Monday, May 16, 2011

D-III: An Alum's Perspective (Cross-Post from Without Limits)

Michelle Ng asked me to provide some commentary on DIII ultimate for a new blog she started to provide women's ultimate coverage as DIII and DI nationals are right around the corner. I'm cross-posting what I wrote here, but you should check out her blog now and in the coming weeks. Also, if you haven't heard about Without Limits Ultimate before, read up on it! They're doing amazing work for college women's ultimate.

Turns out, all I need is a little prompt to start writing again...

I graduated from college almost exactly a year ago on a Monday morning in Grinnell, Iowa.Just a day before, I was in Appleton, Wisconsin playing in the semifinals of the first-ever USA Ultimate-run Division III Nationals. That tournament was the highlight of my college ultimate career, and I still think it was a more fitting end to my time at Grinnell than walking across the stage to get my diploma. I’ve successfully gone through the stages of college ultimate withdrawal since then, and through it all, I’ve tried to keep up with the continued development of the division III college series.

I must admit, though, as an alumna living far away from Iowa and college ultimate in general, the changes were sometimes confusing. When I heard about how things would run in the north central region this year, these were my thoughts, “Wait…no more sectionals? A single tournament to determine who goes to nationals? Awesome!” I didn’t fully realize how much these changes had affected Grinnell until I went back for a visit after they had qualified for DIII nationals again.

A lot of things were still the same— the practice field, the jerseys, the cheers, and many of the good friends I’d left behind a year ago, but when I cleated up and began running though the drills with my former teammates, I began to notice some changes. There were fewer turnovers than I remembered. Everyone had better throws. And when people did misthrow or dropped a disc, they ran sprints. During scrimmages, people would call out “OPP!” for one-possession point, and often they would accomplish that. I had to step up my game, and I was more self-conscious of the mistakes I made. Everyone was more serious and more focused. I saw the team lifting in the gym alongside the varsity football and track teams. They convinced me in the week I visited that they were definitely the best Grinnell team I had ever seen and played with.

I don’t want to give full credit for the improvements I saw to the new college structure, because that somehow takes away from the determination, planning, and sheer amount of hard work that goes into making a whole team better. I do think the new division III series does give additional motivation to teams like Grinnell, though, and that helps to explain their improvements. From what I heard and witnessed, playing in tournaments all spring and knowing certain opponents would be at conference gave tremendous incentive to train harder. Having one do-or-die conference weekend focused training efforts for the entire winter and spring. The whole season took on more structure than it had last year, when the ranking system and bids to division III nationals were handed out after a series aimed mostly at division I teams. The ranking algorithm alone, as useful as it was then and still is now for calculating bids in both DI and DIII, just doesn’t give the same sense of urgency or excitement that a finals or backdoor game-to-go does.

From my perspective, after the changes I’ve seen at Grinnell in only one year, this sense of urgency and excitement is just what division III teams need. It’s been fun (and, as any recent graduate will tell you, a little bittersweet) to get phone calls from old teammates describing the emotions of their first conference weekend, their first tournament where the bids to nationals are in reach for them, and winning one more game means extending their season by another couple of weeks. In the years to come, as the kinks with the new system get worked out, I can only imagine the divisional structure will mean more exciting weekends for lots of division III teams, and motivation and improvements that will last far beyond those two days.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Grinnell's Story

