With one eye trained squarely on the future, Georgia Tech's present is focused on both competition and development.
March 2, 2017 by Daniel Prentice in Profile with 0 comments
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Over the years in the Southeast, teams have risen and fallen as strong classes have come and gone. But there has never been a true power program that has been at the top for a significant, sustained time.
Enter Georgia Tech Wreck, a team very much on the rise. For the past several years, Wreck’s team culture has centered on inclusion and valued having fun above all else. Now, they’re also starting to win.
Over the last four seasons, Tech has exhibited continuous improvement — finishing second to last, seventh overall, fifth, and then second at Southeast Regionals in 2016. Wreck has been a top 25 team in 2017, and qualifying for their first modern Nationals1 is very much in the picture. Georgia Tech is just now beginning to crack the landscape of national relevance as a program.
They’ve built that program from the ground up, through the detailed planning of a unique program architect and the dedication of three primary team builders. Here’s how they’ve done it.
Five years ago, head coach Maddy Frey inherited a program that had been in a state of flux since its inception. Coaches lasted no more than a season or two, few players regularly attended practice, and even fewer were making the effort to become elite ultimate players. Georgia Tech had all the usual symptoms that plague programs in their infancy.
Stability is often all a program really needs to get going. Frey, now in her fifth season at the helm, brought that and more. Frey didn’t have any real coaching experience when she took over in the spring of 2013, but she played for Seattle Riot and Atlanta Ozone for a number of seasons prior to starting her coaching career. This high-level experience, combined with a unique philosophy that has defined her coaching style, has been invaluable to Wreck’s progression as a program.
Frey’s coaching ideology is defined by a number of mottos and slogans that she uses to mold her players’ mentalities on the field.
Motto 1: “Make Your Teammates Look Good”
“Sure you could muscle that huck to someone in the endzone who’s kind of open, but that’s not really making your teammates look good,” says Frey. “Making your teammates look good is hitting the first open person, and clearing so someone else can occupy that space.”
It’s a philosophy of selflessness that has really resonated for Georgia Tech. The team’s ace handler, Ashley Brown, absolutely epitomizes this. She has virtually every throw in her arsenal, but always aims to make the smart, safe play. Star freshman Ollie Peterson, too, fits that mold to a tee; it’s clear when watching her that she has an innate ability to dominate games, but she harnesses that ability into playing sound in her role.
“That’s something people really bought into, because I think women in particular have a hard time being competitive, and so that’s something that helps them be competitive,” Frey explains. “You’re allowed to try hard, especially when it’s helping each other look good.”
Motto 2: “Take Care of Each Other”
Frey stresses her players’ responsibility to “Take Care of Each Other.” This involves hug circles before games and “the stupid stuff,” like making sure players have their sunscreen and water. According to Frey, focusing externally on each other fosters the mentality that the entire collection of teammates is more important than any individual.
This philosophy of picking each other up also keeps everyone loose, which Frey believes is the most important thing her team can do — it was the biggest philosophical takeaway from her own playing days.
“Probably the number one thing I can do as a coach is figure out a way to get my team to play loose all the time,” she says. So she emphasizes the enjoyment of every moment in a tournament or in a game, reminding the team to not take the moment too seriously and to have fun above everything else.
To watch Wreck play is to see this maxim in action. They’re always relaxed, they’re always smiling, laughing, and having fun, and also always in the moment. The benefits of that philosophy were never more evident than against Florida in the semis at Southeast Regionals last spring. Tech kept happily chugging along while Florida became more and more frustrated by their growing deficit. Tech nonchalantly fought their way to the biggest win in recent history.
It may seem a bit simplistic, but for Georgia Tech, it’s an important part of their culture and their success.
Motto 3: “Just This Point”
Chief among Frey’s slogans is “Just This Point” — more commonly referred to as JTP by the Wreck players.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re down 8-1 or up 10-4, we play just this point,” Frey explains.
The doctrine was borne from Frey’s first tournaments in charge. Players kept asking her for the score, and she thought, They don’t need to know the score; every point matters. So she just stopped telling them. A few tournaments later, the team stopped asking and stopped caring whether or not they were winning or losing.
