Melee's quest to be the best squad in program history.
May 22, 2017 by Daniel Prentice in Profile with 1 comments
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Texas Melee has already had a season to remember. They ended the regular season as the number one team in Ultiworld’s Top 25 and have provided a number of iconic moments for the 2017 chapter in the annals of college ultimate.
Melee was the first team this year to knock off then-#1 Stanford, when the reigning champions still looked capable of going undefeated all season. Texas reached the final of Presidents’ Day and the Stanford Invite, and they won Centex for the second time in program history by absolutely obliterating Ohio State in the final 15-3. The Twittersphere is still feeling the aftershocks of Julia Schmaltz’s ridiculous catch at the Stanford Invite. And Shiru Liu’s Callahan video will go down as one of the most memorable from this season.
Texas is a crucial thread to the story of the 2017 college season thus far and, considered among the title favorites, they’re likely to leave a still bigger mark on the year once Nationals get underway. But Melee’s story goes deeper than their results and highlights to this point.
Fueled By Heartbreak
When this team’s seniors were rookies back in 2014, they were on another team that felt like it had the chance to win a championship. Ranked sixth in the final USAU rankings and #8 in Ultiworld’s Power Rankings, Texas was squarely in the national title picture heading into the Series.
But the team was a little over-reliant on their top players — Diana Charrier, Kayla Ramirez, and Shereen Rabie. They ran through pool play at Regionals, but weren’t as efficient in bracket play and failed to overpower their opponents as they were used to. A two-point loss in semis to Colorado College put them in a must-win game against Colorado for third. It was a game they never expected to have to play in, and they lost a heartbreaker on double game point.
Instead of making a run at the program’s first championship, they missed out on all three of the South Central’s Nationals bids. Liu, Dre Esparza, Sydney Overman, Marissa Land — all now program cornerstones — were rookies on that team, and the experience has been a constant motivator as they’ve become the leaders of the team.
“We just didn’t make it,” Overman recalls. “I think all of us rookies that year, we kind of saw this really great team that fell short of not only making Nationals but making a deep push at Nationals, so I think that really fueled us to develop ourselves and develop the program as best as we could.”
The result sparked a similar feeling in Esparza. “When we were rookies, there wasn’t much that we could do. And I felt a little helpless and a little bit useless in a way. I think that’s what sparked me and the rest of my rookie class into today. That just fuels us. We don’t want our rookies or anyone else to feel that way.”
“That year, it was really rough,” explains Liu. “But I think it’s probably one of the best things that could have happened to us as a rookie group that year.”
The foursome that now makes up a substantial part of the team’s core learned early not to take anything for granted. It’s a lesson that has stayed with them over three successive seasons and it’s one that they have striven to convey to the rest of the team that didn’t experience it first hand.
Their message goes beyond the “take every game seriously” mantra, too. This year’s team has focused more on developing their youth, and have put them in spots to make an impact in key moments. While Esparza, Land, Liu, and Overman felt helpless in the team’s effort to make Nationals in 2014, they’ve sought to ensure their teammates never experience that by putting them in a place to contribute.
“As much as we try to convey into words how shitty that felt, we try more with actions. We try to encourage our rookies to play more, we try to develop them more,” explains Liu. “We can convey as much as we want about how bad that year felt, but we’ve been taking preventative measures to really develop all of our team, and make it really deep, so that if we do need them…they can play up to their potential.”
As a result of that mentality, this year’s Texas has one of the deepest rosters in the division. Younger players like Cameron Bryan, Maddie Hiu, Caroline O’Connell, and Anna Smith — the latter three of whom are all rookies — have all been important role players this season and already test the veterans in practices.
Now one of the role models for the developing youngsters, seeing that growth is one of the most rewarding parts of the job for Liu. “It’s always fun to see them get so much better over the course of the season. Some of them have never played before the fall and when you see them skying us or getting layout Ds on us, it’s awesome.”
The current Melee leaders took the failure of a past squad and turned it into an asset for the current team. Without that defeat in 2014, Melee would not be as strong as they have been this season. Explains Esparza, “I think a winning team…needs to know how to lose. And I think we’re in a pretty good position for that. I think 2014 taught us that.”
An Underdog Mentality In A Top Dog’s Body
With solid depth and an elite top end, there’s no denying that Texas is one of the most talented teams in the country this season, more so, even, than in 2014. Their roster boasts four U24 US National Team tryout invitees, eight members of club team’s Austin Showdown’s 2016 roster, a former D-I NCAA scholarship track athlete, and plenty of younger, budding stars. Melee has an athletically special roster that also has loads of experience at the highest levels of both college and club.
That concentration of talent doesn’t happen too often, especially in Texas. Yet, the individual abilities of their players are not entirely why this Texas team is so special on the field. Despite being one of the top teams in the country this year, Melee has maintained the mentality of an underdog, a mindset that they have cultivated and taken pride in over the years.
