A Tale of III Teams: Christopher Newport University Airbenders

Fighting through the obstacles and challenges of starting a new D-III women's programs is already starting to pay off for Christopher Newport University.

The CNU Airbenders on the Line
The CNU Airbenders on the Line

During the third game of pool play at the 2017 Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, Christopher Newport University claimed their first win as a program over Davidson DUFF. The win was as unexpected as the team’s appearance at ACCCs, as Christopher Newport submitted a bid in the eleventh-hour with only eight players on the tournament roster. As the team reached the fourth game of the day, the players endured the struggle of long points on exhausted legs against an opponent rich in subs. While the fatigue threatened the team’s morale, Caroline Tsui, the founder of the Christopher Newport University women’s ultimate program, pushed the team across the finish line. Even though Christopher Newport lost that final game 10-1, the program had already earned their first win earlier that day and, more importantly, secured a different kind of victory in completing its first day of tournament play.

For the second act of the Tale of III Teams series, the spotlight moves from the Catholic University of America and the upward trajectory that snagged their first bid to Nationals, to shine on a team in its formative years in Christopher Newport. What motivated Tsui to establish the program? How did she recruit players in the first year? How did the core group of players transition the team into its second year? As the women’s division continues to grow at the college level, Christopher Newport’s origin story may light the way for developing teams and players who aspire to forming new teams across the country.

Act II: Building a Place to Belong

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Upon arrival as a freshman at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA, Caroline Tsui wanted to turn the knee injury that ended her time as a gymnast into an opportunity to pursue a team activity. During Christopher Newport’s Fall Activities Fair, Tsui visited the table of the Skymaul ultimate team to learn more about the sport. The chance to learn ultimate held a unique appeal: unlike other team sports, such as basketball, soccer, and volleyball which most students have played from an early age, ultimate had no such prerequisites. Even though she could not make the team’s interest meeting, the sport had hooked Tsui’s curiosity, and she decided to attend the team’s first practice later that week.

Tsui’s absence from that interest meeting may have been an act of serendipity in the long run. During the interest meeting, the Skymaul leadership specified that the current program participated as a D-III men’s team1. While two or three women would show interest each year, few elected to participate once they discovered it was a men’s team. Without hearing that message, Tsui arrived at the fields for the first practice, and realized she was one of three women in attendance. As a true rookie with no experience beyond the casual pick-up game, Tsui faced the double challenge of learning the sport and navigating a male-dominated space. Beyond the physical intimidation of competing alongside significantly larger players, most of the players also came prepared with cleats and prior field sport experience.

Despite these challenges, the first practice and the chance to prove herself ignited a passion for the game: “My first practice, I caught a point, so I figured I shouldn’t give up. I kept showing up to practices because honestly no one told me I shouldn’t be there. Also, I was pissed that they thought they could just ignore me, and I’d go away.”

Over the course of the fall 2016 semester, Tsui continued to practice with Skymaul. While the players did not deny her the opportunity to participate in practice, they regarded her ongoing attendance with reactions ranging from amusement to neglect. Skymaul believed that they knew the end of Tsui’s ultimate story. In the 2015-2016 academic year, a group of three players had banded together to form a women’s team, and Skymaul leadership supported their establishment by opening up their practices and shared the team’s charter as a guide to establish one with the university. As other D-III schools with a limited student population–most of which had not played or heard of ultimate before college–have realized, the leaders of nascent women’s clubs had trouble securing interest from enough players. As a result, the team dissolved before it had even fully formed.

For Tsui, who had not witnessed these efforts first hand, Skymaul’s treatment struck a more obstructive tone. She noted how the team treated her differently than the other recruits. Under the belief that women could not join the official team roster for Series and sanctioned play, Skymaul did not permit Tsui to formalize her place on the team through paying team dues. They refrained from adding her to the team’s exclusive social media accounts. Despite the obstacles, Tsui resolved to learn the game and refused to let the setbacks terminate her interest in playing ultimate. “It was nothing personal,” Tsui stated. “They were not mean to me, but it’s a men’s team, and I’m not a man.”

