February 27, 2018 by Layne Scherer in Profile with 0 comments
Disclosure: The author of this article has served as the assistant coach for Catholic University of America Nun Betta since fall 2015.
One of the easiest ways to begin a conversation with an ultimate player is to pose the question “when did you start playing ultimate?”
For many players, their origin story begins at a college club fair or a pick-up game on a college campus. While much of the coverage in the college division centers on Division I Nationals-level teams, these introductions to ultimate occur at schools big and small all across the country. This mini-series, A Tale of III Teams, looks to highlight the exciting growth of the Division III women’s division at a trio of programs. What brings and keeps players in the game at the D-III level? How do these teams define success? What do teams playing D-III need to reach their goals, and what role can the ultimate community play to support their development?
The first act takes place in Washington, D.C., home to Catholic University of America Nun Betta, a team that began in 2012 and earned their first bid to D-III Nationals in 2017. The arc of Catholic’s story follows the program’s growth trajectory and development of a team-oriented mindset with a focus on the ways in which the values appear in the team’s recruiting, coaching philosophy, and playing style.
Act I: What Happens After Nationals
The Catholic University of America Nun Betta was a team few expected to finish first at the 2017 D-III Women’s Atlantic Coast Conference Championships (ACCC). The greatest shock, however, may have registered with the players themselves.
Throughout the 2017 season, the team focused on fostering a welcoming environment, prizing camaraderie and fun over competition and winning. The emphasis on a positive culture allowed the team to create a tight-knit feel and dynamic on-field chemistry despite the team’s large roster, a culture that resulted in arguably the most surprising Nationals berth of 2017. How did CUA build the team-oriented mindset that paved the road to their first trip to Nationals in 2017? Does a team that didn’t make Nationals an explicit goal, and made it to the final tournament of the season, rethink their strategy in the following season?
A Legacy Of Team Growth & Commitment
Like other young teams, Nun Betta began with a group of dedicated female players wanting to play ultimate, who began practicing with the men’s team and were willing to attend tournaments competing savage. For their inaugural season in 2012, team founders Jess Grabowski (née Richàrd), Jess Schlesinger (née Mortimer), Jenn Maas, and Amanda McShane focused on recruiting enough players to begin holding practices on their own. The growth of the team began slowly, primarily through word-of-mouth from the returning players.
In order to secure field space, the team held practices from 9:00-11:00 pm. While the late night schedule may have surprised incoming players, the timing of the practices limited conflicts with classes and other extracurricular activities, a crucial tactic for a fledgling team working to build its roster at a small university already limited by pure numbers. As with recruiting efforts for many college teams, the program drew interest from a range of individuals, from athletes who sought a new sport experience to students who wanted the chance to try a team sport with a lower experience barrier to entry than sports like basketball or soccer.
The development of the tournament schedule also proved challenging, as team leadership sought tournaments that provided a good match in terms of competition, limited conflicts with travel and spring break, and, notably for a team with a strong practice in faith, one that avoided any spring holidays on the Catholic calendar. These early efforts to build a welcoming, accommodating culture for women to play ultimate at Catholic brought, season by season, a steadily increasing number of returners with a greater depth of overall experience and skill.
If placement at Conference Championships was the only way to define a team’s progress, Catholic demonstrated steady but unremarkable growth with their eventual 4th place finish in the 2016 spring season. Looking deeper into the team’s progression, a different kind of growth had happened at the same time: the roster had swelled to a respectable 28 players. This boom marked the team’s transition from the struggling start-up period to one of growth and expansion.
As the returners looked to the following season, the surge brought not only a sense of excitement but also a slate of new issues for the growing program. With more players and a wider skill gap, the coaches and captains needed to develop new strategies to ensure that practices met the needs of rookies while also continuing to advance the growth of experienced players. At tournaments, the addition of players resulted in fewer points per player.
While the team had a focus on the joy of being together and having a robust sideline, limited playing time frustrated returning players used to more time on the field and meant rookies could end up with fewer touches and a slower growth rate. Most importantly for Catholic, a team with an intentionally greater focus on community than competition, team leaders wondered if the connections that had developed organically with a smaller team would require more mindful nurturing across a larger roster.