That mentality doesn’t come solely from missing Nationals three years ago, either. Even beyond that Regionals defeat, Texas doesn’t have the history of a traditional blue blood program. Melee has never reached the semifinals of Nationals and they have won the modern South Central Region just twice. While they rose to the #1 spot in our Power Rankings in late March, in the three years and change prior, they were only briefly in the top five and never in the top three.
Being the favorite is something relatively new to this Texas team, something they’re still adjusting to. But the team also seems eager to relish in their new role. “It’s weird not to be the underdog,” says Esparza. “For a while this season, I often felt like an underdog. But…after all that we’ve done, we’re not in the spot to call ourselves an underdog [anymore.]”
“Coming from being the person that’s trying to claw their way at the top, I think it’s gonna be really fun for us to see how we respond to [being the favorite now], to watch the team say, ‘No, you know what, we’re here for a reason, we’re definitely contenders.”
And the team’s historical familiarity with the underdog role could prove a huge asset at Nationals, with that freshly painted target on their back. “We know how hard an underdog team will come after someone who’s on top. We’ve done it plenty of times [ourselves,]” Esparza explains.
“There’s gonna be underdogs that try to come up with upsets, but we’ve been there before, we were that team at one point, we’ve earned our spot here. I think that’s gonna be fun.”
Grittiness, Pride, And A Little Bit Of Love
The team’s underdog mindset has also heavily influenced the team’s style of play. Captain Laura Gerencser calls it “gritty;” Esparza describes it as “balls to the wall.”
Whatever it’s called, to watch Melee is to feel like you’re watching some sort of metaphor for the entire state of Texas play out on an ultimate field. Their handlers are tough, love a strike cut, and are unafraid of jacking big, aggressive deep shots. Their cutters work hard underneath, but love going deep, too. And they play defense with the tenacity of a professional bull rider.
Watching them, it quickly becomes clear that this Texas team takes great pride in how hard they work. And pride is not something Texans take lightly.
“I think just being a Texan and being here at the University of Texas has some element of pride to it. There’s a lot of Texas pride,” says Overman. More specifically to Melee, she discusses her pride in the way her team carries itself. “I think there is a sense of pride in what we accomplish and how we go about accomplishing it. We’re not trying to cheat or undercut our way into doing anything. We just want to work really hard to accomplish our goals.”
All but a few of the players on the team are originally from Texas and the team’s identifiable grittiness is befitting of a group of players predominantly from the Great State. Melee is also a naturally competitive group, and that has been a significant factor in the team’s improvement over the last few years. That competitiveness is perhaps most visible (and most beneficial) at practices.
“We pretty much beat up on each other, all practice, all the time,” explains Liu. “But that goes with trying to better ourselves and better the rest of our team as well. It gets pretty intense… but at the end it really just makes us a whole lot better.”
With so many exceptional players on the team, some of the toughest matchups they face throughout the year are on the practice field. Gerencser identifies the underlying desire to push her teammates to be better and to use them as a means of bettering herself in return. But she also notes that the ability to do that comes from the team’s close relationship.
“Something I love about Melee is that we’re all best friends. At practice we are able to compete with the mentality to win our matchup, but not get mad when we get beat, because we know we are a team and are working together to achieve the same goal,” she explains. “It’s awesome to be pushed by my teammates every practice.”
It seems that every member of Texas identifies the relationships they have with their teammates as what truly makes Melee special. Overman explains this with particular elocution. “The care that we have for each other, not only on the field, but outside of the field… I just think that we look out for each other. It’s not just that we’re teammates — we’re friends. We care for each other. Texas ultimate is bigger than just frisbee.”
Anyone who’s had a Mexican Martini with the Melee crew at Trudy’s after the Sunday of Centex knows she isn’t just spouting empty platitudes. The Texas team has a genuine, fun family aura that is unique to them and it’s clearly played a part in molding what they are on the field as well as off.
Loneliness Breeds Familiarity
Of course, nearly every team will cite the friendships and their specific team culture as the things that makes their team special, but for Texas, those relationships are a necessity.
For a further source of Texas’ identity is their unique geographical situation. One downside to everything being bigger in Texas is that they just aren’t near anybody. Their biggest rival in the South Central is Colorado, nearly 1000 miles away. That distance from other teams has instilled a unique sense of community in Austin, one that, again, Texas takes great pride in.
“What makes us unique is how isolated we are,” Esparza proclaims. “I think people overlook us, overlook Texas even though we’re so big. We don’t have a lot of competition around us. We spend a lot of our time making sure the programs around us are building up.”
She continues, “It’s like, ‘People wanna see Texas as a bubble? Well, let’s make it the best bubble.’”
The team’s head coach Edith Teng thinks the team’s location causes the ultimate world to forget about them a little bit. “There’s always a lot of discussion and coverage about East Coast vs West Coast ultimate and we don’t fit into either of those categories. I think we’re a relative unknown compared to other ultimate regions and I think we’ve embraced this identity of a nameless, faceless army,” she explains.
Teng would know better than most, having played and coached for Rice prior to her role as coach of Melee. She points out that even the other teams in the state are pretty far away. But the team’s isolation only fortifies that special bond the team has.
