For the geographically isolated women of Missouri S&T's Miner Threat, they have built a strong community with the men's side of their program.
May 4, 2018 by Layne Scherer in Profile with 0 comments
Much of the coverage of ultimate gravitates towards the coasts, the historic hubs of activity. At the college level, programs with great success often rely on the density of institutions in local regions, like New England, or are adept at acquiring the financial resources to connect with peer teams, like in the Southwest. For teams in the Bay Area, Seattle, or Boston, the existing infrastructure of club teams, local organizations, and an informal community can help provide support to college teams through coaching, alumni connections, and a growing pipeline of homegrown high school talent. Beyond community conversations, coverage often gravitates towards these places as well, shining the spotlight on already bright areas.
For the third and final act in the DIII series, we leave the Atlantic Coast and focus on the players of Miner Threat from Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T), located in Rolla, MO. In the preseason, the South Central Region drew attention as a storyline to watch, given the close results between the three teams who attended 2017 South Central Conference Championships (SCCCs) and with reigning champion Truman State University TSUnami facing the loss of key roster elements. While any of these three teams would have offered an interesting profile, there was a fourth team in the South Central in 2017 that had a solid season yet did not make it to SCCCs: Miner Threat. What kept this team from attending? What are the challenges and benefits of a small roster?How has this program thrived in an area with fewer ultimate-related resources?
We asked the women of Missouri S&T share their story of their program, shed light on their 2017 performance, and reflect on their 2018 season.
Act III: Forged in the Fire
Missouri S&T Miner Threat
The Challenges of D-III Connectivity
As the ultimate community discusses equity, much of the conversation focuses on the dimensions of gender and race. The moral imperatives related to providing equitable access and inclusive environments go beyond the communities of ultimate and sports–the calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion and the subsequent questions they raise have long been part of our institutions of higher education. As campuses provide context and setting for students and their teams, the issues that rise at one level will likely trickle down or flow up into the other.
In addition to gender, and race, the issues related to access and equity can also exist along geography. If you’ve followed coverage of D-III, even in a broad capacity, you have probably heard about the struggles related to intra-division connectivity. As shown in the map above, featuring the ranked 2017 D-III teams in the women’s division, outside of the East Coast it is clear that teams in the rest of the country faces significant geographic barriers when finding competition. For schools located hours from major cities or in less densely populated areas, the very nature of their location can limit access to tournaments, demand more time and money for travel, reduce additional opportunities to play with league and club, and provide fewer resources in candidates for coaching or other support.
Despite the sum of these challenges, teams must navigate the constraints to chart their course for each season. A schedule that balances the practical, logistical, and financial realities may result in limited games during the regular season and may end the postseason before it even begins. For players with the passion and drive to break into the competitive club scene, fewer opportunities may be within reach to make the transition accessible. We can see these struggles not in just theory but the reality faced by the women of Missouri S&T.
Digging Deep with Miner Threat
At Missouri S&T, there is one ultimate program: Miner Threat. The team began in 2004, established as a mixed gender program from its origin. While the numbers for female players fluctuated over the years, by 2013 the program included enough women to create a separate roster and travel to tournaments on their own in the fall and spring each year.
Even as the women’s team has fledged, the program remained united, with over 40 players paying joint dues in the 2017-2018 season. The team held mixed practices three days a week, plus additional conditioning opportunities on the side, and had a single governing board where female players are encouraged and supported, by players of all genders, to run for positions on the board. Currently, Catherine Mittlieder serves as the program’s treasurer, and in previous years women have held positions including that of the program’s Vice President. Players socialize with each other and travel together as their schedules allow. Fifth year senior captain Kelly Dunlap praised the camaraderie across the program: “We’re really lucky. They [the male players on Miner Threat] are really happy for us. It’s a single team. They’ve been very supportive.”
For the women of Miner Threat, they have seen the unified program as beneficial to their development. The program did not have a consistent coach and relied on the more experienced players to lead new players into an understanding of the sport’s strategy and concept. Many of the male players arrive on the doorstep of Missouri S&T with high school experience as well as club experience on the local Missouri open and mixed teams.1 The players with a deeper background in the sport willingly shared the knowledge with all of the players, inclusive of both genders. Louie Bertoncin, a senior captain for the men’s team, believes in the benefits of mixed practices and the shared program.
