My Four Years At BYU As A Non-Mormon Player

A retrospective of BYU ultimate.


This post was submitted by Marcus Awakuni.

My college experience was unusual to say the least. In 2009, I transferred from Bucknell University, the 3500 student Greek-centric liberal arts school in rural Pennsylvania, to the massive Mormon flagship university in Utah, Brigham Young University. My freshman year experience was defined by two things–academics and ultimate. I didn’t drink and didn’t party, so I focused solely on maintaining a high grade point average and improving my low release forehand.

During my college ultimate career prior to transferring to BYU, I was no stranger to stiff competition and high quality ultimate. I played for the Bucknell Mudsharks with Jeff Wodatch (now of DC Truck Stop) as my captain. We played teams like Pitt, Cornell, and Michigan State, all of which had solid ultimate programs at the time. Consequently, when I transferred to BYU, I was surprised to see the lack of quality of our opponents, especially given that BYU had a highly skilled core team of players. We would routinely rout our competition with shutout losses, and it would not be surprising for us to have a point differential of +40 to +50 for our four Saturday games.

I always believed that if BYU was ever given the chance to compete at a higher level, the team would rise to the occasion. We had our first opportunity for better competition at the Sean Ryan Memorial Tournament in the fall of 2010 when our captain at the time, Scott Cochran, negotiated to acquire three Saturday games for us. As a team of highly competitive individuals, we always hungered for a taste of high quality competition, even at the risk of embarrassment. At this tournament in Santa Cruz, we had the toughest lineup that we had ever faced up to that point in BYU history: UCSB Black Tide, Cal UGMO, and Sonoma State. The first half of the first game corroborated my inclination that we could hang with the best of them. We took half handily against UCSB 8-4, and we subsequently won the game 15-11. We proceeded to win our games against Cal (15-8) and Sonoma State (15-5).

Our next opportunity at a big game happened serendipitously when the Whitman Sweets–led by Jeremy Norden, Ben McGinn, and Jacob Janin–joined our section for the 2011-12 season. Although we weren’t allowed to advance to Regionals due to our Saturday-only play, we were excited to face Whitman as our first game Saturday morning at Sectionals 2012. The game was pretty even throughout, until Whitman proved that they were simply more experienced in higher pressure situations against good teams and pulled out the win, 11-13. In spite of our loss, we were still thrilled that we could finally compete against a solid team that could give us a tough game.

This was the first step in convincing ourselves that we could actually compete at a high level. The next step was to create a legitimate program. Bryce Merrill stepped in as head coach during my fifth and final year of college ultimate. Bryce brought a level of professionalism and discipline that that we had been lacking up to that point, as well as a new motto: “Competition, Humility, Integrity,” which subsequently became our team name, “CHI.” The biggest asset that Bryce brought to BYU Ultimate was his diplomatic approach with other teams and tournament directors to get us the best quality competition that we could face. At Trouble in Vegas 2013, we had a chance to play against Florida, who was ranked #12 at the time. This was the most exhilarating loss of my career as Florida took the game on double game point, 11-12, after we blew a 11-10 lead. Nevertheless, I was excited to even say that I stepped on the same field as Florida, let alone give them a competitive match.

Do I ever regret playing on a team that would disallow me from playing on Sundays? No. Of course, I could’ve joined the teams of other local universities, but I could not relinquish the camaraderie that was present in the BYU community.

Could we have made it to Nationals during my time at BYU if we had been given the chance? The question always haunted me. As a highly competitive individual, I always had a difficult time swallowing the pollyannic pill that “we’re happy playing for the love of the game.” I can never know whether our team could’ve made it to Nationals, but now, looking back on my experience, I’m glad that things played out how they did.

In the three years since my graduation, I have watched BYU evolve from a collection of skilled individuals who would eviscerate the local competition to a highly disciplined and fundamentally driven unit who is able to step on the field against any college ultimate team in the country. As I watched BYU take on and defeat Washington at the Northwest Challenge this weekend1, I took a second to realize how far we have come as a program.

As a final note, this article is not meant to be a plea for changing the structure of college ultimate to accommodate my alma mater to have a shot at Nationals. If that happens, cool; if not, fair enough. This is simply written to delineate the journey that BYU Ultimate has taken over the past decade to become the program that it is and to express my deep gratitude for the ultimate community for coming to acknowledge the legitimacy of our program.

  1. Editor’s Note: This game is available to watch in the Ultiworld Video Subscription

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