding the use of illegal equipment, though the defendant in the complaint was not revealed.
Although for fans the wait may seem to stretch out endlessly, for the teams there's only a short time left to get back into peak form before the new season begins. The countdown to Altador Cup VIII has begun!
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|Breaking the Rules|
And to think, I was so excited about the new plot a week ago. My red Xweetok, Ajax, was even more excited.