February 18, 2015 by Katie Raynolds in Profile with 15 comments
A month ago, an Ultiworld panel spoke in a podcast about women in Ultimate, women and the media, the future of ultimate. We wistfully wondered what women’s Ultimate could look like if girls grew up idolizing and learning from the top female stars instead of learning from the men’s game.
We had it wrong. That dream doesn’t exist in some nebulous future. It exists now. It is Jaclyn Verzuh.
Verzuh, a Seattle native, stands out on the U23 Worlds roster as the only high school player to make the Women’s team headed to London next summer. Last year, she was a force internationally with the US U19 team, fittingly catching the gold medal-clinching score. In 2015, she is joining a bevy of women who have already made names for themselves at the elite college — and, for some, club — level. Is she nervous? Yes. But is she ready? Definitely.
A New Kind of Player
Skying Gwen Ambler is not a bad way to start your Ultimate career. For most of us, it would be remembered as a lifetime achievement to best one of the top women’s players in the history of the game. Verzuh checked it off the list when she wasn’t old enough to drive.
Verzuh represents a growing influx of young players who come to Ultimate after playing other sports at the varsity level. These “rookies” already have incredible athleticism and field awareness before they’re able to throw a flick. When Verzuh discovered Ultimate, she was already playing soccer, softball, and basketball.
It’s possible her competitive background helped her pick up Ultimate faster; she already understands the mentality necessary to push yourself during a game. It’s also possible Verzuh’s character alone sets her apart: her methodical, observant, and intelligent approach to every detail of the game.
At over six feet tall, she’s physically gifted as well. She has been dominating high school ultimate for years with great field sense, throws, and big play ability.
Whatever it is, she differentiated herself early. Verzuh was invited to play with the Seattle Fryz just before high school. Fryz founder Randy Lim vividly remembers her first tryout.
“We were impressed by her skill and athletic ability; she had no fear of laying out for discs,” he said. “Her athleticism, attitude and desire to learn and grow had us wanting more.”
For Verzuh, the tryout was a first glimpse at what competitive Ultimate could look like.
“[Being invited to play with the Fryz] was really exciting,” Verzuh recalls. “When I started to see what youth competition could be – playing at a higher level – that was a really big moment for me. I think that’s when I started to fall in love with the sport.”
Mastering the physical nuances of the game takes years of practice, but understanding the emotional side of Ultimate can take even longer. Some players never reach full potential because of their mental game.
Despite being the youngest player on the U23 team, Verzuh’s most striking quality is her maturity. She dissects her mental game the way a seasoned veteran would, with years of hard losses and harder-earned wins under their belt.
When asked about how she conquers nerves – an inevitable force on the international stage – Verzuh replied: “Whenever I feel nervous, I think about what I’ve personally done to prepare for the game. I think about all the times I’ve been on the track, or on the stairs, or at practice where we’ve had just one more sprint set. I think about what I’ve done, and that gives me confidence.”
“Then I think about what my teammates have done, and I think about working hard for them. My teammates are working hard, so I need to keep working hard.”
Her playing style is defined by this mentality. She is tall, strong, and a talented thrower, but she claims victories with her mental game.
“When I get on the field, it’s an opportunity. I use every second of it. I think one of my strengths is continued, almost relentless playing. Maybe not always the fastest, but always working the hardest. Always running.”
Leading by Example
Verzuh became captain of Fryz when she was a sophomore in high school. Despite looking up to her former captain, Nina Finley (the youngest player on the 2010 WJUC team, 2012 WJUC), her leadership doesn’t match Finley’s style. Where Finley is animated and high-energy, Verzuh quietly leads by example.
Sarah “Surge” Griffith, a longtime Riot star and Verzuh’s Fryz coach, outlined Jaclyn’s growth as a leader.
“As she’s matured, she’s still an incredibly humble, put-your-head-down-and-work kind of player, but she’s become more articulate and confident in communicating with teammates, mentoring younger players, sharing ideas about her vision for the team, and taking on an active role in community-building,” she said.
Most players would be honored to be called just one of the names Griffith used for Verzuh during our conversation, from “insatiable learner” to “mental rock.”
The qualities Griffith sees in Verzuh are the qualities we should be looking for in every Ultimate player. We talk about controlling the destiny of our sport on a larger national scale, but we can control it on a small scale, too. We can be better athletes, we can be better leaders, and we can pass along what we know and love to another generation. Verzuh’s generation.
A New Kind of Game
Like many players, Jaclyn has ambitious hopes for the future of women’s Ultimate.
She hopes we’ll be able to make our own story as a sport instead of following other sports’ examples, gender inequities included. She’s a budding advocate for thoughtful growth, not just growth for growth’s sake. It’s possible to keep the best aspects of our culture while expanding Ultimate’s reach… and it’s also possible to lose them.
She doesn’t know what college team she’ll be joining yet, but her matriculation will have big implications for the 2016 season. She will be the frontrunner for freshman of the year and it won’t be long after before she’s discussed as a player of the year candidate. Despite the uncertainty about college, when asked what her dream is, she’s sure: “Play on [Seattle] Riot. That is my biggest goal, ever since I was a little kid and had Riot players as coaches…It’s always been my team.”
No matter what team Jaclyn Verzuh plays for, in college or in club, she represents a new generation of female players. She is one of the best in her class and among the elite youth women’s players, but she’s not alone. And that’s a good thing for all of us.
Pay attention next summer when the U23 team heads to London. Keep your ears perked and your eyes peeled for the name Verzuh on Twitter feeds and in tournament recaps going forward.
Because the future of women’s ultimate isn’t hazy or unknown. It’s here, and it’s bright.