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From Darkside To Seaside

Playing on both sides of a cross-state rivalry, JD Hastings has been an important figure for both North Carolina and UNC Wilmington.

UNC Wilmington’s JD Hastings. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

When J.D. Hastings heard the news that he would be attending UNC Wilmington for grad school, he was still in the midst of the 2016 season, playing for a North Carolina squad that would eventually reach the semis at Nationals for the third straight season and living with fellow Darkside seniors Aaron Warshauer and Dain Nielsen.

“Everyone was happy for me on getting into the program, but it definitely opened up opportunities to be trolled,” recalls Hastings.

It was hard to imagine Hastings fitting into the UNC Wilmington team culture in order to play during his final year of college eligibility. The bad boys image that Wilmington embraced season after season was fun to watch as an outside observer, but a pain to play against. It was hard to imagine a bubbly, goofy, stocky ex-corner from Wilmington’s bitter cross-state rival joining up with a squad that embraced a wholly different approach to their identity.

Needless to say, for almost all of the 2016-17 season, a variety of different people have joked that Hastings is secretly a sleeper agent for UNC, just waiting for the moment when the two teams finally play to destroy Wilmington from the inside. While this still induces a wink and a nod every time it’s uttered, the truth may be that as much as UNC Wilmington needed another experienced thrower to fill in the holes left by the class of 2016, J.D. may have also needed Wilmington.

A first look at the Seamen this year suggested that they were going to have a long road ahead. The high-profile loss of Xavier Maxstadt barely addressed the fact that Wilmington also lost their best mid (Erik Esposto), their second main handler (Charlie Lian), a key deep (Matt Mason), and a feisty veteran defender (Jake Gallagher). The team was also amidst a somewhat messy coaching shakeup — long-time coach Greg Vassar had left the team and assistant Brian Casey was elevated to head coaching status.

Given the situation surrounding the squad, there was certainly plenty of room for a player like Hastings to fill. Coming into the program with four years of elite experience under his belt, J.D. had a perfect opportunity to not only improve his game under new coaches and with a team that needed more from him, but also to take on a vocal role as a team leader.

“In UNC’s system, I was able to to lean on younger players to pick up a disc on a turnover because I just didn’t have the confidence in my throws,” Hastings explained. With Wilmington, rather than support the D-line on a turn, Hastings was called upon to lead it.

“Brian Casey knew my abilities, especially where I was lacking. He and Trevor gave me the opportunity to grow and fit the molding of someone who can lead a D-line and dictate the disc on a turn. I am still a handler defender, but I take initiative to pick up the disc on the turnover.”

Back in January, J.D. was still in the process of immersing himself within the program.

“I had done a pretty poor job actively seeking ways outside of practice to connect with the guys,” admits Hastings. Instead, Hastings fell back on the relationship he had with Casey, one that was similar to the one he had with UNC’s Jonathan Nethercutt in 2016.

“He was my coach, but we also played together on Darkside, Ring, and Flyers. Having the opportunity to play alongside someone who is also your coach creates a different kind of trust.”

That trust would soon be tested, as the tremors left by Wilmington’s roster turnover and coaching shakeup in the fall continued into the spring.

In January, the team was temporarily suspended from travel to Carolina Kickoff by their university for a club sports uniform violation. Two weeks later, it became known that head coach Brian Casey had been suspended for ethics violations. It seemed the typical roller coaster that was already in motion for Wilmington. What remained unclear in February was how it would ultimately affect the program as a whole.

There has been a significant shift this season in the way Wilmington does just about everything. While part of that comes from having to adjust the on-field strategy to not having a thrower like Xavier Maxstadt, there has been a visible shift in Wilmington’s team culture this year as well.

“We don’t want to be known for the things we’ve done in the past,” Hastings said. “It’s a new team, it’s a new slate. We don’t want to give a team a reason to hate us.”

Cultivating buy-in for that was essential for UNC Wilmington’s program to thrive in 2017, and the job of teaching and growing the program passed to the Wilmington captains, and additionally, Hastings.

“Between late January and mid-March, a lot of the teaching fell on the shoulder of Austin [McGrayne], Jack [Williams], and myself. Teaching concepts helped me solidify my role as a leader on the D-line, whereas in January I was a bit reluctant to totally step into that role after being less involved in the fall.”