My second post about D-III Nationals turned into this…a post I’ve been trying to write in different variations, literally, for years. It explains my motivations for starting this blog, and shows, I hope, how a lot of what I covered in other posts applies to my experiences in college ultimate.
Two years ago or so, maybe longer, my team had a crazy idea: if we worked hard, harder than ever before, we could do great things and maybe surprise ourselves with how far we could get. Sounds simple, right? I started this blog after playing a bunch of good schools in the fall of 2008 and trying to think about what advantages they had over us and how they got to where they did—in some cases, nationals. I thought a lot about size and location and coaches and the growth of ultimate and women’s ultimate, but at a certain level, you can’t beat grit and determination and a desire to want to do better. I learned just how hard that is to implement on a team, but I was also a part of my best ultimate season to date.
Grinnell College is a small, liberal arts school in rural Iowa with about 1,500 students. Unlike many other small schools, we have had an ultimate team for a long time, going back into the 90s, and a women’s team consistently since the early 2000s. We always had a core group of players, and for the four years I was on the team, that core expanded to include more people and more dedication to the sport. This was an important first step in getting us to Appleton last May: dedication to ultimate as a sport, not just a way to get in some fun games and fun times. The two captains my freshman year began the push that culminated in us making Division III Nationals three years later. They said: look, we’re going to be more serious and we’re going to play to win in the spring. They held a few tentative sprint practices once the snow cleared, and a history professor (who has since left Grinnell) helped us with some practices and our zone defense. Despite their efforts and leadership, we didn’t make it past Sectionals that year. The next year, we built even more. We got a big class of first years (who are currently leading the team as seniors) and made regionals.
The next year, my junior year and first as a captain, I started doing a lot of thinking about ultimate beyond the confines of our team and our school, and started talking with my teammates about pushing us to the next level. At that point, we weren’t really sure what that meant—D-III Nationals were still unofficial and didn’t include a women’s side, and though we sometimes thought, “if all of us train harder than anyone has ever trained, we can make D-I Nationals,” we all knew the reality was different in a region that included Carleton and Wisconsin. But we started asking ourselves more realistic questions like, “if our team had mandatory track practices, would you come?” or, “if playing time at tournaments didn’t solely depend on practice attendance, would you come to the tournament? Would you want to be a part of a Grinnell ultimate team like that?” For some people reading this, those questions may seem odd and a given for any team hoping to be at least a little competitive, but for us, given the culture and years of tradition on our team, they were new concepts. Because, despite efforts in recent years, Grinnell was still a team based on the principle of giving everyone who came to practice, regardless of talent, equal playing time, and a team that demanded far less in terms of time from people than varsity sports. The mentality of the team was at times wholly different from the stereotypical, ultra-competitive, win-at-all-costs mentality of other sports. We were, foremost, about having fun and spirit and inclusion than going into tournaments with the goal of winning as many games as possible. We began seriously questioning in the fall of 2008 whether we could keep that Grinnell ultimate spirit, but win more games and push ourselves harder than ever before.
Around this time I also started talking to other teams about how they made the push to the next level. I had contact with a player on Maryland, fresh off of their first nationals appearance, with local players on Luther, another small-school team in our section that was improving by leaps and bounds, and then with one of those captains from my first year who went to grad school at Michigan and to nationals with Flywheel in 2008.
All of these “sources,” despite coming from different types of teams in different stages of development, had three things in common when I asked about their success:
1. A and B teams, or at least the ability to pick from a large group of players to form an elite core.
2. A coach or an outside authority to at least come to some practices and to help with tournaments.
3. Conditioning, conditioning, conditioning.
For us, one and two weren’t feasible at the time. I do think that Grinnell and other small schools can be more aggressive and creative with recruiting talent to their teams. If Luther can have an A and a B team some years, and Carleton an A, B, C and countless intramurals, then Grinnell can as well, but it will take planning and effort. Number two is still a challenge for Grinnell and for other rural schools. The ultimate community in Iowa is already spread out, and finding someone to make the hour+ drive from Iowa City or Des Moines or Ames to help us out remains a challenge, particularly because many of the club players in the state are alums of other schools, and would likely dedicate their talents to their own teams. Even teams who traditionally haven’t had coaches do have dedicated alumni to help them out…but, again, not many alums stick around the 9,000-strong town of Grinnell after graduation and there is no grad school at our tiny institution.
The final point, though, was something we worked on. It was driven due to an increased love for ultimate as a sport—a dedication and a study of it, and, in some quarters, even an obsession with it—that had not happened in a team-wide sense before. I can’t fully describe this change. Certainly part of it was an influx of younger players who had played in high school, and who brought an intensity and varsity-athlete mindset to our team, not to mention a few fall varsity athletes themselves who joined the team in the winter after their seasons were over. Some of it was the men’s team obsessing about good open club and college teams and spreading along that obsession, through Ultivillage DVDs and endless chatter about the current season. Part of it was playing against amazing teams in our own region and being inspired by the athletes and superstars on them. And part of it was discovering the ultimate blogosphere, RSD, and then all the videos and pictures and history and stories you can find on the web about ultimate. I feel like the online ultimate world is getting more consolidated and organized now, but just two and a half years ago, it felt sort of like a treasure hunt, trying to find the best highlight reels, discussions of strategy, and tournament write-ups among a loose confederation of blogs and websites.
However it happened, Grinnell became more and more interested in ultimate, and in a lot of ways, took the game more seriously than ever before. I would go so far as to say there was a real shift in team identity. Grinnell attended Midwest Throwdown last spring and had Cara Crouch as our guest coach for the weekend as a part of the Roundup Division. I wrote a piece for the Huddle about that experience, if you are interested, but the closing paragraph of that piece reads:
"In fact, one of the best moments of the weekend came when Cara called a rookie line. Our seven newest players took to the field and scored. They used the new skills they had learned, but also displayed the confidence Cara gave our whole team. Having her cheering from the sidelines, making in-game adjustments, and telling us about her own experiences helping to build the Texas team into the powerhouse it is today all helped us realize the potential we have on our team. That was maybe the most important lesson I took from the weekend. We have enormous potential for growth and now, more so than ever before, we have the tools and knowledge to improve, along with the excitement and desire to work hard that comes from spending a weekend with a world champion Ultimate player."
That tournament opened our eyes in so many ways. It was part of the continued growth and awareness on our team that we could be better, and had the tools to do so. We got the younger players hooked on the sport itself, as well as on Grinnell ultimate in particular, with its traditions and tournaments and team culture. I think this is intimately tied in to realizing a potential for growth. The team identity at Grinnell turned more into the identity of a sports team, with a responsibility to train and with goals to win. This is why, especially in the spring season, we could make big team changes—holding more conditioning practices than ever and also subbing competitively at every spring tournament we attended.
These changes may not seem like much, but they represented a big transformation in the way things had been done before. True, some people had always hit the gym and the track independently of the team, and we had always subbed competitively in the college series. But to make those changes team-wide and season-wide was a big step in a more competitive direction for Grinnell.
This was certainly not without challenges. We still struggled to get people to work out consistently over our five-week winter break. We did not condition as aggressively when we moved outside in March. And I didn’t find a good way to get people to lift, especially to do the most beneficial lifts for an explosive sport like ultimate: squats, deadlifts, and cleans. I, myself, had just started to learn the basics of effective training for ultimate last winter, and I didn’t know how to get women who had never lifted before to get under the bar when I was still unsure of my own technique. Our relationship with the athletic department is shaky at best, and I didn’t look to any strength trainers there to help our unrecognized, decidedly club-status team. Thankfully, a lot has changed in the past year in terms of resources available to teams ready to take the plunge into more effective training—there is more ultimate-specific knowledge than ever on the internet. I think we made a good effort, though, running sprints on our 200 m track and indoor basketball court, inventing conditioning workouts to do in small winter practice spaces, running agility ladder drills, allowing people to teach the team whatever their favorite method of working out was, from yoga to karate, and trying to develop some basic lifting habits.
As for subbing, it caused some problems on the team that were indicative of divides in opinion over the way we were headed. Some older players thought we were getting too competitive and maybe eroding the spirit of what had made Grinnell ultimate special—acceptance of all players interested in the sport, regardless of athletic ability. This was a big sticking point on many levels. We did not have enough players to pick the best and make an A team, so we had to balance having people on the team on one end of the spectrum, with no ultimate and no athletic experience, with people on the other end: high-school ultimate players who had been playing since orientation week their first year or ex-varsity athletes expecting a certain level of competition. For some of the “old guard,” who had come to Grinnell ultimate in my class of freshmen eager to escape the competitiveness of varsity athletics, our changing team culture was tough to swallow. But on the other side, there were players who thought we weren’t competitive enough, and that our subbing at some tournaments should have been more selective. There were communication problems between the captains and the team about expectations for games. By nationals I think we worked most of the snags out, but, as always, not everyone was totally satisfied, and there is always room for improvement. The strategy behind subbing is an important aspect that captains of any team, especially for small, mixed-level teams without coaches, need to work out. Do you put your best lines out at the beginning and play them a lot, hopefully getting a lead over your team and then relax a bit, or do you mix your star players into more open lines, saving legs over the course of a long day? Or, do you try to play entire tournaments with a tight rotation, as some teams at nationals seem to do?
Despite these problems, Grinnell had its best season ever in the spring of 2010. We planned our practices better than ever, and there was more fire in us at those practices, not to mention more women attending than ever before. We played in some of our first-ever pressured game situations and got a feel for how it was to play when the emotions and stakes were high. We followed our rankings closely throughout the year and kept tabs on other teams in our region. We went to the finals of Frostbite in Columbia, Missouri, got to the semis of High Tide in Savannah, Georgia, and really peaked at D-III Nationals, surprising even ourselves by making it to the semis, where we lost against Swarthmore. We came from behind in two of our pool play games on Saturday, won on universe in one, and played the best we have ever played in the quarterfinals game on Sunday. I think not a single person was unaffected by the excitement and determination we felt build throughout the season, bolstered by athletic recruits and a phenomenal, undefeated weekend in St. Louis with Cara Crouch at Midwest Throwdown in March. The excitement over ultimate even continued after the season when a big bunch of us went to Madison to watch D-I Nationals. Everyone on the team that spring became at least a little bit of a student of the game, and at least a little bit more of an athlete, and it showed.
It wasn’t perfect. There are things I would have done differently. But we set a goal in the fall of 2009, once a division III championship had been announced, and we worked to make that goal a reality. In a lot of ways, the team that showed up in Appleton in May was still a little scrappy, short in numbers from seniors missing the competition to attend their college graduation. But we have always been a scrappy team—on the line we don’t look particularly tall or threatening, with a whole host of people with different athletic backgrounds standing shoulder to shoulder, so there was no reason D-III Nationals should have been any different. As ultimate and the prestige of Division III Nationals and the separate conference structure grows, our scrappy team may find itself edged out by small schools that do manage to do everything I have described here more effectively. I do think it is possible, though, for future captains and members of Grinnell women’s ultimate to take what we started building and run with it, while still maintaining a certain team culture that no amount of sprint practices or team strategy sessions or tight sub rotations can beat out of us, because it comes from attending and playing for an oddball little school in the cornfields of Iowa. And looking back on my time wearing the baby blue jersey of that scrappy team in all its iterations, I wouldn’t give up those years for any other team.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Now What?