The 2017 Season: Building Momentum
Coming into the 2017 season, captains Grace Castro and Sarah Abel decided to use the team’s expansion as an opportunity to cement a set of core values for Nun Betta: learning, open communication, and an orientation around the team over the individual. The captains and coaches used these principles when calling lines, basing playing time off of a player’s participation, including fundraising, van pick-up, and attendance in their considerations, rather than competitive ability.
While the team played mostly open lines, Catholic did not shy away from a competitive schedule, believing their team values could be compatible, and even necessary, for the team to succeed on the field on their own terms. Nun Betta thrived as the underdog, and they succeeded in breaking seed at every tournament that spring. These players enjoyed surprising higher ranked teams, from earning a few points against stalwart programs such as Virginia to contesting the likes of Maryland and American University in close games. The team adjusted to playing with ever-changing lines and grew more resilient from their on-field experiences, such as remaining present against lower-level teams, and learning to regain momentum after a hard loss.
With this mentality, Catholic quietly built the resume that earned them the no. 1 seed at 2017 ACCC, even as the rest of the division anticipated the Nationals bid going to one of their top conference competitors, namely UNC-Asheville Hellbenders and Elon Wild Rumpus. During the tournament, Nun Betta remained focused through an uncontested day of pool play, with the closest margin occurring in the first game against Elon, a 10-5 win. On Sunday, Catholic started strong in a 13-7 victory against Goucher in bracket play. In their semifinal against UNC-A Hellbenders, Nun Betta jumped ahead of Asheville by three, a lead eventually whittled down to a tight 8-7 score at half. The two teams traded points before they arrived at double game point, and Nun Betta edged out the win, final score 10-9. The momentum from that win fueled Catholic through the long opening points against Richmond Redhots. While both teams wrestled with fatigue, Nun Betta went on a five point run to take half 8-4 and secured their bid to Lexington with a 10-5 win.
Returning home after ACCC, the team confronted a set of unexpected questions that accompanied the joy of a bid to Nationals. Would they be able to hold any practices since the semester ended prior to Nationals weekend? How would everyone make it to Lexington and how would they fund it? Would they change their line-calling philosophy for the Championship tournament?
The answers to many of these questions rested with timing and logistics. The team could only hold a handful of practices prior to the end of the semester and players returning home. For funding, the team requested additional financial support from the university, receiving enough to cover the majority of the team’s projected expenses. The Catholic program has benefited from the level of support provided by the university, something not always seen at schools, D-III and D-I alike.
The players supplemented the university funds with additional fundraising effort in order to cover the costs associated with the large roster. The team leadership, led by head coach Steve “Scuba” Kreider, ensured that all who were available to attend could find a route to Lexington and fortunately, the weekend did not conflict with commencement. Most significantly, in determining a set of goals for Nationals, the team remained committed to using a full rotation of the roster over advancing as far as they could in the bracket.
At Nationals, Catholic came in as the no. 14 seed and approached the weekend as an opportunity for growth first and foremost. The image of success in Lexington rose from Nun Betta’s values: playing for the team and each other, continuing to grow the team’s positive culture, and learning from the other teams, none of which they had encountered during the regular season. During pool play, Nun Betta began with a solid game against Truman State TSUnami, losing 11-9, and quickly developed an admiration for their team’s spirit, particularly the leadership of Emilie Willingham.
Given that the team had not practiced together in the weeks prior to Nationals, the players worked to reestablish on-field chemistry in the following games: on defense, Catholic fought to contain the power of Bowdoin Chaos Theory (a 10-5 loss) and to build enough momentum on offense to break through Puget Sound Clearcut’s zone looks (a 12-8 loss). Catholic labored to win the gritty crossover game against Lehigh Gravity 10-9 and finished the tournament in 14th place after a loss on Sunday to the Haverford Sneetches 10-7.
Catholic left Lexington with a 1-4 record for the weekend. Even though the losses outnumbered the wins, the team went home with a sense of joy and pride. The lines at Nationals mirrored those of the regular season: every player had the chance to take the field. The players entered the tournament grounded in a sense of gratitude for each other and hungry to learn, leaving satisfied with their accomplishments.
