BYU’s Big Day Opens New Questions About Postseason Accommodations

BYU head coach Bryce Merrill weighs in on the team's postseason hopes.

BYU CHIOn Friday at the Northwest Challenge, BYU finished a perfect 4-0 with wins over #11 UBC, #13 Victoria, #45 Brown, and #47 Whitman. BYU, the 19th ranked team in the country by USA Ultimate, currently sits just outside the cutoff for earning a strength bid for the Northwest region. Their performance today, pending a complete collapse on Saturday, has likely secured them a bid.

But BYU may not have a chance to win that bid at Regionals. The team, like all BYU collegiate sports teams, does not compete on Sundays, which has kept them out of meaningful postseason competition for decades in ultimate. They are unable to even play at Regionals.

Things are different this year, however, because, for the first time, the team is proving to be seriously competitive. I spoke to BYU head coach Bryce Merrill about the possibility of USA Ultimate finding a way to accommodate the team in the postseason.

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CE: Have you done enough at this point to show that you need accommodations to have a chance to play at the National Championships?

BM: That’s the million dollar question. I don’t know if we’ll be the ones qualified to answer it. If people aren’t interested in that, there are ways to marginalize every win we’ve had: it’s a Friday morning. UBC is interested in getting another strength bid for the Northwest. You could write off any win we’ve had. And we’ve got a lot of losses — we’ve got a dozen losses on the season and we’ve lost to a lot of bad teams. So I can’t blame people for saying it’s not real, those don’t count, or it’s not quite there yet.

It’s a hard question. At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of college ultimate this year. I’ve seen a lot of college ultimate this year and these guys can hang with the best. I say that as a homer a little bit, obviously, but they’re good — they’re athletic. And I know everyone deserves a chance but I feel like these guys have done what they need to do today. They’ve taken care of business today and that’s what we’ve asked them to do.

And this is your first win against a team against a team that’s ranked above you in your region, right?

Yea, we actually don’t square off against our region often, just because of Regionals and all that. When you guys put out the first power rankings, I don’t even think Washington knew we were in their region. They gave a shout out to Western Washington who was right ahead of us or below us, and said ‘hey, great to have another Northwest team!’ I don’t think they even knew! And I don’t blame them — we’re 14 hours away and in a different state.

I think that’s a general thing. We’re in the Big Sky Conference which does not produce semifinalists in our region. This is a chance for us to meet some people and meet some teams and have them get to know us a little bit.

When you look at the season as a whole and especially winning this game in the fashion that you did, you don’t feel like you deserve accommodations like any other team at BYU gets, in the NCAAs?

That’s a hard question: I’ve felt like that whether we were good or bad. I think it goes down to an equity policy that USAU has put out that specifically mentions religion. I think it goes down to the Civil Liberties Act of 1964 that says you don’t discriminate on these things, religion included. And those have been good enough for other BYU programs.

But we’ve seen it — we understand that it’s not Constitutional law, that ‘life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and a chance at Regionals’ is not listed in there. So I get where they’re coming from. I get why it’s a pain to accommodate us. I get the conflicts on Fridays or maybe reducing the number of games that you see at a Regional event or a National event.

Is it doable? Yea. I’m a homer, though: of course they deserve it. Of course these kids deserve it. I think there’s a little bit of tradition in the barriers people are talking about — ‘Oh, you have to do Saturday and Sunday. You’ve gotta have power pools and crossovers.’

I think there are a lot of realistic ways to work around that. You get the minds of USA Ultimate and the competition committees together; they’re going to fit that round peg in a square hole. It’s not rocket science. Whether we just say, ‘hey, we’ve had enough pool play: we call it the regular season. We don’t need to do pool play at Regionals; we’re just going to go straight to bracket play.’ Or maybe they say, ‘hey, we can do a couple games on Friday, a few games on Saturday. It doesn’t mess up too much scheduling there.’

I don’t know. Maybe they move us to a region that doesn’t mind all these crazy accommodations and say, ‘hey, fly out to Metro East and they get your second bid.’ Like, if we were to go to someone right now and say, ‘Hey, Southwest, you want a second bid? You have to let BYU in your region and it has to be Friday/Saturday.’ I think there are a lot of regions that would say, ‘yea, we’ll take it.’

I think right now, everyone’s been talking about —  does the Northwest get it or does the next [region] down get it? But no one ever mentions, does BYU get a chance at it? I think if you were to say ‘Friday/Saturday and three bids. Or Saturday/Sunday and two bids.’ I think that changes the conversation — everyone now has a dog in the fight and they say, ‘yea, we’ll take that third bid. We like that. We don’t mind missing that day of school on Friday.’ I think doors start to open up when they’re incentivized.