Frey remembers a particular game when an opposing player asked a Georgia Tech player for the score. The Georgia Tech player replied that, “Wreck doesn’t keep score.” When the opposing player sought the score from someone else, the next Wreck player covered her ears and sang loudly, “Lah, lah, lah, no I don’t want to know!” Frey laughs telling the story, but it’s also one of her prouder — and funnier — moments as a coach.
Wreck has so bought into JTP that when they won their section for the first time in 2016, a good chunk of the team wasn’t even aware of their achievement. Huddling after the game, Frey asked the group who knew that they’d just won to raise their hands — only half the huddle raised a hand.
Frey’s philosophies have framed the Georgia Tech program over the last five years. But she also gives a lot of credit to other coaches: Alison Douglas, her assistant coach for her first two seasons; Anna McKee, assistant coach now in her third season; and Richard Bragg, in his first season as assistant coach. But Frey will be the first to say that the women who have been most responsible for getting Wreck to where they are now are the players.
Brown, Taylor Hartman, and Julia Ting joined Wreck as freshmen the year that Frey became the team’s head coach. They all credit Frey for building the program as much as she credits them, but it’s clear that this venerable triumvirate have had as much influence on the team as their coach has over the last five years. Great players have come through Georgia Tech over the years, but few have connected with their peers with a common goal so clear and focused.
This trio have been the ones on the ground, so to speak, supporting Frey’s plan to ensure Wreck’s growth. In their early years they worked at recruiting and player retention. As veteran captains, they’re focused on development for the future, a priority that prompted the creation of team office hours, meant to help younger players develop outside of practice. Brown, Hartman, and Ting have planned and paved every step Wreck has taken on the road to becoming a successful program.
Every program in the country sees players come in and work hard to improve their own game. Brown, Hartman, and Ting have all done that, but they’re driven more by their desire to grow a program, rather than trying to maximize their own successes.
For Wreck, that means making sure that every player feels welcome and, more importantly, feels useful. “We’ve always been a team where it’s like, come as you are, you will be included,” says Hartman. “You will be used, and you will be useful to the team. We’ve always used everybody that comes, and we’ve always played every single person.”
Hartman is a living example of this philosophy. She joined the team as a freshman never having played sports before, and today she’s one of the most athletic and best all-around players in the Southeast region.
Ting points out that it’s not an entirely selfless endeavor to focus on the younger players. “For me, playing frisbee, there’s a lot of joy in chasing a plastic disc. But the real joy is who you’re doing it with and how you’re doing it,” she explains. “Having a culture of openness and a growth mindset, and everyone [buying] in and everyone [being] important, creates this really, really fundamental layer of trust. And when you want to develop a culture like that, you can’t just emphasize one generation. When you want to develop a culture like that, you have to emphasize growth and buy into the rookies, and have the rookies buy into you.”
In Ting’s eyes, every player on the team makes a difference, and she feels that’s what makes Wreck a unique program. “Every single person’s attitude counts,” she says. “Emma [Pettit] bringing water or [Megan] Ramsey being relentlessly positive are just as important to the team being successful as the players making plays on the field.”
She elaborates, “I want everyone on the team to know how important they are. One toxic attitude makes a huge difference and one positive attitude makes a huge difference, conversely. That sort of culture really makes Wreck.”
In a lot of ways, Brown, Hartman, and Ting were all the perfect players at the right time for the program. Their personalities complement each other well — Ting is the emotional, concerned team mom, Hartman the fiery lead-by-example type, and Brown often plays mediator between the two.
They haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on everything off the field, but they share a relentless love for the team that they’ve helped build. That shared desire to be the best players they can be and to make every player around them the best player she can be, has driven Wreck’s growth over the past five years.
Laying The Foundation
That desire doesn’t end when this trio finishes their fifth years this season. All three players want to make sure that Wreck continues to grow after they leave, and other players have adopted that mentality as well, including first-time captain Bridget Nabb.
“We’re not some people who want to play really well because we have seven girls on the line who can score a bunch of points,” says Nabb. “We want to to make sure that everyone is getting the attention and the time they need, so that when the upperclassmen graduate, the younger players can really bloom.”
