Jon Nethercutt has a chance to finish out an amazing 2015 with another piece of hardware.
September 28, 2015 by Simon Pollock in Profile with 5 comments
We say it all the time. Ultimate is at a crucial point in its development. For the real vets, the multi-decade Fools Fest and Poultry Days-ers, the game has transformed from a cultural outcast that scoffed openly at the conventions of high-tech athletic gear, refs (or even observers), and coaches. Despite its cult status as The Greatest Sport Ever Invented By Man, who among those first few generations of players would have expected ultimate to be on something called a livestream, owned and operated by ESPN?
Perhaps the biggest harbinger of our community’s changing identity is the advent of the bonafide ultimate star—the name that everyone on a high school or college team knows, the guy or gal that little kids wanna be like. The endorsement deals are coming along, slowly. The #SCTop10 play in the highlight reel is already there. Fans (read: younger players) flock to Club or Pro sidelines clutching event guides to match a face to a name and jersey number.
He may not have all the YouTube followers of a trick shot sensation, but Jonathan “Nutt” Nethercutt is well on his way towards that new-fangled stardom—if he hasn’t arrived already.
Two College Final appearances, one College Championship, a YCC Championship as a coach, a spot on the world champion US National U23 Mixed roster in 2015, and of course, a Callahan award. That’s a not-so-short list of accomplishments belonging to this 23-year-old player from Maury, North Carolina. He’s done all that in just under six years—and he isn’t stopping any time soon.
Throughout 2015, Nethercutt shared pieces of the story that’s brought him this far: to the top of the college game, the cusp of a national title in Club, and into the limelight of the sport. It’s easy to call this a storybook rise for both the player and the program, but had someone at UNC not plundered bandwith half a decade ago to upload some game footage, it may never have worked out this way.
He Could Have Been A Wildcat
There wasn’t a whole lot of ultimate available on the internet in 2010. There also weren’t a whole lot of high school seniors scouring YouTube for game tape to help inform their college decision.
With no real knowledge about how competitive the D-I Men’s division could be, a younger and less-bearded Jonathan Nethercutt needed something to help him pick between Davidson and UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I distinctly remember as a high school senior when I was trying to make my decision between going to Davidson and UNC, I knew ultimate was going to be something that I wanted to do in college,” the now 23 year-old Nethercutt said. “But I also had no idea to what extent ultimate existed in college—how competitive or organized it was.”
So much has changed for universities, colleges, and the respective teams and clubs in the digital age. Many searches for collegiate programs will now turn up a similar online profile—most teams have a Twitter account, Facebook page, and at least a rudimentary web presence that provides some history, tryout, and practice information. It’s wild to think that even five years ago, that kind of access to ultimate was reserved solely for either the most successful teams or those with the most resources—or teams that had a computer science major looking for a side project to pad their resume.
Nethercutt, prone to reflect deeply and carefully balance his opinions, had to dig hard for anything on ultimate at either school. He had found the sport at Governor’s School, a summer honors program he attended late in his high school career, and hoped to continue chasing plastic in college. After an amount of research that in hindsight is probably befitting of a man who now holds a B.A. in history, he found UNC Darkside.
“I was able to find some contact information for the club president at the time, and on YouTube there were six 15-minute videos that were all parts of games that I was able to watch. I remember being like, ‘Well if I want to play ultimate, UNC is the way to go because clearly their program is way ahead of Davidson’s,’” he explained.
So it goes.
It may not have been the final deciding factor for Nethercutt, but whether by higher calling or simply by a small need for a club sports outlet, he left the prospect of Davidson behind for Chapel Hill and never looked back.
A Very Special Incoming Class
In the spring of 2011, Nethercutt’s first postseason experience with Darkside ended with a fifth place finish at Carolina Conferences (then known as Sectionals). The four teams above them—UNC-Wilmington, East Carolina, South Carolina, and NC State—went on to Regionals. It’d be tough to call that result anything other than unremarkable, certainly not something that portended the high water marks of the last two seasons.1
Nethercutt himself was still on a multi-year journey to develop into the player he has become. “I came in as a kid who could throw a laser flick 65 yards, but that’s about all I could do,” he mused as he thought back to those first years. “I was athletic enough and had enough of a field sense from football that I was pretty good at chasing my guy around, but that’s about it.”
One of Nethercutt’s standout qualities as a player—and as a person—is his humility. Many of his memories about his development pay deference to those that have been there with him every step of the way, not the least of whom is North Carolina coach Mike Denardis. Still, maybe this didn’t stand out much to Nutt at the time, but put yourself in Denardis’ place: if a freshman who’s only played 15 v 15 pickup ultimate without boundaries or rules shows up with a 65 yard flick (laser or not), one might be forced to consider his potential.
Top college programs across the country have made hay for decades by turning top athletes estranged from their previous sports of choice—or those just enchanted by chasing plastic—into ultimate players, but the price has almost always been disc skills. It wasn’t that long ago that fans could count the top high school programs in the country on one hand—and those fans would’ve been deeply obsessed with the sport and its history. Even just five years ago, a rookie showing up to a first practice with some inherent feel for throwing a monster flick would have been a windfall for any coach.
