Building A Beast: Hydra Finding Success Through Depth

The University of Virginia women enter 2017 looking to build off the most successful year of their program's history.

Virginia Hydra at the 2016 College Championships. Photo: Paul Andris —

This article is part of a series presented by VC Ultimate to spotlight teams and individuals shaping women’s ultimate. All opinions are those of the author; please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at VC Ultimate!

In 2015, at the apex of her college career, Alika Johnston spent most of her pre-Nationals Ultiworld interview trying to convince me that her team was much, much deeper than her own (considerable) skills. She was clearly a Callahan favorite, she was already one of Scandal’s star handlers, and she was one of the best players in the division. But she insisted that the spotlight was too focused on her. Virginia Hydra was a deep team, and their success didn’t depend on her talents alone.

I didn’t really hear her; nobody did. Johnston was mesmerizing to watch on the field, and she was skilled enough that it was easy for the media (read: Ultiworld) to train our attention and coverage on her influence.

Virginia Hydra would lose in the quarterfinals after a bout of food poisoning decimated their roster at Nationals. Johnston would go on to win the Callahan award, but Hydra’s title ambitions were dashed. For the the third straight year, they could not get over the hump and earn a spot in the semifinals. Losing one of the division’s biggest stars, Hydra’s future as an elite program seemed to be in doubt.

But only by us. Virginia Hydra knew all along what we only discovered last season: that they are perhaps the deepest team in the country. And that this depth — coupled with their remarkable discipline — would carry them further than Johnston’s throws or speed ever did.

The Many-Headed Monster

In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a many-headed serpentine monster. If anyone chopped off one of the Hydra’s heads, two more would grow back in its place. The Hydra couldn’t be killed by focusing on one head alone.

This mythology comes to mind when you watch Virginia’s women’s ultimate team. An opposing defense will try to choose a few Hydra players to shut down. They try to force errors by getting more aggressive on their marks or downfield. None of it works. Virginia works relentlessly, carefully, consciously through every woman on the field. They can’t be easily shut down because they’re multi-headed. If you shut down one player, four more appear in her place.

University of Virginia’s team name wasn’t exactly emblematic of the team’s character when it was founded in 1979. It was more prophetic. Virginia’s many-headed strength would only show much later. About six years ago — the timing shifts depending on who you ask — the team began to really focus on becoming better. They had conversations about team growth that was built upon improving individual skills. The team found coaches with elite backgrounds to add their expertise, including Scandal’s Opi Payne, Fury’s Manu Argilli, and their current coach David Allison. And the team had Alika Johnston.

Current captain Laura Landis remembers her first year on the team under Johnston’s leadership:

“[My first year was] when the intensity, buy-in, and the ‘Let’s make our team a really strong women’s team’ was happening. Alika brought the team up to the commitment and intensity level that we have now.”

The intensity showed in how their practices were structured, Johnston helping to build a culture of being present during drills and scrimmages. The team started setting process goals that helped them focus inward. Team members started thinking critically about how their individual efforts contributed to team and program growth.

“Alika used to just say, ‘just be present in the moment,'” senior captain Keila Strick remembers. The team mantra became discipline, process, and consistency.

“I think a big part of why our program is where it is now is because of what Alika did for us for four years,” Landis said. “Now we’re trying to continue that and continue what she taught us.”

When David Allison joined the team in 2011, he helped the team double down on their fundamentals. As a coach he is lovingly obsessive about the sport’s building blocks, and he gave the right tools to a Hydra team that was ready to work. He developed the set of plays that Virginia Hydra still uses today, creating a shared language that every woman on Hydra could understand and work with.

Allison gave Hydra the secret weapon for their depth: he gave them a system.

Systems Instead Of Stars

The nature of college ultimate is that players only have four, maybe five, years to shine. Despite this built-in expiration date, many college programs can’t help but rely heavily on the talents of their best players. These players get the most touches, they play on both O and D lines, and they can become the axis on which the team turns.