“All three of us have dedicated so much to recruitment, and retention, and development, and we’ve put aside our own development a lot in those instances,” explains Brown. “[We’ve] been focusing on development and making sure that the people and the team we leave behind are set up for success. For me, it’s such a good feeling looking back and knowing where we were [when I started] and where we are now, and [knowing] that I had something to do with that.”
Ting offered a nearly identical sentiment. “The fact that I’ve been part of creating this culture is probably one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in my life.”
What’s truly special about what they’ve built is that every player that has been and will be a member of the program gets an opportunity to help make that culture as well. Everyone gets to add their brick. It’s just that the big three of Brown, Hartman, and Ting, along with Frey, are the ones that made that so.
Frey designed the team’s blueprint. But the players — led by Brown, Hartman, and Ting — have built Wreck’s foundation. They have constructed the program in their own way and through their own hard work and dedication.
Building For The Future, Building For Now
Now, Georgia Tech is in a place they’ve never been before. They’re getting players with high level experience coming in. It’s new to have players like Peterson and Alli Wong come in and be stars right away. It’s new to be a favorite to win the region, and it’s new to attend tournaments like Northwest Challenge.
What’s not new is how Frey and the team are approaching this season. “Making Nationals is not a goal of ours this year,” she says. Instead, the team is focusing on the more abstract goal of “being as competitive as the team can be.”
For Wreck, that means going to developmental tournaments in addition to the elite level tourneys they are attending — likely at the expense of their ability to earn a strength bid for the region. It means making sure that every player still gets attention and is given the ability to grow as much as they can. Just because Georgia Tech is better than they’ve ever been doesn’t mean that the process stops now.
Frey says the mental process comes from her background as an evaluator. “Where we are now, we just have to get to the next step, and the next step, and the next step. So I’m only ever looking like one step out as far my as my daily thoughts.”
Yet Frey admits that she does allow some of her consciousness to drift to the future: “The main conflict that I have now, once we start getting freshmen like Ali and Ollie, [is] how will that change the team?” And she admits that the team’s goal-setting process will likely change as the team’s personnel changes.
“Our philosophies and our principals that have gotten us to where we are now have nothing to do with winning. And so I’m constantly battling that,” she says. “Honestly, I would love for every [one of my] team[s] to play for Just This Point and To Make Their Teammates Look Good, but I know it’s probably gonna go the other way as we’re exposed to more and more national coverage … and [we’re] more exposed to mainstream thoughts about sports in general. So for me it’s an opportunity to see, can we continue to maintain what’s important to us, even amidst more and more attention and more and more success from how other people describe it?”
Those worries can and will be resolved later. Frey still has to make sure the 2017 team will be as competitive as they can be. That goal took a big blow this month when both Brown and Wong tore their ACLs at Queen City Tune Up. For Brown, it’s an unjust end to the college career of a player who put so much effort into turning Wreck into a top 25 program. But Tech has never been about one player, or even any group of players, and they will keep working to achieve those same goals regardless.
Tech has also had a less than perfect start to the season. A decent QCTU performance included only one big win over UNC. Tournaments focused on developing the depths of the team’s roster like Luminous — which the team used as a B-team tournament — and Joint Summit, where the team also did not bring a full roster, will hurt the team’s ranking and coefficient. But Tech isn’t necessarily focused on winning right now either, and they still don’t measure success by their win-loss record.
Really, a huge part of Tech’s philosophies come from the notion that there will always be things beyond their control on and off the field. The team’s processes allow for that, and it’s often why the team’s goals are a little more abstract than others’ may be. Explains Nabb, “You can’t always control your circumstances, but you can maximize your chances at success and it doesn’t really matter what else is going on…you can still have fun, you can still work hard.”
There will of course be more blips and setbacks this season and in future seasons. Tech certainly has the mentality to overcome them, and now they’re getting to the place where they have the players to overcome them as well. Georgia Tech Wreck plans to continue beyond any special generation of athletes. Their foundation has been so carefully and pridefully constructed since 2013 that it’s built to last, no matter what the future holds.
Georgia Tech qualified out of the South in 1992 ↩