Have we even had the conversation yet: [what happens] if you earn a bid, which you are now in a position where that’s totally plausible? You just beat two top 50 teams this morning. UBC’s ranked 11th coming in, you beat them by three. These are wins, sitting at the cutoff, that are going to make a real difference. What happens in that situation: do you know? Does the bid stay in the Northwest, even though you may not be able to compete for it?

Yea, I emailed [USA Ultimate Manager of College Competition and Athlete Programs] Tom Manewitz and am waiting to hear back. And he’s been in communications, said, ‘Hey we’re talking about it. We’ll let you know.’ We don’t have that official word from them yet. Depending on what they say, we can accept it or say, ‘No let’s work on it again.’

I think there are two questions: there’s a question that says, ‘Hey, that tournament in four weeks? Can you move it up a day and can everyone change their hotels?’ That’s a tougher ask. And if they’re going to push back on us for that, I don’t know if I can be mad about that. At the same time, can we say — and as it’s done in a lot of other sports — you have until September 1st for the following year to say, ‘these are the accommodations we need,’ and we have a deadline and file for it, and then everyone gets eight months to plan it. That’s a second conversation.

I’d love to see them try to see if they can work something out for us to have a chance at it. But no word from USA Ultimate.

They wrote the specific rule — the one everyone’s been citing — you can’t start Regionals unless you finish Regionals. They wrote that in response to us, eight or nine years ago. I was with the women’s team that started the complaint.

It basically says you cannot start an event unless you plan on finishing it. That’s not fair. In my day, ten years ago, we’d go to Regionals Saturday, finish third in our pool, fourth in our pool. And so the crossover game Sunday morning was a bye. So now here’s a team that incentivized to finish third in their pool instead of second because they get a free bye game Sunday morning and an automatic advancement in prequarters. So they came out and said ‘we’re not doing that anymore. That’s not fair to these teams.’

Basically blocking you from playing at Regionals at all.

Yes. And it was in specific response.

There can only be one or two other schools in the country that have your simliar policy, if that.

If that. I think people keep trying to cite a couple other schools. I don’t even know if they’ve ever turned in a roster. They are trying to make this a global thing: it’s a BYU thing. We’re the only ones that continually put in a team and continually have this issue.

What do you hope to see happen? And what are your team’s expectations now that you’re really putting yourself in a position to not just have a theoretical chance at deserving to have an opportunity to go for a bid, but now having beat a team that is probably going to get a bid? And you might earn one of your own. Does that change things? Does it change expectations for the team or do you still expect not to be able to compete at Regionals?

It sucks. It sucks. You know, we came in: we have always had the expectation that our season ends the first week of April. And so nothing has changed. This is not a surprise for us. So our guys this year were focused on coming to the Northwest and making it — we kept using the word “awkward.”

We wanted to make this a little bit awkward, to put a couple people in hot seats to have to have some tougher conversations. And I think we’ve done that. I’m proud of my guys for being awkward and getting out here and doing that.

So the expectation in terms of this season: we’re doing what we intended to do. If they make that accommodation for us, great. But I think that now the ball goes into my court. These guys have gone out and done what we asked them to do. And now it’s going to be my job to lobby USA Ultimate and to work with community leaders.

It’s a dream come true to have Rich Dana and Kyle Weisbrod and now you guys talking about this. That’s the next step: getting the right people in the room. Next it will be Tom Manewitz or USA Ultimate people — I don’t know who they’re going to have involved in this — but getting them involved. And ideally working with us and not against us. And, same thing, we’ve got to come out and we can’t sit here and say woe is us and this is so unfair and whine. We’ve got to bring stuff to the table too.

I’m confident now the expectation is that this conversation is going to happen and it’s going to be realistic and it’s going to be quick and it’s going to be clearly defined. I don’t think there’s this insurmountable — there’s nothing sacred about playing ultimate on Sundays. There’s nothing that is so important about that that it can’t be worked around. Whether it’s a Friday/Saturday, whether it’s a half-Friday and all day Saturday, whether it’s that we play our quarters Saturday night and our semis Monday morning. I mean, there’s options. There are options. And I think we’re selling ourselves and our community leaders short if we say ‘this is impossible.’

There’s too many smart people. They’ve worked a lot of other accommodations, they’ve worked a lot of other things, they’ve solved a lot tougher problems for this to be the one that they say, ‘this is impossible.’ I’m not going to buy that.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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