Finishing What We Started: How Central Florida Built One of the Country’s Top Teams

A senior class led by Brock, Williams, and Wood look to complete the Sirens rise from a six person team to National Champion in only seven years.

Central Florida's Shayna Brock celebrates a goal in the Florida Winter Classic Finals. Photo: Billy Dzwonkowski --
Central Florida’s Shayna Brock celebrates a goal in the Florida Winter Classic finals. Photo: Billy Dzwonkowski —

For the second time in three years, the Central Florida Sirens are a top four seed heading into Nationals. Led by the likes of Shayna Brock, Janina Freystaetter, Stephanie “Eli” Williams, and Alexa Wood, the team has gone 37-6 this season and won Florida Winter Classic, Queen City Tuneup, Florida Conference Championship, and Southeast Regionals, going undefeated at each of them. Even when not walking way with a tournament title, the results have been impressive for this year’s squad; at the Stanford Invite, the Sirens registered victories over two of the teams seeded ahead of them in Raleigh, as well as the #5 overall seed, who Central Florida will face in pool play on Friday.

The team has been defined by its small rotation of all-star caliber players, its uniquely smothering zone defense, and a visceral, competitive desire to win that has trickled from the very top of the program down. As can be seen in their results, the Sirens have largely benefited from their small rotation strategy, allowing the team to play with a confident chemistry fostered from the top players knowing they will be on the line for virtually every point. It has also allowed the team to develop an on-field rapport and understanding that is not seen in many teams in college women’s ultimate.

The Sirens now look to cap off their great season with more success in Raleigh. The team has its sights set on winning the program’s first national title and the group all seem to truly believe they will accomplish just that. The build-up to this moment, though, started much farther back than the beginning of this season.

The Start of a Program

Considering their constant presence at the College Championships the last four years, it is easy to forget that the Central Florida Sirens are still a very young program — the team is in just its seventh year of official existence. In the club’s first year in 2009, there were just six consistent members, and it did not attend any sanctioned tournaments. Few who participated in that inaugural season could have foreseen that the Sirens would become one of the elite programs in the division, defying the expectations of the rest of the country along the way.

One of the most productive moments for UCF as a program came very near the beginning the team’s creation. After struggling through their first year with only six players at practices, Tina Hierholzer – Mama Tina, as she is known to her teammates – went on the recruiting trail to try to attract enough women to form a real team. In addition to messaging so many people on Facebook in search of new players that she got temporarily suspended from the social network, Hierholzer also contacted Joe Tilley about being the team’s coach.

Tilley had played on the UCF men’s team as a grad student and brought both a high ultimate acumen and intense level of competitiveness to the helm of the program. That competitiveness, which has become such a defining characteristic of the Sirens program, was not immediately and wholly accepted by the team in its first couple of seasons.

“I used to always tell them, from very early on, that if you want to win a national championship, you have to start now; you can’t just think from year to year,” said Tilley. “So from the very beginning I wanted to get the most out of everyone that played and I wanted to make sure that everybody understood that playing time was a privilege and that everyone should be working.”

“The first thing I had trouble dealing with was I just felt like everybody wasn’t willing to work hard… The culture in ultimate was very different [from other sports] and I — from very early on — wanted to change that culture,” Tilley went on. “I told them, ‘I’m doing this to help you guys out. If you don’t want to go down this road, that’s fine, you’re not going to hurt my feelings, we can get you another coach.’”

Tilley initially had problems specifically with three year captain Mariel Hammond, who was seeking the best way to shift an entire team’s ethos without alienating too many of them right away and returning to the days of not having enough players to practice. “I think Tilley and I needed time to respect each other’s coaching styles,” said Hammond. “As a captain, I had to do my best to run the team and take into account the way the girls were feeling about certain things. You have to remember I was taking over a team who was not used winning and maybe did not make it our first priority. There was a transition period from ‘we want to have fun’ to ‘take this seriously, work out, and practice a lot.’”

The team’s first couple of years were spent at less competitive tournaments like Mardi Gras and College Southerns, and the team was happy just to make the regional tournament. Eventually though, the competiveness of the girls who stuck around began to show and invitations to more competitive tournaments like Centex and Midwest Throwdown began to elicit the drive to be better, compete with the best teams in the country, and “take a stab at Nationals,” as former star Sunny Harris put it.

Once the team had experienced some success, Tilley explained, they began to buy into his vision. “Once everyone was on the same page it helped,” explained Hammond. “I think there was a good push-and-pull there and it turned into mutual respect.”

The Build Towards Nationals

The third year of the program was when the momentum truly began to build. That year – the spring of 2012 – the team was able to split into A and B teams for the first time, which Tilley, Hammond, and Harris all credited as being a key moment for the progress of the younger players as well as the top players on the A team.