Looks like I can't keep my promise, again, about updating this blog on time. Life is too crazy now to write a decent entry, though I have started the promised second take on D-III nationals. I'll get it up here eventually.

I wanted to take this moment, on the eve of my departure from my parent's home in Ohio, to reflect on what happens now.
I started playing real ultimate in 2006, and my last year of college eligibility is going to be spent in California working through a program called Lutheran Volunteer Corps at a nonprofit in Berkeley and living on a small stipend with other volunteers in Oakland.

I don't know what I'm going to do with this blog, save get that last D-III post up. I like the idea and the name, and I'm not going to stop writing now, just you probably won't hear so much from me about college ultimate. Maybe other people will fill in with that (you interested? email bfultimate at and let's talk). I'll figure out what to do and will post stuff here sometimes-- I like how some ultimate blogs write about tournaments and very individual-viewpoints/experiences type of stuff...stories, pictures, etc., so maybe I'll do some of that on here.

Thing is, I don't really know how big of a role
ultimate will play in my life out there. The Bay Area has arguably the best ultimate in the world (see: Worlds 2010), but I am missing the summer club season, for starters, and I don't know if I will have the money or the ultimate talent to play on a club team next season, or if I will even be around for another club season (the program ends in August 2011, and who knows where I'll end up after that). I am planning to join a winter league and see what happens then. The prospect of not being on a team is tough--it's been tough already. I've been a member of a tight-knit, wonderful little college team for the past four years. Ultimate was my life. I missed maybe two practices over four years, and I never missed a tournament. My only friends, basically, were on the team or had played at one point. I went to eight solid tournaments in a row one fall, both college and club, and have had other similar, some would say grueling, tournament schedules in a season. I lived with teammates for two years at school. When captaining, it seemed like sometimes the only thing I could think about was frisbee and the team. Leaving all of that has been hard. Anyone who graduates from college feels this about lots of things, I think, and for me it's frisbee. There's no going back to that ever, either. I will never again live within a four-block radius of all my teammates, I'll never have the ease of standing in the middle of campus with a disc and waiting until someone I know walks by and tosses with me, I'll never drive 22 hours to get to a tournament after midsems week, I'll never eat every dinner after every practice with my team again, and I'll probably never sleep 10 to a hotel room at a tournament to save money. It's still strange to think that this fall I won't be playing frisbee regularly, and it will be doubly strange to check my team's score reporter sometime and not know anything about the games I see there. I have learned, though, in the past four years, that the ultimate community is welcoming and surprising in what it can do for you sometimes, and I think I will continue to find that wherever I go and wherever I play.

There's more to say about transitioning from college ultimate to...ultimate in life, with jobs and moving and money concerns, and also transitioning from college to club, or from open/women's in college to coed club, which I find a lot of people I know doing. I'll try to write more about some or all of those things when I can.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Division-III Nationals...and the quality divide in college ultimate, two years later

It's been a while, again, my apologies. I finished my career as a college ultimate player this May in Appleton, Wisconsin, playing in the first ever Division-III National Championship. I'm going to frame my thoughts for this post and the next one around D-III Nationals. This post is going to focus on D-IIIs in the context of issues raised with small college teams previously in this blog and talk about my thoughts and ideas relating to that, and the next post will talk more specifically about my team's experiences this season culminating in D-III Nationals.

First, for the sake of examples, I'm going to say what team I play for.  I'll write more about this in my next post, but for now I'll let you know I play(ed...that's weird to write) for Grinnell College. Discerning readers probably already figured this out, but, yeah, I tried to keep that hidden on this blog until now to write more objectively about stuff, but I'm done with college now and feel like it's important to talk about my experiences a little more personally in the next two posts.

Anyways. I wrote in 2008 about what I called the "quality divide in college ultimate," and I explained some reasons why I thought it existed. I'm going to go through those reasons and discuss them in the context of the current state of ultimate in 2010, because with D-IIIs and my own experiences in the past two years, some things have changed, or maybe my perspective has become more informed.

