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Scenes From College Nationals: Drama, Heartbreak, And Joy

A parent and spectator reflects on the College Championships.

UNC coach Jon Nethercutt (left) hugs UNC Wilmington’s JD Hastings. Photo: Taylor Nguyen — UltiPhotos.com

This article was written by Hart Matthews, father of UNC’s Walker Matthews.

It’s semifinals in the 2017 College Championships. UNC Darkside has carefully worked its way to a 12-8 lead under roiling black clouds and distant flashes of lightning. Despite tight pressure from UNC Wilmington’s defenders, the Darkside cutters are getting open and grinding out the win, throw by throw, goal by goal.

Someone prophesied a few days ago that Darkside would beat Carleton CUT in pool play but that both teams would survive to the men’s final. Earlier this afternoon, Carleton had indeed edged out the brilliant Ben Sadok and Tannor Johnson of UMass to get CUT into the finals.

Hoarse from days of cheering, the Darkside parents now take the chance to rest their vocal cords and wonder at the acumen of ultimate prophets. The women of UNC Pleaides, backed up by Auburn’s Callahan nominee Hank Womble on trombone, take up the cheering slack. A beautiful huck from Darkside floats into the far corner of the end zone, but the weary Darkside receiver is unable to keep Wilmington’s Dalton Vestal from muscling him out for the block.

The Wilmington parents clamor on the aluminum stands with broken cowbells.

***

Observers, players, and coaches have been pointing out for weeks that College Nationals is the best tournament in ultimate. Period.

When you pull into Mason, Ohio, after an eight-hour road trip, the grass does indeed seem greener. The town looks like some reanimated vision of lost Americana, complete with red-white-and-blue bunting on the lampposts.

By ultimate standards, the crowds at college natties are bigger. Even the pool play games on day two have spectators three rows deep.

Behind one end zone that morning, an entire team lounged on inflatable pool toys cheering for the win that might get them into prequarters. The team on the field had hoped this game would clinch their pool, but they lose on double game point and find themselves, much like their sunbathing fan boys, no longer the masters of their own fate.

This is important to remember: When you see a familiar face walk by, don’t blurt out, “Hey, famous ultimate guy!” Never do that again. As an alternative, how about: “Hey, I’ve been watching you play for years. I admire your abilities and your class, Jimmy Mickle.” Yeah, say that instead.

At the back of another end zone, you start up a conversation with a tan gentlemen sporting a salt-and-pepper mustache and find out his last name is Kaczmarek. Bill Kaczmarek is waiting for the next Pitt game while his wife, who has bronchitis, is staying in the car out of the heat. Debate the merits of the two-game-per-day tourney format.

Two days later, run into Nick Kaczmarek. He doesn’t remember where he met you before (once, years ago), but he recognizes your face and chats amiably about old YCC teams your son played on. The successful coach of pro, college, and youth teams laments the fact that his Dad wasn’t really an ultimate fan until it was too late to see his son play. Forget to ask how his mom is doing.

There are things to see: Watch Lisa Pitcaithley sell socks and throw spikeballs at Jon Nethercutt. Wonder who the next random 6’8” dude is and which team he plays for. Wonder if that’s Hayley Wahlroos by the concession stand. Do not say “hi” to Jesse Shofner (you met her last year) because she’s shaking out her own mane next to Jimmy, and you’ve already embarrassed yourself.

Watch Jaclyn Verzuh catch everything. Watch Julia Schmaltz shake her head. Wish you could still fly through the air like that and get up to tell about it.

Every evening — sunburned, hungry, and much later than you thought — find another terrific meal in Mason and wash it down with craft beer. If you’re up for Thai food, eat at Banana Leaf. Sit out back in the water garden and have the tastiest summer roll ever. Try every Rhinegeist beer until someone else has to drive.

Back in the hotel room with too much adrenaline still, read a pitch-perfect Ultiworld article on how “Muscle Hamster” J.D. Hastings, having won a national title with Darkside in 2015, might now be poised to win another with Wilmington. Listen to an interview with J.D. in which he chokes up thinking about playing against his former teammates.

Burst into tears.

***

At home, ESPN watchers are becoming annoyed with the constant din of the semifinal. Trying to listen to the announcers while people clank cowbells and stomp on bleachers is not unlike trying to listen to a 2 AM podcast from a Waffle House near the Dallas airport.