The ‘Who’ Of Nun Betta
Over the course of the season, through the end of Nationals, Nun Betta benefited from a deep bench of players with an arsenal of talent. Of the 24 players on the Nationals roster, 12 players had assists and 14 players scored; seven players had three goals or more. As a leader, captain Grace Castro shone by galvanizing the players on and off the field with her infectious enthusiasm. Due to her considerable contributions, the team recognized her with the Donovan award nomination, and she earned a spot on the D-III All-American Second Team with eight assists and three goals.
At Nationals, Bridget “Beef” Finnell led the team in stats with 12 assists and 12 blocks, serving as an anchor handler and a key defender, frequently deployed to match up against the best handlers on the opposing team. Laurel “Carl” Van Scoy commanded respect on offense with her throwing power, and on defense through her physical positioning and sheer grit. Downfield, the handlers found a wealth of options including deep-field attacks from Peggy Stevick and Rachel Youngberg, the boundless endurance of Grace “Cahoon” Brodeur, and the diligent continuation cuts from Maddy Demaret. On defense, Catholic looked to Christine “Gram” Tomasic to yield turnovers with powerful acceleration through the disc and the fortitude to stay focused during long points.
While there is a temptation to highlight the team’s key playmakers, CUA credited their trip to Nationals to the closeness they fostered. While each player contributed to the team’s culture, a few stand out for their leadership beyond the field of play: Emily “EmBen” Benvenga for her consistent optimism, Izzy VanderBleek for her bright and vocal sideline, and Katie O’Brien for her abundant enthusiasm and reliable attendance in spite of the season-ending ACL injury sustained in the fall.
In addition to the dedicated leadership from the captains, head coach Kreider, D-III Women’s Coach of the Year Runner-up, provided critical infrastructure since the team’s establishment. Each year, Kreider builds his strategy around the vision set by the players, and his broader coaching philosophy aims to build opportunities for women in ultimate at every level: “There are so many barriers to women’s participation in athletics that my goal is to do everything I can to help women find their place in a sport that I have grown to love over the years. Not everyone will make ultimate an integral part of the rest of their life like I have, but I want to make sure that everyone gets to make that choice for themselves.” His dedication to women’s ultimate includes coaching Suffrage, a women’s club team in D.C., and the introduction of women to the coaching staff with the additions of Layne Scherer in the fall of 2015, followed by Blaire Thomson and Finnell as an alumna in the fall of 2017.
With support from the coaching staff and the team captains, Catholic saw the highest number of returning players and graduates make club rosters or sign up for leagues last summer in its brief history, from which the team has benefited from on the field.1
In effort to confront the misguided belief that D-III players lack the preparation and pedigree for club, Kreider leads a conversation every spring to demystify club tryouts and introduce other options for play in the summer. The team leadership uses the D.C. Women’s Club Combine as a gateway into the tryout season and as an opportunity for Catholic players to see themselves as potential club players. For players interested in club, Kreider explains the ways college and club ultimate differ, walking through decisions between women’s and mixed, and alleviating the anxiety surrounding the tryout process for new players.
The 2018 Season: “Tada Gan Iarracht”
In the fall of 2017, the Catholic leadership experienced a sense of déjà vu when the time came to shape the strategy for the upcoming season. Many of the questions from the previous year regarding line calling philosophies, practice structure, and challenges with a growing roster reappeared with the added hunger of seeking a repeat bid to Nationals. Castro, returning as captain, reflected on the key features that made the team click.
“Our team was driven by the motivation to play for each other,” she said. “With a focus on commitment to the team, we were able to play our best and have fun. The success was just a bonus on the side.”
Joined by Tomasic, a newly appointed captain, the team leadership decided to stick to their original recipe: build a team that players enjoyed being on and letting the results follow from there, whatever they may be.
Throughout the fall, the captains inducted the rookie class to the Catholic ultimate motto, Tada Gan Iarracht, Gaelic for “nothing without effort.” During Nun Betta’s fall tournament schedule, Delaware Classic (record: 5-2), Hammertime (record: 6-2), and George Mason University Extinction Romp (record: 2-3), the team expressed their central beliefs with another program tradition- the presentation of a BETTA band to players who have been exemplars in the following aspects over the course of a tournament:
- Be positive
- Ever present
- Takes mistakes in stride
- Teammates first and last
- Accepts the uncontrollable
According to Tomasic, these bands help bind the team to their core values.“The upperclassmen and captains are ready to show the rookies and underclassmen the five pillars of the team as exemplified by the BETTA bands,” she said. “As a team, we are ready to take BETTA in stride as we eagerly await our spring season.”