1. Size-- we're never going to be able to change that; Grinnell will always be a school of 1,500 students. The creation of D-III Nationals addresses this divide nicely, though, and gives small schools a more level playing field. I was really impressed with D-IIIs this year-- playing observed games and having official merchandise and the director of the UPA (it was the last UPA tournament, by the way) there were all nice gestures/signs that this was a legitimate national championship. I do see room for improvement in two areas regarding D-IIIs. First, not all the teams who were invited to nationals accepted their invitation. We were the only women's team from the Central, for example. We were behind Carleton and Luther in terms of bid allocation, but Carleton went to D-Is and Luther declined their bid. This happened in other regions, too. It was commencement weekend for a lot of smaller schools (it was our commencement weekend, too, and therefore I was the only senior to attend...), but I think some teams who were invited from distant regions and who would have had to pay for airfare to compete were not prepared to do so. As the tournament becomes more established, though, and teams start making D-IIIs their goal, I think more and more teams will accept, and the general quality of teams will get better. Elite teams are well-practiced, I would imagine, in the costs of travleing to distant tournaments, and D-III teams will also have to begin to think about how to fundraise and save for travel to the big show. Again, I think this is a matter of time and establishing D-IIIs as a legitimate national championship that teams can and should work for.

The second, and more important issue, I think, is the ranking system used to determine who gets bids. The regular season is the only thing that determines bids. There is no regional tournament with a championship game and a game-to-go for D-IIIs. I don't think a D-III series or anything like that will happen anytime soon because there aren't enough D-III teams in some places to warrant it, and it also isn't fair to really good D-III teams like Carleton and teams on the cusp like Middlebury to have to decide early on whether to compete in a D-III series or not...the current system lets Carleton and Middlebury play for D-I qualification but still allows them to go to D-IIIs if they don't make it (and both of them made it this year, congrats). So, the ranking system is likely to remain in place, and it is not perfect. There were definitely some teams in the Central that should have/could have gone to D-IIIs but didn't because they did not make the 10 sanctioned games requirement. Again, this is something that will take time...teams are going to realize that they need these games and will get them in if they are serious about D-IIIs.  Tournaments also have to keep their end of the bargain (Vegas this year...) and teams need to get their accurate, completed rosters in (we had to attend an extra tournament this season because some games we though were sanctioned ended up not being so because our opponents messed their rosters up).

Also, one thing I have come to realize, through Michelle Ng's incredible work this past season, is that as ultimate players we have the power to create positive change in our own regions. We were beat by two D-III teams at Regionals that did not go to D-III nationals, and given those results, it could be argued that they deserved to go there in our stead (Neither of them had the ten sanctioned games, and results from Regionals didn't count towards the qualification rankings, either). This was sort of a monkey on my back as we went into D-IIIs. I'd like to think tying for third sent the message that we deserved to be there, but this discrepancy in results and in rankings could be avoided earlier in the season if D-III teams have the opportunity to play each other before a late tournament like Regionals (this was the first time we'd played these particular teams all season). The ranking system will only become more accurate if D-III teams get more chances to play other D-III teams, and this also means more chances for sanctioned games. And as D-III players, we can make that happen by hosting D-III tournaments.  A tournament doesn't have to be 40 teams on polo fields-- you can easily host an 8-team tournament on four or even three fields on campus or at the local park.  Eight teams would be a good portion of the D-III women's teams in the Central region, so a huge number of teams for a D-III tournament, in most regions, isn't necessary. Make it cheap, make it sanctioned, give people water and bagels, report scores, communicate with captains, and maybe host a mixer on Saturday night. Opportunities to play regional competition will help improve the D-III rankings, and will also build bonds between D-III teams in the region. Having run a tournament before, it's not thaaat hard to do if you keep the number of teams manageable and ask for help, plus you end up making money for your team in the process.

2. Experience-- I wrote about player experience through club and high school/middle school ultimate and coaching experience in my previous post. I think this is the most important aspect that sets some teams apart from others. You can have the tallest, fastest athletes on the field, but I still think, generally, they will lose against a team with an experienced coach and some players who have been on the club circuit for a season or more. The major difference I saw between women's teams at D-III nationals and D-I nationals, besides roster size (generally a product of point number one), was the absence of coaches at the former and their large presence at the latter. I highly recommend reading Lou Burruss' blog for an inside look at what the Oregon women did at D-I nationals this year, and look at how many decisions he carefully considers and makes in his coaching, from everything to in-game strategy to how to avoid getting heat exhaustion during and after games. Over the course of a four day tournament, it seems almost impossible to do well without a coach.  And being a player and a captain/coach at the same time is really, really hard, as anyone who has tried to fill that role well will know.  I've never played for an ultimate team with a coach (except for one happy weekend in March), but I watched a lot of good coaching at D-I nationals, and it really made me realize what a big difference a good coach can be.