“With the major cities in Texas sprawled out around the state, we have a unique set of challenges in that we’re isolated not only from the rest of the country but we’re pretty isolated in our respective cities’ ultimate communities,” she says. “I think the separation weirdly brings us closer together though. We end up really valuing our time together since we have to travel such great distances to be together.”
The Melee players spend their summers together, too — several of them in the form of playing elite club together on Showdown. As a result, Showdown has played a huge role in the college program’s development over the years.
Texas’ entire 2017 O-line was on the Showdown team that finished ninth at Club Nationals last summer, and the relationships forged on the club team are what led to Teng taking over as coach of Melee.
The players that are on both Melee and Showdown — Esparza, Gerencser, Liu, Overman, Schmaltz, Gabriella Cuina, Marissa Land, and Domenica Sutherland — get to play together all year long. So not only do those players get to test and improve themselves against the best club players in the country, but they are able to develop a level of on-field chemistry that is rarely seen in the college game.
“After having played together for so many years in college and club, we know what each other likes,” Overman details. “Shiru knows that Julia wants to cut deep and she knows how to huck it and where to huck exactly where she wants to catch it. [Laura] knows Marissa wants to cut under and she knows how fast she is; she knows when she’s gonna come under.”
That type of familiarity gives Texas the opportunity to play to everyone’s strengths and its rewards are being reaped this college season. “Everyone knows each other better, on and off the field,” explains Teng. She also points out that even those members of Melee who aren’t on Showdown still largely play club together in the Austin area. “A lot of that off-season work is paying off this season.”
Esparza knows that the team wouldn’t be capable of reaching its current heights without their time together on the club circuit. “Showdown was definitely beneficial because it’s our entire Melee core that plays Showdown together. Us playing together at a very, very elite level brought the entire Melee standard up. We raised the bar so high up this year. That could only have happened after playing Showdown together.”
Beyond the obvious rewards of building chemistry and player growth, Showdown has also provided the players a special relationship with Teng, who captains the club team. For starters, it provides Teng a unique perspective on her players, one that many college coaches don’t get. Says Gerencser, “Getting to play with Edith helps her understand my game at a different level. She already knows what each of us are capable of but getting to play with her allows her to see our playing from a different view.”
Teng sees the benefits of playing with her players as a two-way street. “I’m definitely closer to them and know them better as players, teammates, and friends. But I think the fact that they get to play with me and see me in another role besides just their coach is just as important,” she explains. “I hope that by seeing me as a player, teammate, and friend helps them understand who I am as a person and where my coaching philosophy comes from.”
A Chance To Be The Best Of Texas
That team chemistry has been invaluable for Texas, and it’s a significant part of what makes them unique. That, along with the team’s recent history, and their gritty, underdog disposition, has Melee poised to do something they’ve never done before: win a national championship.
“I think the sky’s the limit for this team,” says Overman. “We would very much like to make the final and win Nationals and I think that we can do it. I know it’s gonna be a tough road, but I think this is the team to do it. I think this could be the greatest Texas ultimate team ever.”
Esparza explained exactly what it would take for this team to be considered the best Texas has ever had. “Being the best [team in Texas history] would be to win Nationals, and I think it’s crossed everyone’s mind, that there is a possibility for us. I think if we want to be the best program, it’s not enough to do better than all the other [Melee] teams that have come before us, it’s to be the best. It’s to win that National Championship.”
Liu isn’t prepared to rank her team in the pantheon of Melee squads, but she is willing to compare it to the other Melee teams she has been a part of. “I think we are a very, very good team this year,” she explains. “In my four years, I think we’re the best. I can’t say anything personally about the years before I started, but I think we’re definitely the best team in the last four years.”
The players on this team know that they’re part of something potentially very special. There’s a rare blend of talent, experience, grittiness, and drive to this bunch. The hatred of failure borne from 2014, that Texan flare and je nais se quois, and their desire to play for each other will be big factors in their success this postseason.
But they do have Nationals experience to fall back on as well, and that, too, should prove valuable. It’s one thing to be driven by a past failure, but it’s important to know how to win as well. Their tournament successes over the past couple of seasons will provide a boost, and so will their prequarter appearances at 2015 and 2016 Nationals.
As Gerencser says, “We now know what it feels like to play at such a high stage and we also know what it feels like to want more. Losing in the prequarters the past two years really gave us the motivation we needed to advance further.”
So Texas has all of the tools necessary to win a title. And there’s a feeling of the planets aligning for them as well. It may be fate or simply coincidence, but Overman noted that when the team failed to make Nationals in 2014, that the College Championships were in Cincinnati, Ohio, the same location as this year’s tournament.
The journey since 2014 would make winning a little sweeter for the group of fourth years, according to Esparza. “It would mean everything, doing it alongside all those people that were in my rookie class. It’s what we wanted.”
More than anything, Esparza wants to see her team leave it all on the field as well, which makes sense, considering the shortcoming she experienced early in her career. “To become the team that goes through the entire season, that’s what I want [our] legacy to be. Texas is a team that works hard all the way through the season,” she says, before qualifying through laughter, “But winning would definitely be cool.”