Castro and Tomasic have awarded four players with a BETTA band over the fall season: Abby Grabowski, Natalie Hahn, Emily “DJ” Jansen, and Victoria “Smalls” Kirkman, whose presence on the field will be missed due to her semester abroad this spring.
Looking to the spring, the team loses not only Kirkman but also Maddy Demaret, who propelled the team with seven goals at Nationals, abroad for all of the 2017-2018 academic year. To offset the losses, Catholic looks to four players returning from fall study abroad: Sarah “GG” Grupp, Sarah “Zinc” Lynch, Katie O’Brien, and Izzy Vander Bleek. These returners will need to play a crucial role in developing the team’s large rookie class by providing on-field direction, leading the team’s vocal sideline, and teaching new players team cheers, particularly the cherished “Pope Mobile.”
Catholic began their 2018 season in early February at Hucking and Shucking in Chapel Hill, NC, fielding a roster of 25 players with 10 rookies, three of whom joined the program in January. The team went 3-2 over the weekend, losing a close game to Wake Forest in pool play and to Virginia Tech, 12-5, in the semis. Upon returning to campus post-tournament, captains Castro and Tomasic called a team meeting not to discuss the weekend’s record but to open a team conversation based on feedback related to playing time. Between the large roster and exceeded expectations in attendance, communication, and fundraising from players, the equal playing time philosophy had resulted in each player getting to play a maximum of four points per game. This four point limit made it difficult for players to develop chemistry and on-field connections with a new line each time, game after game. As noted by Castro, “the team has raised the bar, and we’re pushing the players harder because they have stepped up to the challenge.”
The outcome of the meeting: Nun Betta elected to keep the same playing time strategy, with leadership introducing new avenues for participation and bars for players to strive to hit, including more options for pod workouts, weekly strategy and film chats, and coach “office hours” to work on agility, throwing, and technique. The team also began selecting one returner per practice for a “spotlight practice,” to address feedback from returning players–notably second-year players who no longer received the level of attention they had as rookies but still felt like they needed more individual support to continue growing in the early stages of their ultimate careers.
For a spotlight practice, one of the assistant coaches discusses the player’s goals before practice, spends the practice helping the player work on her goals, and follows up with a recap and resources for the player to continue working on those goals during and outside of practice. These practices not only help each player identify specific ways to improve, but it also helps the growing bench of coaches deepen their understanding of each player’s personal goals and build stronger connections with each member of the roster.
The team also discussed another potential change for Catholic: the option to split the team. Weighing the benefits of additional playing time with the same teammates against the challenges in retaining a sense of unity in the program, the players decided against making major changes to the program for the 2018 season, laying the groundwork for next year’s leadership to continue the conversation around how a program can retain its centralized identity between multiple teams.
Even with tweaks and additions to their process, Nun Betta remains focused on the 2018 season. Practice by practice, point by point, the women of Catholic look to uphold the BETTA pillars, remember “Tada Gan Iarracht”, and sustain their commitment to the team and to one another to truly consider themselves successful this spring. Whether or not the they find their way to Rockford this spring, the goal for Catholic looms larger: nurturing a love of ultimate and building a team legacy of friendship that exists beyond any single tournament.
You can find more on Nun Betta through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. The team’s schedule includes Hucking and Shucking, February 4-5 (Chapel Hill, NC- final results 3-2); Commonwealth Cup, February 24-25 (Martinsville, VA); Tournament TBD, March 24-25; and the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, April 14-15 (Glen Allen, VA).
The second act in a Tale of III Teams will focus on the door-to-door campaign that built Christopher Newport University’s women’s program, and the questions they face going into their second season of existence.
Club representation includes Castro, Washington DC GRIT; Maddy Demaret, Chicago Frenzy, Finnell, Washington DC Sparkleponies; Victoria “Smalls” Kirkman, Connecticut Baywatch; Tomasic, Washington DC Suffrage; and Van Scoy, Denver Sweet Action. Emily “Yams” McGuire and Anne “AP Exam” Perry played through the Philadelphia Area Disc Alliance leagues. ↩