“I could tell from day one that he could throw. He had a skillset that not many people possess. It was just a matter of matching that with athletic ability,” Denardis, a 20-year veteran of ultimate, explained.
It’s just Nethercutt’s nature to write off that natural affinity for throwing. His early memories of practice focus more on Denardis’ laying into him for bad defense. “I can’t count the number of times Mike D scolded me about getting beat deep; I probably got scored on a third of the points I played,” he said.
That’s where Nethercutt’s work ethic and humility start to blend together, in the moment when he downplays what most coaches would’ve been thrilled to see out of a freshman and instead fondly remembers how bad he was elsewhere on the field. It’s testament to the work he’s put in on the field and in the film room since, and a clear acknowledgment that none of this—the Championship, the Callahan, the coaching success—would have been possible without an immense mental and physical effort since those first days in Chapel Hill.
Denardis was there every step of the way, and was particularly hard on Nethercutt’s incoming class. He recalled more recent practices with Darkside, where players would occasionally complain about getting a lot more criticism than Nethercutt. “My immediate response is, ‘You have no idea how critical I was on him when he was younger,’” said Denardis. “I would say that I was hardest on his class because I saw the potential of them and he clearly became one of the leaders of that class. If you [had] asked me if he would have been [a Callahan winner] after freshman year, I would’ve said no.”
Improvement takes practice and repetition, and though ultimate continues to spread throughout the country, there remain only a few top locales that can give a player an unequaled amount of playing opportunity at a high level. North Carolina’s Triangle Area is one of them; Nethercutt was easily absorbed.
“I’ve certainly gotten better by a considerable margin thanks to great coaching from Mike D, and a lot of other older players on the club circuit on Ring and Cash Crop,” said Nethercutt. The addition of the AUDL franchise Raleigh Flyers (of which Denardis is both a coach and part owner) gave Nethercutt and his Triangle area compadres another top-level opportunity.
As coach, player, and owner, Denardis has become something of an ultimate patriarch in the Triangle. Nethercutt, Christian Johnson, and Ben Snell are just three of the recent high-profile products. Area high school programs feed into competitive YCC teams, Darkside presents a top-level college option which feeds into the Ring of Fire system, and now the Flyers season runs alongside the Club season. If Denardis doesn’t have a direct influence in coaching one of these programs, his players often do.
That system allowed Nethercutt to find another way to weave himself deeper into ultimate’s fabric: coaching.
The Coaching Perspective
In the fall of 2011, an email went out to the entire Darkside team from a mother of two students at Gravelly Hill Middle School, just 20 miles from Chapel Hill. The school was in need of a new coach for its ultimate team—leaving the post vacant would deny the team its upcoming season and rob her children of their chosen team sport.
Nethercutt said her call for a coach motivated him to give back, although he sensed a great opportunity for himself as a player and student of ultimate. “I think at some level I understood that coaching was not only a great way to give back, but also a great way to grow as a player in regards to the strategic and intellectual side of the game,” he said. And that was enough. He took the job, having never before been a captain or coach in ultimate.
Immediately, the task of coaching illuminated how much Nethercutt felt he still had to learn. His middle schoolers had no fear when it came to asking questions and as anyone who has coached or parented can attest, the incessant pressures of explaining the “whys” and “hows” piled into a steep learning curve. If his group had been any more experienced, Nethercutt feels they may have caught more of his first-season mistakes. “I was fortunate enough my first year to have a group of kids that weren’t extremely familiar with ultimate, so when I really screwed up trying to teach a concept it was (hopefully) harder for them to notice just due to lack of knowledge about ultimate on their part,” he admitted.
Nethercutt found himself digging even deeper into ultimate to learn more and give the skills he was teaching his middle schoolers a heavy dose of scrutiny. “Learning how to teach things, as well as taking the time to sit down and really take a look at the things I was teaching was a challenging process,” he said.
But challenges continued to be a form of motivation for Nethercutt, especially with Denardis continuing to bring down the hammer at Darkside practice on his talented sophomore group. In forcing himself to break the game down into simple, middle school athlete-appropriate concepts, he found a deeper understanding of concepts as a player.
There’s a cerebral nature to Nethercutt’s voice when he tackles the open-ended questions on coaching now, and it’s hinting at his insatiable appetite for more ultimate knowledge. That desire to know more in order to grow and improve is so often a fundamental characteristic in many of our greatest athletes. For most, innate talent only takes one so far. Dedication to the game carries us to the next level. Coaching only seems to have intensified Nethercutt’s commitment, allowing him to form a more comprehensive outlook on ultimate and propelling his own game towards new heights on the field. Perhaps most importantly, he’s kept an open mind throughout the entire process. “To this day, I still learn a little bit more about a concept every time I teach it and I grow a bit as a player and a coach each time,” he allowed.