Hastings’ willingness to put his foot forward as another leader helped Wilmington navigate through not having their head coach at their first tournament of the year. Wilmington performed well in their first spring appearance at Queen City Tune Up, losing to Georgia in the semis, 15-13. The squad looked balanced and capable of holding its own. More critically, the setbacks the team had suffered were barely even noticeable, reflective of the type of leadership Hastings brought with him from North Carolina.

“I definitely attribute the type of leader I am to the leaders I had while on UNC.” commented Hastings. “I’m a Mike D player, through and through. A lot of what I’ve taught this year has been predicated on what I have learned from him and Nutt.”

Hastings had a clear goal: “I want to help mend our identity and organizationally make things more simplistic for the team so things can run smoothly.”

It’s not uncommon to see Hastings helping lead Wilmington’s workouts on campus or the beach, still bringing the same joker attitude he’s always possessed. The identity he has helped cultivate this season has begun to chip away at some of Wilmington’s previous reputation and even held firm in the face of heated moments that occurred during the spring.

Throughout this season Wilmington has demonstrated more restraint and more focus on the actual game than perhaps any season in recent memory. Perhaps most revealing was an exchange between Wilmington and Wisconsin at Easterns. After a foul call on a block in the endzone, an incredulous Kevin Mateer raised his arms yelling “no way.” Hastings responded in his own way “Just talk to him Kev.” Mateer calmly made his case to the Wisconsin player and the call was resolved.

Even in a high-profile rivalry game against Pittsburgh (since 2013, perhaps of the most heated matchup in the division), Wilmington displayed a level-headed performance bolstered by the presence of its ever vocal alumni. It was a clean game that at no point seemed to devolve into the chippiness or emotions that have often characterized the high-profile rivalry.

“This was at the top of our agenda when we made final picks for the team in the fall and addressed it at the end of the first practice,” summed up Hastings, “I think there has been a huge jump in composure during potential chippy situations and I’m stoked about that. Individually, players have been able to channel whatever negative feeling towards improving their game.”

That being said, Hastings’ experiences with Wilmington have certainly brought him closer to his new program and created the kind of leadership dynamic you’d expect from a fifth-year player who’s been a part of the same program the entire time.

“There are some things that you can’t prepare for until you’ve been through certain situations,” reflected Hastings. “It’s been a tumultuous season for our team, but it’s made us stronger as a team and motivates us to work harder.”

Wilmington is still Wilmington in the sense that they haven’t quite been able to escape the drama that seems to come with every college season. Where Wilmington has taken a turn — and arguably a turn for the better — is in the way they have constructed their identity, and ultimately, in the way they approach the game.

Hastings’ relationship with Wilmington has clearly been a symbiotic one. For all he has added to the team this season, the program has also given back to him. For Hastings, a major revelation about Wilmington was the strength and pride of their alumni. “Once you’re a Seamen, you carry that with you wherever you go,” commented Hastings. “From the outside looking in, I never realized how much current and former players love this program. There’s a negative stigma towards the program for its potentially overt playing style, but what typically isn’t captured is the interconnectivity and accountability within the team and alumni.”

Back in January, Hastings and I briefly talked about legacies and impact. When asked whether he thought he’d be more defined more by his time at UNC or Wilmington, Hastings replied, “My gut says UNC since I was there for four years and that’s where I developed as a player. That being said, depending on how this season unfolds, people may say Wilmington.”

Now, in his last tournament as a college player, Hastings is leading Wilmington in a fight for a Monday appearance at Nationals. They face off against Washington Sunday morning in the quarterfinals — with a potential matchup against UNC looming in the semis. If anyone still wonders is Hastings is on a covert mission to undermine the Seamen for the benefit of Darkside, the way the bracket has shaken out is almost too good to be true.

So far this season, Hastings has lived up to his goals with Wilmington. He has worked diligently to not only lead on the field, but to begin to bridge the gap in the reputations between his current and former teams. In so doing, he has helped put UNCW in position to survive a spring of controversy and hopefully achieve their considerable potential. Time to see if his efforts have paid off.

  1. Hugo Sowder
    Hugo Sowder

    A former player out of UNC Asheville and founder of Seven on the Line Productions LLC., Hugo has been involved in the North Carolina ultimate scene since 2010. As a freelance filmmaker and content creator he hopes to give back to the sport and community that's given so much to him. You can follow his adventures at https://twitter.com/Hugosowder

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