Christopher Newport Airbenders at Extinction ROMP 2017. Photo: Taylor Nguyen — UltiPhotos.com

A Door-to-Door Campaign

When she returned to campus in January 2017, Tsui decided that she did not want to return to Skymaul. Instead, “I wanted to create a place where people could feel like they belong” after her first semester experience, and that desire compelled her to start a women’s team. To build interest, Tsui embarked on a door-to-door campaign to recruit players for the team, and registered to set up a table at the Winter Club Fair. She believed she could assemble a small roster, remembering that Skymaul players had told her that a few women every year would contact the team with an interest in ultimate. While Tsui arrived at the Fair with a sense of fear in not being able to attract enough players, with each woman she met during the event, her hope grew. At the interest meeting following the club fair, Tsui was delighted by the number of players who attended, and began to organize the team in earnest.

From this first group of recruits, a core group emerged to anchor the new team, which they called Rosemary: junior AnneMarie Galati and freshmen Sarah Edmonds, Angelica Jennings, and Erin Smith.

After hearing about the new women’s ultimate team, Edmonds joined the team on a whim, drawn to the spirit of the game and the free-spirited attitudes of the other players. Not only did she fall in love with the sport, she also fell in love with the new team and the positive culture that emphasized development, noting that “I like being on a new team because we are learning and improving together.”

For Galati, Tsui took note of her athletic appearance at the Winter Club Fair and struck up a conversation while they waited for nachos. According to Galati, “I had not heard of ultimate frisbee as a sport until coming to college. I had played many other sports in the past, mainly softball, and I was hyped to be involved with a new team, meet new players, and play a sport that is not as well known!” From her first practice, Galati drew from her general athletic background, including her experience fielding in softball to disc reading and positioning, and has been a stalwart part of the team since.

After four years of playing volleyball, Jennings wanted a change of pace and discovered ultimate as an opportunity to challenge herself with a new sport. For Jennings, the bonds created with her teammates have been a critical part of her college experience, and she noted “This team has made me feel like a part of CNU.”

Smith was the other woman who attended the first Skymaul practices with Tsui in the fall of 2016. While she did not have interest in trying to play with and find a place within the men’s program, her interest returned when contacted during the recruitment drive. Having played soccer since she was five, Smith quickly translated her field awareness and endurance for the ultimate syntax.

In addition to building a roster and establishing the program through the university’s channels, Tsui applied to the USAU Women’s Startup Project to help get the team off the ground. The award included free USAU college memberships over 3 years, a free team start-up kit, support in locating a coach plus a free coach membership, and access to the women’s alumni support network. Christopher Newport was one of nine teams who received the award when the project launched in March 20172. Given the expenses that come with funding a new team, Tsui cited this award as a critical part of the team’s development. The award allowed Tsui to limit the dues to $20 a person, enough to cover the cost of t-shirts to serve as their jerseys. With only 8 women on the roster, any factor that would have deterred even a single player from committing could have jeopardized the team’s very existence.

While Tsui provided energetic leadership for her team, the first semester was not all smooth sailing. The size of the team limited what they could accomplish at practice and they had only half the numbers ideal for a full scrimmage. Through Tsui’s leadership and the nature of the team’s origin, an attitude of perseverance appeared as a dominant trait in the team’s DNA. The team worked around the low numbers, gaining experience by organizing scrimmages with other teams, such as William and Mary’s B-team and Radford College. In addition to a spirit of determination, the team also grew with a sense of gratitude. The team appreciated each accomplishment as a victory in and of itself: putting points on the board in scrimmages and games, pushing teams to universe, and developing a chemistry on and off the field together, such as gathering for screenings of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

While Tsui and the core leadership team were busy creating the team’s culture, the program benefited from the presence of Nat Choate, one of Skymaul’s captains, provided coaching guidance to the Rosemary team. Choate came to college touting a strong ultimate resume after 4 years with Wilbert Tucker Woodson High School’s team and a year with the YCC team Deadrise. At Christopher Newport, Choate became captain of Skymaul as a freshman starting in spring 2015, the first year the team submitted a roster through USAU and began attending sanctioned tournaments. By fall 2016, Choate was a member of the Skymaul executive board and witnessed Tsui’s persistence over the course of the semester. In contrast to the previous attempts, Choate realized that Tsui was different: when she stopped practicing with Skymaul and instead recruited the numbers to form a women’s team in spring 2016, Tsui approached Choate to help the team in a coaching role.