“[The practices] not only help build team camaraderie, but aid in every player’s development, because no matter what skill level or play style a teammate has, there is likely something to learn from the way they play the game,” said Bertoncin. “Every player has a unique take on how to play the sport, and it’s something I don’t feel like I’ve fully realized until my time as captain.”
While the day-to-day management of practices came from the captains, local alumni made an effort to provide guidance to the team. Specific alumni leadership came from Alan Zagier, who served an advisor to the program. Since he lives outside of Rolla, he could not attend every team event, but he shared his wealth of experience with the program at the practices and meetings he could make. Broader outreach to alumni included an alumni game over St. Patrick’s Day weekend, a much celebrated holiday on campus, and a more recent alumni workshop, started in spring 2017, to welcome Miner Threat alumni back to campus to help run drills and practice with the current players. For spring 2018, two of the alumni who attended, Stephen “CP” Hawkins and Ryan Jarvis, who play for the mixed club team Chalice out of St. Louis, MO, offered their feedback as well as drills the team has since incorporated into their playbook.
Even though the program provides infrastructure and organization for all players, this is not to say that Miner Threat does not recognize the logistical differences for the two divisions. The men’s team tends to attend more tournaments per season, as there have more options within driving distance in the men’s division than the women’s. For the women’s team, their schedule for spring 2018 included Dust Bowl in Tulsa, OK (4 hour and 15 minute drive) and Midwest Throwdown in Columbia, MO (a 1 hour and 45 minute drive).
Yet, as far as options go, the women of Missouri S&T had few other options aside from these back-to-back weekends. Siloam Showdown in Siloam Springs, AK, while only a 4 hour drive, took place the weekend after Midwest Throwdown and would have required the players to attend tournaments three weekends in a row. Old Capitol Open in Marion, IA and Bamboozler in Cedar Falls would have been the next closest options, clocking in at a 5 hour 30 minute drive and 6 hour 15 minute drive, respectively; however, both of these took place during the University’s spring break (and were also cancelled). Looking forward to 2018 SCCCs, attendance would have demanded an 11 hour and 30 minute drive (without stops) or 2 hour 30 minute flight to reach Houston, TX.
The program as a whole has recognized the difference in tournament costs and the number of players, as the program has had 2-3 times more male than female players. As a result, the team discussed lowering the annual team dues, under the assumption that the women’s team utilized less money for bid fees. This conversation, which ended in a mutual decision to keep dues the same for all players, exemplifies the open communication and trust built into the Miner Threat culture by the program’s leadership. While the team splits into two rosters to compete in the separate college divisions, Miner Threat’s mixed practices, leadership, and culture binds them in a united front.
We Few, We Happy Few
For the 2017 season, of the 40 total players paying dues to the program, 10 were women. In 2018, that number rose to 12. While these numbers may seem low, they represent a steady increase from 7-8 players in the 2013-2016 seasons. The ratio of men to women involved in Miner Threat also reflects with the ratio of students at Missouri S&T–77% male and 23% female–and directly relates to the challenges the women of Miner Threat face in building their roster at an already small school. For the female student population at Missouri S&T, there is a level of competition to draw them to the school’s clubs.
“The women at our school tend to be involved in a number of activities,” said sophomore Catherine Mittlieder. “For a sport like ultimate, which some students haven’t heard of previously, it can be a challenge from the recruiting position.”
In order to stand out, Miner Threat employs a few strategies to retain players over the year.
“There are design teams and video club events…But those that attend, we put hooks in them through GroupMe; they are drawn to the social aspect,” said Dunlap.
At the start of each season, Miner Threat adds incoming players to all social events, such as the team dinners before tournaments, and returning players work to welcome the rookies by developing friendships to encourage them to return.
For the current players on Miner Threat, most of them came from an athletic background and embraced the culture in ultimate, which they found more welcoming and accepting than other sports. Courtney Munch, a 5th year player, reflected on the unique aspect of the sport she found appealing. “I saw a difference from the first game that I watched. I was raised on soccer, and I saw the sport run people into the ground. There’s a different sense of empathy in ultimate,” said Munch.