That year was also the first year that the team’s goal matched their coach’s goal: qualifying for Nationals. And it looked like they finally might do it. After positioning themselves as the best team in the Southeast, Central Florida was widely considered the favorite to win at 2012 Southeast Regionals. However, they lost a dramatic game to Georgia in the semifinals in a one-bid region, with no second chance at achieving their goal. The team may have come up short that season, but that Georgia game became a real turning point for the program.

The Sirens entered 2013 motivated by the previous season’s bitter defeat, but also benefited from an influx of three key freshmen: Brock, Williams, and Wood. All three were immediate contributors on the A team and now form the spine of the current squad. That freshman class also included Nicole Feldman, who may not have made such a dramatic entrance, but who has become a reliable veteran presence for the current team.

“Eli was throwing on a line, reaching over the line to catch discs. Alexa was so fast. And Shayna listened to direction so well,” said Tilley of his current senior class, “So I knew I had three very special players from the very beginning.”

Hammond and Harris saw the same thing from the three standout rookies. “I saw a lot of myself in Shayna and a lot of Eli in Sunny,” said Hammond. “When they were younger, their roles weren’t as structured as they are now… but yeah, I definitely knew they were going to be ballers.”

“Alexa obviously has always been a huge player on offense,” said Harris. “She’s so fast that it doesn’t really matter what she does — she’s quick enough to make up for anything. She’s always been pretty up there in terms of needing her on the field. Even her freshman year, we saw it right away.”

In that 2013 season, which was the year the team truly, finally bought all the way in to Tilley’s vision, the team met its goal of qualifying for Nationals for the first time. With a 13-5 victory over Florida in the second place game of Southeast Regionals, the Sirens locked up their first trip to the big dance. The final point of that game featured all of their rookies, with Brock, Williams, Wood, and Feldman all on the line together. Brock wound up cleaning up on a huck into traffic to catch the score to send her team to Nationals.

The team finished tied for 17th in Madison that year after entering as the 15th seed. “Obviously we wanted to win Nationals, but we kind of knew it wasn’t really in the cards for us that year,” Hammond explained. “We were just really happy to have finally made it, especially from the massive heartbreak the year before.”

The Breakout Year

The ensuing season, though, the team knew right away that they had the potential to be something special. “I knew that that team had a lot of talent; that was the first year I thought they could actually win it,” said Tilley.

“Oh we knew,” Hammond elaborated. “We knew the whole year that we were good. [We had] a sly confidence.”

Southeast Regionals - UCF
UCF Sirens 2014. Photo by Daniel Brooks —

The Sirens rode that confidence all the way to being the third overall seed at Nationals. A mix of veterans, led by the fifth year players Hammond and Harris, supported by the budding role players that had been impressive freshmen the year before, made it all the way to semifinals of the College Championships in what was just the program’s fifth year of existence. Hammond and Harris established themselves as two of the best players in the college division and the team was yards away from playing in the National Championship game. They had put UCF on the map.

That semis game famously did not end in the Sirens’ favor1, but it had a profound influence on the players who would become the team’s core over the next couple of seasons. “Something in that semis game did something to me, because ever since I played in that game I just never wanted to stop, being in the limelight like that, feeling like you’re playing a professional sport in a stadium in front of crowd,” explained Brock.

“It was so surreal and truly an unforgettable experience,” she continued. “Even when our seniors were crying because it was their last game and it was super emotional, it felt kind of blissful, because we were living in the moment and I knew… it would be really hard to get to that spot again.”

The Regime Change

That game marked the end for the first generation of Sirens players. Hammond and Harris and the other players who had been there since the beginning were gone. But in spite of the loss of those players, it took the Sirens just one rebuilding year to put themselves back in a position where they could potentially get to that spot again. Even in that rebuilding year last season, Central Florida defied the expectations of many who foreaw the program falling back to earth after losing such talented veterans.

“The funny thing is, a lot of people were doubting us the following year after Sunny and Mariel left,” said Tilley. “Everybody was saying, ‘You guys are going to be horrible,’ and I was like, ‘We’re going to be okay,’ and I felt like people were mocking me for saying that, and I was like, ‘you guys watch.’”

Tilley, of course, ended up being correct as the team qualified for Nationals for a third consecutive year and finished tied for 13th – not bad for a rebuilding team that had just lost the most influential players of its program’s short history.

Last year was also instrumental in shaping the current team. The young, budding core of Brock, Williams, and Wood became the veterans of the team and were thrust into leadership roles. But perhaps most importantly, another big freshman class came into the fold. Freystaetter and Mia Griner are the headliners of that group of now-second year players, but Chloe Baldino has developed into a dependable and important role player as part of that rookie class as well.