“What made me interested in helping the team and seeking help from my fellow players was definitely their level of persistence,” Choate said regarding his decision to accept the offer. He echoed Tsui when recounting the challenges the program faced, low numbers and inconsistent attendance, Choate recognizes the power of the team’s positive culture: “The best thing about their team though is they have fun, and what’s been the most rewarding with the team is the growth. Overall their team is always having fun, it doesn’t matter if they win or lose. They are always heads up, smiles on their faces and having fun while they learn and improve their game.”

Toward the end of the semester, Tsui made the executive decision to take the team to the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships to give the team the opportunity to play at their first sanctioned tournament together with the bid fee covered by Steve Krieder, the TD of the event and the coach of Catholic University. The preamble to the tournament did not bode well for the women of Christopher Newport: one player was unable to attend at the last minute and Choate could not join the team that weekend. With the eight remaining players in tow, Christopher Newport began the day with a 10-3 loss to Elon Wild Rumpus and followed with a close game with St. Mary’s SMUT, losing by one point.

Harnessing the excitement from the previous game, Christopher Newport battled through long points against Davidson DUFF to earn their first victory, a count of 5-3. After playing three games in a row and coming off of the grueling points against Davidson, fatigue got the better of Christopher Newport in their game against Catholic. The team elected to skip the second day of the tournament due to low numbers, allowing the players the chance to rest and recover from their first ever appearance at a sanctioned tournament.

Christopher Newport Airbenders at Extinction ROMP 2017. Photo: Taylor Nguyen — UltiPhotos.com

Rising to New Challenges

Following Christopher Newport’s first season, Tsui sought opportunities for growth in ultimate. She attended club tryouts in D.C. and Virginia to gain exposure to more experienced players, for additional playing time, and to get feedback from coaches and club team leadership on her progress as a player. While she didn’t secure a spot on a club roster, Tsui began to acquaint herself with the Richmond ultimate community and eventually connected with Kristin Cochran, who would become Christopher Newport’s first head coach starting in the fall of 2017.

Prior to sustaining an injury in 2007 and spending more time with her growing family, Cochran played at the club level with Bnogo, a women’s team from the D.C.-Baltimore area, and the Annapolis All-Stars, a mixed team from Maryland. Cochran saw the coaching position at Christopher Newport as an opportunity to contribute to the local ultimate community as well as the growth of the sport in general: “I was interested in coaching the Christopher Newport women’s team to give back to the sport, but also because there has long been a shortage of women players in our area. We have also generally had a shortage of opportunities for new players to learn the fundamentals of the game; learning is difficult if your only option is to join a league without having tried the sport before!”

Cochran, along with the continuing presence of Choate, now in his senior year, alleviated pressure from the players by bringing in the understanding of the game that a player can only gain through years of experience. The coaches also provided support in helping the team design practices, introduce concepts and drills, and providing guidance to each player in her growth trajectory.

Beyond the addition of a coach, Christopher Newport’s sophomore year came with a number of changes. Tsui underwent ACL surgery in the first week of the semester and looked to the incoming captains, Smith and Galati, to lead the team. After a team rebranding from Rosemary to the Christopher Newport University Airbenders, Smith and Galati have since carried on without skipping a beat. As Tsui described her deep trust and respect in the current captains, as well as the rest of the team, to continue onward: “I’m not worried for my team at all if I, or even Erin or AnneMarie, went MIA for awhile. My ACL surgery proved that to me. If a core executive board member falls, someone will invariably pick up the slack. My team will go on, long after I have graduated.”

In addition to the executive board, Edmonds has been a pivotal part of continuing to building chemistry off the field in her role as social chair, organizing spa days, bowling trips, and movie nights. Beyond the time the players share as a group, the team has also begun to build their own traditions for the program. They’ve recognized each other’s key traits with the presentation of superlative awards (“Prius Award” for best hybrid player, “Huck Finn” award for most hucks), created their own white jerseys, and eaten together as a team after practices.

The small, tight-knit roster established in the first year gave all the returning players a strong sense of ownership over the program, a feeling that has given them the drive to ensure that the team continues to grow. With new strategic leadership from the coaches, the captains and returning players narrowed their focus on improving their individual play and building chemistry. As Cochran regarded the potential of the team, “I was immediately impressed by the Christopher Newport team because the core players were athletic, eager to learn, and already hooked on ultimate. But they are also focused on building their team and welcoming in as many new women as possible. With so many new players, my focus for the spring is on building strong fundamentals.”