And then there's player experience.  By and large, the best players in the women's game play women's club, or elite mixed club.  My thoughts on this really haven't changed since 2008...the more you play at higher levels, the better you will be on your college team and, presumably, the better that will make your teammates.  D-III schools don't have a disadvantage with this, it seems, except maybe that all the really good ultimate kids who want a small-school college experience will try to get into Carleton and not Grinnell.  My experience has been limited to Iowa, which doesn't have a really developed club scene (at least for those of us not good enough to play for CLX), but I'm assuming students at smaller colleges have generally the same opportunities to be on club teams, assuming those club teams exist...which has more to do with...

...3.  Location My thoughts on this haven't changed too much since my post on it in 2008.  The Northwest and Southwest continue to dominate women's ultimate (Santa Barbara every year, Oregon this year, Washington last year, Colorado this year, Stanford almost every year, etc.).  A Northwest team won D-III nationals on the women's side this year, too (Pacific Lutheran)...and last year at the unofficial version of D-III nationals (Whitman).  Better weather, better local competition, better high school ultimate, better (and more) women's club teams?  All play a factor, I think.  Still, Wisconsin proves every year that going to school in the snowbound north, away from elite women's club (though Georgia still played with Fury), doesn't stop a team from being elite.  It remains to be seen what happens with D-III teams.  My only thought is D-III teams (at least liberal arts schools) tend to enroll students from all across the country, so maybe that will level the playing field in some ways when it comes to getting experienced high school players.  Still, if you go to school in rural Iowa, you have to drive longer to play teams and look harder to find club teams.  Insert your state/location of choice-- there are lots of other examples (Texas comes to mind).

Anyways, to wrap up, I was really pleased with D-IIIs this year, and despite some first-year kinks, I think the system will work out well for small schools in years to come.  And, addressing concerns I voiced earlier on this blog, the system doesn't stop a small team from competing with bigger schools, if they want that type of competition.  My thoughts on experience and location haven't changed so much since 2008.  Much of what I observed then continues to be true...get your players club experience, try to get a good coach, and move your school to California or Washington state.

I'm off to New Hampshire to hike for a week, but I'll try to get my second D-III post up sometime this month.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Exciting Developments: Restructuring and Midwest Throwdown

I have been thinking a lot about what to write here. Studying abroad stopped regular and meaningful posting, and the semester since coming back to the United States has been, for one reason or another, one of the busiest I've ever had. I have been playing and captaining, though, and I want to get back into the habit of regular posting at least until my final season of college ultimate is over this spring.

Since I've been neglecting this blog, the ultimate world has kept on going. The most significant change in my mind has been the UPA's college restructuring plan. As a player on a D-III school team, I welcome the addition of a D-III Nationals (especially a women's division!), though the location remains to be seen and D-III rankings of any kind also remain to be released. I like the whole sanctioned games change, too-- it makes tournament directors more responsible (though this hasn't forced TDs to make things like brackets in the women's division a standard on score reporter yet...come on, Mardi Gras!) and really makes teams realize the entire spring season is serious and meaningful. I have noticed a change in my team's mentality based on these sanctioned games, and people seem to understand the reasoning for competitive subbing a lot more with games being sanctioned this spring.

Within my team, players who were abroad and separated for over a year have finally been reunited. We have gained some fall varsity athletes who are trying out ultimate this semester and loving it, and practice attendance is, finally and amazingly, regularly reaching 18-2o people! All the talk about this season is coming to some sort of fruition. We are doing more conditioning and sprint work at our indoor practices, I see my teammates in the gym every time I go to lift, and, in general, the work ethic in and out of practice and general excitement about ultimate is at an all-time high.

This sea change of sorts has multiple explanations. First, I have found it only takes a few players to be passionately involved and excited about ultimate to inspire that passion in other people, especially with younger players. The influx of the junior class, freshly returned from abroad, has bolstered practice attendance and their influence has made it apparent to players slacking in attendance before that they can no longer count on low numbers at tournaments to get playing time.

My co-captain's and my efforts have also made some changes. We are doing competitive subbing at tournaments, and because of this we are winning more games, and winning more games generally tends to build excitement on the team. It also creates some spirit of competitiveness within the team that hopefully makes people who would like to get more playing time work harder at practice. We are being strict about doing conditioning in practice and have tried to get people to condition outside of practice (through a google doc, fitness blog, and extra conditioning and practice sessions led by various team members, with varying success).