That following summer of 2012, Nethercutt joined Triforce (the Triangle’s Youth Club Championships U19 team) as an assistant coach. Two summers later in 2014, with Nethercutt as head coach, Triforce won YCCs. It was mere months after Darkside had run out of gas against Jimmy Mickle and Colorado Mamabird in the final of College Championships. The victory with Triforce was sweet and further instructive for Nethercutt, who was still learning about the will to win.
“I was lucky enough to be able to coach a great group of YCC players that year on Triforce that ended up taking home the title and I think in winning that and losing in the finals of College there was a realization that there wasn’t a significant difference in my enjoyment of the experience as a whole whether we won or lost,” he said in reflection. The juxtaposition of those experiences—the process of working so hard in the college season only to fall short and then seeing a YCC season fall perfectly into place—had a profound effect on Nethercutt’s outlook. It helped him detach his love of the game from outcomes.
“I think I realized that the process that got us there was the real thing to be enjoyed, more so than where we finished,” he said.
Maybe that’s a little too zen-mastery for some, but successful leaderships echo similar sentiments across ultimate.2 In loving the process of learning the game and improving as a team, in trusting that hard work on the little pieces will produce big successes rather than the other way around, Nethercutt found success in both coaching and playing.
And Now for Frisco
Victory has become the new norm for Triangle Area ultimate in the last 13 months. Triforce started the trend with their 2014 YCC title, Darkside took home the College Championship in 2015, the Flyers reached the semis in their inaugural AUDL season, and Boneyard took home a title in Men’s Masters. Somehow in the middle of the summer, Nethercutt and a few fellow Darkside teammates found time to contribute to U23 World Championships on both the Mixed and Open teams. Winning is weaving itself even further into North Carolina’s ultimate culture.
Now deep into September, the Club Championships with Ring of Fire takes center stage. All the other distractions of college, pro, and international play are gone for Nethercutt as Ring gears back up to push even further than their raucous semifinal appearance in 2014.
He’s back on the field as a player only, as someone who Denardis believes thrives most when his entire team is succeeding. In that sense, Nethercutt fits as both a Callahan winner and just another committed teammate in the Ring system. “He’s certainly a person that is better around others and having people push with him than being on his own. He’s not Kobe Bryant, right?” Denardis said.
Nethercutt’s drive continues to be sourced in the teams and communities around him, whether it’s Ring striving to prove that they have accrued the talent necessary to win a Club title in 2015, Darkside building five long years under Denardis to winning their division this past May, or watching a group of middle schoolers become infused with their own passion for ultimate.
Of course, Nutt still wants this Club title. You could call it pulling a Jimmy Mickle (winning the Callahan award, the College National title, and the Club National title all in the same calendar year, something Mickle pulled off in 2014). The luster of winning gold in what Nethercutt and many others still believe to be the most competitive sphere for ultimate hasn’t worn off just because he’s taken home a title in three other divisions.
Asking him if the spotlight and successes of 2015 so far changes the value of finals win in Frisco brought an answer that echoed off the ambition at the center of his will to improve. “I don’t think anything has gotten watered down from all the winning. I think that is a change in mindset more than anything else,” he said.
In the depths of his reflection on his own play and coaching, in his deference to those that have taught and lead him along the way, it can be hard to brand an impression of Jon Nethercutt as a player questing for the top of the sport. It’s much easier to see him as a gracious, gregarious thinker who likes to be around his teammates and share in their success. Humility is rarely the chief personality trait in the stars at the top of other sports.
For Nethercutt, who has now had the weird experience of seeing himself in an ESPN highlight reel at a bar and watching his server recognize the guy ordering food as the same dude throwing dimes on TV, the spotlight doesn’t appear to have inflated his sense of self. If anything, he maintains some distance from conventional stardom.
He carries the desire differently than the archetypal star who’s boisterous and confident about the big game. It’s simmering somewhere underneath his calm attitude. But Denardis doesn’t doubt his desire at all. “I don’t have any doubt that [Nethercutt] wants to be one of the top players in the world and he’ll do the work to get there,” he said.
Even as the benchmarks of greatness change, as more top male players dedicate themselves to winning in the AUDL or MLU, it’s near impossible to shake the prestige of a title run in Frisco next week. Ring of Fire is as loaded as they’ve been in quite some time, though they’ve hardly played together as a full team.
At this point, Nethercutt is just excited to be a part of that team. After a long summer of winning, he’s regrouped and energized, ready to contribute as just one of the guys. “I think there has been a lot of hard work put in this season that deserves to be rewarded so my focus is on trying to do the things on and off the field that will help the team make a return on those investments,” he said.
Whether Ring of Fire’s run at Nationals gives births to new highlights and boo-filled games in bracket play or ends early, the focus on this rising star from North Carolina is not part of the narrative. It’ll just be about the thrill of being a good player on a good team.
That in itself may be the banner-worthy example a star should set for new fans and young players: On the brink of a Nationals appearance, the joy of competition and improving as a player will reign supreme.
Tiina Booth, lecturing about mental toughness, has talked about having her successful high school teams write down their outcome-based goals in the beginning of the season on index cards, and then ritualistically burning them in order to release them from the team’s general focus. ↩