For the spring, the team has turned to handlers Jackie Bowers, Claire Holland, and Sarah Risinger to lead the team from the backfield with Jennings studying abroad and Tsui’s limited playing time during her recovery. Looking forward, the team has spoke of high hopes for this year’s freshman class including Alese Devin, Sarah Gaston, Charley Mitchell, and Kelly Timlen.

Tsui has remained a part of the program’s leadership and has supported the team’s recruiting efforts, helping build a roster of nearly 20 players, a far cry from the stalwart eight of the 2017 spring season. The added efforts already paid dividends this fall, a rapid return on investment in the team’s second semester of existence. In 2017-2018, they came back against teams they lost in the previous season, such as William and Mary-B, and fought hard in games against University of Mary Washington. While they faced stiff competition at George Mason University’s Extinction Romp tournament, Tsui recognize the value of playing more experienced teams for the Airbenders: “We still have our challenges, off the field, we still struggle with numbers and aspects of logistics. On the field, morale can be hard to keep up when we lose every game. Despite the problems, we treasure the points and the accomplishments we get. We have Kristin, who is out there with us rain or shine, and that level of dedication brings people together. We are just out there to be us, as a team.”

A Bright Future

Planning for the future, Tsui has an eye toward personal recovery. While stepping back as a captain and assuming the role as team president, she has taken on a steady regimen of PT, limited drills, and handling for a few points as her knee allows. For the team, Tsui offers her gratitude to the players who made the team a reality. “Even today I am still extremely thankful for my team. Whenever I step onto a field before practice I am grateful and so proud of them,” she says. Tsui has noted that her hopes for the team register beyond those that could been seen in a win-loss record, citing the establishment of a team identity, deep friendships, and a culture of inclusion as her ultimate goals for the Airbender program.

When asked about her contributions to the sport on a national scale, Tsui’s comments highlight her work ethic and humility: “I work on my throws everyday. I have club aspirations. Even though I didn’t make a team last year, and I made mistakes at tryouts, I know that I learned and I just want to get better, for myself and for the Airbenders.”

The Airbender leadership will continue to look for opportunities to build bridges with local ultimate events, such as their recent participation at the Richmond Women’s Development Combine hosted by Virginia Rebellion, GRIT, and Richmond Ultimate on this past Febuary. “It was a great experience where I was able to improve my skills. It was wonderful interacting with other teams and having the chance to learn more about the game from watching more experienced players,” noted Edmonds, who attended alongside Ari Kopf, Abigail Sowalla, and Tsui.

At this time last year, the Christopher Newport University women’s team had barely come into formation. Today, through the efforts of Caroline Tsui; the team’s core leadership in Edmonds, Galati, Jennings, and Smith; and coaches Cochran and Choate, the team has a deeper level of experience heading into their spring 2018 season. In particular, Tsui has succeeded in developing a place for women to learn ultimate and to grow in the company of a team. While no one can guarantee where the Airbenders’ journey will take them, as long as the team remains a place where people feel like they can belong, the team will continue to soar.

You can find more on the CNU Airbenders through Facebook, Instagram (@AirbendersUltimateCNU), or Twitter (@AirbendersCNU). With increased interest from both programs, the Christopher Newport University men’s and women’s teams have scheduled mixed practices every other week.

The third and final chapter of the Tale of III Teams series leaps from the East Coast to the Midwest to hear the story of Missouri S&T Miner Threat. As a great deal of ultimate activity remains concentrated on the coasts, we’ll hear how this team has grown as equal part of the co-ed Miner Threat ultimate program and has navigated the challenge of competitive connectivity in the U.S. heartland.

  1. Until recently, the team was unaware that per USAU guidelines women are eligible to compete in both divisions 

  2. The other 2017 recipients were the Allegheny Hellbenderitas, Drexel Spitfire, East Carolina Black Pearl, Pittsburgh High Voltage, Providence Women’s Ultimate, Saint Joseph’s University Dirty Doves, St. Thomas Rainy Day Women, and Wheaton Mastodonnas. 

  1. Layne Scherer

    Layne Scherer is an assistant coach for Catholic University of America. She has played for University of Michigan B-Fly and Suffrage (D.C.). She is an occasional contributor to Ultiworld's DIII women's coverage because she believes the sport deserves to have more female voices in the conversation.

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