Finally, certain tournaments and the efforts of dedicated women in the college ultimate world have also been fostering a general excitement about ultimate on our team (and other teams, I'm sure). Anyone following college women's ultimate at all probably knows about the efforts of Michelle Ng and company in running college women's tournaments and creating exciting opportunities for developing college teams at those tournaments. I mentioned this trend briefly in a blog post over a year ago, and Michelle actually commented on that post and her goals in running those tournaments. Since she commented, she has put on a handful of very successful women's tournaments, from Centex to Midwest Warmup to Midwest Throwdown, with new tournaments like the Philly Classic in the works. I attended Midwest Warmup last fall, and we had a great time playing lots of regional talent and enjoyed the feeling of being kept up to date with what was happening and other amenities like score reporting (and for a team not used to attending many high quality tournaments, score reporting certainly is a luxury).

But Michelle and company (by company I mean Anna Nazarov, Holly Greunke, and members of the Washington University ultimate team) have really come through for us with this season's Midwest Throwdown tournament. There are three divisions: div. 1, div. 2, and the Roundup Division. Teams who wanted to play in the latter division had to fill out a detailed application describing their status as a developing college team, team goals, team strategies, descriptions of practice, and challenges to growth and ultimate development in general. After reviewing the applications, eight teams were chosen to be a part of the division. Eight premier women's coaches, with experience coaching and playing elite college and club ultimate, not to mention national team experience and a lot of Callahan winners among them, were matched with the eight chosen college teams, and are going to have the chance to work together all weekend at Throwdown, developing skills and teaching concepts in and out of games against other Roundup Division teams. On top of this, the eight coaches plus other experienced club ultimate players are teaching skills clinics on Saturday evening, open to the entire tournament. Registration for those clinics filled up a few days after being posted.

If you can't tell already, my team is one of the teams in the Roundup Division, and we are beyond excited. We've been in contact with our coach and have devised a game plan for the weekend, and our entire team registered for the clinics. Excitement is high, and I think the weekend will be one of the most useful of the entire season and beyond. We have tried for the past three years to become a more competitive team, with some progress, but I think this one weekend and the relationship we are building with our guest coach will help out more than many of our previous efforts. At the very least it is getting a group of 20 people pumped about the sport and making them realize how good we can be with hard work and focus. I always say ultimate is a limitless sport and very accessible because the great teams today were in our position, to varying degrees, at one point or another, and the relatively small community means you get to see firsthand how teams change from one year to the next. As a friend of mine put it, "ultimate gives you as much back as you put into it," and any reason, like this tournament, to get your team to put even more into ultimate is one to celebrate.

That's all on the intangible level, too. On a practical, tangible level, we'll be getting new drills, team skills, and individual skills to bring back to practice and a weekend of help from one of the best players in women's ultimate. The things we learn will stay on our team for years, and the relationship with our guest coach will also hopefully last beyond this season--she'll hopefully be there to answer questions over email after the tournament ends. Our men's team is extremely jealous of the opportunity, with good reason.

So, the future looks bright, and I think this tournament model is the future of ultimate in developing regions. Getting so much coaching talent at every tournament is unfeasible, but developing a system of guest coaches and having skills clinics for all teams at some tournaments with local club teams helping out is certainly reasonable, I think. Getting this information out to more teams will eventually do a lot to increase overall talent in developing reasons, I think. I have written a lot on this blog about why some teams are so behind others in terms of talent and skill, and have tried to share some of my own experiences with this quality divide. I still intend to write about that divide and my personal experiences with it this season, but it will definitely include positive news and new, exciting developments, like our experience with Throwdown and other exciting changes to the women's division I am so happy and grateful to be a part of.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Low Numbers at Practice

What do you do when you don’t have numbers at practice? A nasty fever-coughing virus has taken out key players on our team for a week or more, and with a large, consistent, athletic class studying abroad this semester, rare is the day when we can field 14 girls at practice, let alone 12 or even 10. Despite going to a small school, practice attendance has never been an issue in the past, or when it was, it was after the series had ended for us, and so we were content to play hot box or 5-on-5 for an hour before calling it quits. But what do you do when eight people show up to practice healthy enough to play one week before your first major away tournament? Even when we have enough to play 6s, it does not allow us to practice zone offense and defense accurately, and even with 14 girls at practice, we are automatically playing without any subs, and so the pace of the game is much slower than game pace…and the old adage is true…you play how you practice.