Truthfully, each of the past six seasons have contributed in different ways to forming this current Sirens squad. Those early years led to the vaunted UCF zone being implemented and slowly tweaked to where it is now. The first generation of stars gave the younger players a “solid base,” as Harris described it, of players to learn from and model their game after. Those first Nationals teams also demonstrated to the younger players how to go about making Nationals and how to compete with the best once they get there.

The Current Team

Of course, the team has benefited from a supply of high-level athletes over the last handful of years, too. Brock played ten years of soccer and ran track in high school; Wood was offered a track scholarship out of high school; Williams was a star flag football quarterback; Freystaetter played just about every sport there is, from basketball to water polo. So there has been an impressive flow of highly competitive athletes into the program, but it is still Tilley’s competitiveness and strategy that has set the tone to get the most out of those players as individuals and as a team.

UCF's Janina Freystaetter. Photo: Jolie Lang --
UCF’s Janina Freystaetter. Photo: Jolie Lang —

Tilley has found spots for each of them with his vision of where each player will play best and with a bit of tinkering from that starting point. Brock, the do-everything athlete who has developed into a dominant handler capable of taking over any given point in a game. Wood, the impossibly fast cutter who seems to know no bounds of endurance. Williams, the team quarterback who slices open defenses with her incisive, downfield throws. Freystaetter, the monster athlete with impressive body control who has developed the throws and game awareness to match her physical tools. Griner, the secondary downfield option and well-rounded offensive cog. All of these stars, surrounded by important role players as well.

Baldino has provided needed height to the front of the team’s zone and has become a solid role player on both sides of the disc. The Sirens added FSU grad transfer Gentry Maddox, who has fit into the team almost immediately with her ability to find open space on offense, read the disc well, and rack up blocks from the hammer spot in the zone. Freshman Sarah Gifford has also grown tremendously over the course of the season to become a dependable player in the back of the rotation.

It may not be the deepest roster headed to Raleigh, but it would be difficult to find another that trusts each other as much or knows their roles as well at these Sirens.

Apart from the addition of a couple of strong players and the continued improvement of the team’s core, the team has also found a more clear, collective team vision than a year ago, thanks largely in part to Tilley’s prodding. “After [Florida Winter Classic] we all kind of saw, because we all doubted that we could do it — compete and win nationals [with so few players on the team],” said Freystaetter.

“After FWC, we all just kind of clicked and we all saw how it was working and I think we finally all believed that we could do it,” she continued. “Tilley did it. Tilley had the dream and he got us all to believe it and now we’re here. Last year, we didn’t have that.”

Tilley thinks so highly of this current group, in fact, that he believes it to be better than the one from two years ago. “That semifinals team two years ago had more depth, but I think our team this year is better,” he said. “They just work better as a team, whereas that team in 2014 really relied on Sunny and Mariel a lot more.”

Tilley offered another difference between this year’s team and the one from two seasons ago. “One thing that this team does really, really well is they’re able to play hard and at a high level consistently and sustain it for a while. That team in 2014 didn’t do that. They had these peaks and valleys. They had these hard couple points and then they kind of relaxed.”

The older generation may disagree. Harris certainly does, though she laughs when saying she thinks her squad would best this year’s group. “That’s just me being competitive and knowing how good our team was,” she explained. But both Harris and Hammond feel that this team is capable of winning it all this weekend, of “finishing what we started,” as Hammond put it.

The 2016 Sirens will have the opportunity of proving just that in Raleigh. The primary talking point on this team all year has been their lack of numbers, and for fair reason. But that talk has slightly overshadowed how talented those players are.

And this year, unlike two years ago, the team is led by players who have made that march before. Of course, the field is completely different this year – and perhaps a bit deeper and more competitive at the top than the field was two years ago. But UCF has to feel it is in as good a position to leave Raleigh as national champions as any other team it will be competing against this weekend.

It may be only seven years, but the history of the program has been building toward this tournament. Under the tutelage and lead example of Tilley, the team has grown over the years to where it is now – a legitimate Nationals contender for the second time in three years. Since he became the coach of the Sirens in 2010, he has had his sights on winning a national title. This may be the best chance he and the program have had of accomplishing that feat, and it may be the best shot that they will have for a sometime.

Then again, people have said that before, but the Sirens just keep winning.

  1. Central Florida lost to Oregon Fugue in what may have been the game of the tournament; in a tightly fought battle throughout, the Sirens surrendered a 10-8 lead before losing on double game point, 15-14. 

  1. Daniel Prentice

    Daniel Prentice is a Senior Staff Writer at Ultiworld. Daniel is a product of the Tallahassee ultimate community and has been writing for Ultiworld since 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @danielprent and email him at [email protected].

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