Darkside is the only top-of-pool team remaining in the men’s tournament. Washington has eliminated Oregon and been eliminated by Wilmington. Carleton has done in Minnesota and now UMass. All these powerhouse teams, gone. But invincibility is the enemy of drama. And college Nationals has nothing if not drama.

Behind the end zone, a group of fans hurls abuse at Darkside players. Kids gather around to laugh, but the hecklers’ general beeriness makes their taunts dull and unfunny, like things overheard at a Trump rally. Meanwhile, the Notre Dame contingent rules the bleachers with humorous deconstructions of other teams’ cheers. Womble’s trombone charges and orc-marches along with the action.

On the field, Callahan nominee Jack Williams, the best college player in the country according to several coaches and his sister, gets a layout block in the Darkside end zone, and the easy break puts Wilmington back in the game.

That morning, Darkside had mounted the most improbable comeback of the tournament. Down six points after half, the underclassmen from UNC had outrun the bigger Wisconsin defenders to a universe point win and a semifinals berth. That single performance by UNC’s Nathan Kwon — who should by now have honorary wings tattooed on his arms — has earned him a U-24 worlds team tryout. The Darkside parents have spent the rest of the day staggering around in disbelief, barely able to handle all the neuro-chemicals.

Now, the Darkside offense works the disc patiently down the field, cut after tiresome cut, only to get blocked on the easy 30-yarder to the end zone. After the turnover, Wilmington puts up jump balls and floaty backhands and brings down every one of them, to the disbelief of the Darkside fans.

With Wilmington now up one point and pulling to Darkside on game point, UNC puts out a kill line that works the disc into the end zone to make it universe. Both sides of the stadium are a din of cowbells, vuvuzelas, hoarse screams, and aluminum stomping.

After some back and forth on the last point, Wilmington has possession near its own end zone. The defense is stifling. The Wilmington handler floats a wobbly backhand to the break space, and Nathan Kwon, seeing his chance, rushes after Jack Williams. Both go up, but the wind floats the disc over them. Williams bounces again for a bobbling catch.

Kwon spins and takes off down the field looking for the man he abandoned a second earlier, not knowing that a teammate has already picked up the switch.

Williams holds the disc. No stall count. Another Darkside player realizes what’s happening. He rushes up the empty lane toward Williams just as Williams gestures to his deep man, Rick Henninghausen. Williams rips a backhand that would slice a man in two. The Darkside defender leaps. He cannot get near it.

Two defenders chase Henninghausen to the back of the end zone, tripping over themselves to make a play, but the throw is too good.
Henninghausen can hardly believe it. He’s shaking the disc and running frantically between fans and teammates. One of the Wilmington players collapses in the middle of the field and pulls his jersey over his face like a shroud.

The teams line up to slap hands, but J.D. Hastings is in the front of the line, stopping to hug every Darkside player for what seems like minutes. After the racking emotions of the day, after the morning’s comeback and the evening’s loss, Darkside players break into tears. Hastings and Williams wander through them, comforting their friends and former teammates.

Of course, the situation is reversed the next day. The Wilmington players, injured and exhausted, do their best to keep up with the better rested Carleton squad. Williams has a pulled hamstring and, even though he can still jump off the other leg, he is no match for the lank of Elliot Mawby and Henry Fisher and Joe White. Wilmington’s breakout player of the tournament, Matt Ellis, breaks his foot during the game.

And, so, Carleton earns a national championship with impressive wins over Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and now Wilmington. Several Carleton players say they wish it had been Darkside in the finals.

Things learned: The most interesting fans hang out behind end zones. Watching these athletes on TV all year has turned you into a fan boy. It’s never too late to be a parent. Adrenaline will probably not kill you, but comebacks might.

The UNC Wilmington Seamen — having lost one of the best throwers in the country this year and one of the best defenders, having replaced their head coach amidst personal and institutional drama, having made a palpable shift in team identity — still managed to contest a national final with eight players injured.

Meanwhile, many Darkside players supported the same Seamen who just last year cheered against them on the sidelines.

And this Darkside parent, who has coached and played against both Wilmington and Carleton players, had to go stand behind the end zone during the finals so he could cheer on the whole lot of ‘em and ignore what teams they’re on.

The drunk hecklers couldn’t tell the difference, anyway.

Hart Matthews retired last year from the least illustrious 33-year ultimate career possible. He continues coaching high school ultimate because, well, it’s ultimate, and because he’s still learning how to throw.

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