It’s not only the illness that is taking players out. Injuries, lingering injuries, are taking their toll on old and new players alike. This speaks to athletic abilities in general on our team, but also to an institutional lack of support for club sport injuries through the athletic department. And then, you have the freshman issue. The freshman who is not quite sold on ultimate yet, who decided to sign up for a hundred other activities and committees and finds homework loads their first year different from high school and sometimes comes to practice but not always…but would I come to practice as a freshman, too, if week after week we were scrimmaging without full numbers? If older teammates shirk practice for unknown reasons, would I, as a freshman, feel it was acceptable to skip practice because I had “too much work” or “a meeting”? You see, this freshman issue is related to another issue, that of older players not coming to practice for no apparent, good reason. And then can I, as a captain, send out a strong email to my players, telling them how important practice attendance is, knowing full well that the people who will be the first ones back after such an email will be the ones who may not have waited long enough to heal their injuries or nurse themselves back to full health? I stood on the sidelines today in a feverish haze, barely able to shout out instructions to the eight girls who were doggedly playing hot box at our “practice” today, and thought “is this supposed to be my senior year of ultimate, is this the buildup to the spring semester that everyone on the team has agreed will be one of our best seasons to date?”

Certainly practicing at all is better than not practicing, and you can still run drills and help people with their throws without full numbers. There is benefit in playing smaller games of 5-on-5 because it does give newer players more touches on the disc. But sometimes, especially when I am sick on the sidelines, too, I feel like our little team is falling apart, and after having dedicated so much time to making our team better, it is frustrating to be reduced to lackluster scrimmages at this crucial point in the season. You simply cannot effectively teach and practice team skills when you don’t have a full team.

I am sure this problem is not limited to my school. In fact, I’m sure other bagel fodder schools deal with this problem far more than we do, and what I’m experiencing now, for a few weeks in one semester, is what other schools have to deal with week in, week out at practice. I don’t know what to do about it, though. “Recruit!” said one of my teammates today, after that frustrating 8-person practice. We have never actively recruited, save manning a table at the freshman organization fair the week before classes start. At a school as small as ours, and considering that we practice right in the heart of campus, I think visibility is hardly an issue for us. What is an issue is emphasizing to freshman, but, almost more importantly, older players, that practice attendance is vital to being a member of the team, a point that I had thought was clear, but may need to be reviewed-- again, and again-- until we can stop playing hot box and start playing ultimate.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Few Comments and Predictions

Keeping up with ultimate while studying abroad is harder than I thought…sorry for the huge break in posts. No promises of anything regular until I am back in the U.S. in August.

A few comments and predictions, though:

-Congrats to the Iowa State women on getting the third bid to Nationals from the Central Region. I’ve played against them a lot, and they’re a solid team that deserves to be there.

-Are there more DIII teams than usual on the men's side at Nationals this year?  Carleton, obviously, but also Luther, Williams, and Tufts.

-The 2009 women’s Callahan award should go to Georgia Bosscher. I don’t even care that I’m unqualified to make such judgments because I play for a tiny team that’s been beaten by Bella Donna to the tune of 1-13 more than once…listen…Georgia Bosscher is, without a doubt, one of the best (if not the best?) women’s college ultimate players in the country-- a standout player on an already very good team-- and, from what I can see as an outsider, a great leader. My freshman year of college, we were at some tournament, and a teammate pointed her out to me and said, “See the girl with the dreads? Her name is Georgia, she is a phenomenal player, and she is only a sophomore.”  Since then, I've seen her play at a decent number of tournaments, including Nationals in 2007 and Central Regionals (club and college) in 2008, and also captain Wisconsin's tryout team last fall.  I’ve seen her pull a disc out the back of the opposing team's endzone. I’ve watched her notice a disc out of the corner of her eye, layout to the side, and get the D at chest height. I’ve seen her destroy cups with beautiful high-release backhands. She has huge throws, huge ups, and huge bids.  This girl can play, she can lead, and she deserves to win.

-I’m also calling it: the 2009 women’s national title will go to Bella Donna. They have the 2008 Callahan winner still playing for them (Courtney Kiesow), at least one of the best handlers in the women’s college game (Emilie McKain), and a deep roster with too many other names to list.  They are stacked, and I think they want it badly this year.  They lost to the two teams seeded above them (UCSB and Washington) once each for a combined point differential of 3. Look, I don’t even care that I’m not in the country and haven't seen them play all spring…Bella Donna for national champs in 2009.  Midwest represent.

-For the men, I think it’s CUT’s year, but I’m even more unqualified to make that statement than I am to make any of the above.

I won’t be in Columbus to watch any of these predictions unfold or crash and burn, even though my parents live half an hour away. No, I’ll be in Munich for the weekend, which isn’t too shabby, but if you’ll be in Ohio, have fun for me.  Having watched nationals before, I can say for certain it’s amazing to see so much good ultimate in one weekend. Plus CUDA is awesome. Yeah Columbus.