Voices Of D-III Women’s: Five Things They Want You To Know

Leaders from around the division share what has made their college experience special and what they'd like to see for the future of D-III.

Puget Sound captain Ellen ‘Cady’ Kalenscher celebrates with her teammates at the 2016 D-III College Championships. Photo: Sean Carpenter — UltiPhotos.com

Ultiworld’s reporiting on the Women’s D-III College Championships is presented by VC Ultimate as part of their season-long support of our women’s coverage. All opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at VC Ultimate!

This weekend, 16 of the nation’s top women’s ultimate programs will be leaving their small colleges and universities to converge on Lexington, KY and battle it out for the Division III national title.

Leading into the division’s biggest weekend, we talked with individuals from several teams around the country to get their perspectives on the unique experience of competing in D-III ultimate. We asked about what makes the D-III experience special to them and also about what changes they would want to see as the division grows.

Here we discuss five common themes and key lessons that came out of these conversations.

1. Programs want more institutional support.

Division III programs have a wide range of experiences with school support. Some teams are well funded through their university, while others have to ask players to pay entirely out of pocket; nearly all have to fight for space to practice.

The lack of institutional support is not unique to D-III at all — in fact, in certain circumstances, D-III teams gain more recognition for their hard work than their D-I counterparts. For instance, D-III teams are more likely to get write-ups in their school’s newspapers. But increasing institutional support is something every team we spoke to mentioned as a hope for the future and is incredibly important to increasing access to our sport, which is currently disproportionately played by the upper-middle class.

St. Olaf shared that their main obstacle is funding, as players have to cover their own expenses, including travel. “Players aren’t willing to commit a ton financially, but as we increase our level of play, we want to travel more and further for the best competition,” Vortex’s Aidan Zielske said.

It is unquestionably inequitable to only take the players that can afford to travel, which means that teams that value equitable access to ultimate often need to forego playing at the most competitive tournaments until they can figure out how to offset more costs, whether through their school, fundraising, or a wealthy alumni network.

While funding is an issue for D-III programs across the board, most teams come from private schools with much larger endowments than public state universities that compete at the D-I level. For example, Claremont women’s team is able to draw funds from the five private schools that make up the Claremont consortium, which translates to an operating budget nearly five times the size of their D-I nationally-ranked neighbor UCLA.

Rice University’s women’s ultimate team has been facing administrative pushback on campus: “We’ve struggled this year with communication with our Rec Center staff, getting adequate field space, and securing equipment for tournaments,” senior Emma Wine said.

Truman State University chimed in sharing that “currently TSUnami practices on a hill because we don’t have field space, and we drive our own cars across the country because we don’t have funding or access to school vehicles.”

Ultimate programs are not university varsity sports, and at the D-III level, most ultimate programs are vying for space against varsity NCAA Division III teams. The fight to prove legitimacy and value for a non-varsity sport was felt across the teams.

“We have such standout players, games, and tournaments, and sometimes it’s deflating when we don’t achieve any recognition,” Wine said.

2. There need to be more competitive D-III tournaments.

“Let’s please increase competitiveness in Division III,” Haley Lescinsky from Williams College La WUFA pleads. “We consistently struggle with finding good competition at Division III tournaments and would love to play more challenging teams then we generally have the opportunity to.”

Connectivity between D-III teams has always been an issue, which means that teams need to either go to D-I tournaments or play local but non-national caliber D-III teams. The sparse tournaments that do exist around the country demand a large commitment of money and time from teams to attend, again affecting access and equity.

“Balancing cost of travel to busy airports, travel time, and caliber of competition is hard for a team to sort out,” Wine said. “But it would make the D-III scene more easily accessible and D-III teams more knowledgeable if all those factors could be taken into account.”

3. Player recruitment and development is a focus.

Because competitive high school and youth players tend to congregate at traditional D-I powerhouses, D-III programs usually get a lot of players who are brand new to ultimate — whether they are former high school athletes, college varsity athletes, and those with no team experience whatsoever. With smaller pools of potential players, D-III programs are unlikely to attract enough players to offer differentiated opportunities for people looking for different things from the team.

“The nature of learning a sport freshman year is tough,” Lescinsky said. “If schools can gather more interest and form Developmental B teams then I see women’s D-III ultimate taking off and being much more competitive than it is currently.”

Additionally the small liberal arts school setting often breeds a culture over being highly involved in a number of pursuits. “I think D-III students are often involved with more things on campus than D-I athletes, so D-III teams must work with less time commitment from their players,” Zielske from St. Olaf shared. This also includes the high popularity of studying abroad that is common to small schools.

Truman State’s captain Emilie Willingham shared passionately on this topic that “D-III teams spend more time teaching basic techniques and skills than conditioning or strategizing because that is the beautiful hand we are dealt. D-III teams start from the bottom of the skill bucket every year to ensure every girl on our team has the opportunity to succeed and know the basics skills of ultimate. The majority of D-I schools don’t have this slow pace. But every year, you see D-III schools start a lap behind D-I schools and still beat them in tournaments.”

4. Increased visibility will improve the division.

All the teams we interviewed wanted more visibility for their division. For some, this is the primary difference between D-I women’s ultimate and D-III.

“I think that what makes Division III women’s ultimate different than Division I is that it seems like in many cases we have to fight to legitimize our abilities as Frisbee players,” said University of Puget Sound senior captain Ellen ‘Cady’ Kalenscher. “I feel like it’s been underrepresented –and in some cases misrepresented — as ‘less’ than Division I.”

Increasing visibility and attention to the division was one of the driving factors behind the Donovan award, which started this year. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by teams.

“With the increased competitiveness, fast-growing programs, and some truly stand-out players — like all the Donovan nominations have been fun to read about and watch — we’re all building lasting programs for our schools and for the nation,” said Rice’s Wine, who was nominated by her team for the inaugural award.

5. Spirit is alive and well in D-III.

In a sport that prides itself on trusting players to self-officiate and where the greatest value is Spirit of the Game, D-III teams across the country fully embrace this. The D-III level has built a community where the spirit across the division is undeniable; it is a place where anyone who wants to come and learn to play ultimate — competitively or not — is immediately welcomed as part of the family.

“I think Division III is very spirited, that’s part of why I love it,” Kalenscher said. “And I think that’s part of what separates us from Division I.”

Carleton Eclipse  — a D-III program at a small school that also boasts a team that competes in D-I — shared that “teams we see at Nationals like Williams and Bates and Claremont are consistently challenging and spirited games.” In surveys sent to teams throughout this year, everyone mentioned how spirited their D-III opponents were. From a conversation to put together regional previews, Bowdoin told Ultiworld that their main team goal for New England Regionals was, “as it is at every tournament, to out-fun AND out-play our opponents.”

But this level of spirit goes beyond obscure nicknames, raucous team cheers, and crazy outfits. It is an emphasis on belonging, on creating a team that is a welcoming and safe community.

Emma Wine said it best when she told us, “Division III ultimate is about having more dedication to your team than you ever felt for anything. It’s about putting in the time, and playing the game for your team and for yourself.”

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