For four years, Virginia Hydra had one of the best players in the division. But the team didn’t bet all their chips on Johnston. They decided to build a different kind of culture:

“We should never be a team where if one person leaves, the team falls apart,” Coach Allison remembers the team deciding. “That’s not a team. Let’s be a team where we’re all together.”

And so, Virginia created systems instead. These systems are now the team’s backbone. These systems are designed to distribute responsibility on the field so that no one player can make or break a play. These systems are more than just offensive or defensive sets for Hydra, they shape how players talk about the team culture, their performance, and the team’s growth.

“We’ve had players come and go, as all teams do, but our systems have stayed pretty consistent,” Strick said. “Each year, the new leaders and the coaches gain a better understanding about how to present these systems to the team that allows us more time in the season to expand and master new aspects of the system.”

The system isn’t fancy. Hydra will rarely throw complicated zones or run nuanced set plays. Their weapon of choice is maddeningly patient, disciplined ultimate. They don’t panic in the red zone, they use their full 40 yards across the field, and they hit their open cutters. It sounds simple, but when the stall count climbs and options are limited, Hydra’s offense is a master class in calm.

Hydra still develops players into handling and cutting roles, but the distinctions aren’t limitations. Every woman on the field is capable of finding their best option downfield and connecting. At last year’s Nationals, Hydra was particularly lethal in zone offenses because teams couldn’t trap or fluster individual Virginia players. Cutters and handlers alike found open spaces to reset, and they would march onward.

Their discipline at the 2016 College Championships prompted me to call their offense demoralizing. I called it “boring.” Both terms were the highest form of compliment, and today Virginia players take pride in the description. They like being boring; boring wins games.

The Game to Define Them

There were plenty of reasons on paper that Virginia wasn’t supposed to beat Oregon in pool play at last season’s College Championships. Fugue were the tournament’s 1-seed, they had only lost three games in the regular season, and they were the defending national champions. And, well, they were Oregon.  They were a team of superstars. They were the dynasty.

Virginia was the 13-seed. They had a healthy dose of losses on their record, and they didn’t have any superstars. Their program’s biggest name had graduated the year before, with a Callahan award in tow.

But resumes don’t matter in the moment. None of the reasons above mattered when Virginia grabbed an early lead in the pool play game and none mattered when they broke to win, 16-14. Virginia played slow, methodical ultimate. Their maddening consistency frustrated Oregon’s defense — while Oregon fed on fire, Hydra gained strength from icy composure.

“That game epitomized Hydra,” Strick remembers. “It meant everything.”

It was more than an upset and more than a game. The game proved that Hydra didn’t need stars because they had a system. Their depth and consistency would carry them to semifinals, the furthest the team had gone in program history.

As Hydra walked to their next game, a Virginia alum ran after them, phone in hand. They had Johnston on the phone, calling from Senegal where she’s working in the Peace Corps. She had followed the last few points of the game on Twitter, watchingher former team play the best game of their lives. And she was calling to tell the team how proud she was.

“We were all huddled around this phone…” remembers Landis. “She was like, ‘I’m so proud of you guys, I’m so proud.’ She almost started crying, and we almost started crying. It was this really intense emotional crazy moment, it was like… She had passed on the team to us, and we had succeeded in doing what she taught us.”

The Future For Hydra

Despite graduating yet more big contributors like Becca Meeker and Janie Mockrish from the 2016 squad, Hydra has already shown their strength again this season. They reached the finals of Shootout 2016, losing to Texas Melee 12-14. They’re introducing rookies to their system, and they’re taking the season one day at a time.

The echos of their surprising run at Nationals should be a loud warning to every other team in the division: you can’t focus on shutting down just Keila Strick or Tess Warner or Brogan Jones. Hydra is a many-headed beast. You can’t take out just one.

  1. Katie Raynolds

    Katie Raynolds took a break from Seattle ultimate to test out the Midwestern scene, but now she's back in the Northwest to investigate this "bubble" she keeps hearing about. She played for Northwestern Gungho, two seasons with Chicago Nemesis, and now plays for Seattle Underground. Katie serves as Ultiworld's Women's D1 College Editor, and is damn proud to cover women's ultimate. You can reach her by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@kraynolds90).

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