Legitimizing DIII: A Bottom-Up Approach

2012 DIII College Championships.
Photo by Brandon Wu for Ultiphotos.

Amidst the vast expansion of professional ultimate, musings of league partnerships, and threats of mass exodus of traditionally elite club teams is an ostensibly trivial subject surrounding the structure of our sport as it currently exists. This topic, which has actually garnered a sufficient amount of recent exposure, pertains to legitimacy of Division III College Ultimate.

At this time, DIII ultimate takes a back seat to the Division I game. Top tournaments that feature primarily DI teams are previewed, filmed, recapped, and scrutinized with regularity. The most notable example of this is the DI Championships, which features exposure from CBS Sports, relationships with various sponsors, and pay-to-watch coverage from NexGen. The DIII championships see far less attention.

Whether DIII ultimate actually needs legitimation is a question within itself. Similar to the purists who believe that the spirit of ultimate is lost in a shift toward professional leagues, many people hold that DIII ultimate is unique in its humbleness. While Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, and Oregon are generally recognized as powerhouses in the NCAA realm, DIII institutions such as Reed, Bowdoin, and Kenyon pride themselves on academics and a sense of community. Many DIII players don’t want the added responsibility of a varsity level commitment and, in fact, increased seriousness would only push these players away. Lower level DIIIs are often content to play Mixed up until the series and rarely hold scheduled practices. Still, it does appear that the large majority of the DIII community strives to be viewed in higher regard.

Many recent conversations have hypothesized how to structurally improve the DIII system. In an article for Skyd Magazine, Carleton GOP captains Rhys Lindmark and Scott Graber emphasize macro level DIII legitimation through efforts from USA Ultimate as well as DIIIs around the country to create conference-specific events. While these ideas are outstanding and would certainly make DIII ultimate more relevant at the highest level, they don’t tackle the greater issue with DIII culture. That is, it’s not the top-flight, Nationals level teams that hinder the DIII experience. It’s that they serve as a stark reminder of what the average DIII school is not, highlighting the prevailing mediocrity of the non-elite.

Take the suggestions to improve DIII Nationals and create a voting system for DIII-specific All-American awards. These ideas benefit the conference but only perpetuate the lack of parity that serves as its chief hindrance. In every DIII-centric published piece, the authors exclusively reference the same four to eight teams. These perennial Nationals squads and regular DI competitors would naturally appreciate and benefit from this top-down approach but what do the other 95% of small teams gain from this? Don’t these suggestions just shift us from a functional but flawed system with average Nationals exposure to a functional but flawed system with above-average Nationals exposure?

Isn’t it more important to have enough teams in a DIII region to host Regionals than to have a big blow-up arch at DIII Nationals? Shouldn’t there be more serious competition in the Great Lakes Region so that North Park can play a game closer than eight points leading up to the Championships?

Let’s consider a bottom-up approach: one that garners relevance and legitimacy through size and parity, one that expands the base and tackles the existing issues that hamper the DIII system. DIII captains need to actively take small personalized steps toward improving their specific programs. In doing so, teams will reinforce the ultimate in their conference, thus benefiting their region and strengthening the foundations of DIII as a system.

As a captain in the Metro East, I can attest that our DIII Region has done a fantastic job of advancement through personal accountability. Take Siena College SCUFF, a team that did not exist just a few seasons ago. By gathering a number of players passionate about Ultimate, recruiting well, and acquiring a former All-Region coach, SCUFF earned a 7th place finish at their first ever Regionals in 2012. SUNY Fredonia Terrifying Turtles were ranked as one of the worst teams in the country as recently as 2009. By playing together in the Club Series as well as in the AUDL for the Buffalo Hunters, Fredonia’s top players have them sitting as early Nationals favorites out of the Metro East.

In recent communication with John Korber (Connecticut Constitution GM and former all-region cutter for Tufts, among other accolades) about coaching opportunities, one theme continues to recur: growing our team into a program. There is less concern with perfecting a force-middle defense or crafting an offense that fits our playing style, and more focus on growing ultimate at Connecticut College. DIII teams need to take the steps to create an environment that fosters long term success.

Get the bulk of your roster to play summer league (if not club) over the summer, find a knowledgeable and disciplined coach, watch Worlds footage over team dinners, involve alumni to create a sense of family and legacy, reach out to high-school Ultimate teams, and promote team-centric propaganda (according to Lindmark, GOP runs on team chemistry).

These changes are cheap and easy to enact. They not only help your team grow internally, but at a small college lets the rest of campus experience your legitimacy. With legitimacy comes confidence as well as the all-important school allotted funds. I believe that if the bottom 50% of DIII teams actively pursued even half of these endeavors, the DIII game would be taken far more seriously. With additional relevance, fewer top teams would flee to pursue the DI path, bringing the system full circle: Lower level teams would improve their programs and elite teams would find worth in pursuing a DIII title.

I’m certainly not arguing for elite teams and events to take a backseat while the rest of the conference plays catch up. Would more serious Nationals investment improve DIII prestige? Absolutely. There’s something to be said about USAU’s interest in DIII advancement when they scarcely promote the event and place it (inconveniently, many argue) in a small town in Wisconsin. Furthermore, elite regional DIII tournaments will help foster rivalries and heated competition despite presenting some logistical (i.e, financial) issues if the scope of the events becomes too large.

A young endeavor, elite DIII Ultimate will become more popular and more tended to with time. USAU and other ultimate providers will put more resources into Nationals coverage and more tournaments like DIII Warmup and RPI’s D-1337 will support greater inter-conference play. Whether it’s in one, two, or five years, I expect top-tier DIII Ultimate to really explode.

However, if the DIII system wants to reach its full potential, it must start at the bottom. There will always be teams that lag behind. It’s unrealistic to think that a first or second year team can compete for even a spot at Regionals. In many ways this is why the DI-DIII program was created. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t be comfortable with the lack of parity in the conference. By strengthening the base, general competition will intensify and in due course people will start taking the currently underwhelming brand of Division III College ultimate more seriously.

  1. Jesse Moskowitz
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    Jesse Moskowitz is the DIII editor for Ultiworld. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he started playing Ultimate at the Bronx High School of Science in 2008. He captained Connecticut College Dasein and currently plays Mixed Club with 7 Express (NYC). You can reach him by email at jesse@movoli.com.

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