Her comments reflect the team’s broader understanding of the sport, beyond the Missouri S&T program itself, in a shared sense of respect rooted in the Spirit of the Game. As many of the same teams cross paths throughout the course of any season, the players build friendships with the opponents they see on a consistent basis.
“People crave this kind of community. It’s healthier. If there’s conflict, we talk about the rules. That’s an important skill, and it encourages sportsmanship,” said Dunlap. “Everyone is really cool. We all want to be friends with each other.”
The Miner Threat program in particular focuses on building a culture that welcomes all students at the institution. As a school focused on science and technology, the curricular demands from these subjects add an additional layer of demands to the student athletes and considerations for leadership. While leaving for a tournament on a Friday for students at other schools would not raise an issue, the students at Missouri S&T face a different academic culture. Given the norms on campus, the team selects tournaments that allow a late Friday or early Saturday departure and allow them to return early enough on a Sunday to give them the ability to participate in class on Monday. Once the team finds tournaments that meet the distance requirement, the leadership considers the availability for each player. With a roster of 10 or 12 players, “we really can’t afford to miss anyone,” as senior Ashley Longrie notes.
A small roster certainly has its challenges: limited subs, increased risk of injury, and a smaller sideline for support. On the other hand, a tight-knit team can produce benefits, as described by Dunlap: “We’re a team with grit. I know every player’s style. We’ve been playing with each other for years and we’ve grown up and with each other. Everyone should be comfortable to throw. You have to be efficient.” The chemistry develops as the same players share the field for nearly every point in a game and in all the games in a tournament. The familiarity and trust reinforce each other over the course of the season.
As a developing team, the program also respects the room for individual and team growth. The bond is forged in the fire and tempered by the heat of the experience. Playing near savage, each player learns to depend on her teammates for support to grind through long points and any other low points. From Dunlap: “There’s a certain kind of intimacy of collective misery. We’ve been through a lot together. We have to give everything for each other. We’re watching each other crawl off the field. We have to pump each other up. We don’t get breaks–we full on commit to each other. We may never walk again. We grow so much.”
Looking back at results from the 2016-17 season, Miner Threat’s small and mighty roster accomplished a great deal in their season. While the team went 2-5 at Dust Bowl, they had two close losses against SC competitor John Brown Savage Skies. The team also broke seed at Dustbowl, starting at no. 10 and finishing in 8th. From there, the team went 5-1 at Midwest Throwdown, including grinding out two close victories: 11-10 over John Brown and 14-13 over Arkansas SoCo. The team broke seed again, coming into the tournament in no. 27 and finishing at 17th. In the season’s losses, Miner Threat put points on the board against Kansas Betty (15-4) and Denver Hype (14-6).
With that resume, one would think they’d be able to play spoiler at SCCCs. A small team with a good season, deep chemistry, and nothing to lose? It’s the making of an underdog story. While the team sought to break expectations, when the team looked to attend SCCCs, the situation did not look favorable. One of the costs of a small roster is the toll on the players’ bodies. With three of ten players out from injuries sustained over the season, the sheer distance to Houston, and the academic conflicts, the team decided that the cost of the postseason was too high. Even though the team believed they could have performed well, they remained in Rolla while Truman State University TSUnami won the round robin over Rice and John Brown to take the bid to Nationals.
Distance Against Ambition
While the women of Miner Threat have a deep commitment to each other and the game, many have run into challenges to deepen their game during the summer club season. The players, who tend to leave Rolla for the summer, lamented that they often do not find out where their summer jobs and internships will take them until after the club tryout season begins or they land in areas where there aren’t teams or leagues readily available. In this instance, the lack of coach and general community around Missouri S&T compounds when looking to make connections for club. If a coach has played in a number of cities or has contacts elsewhere, they can advocate and make connections on behalf of their players, as other D-III program have benefited from in recent years. Access to a broader community of ultimate players, who can likewise tap into other networks, can help college players navigate a path between the academic and club tryout calendar.
For the players who remained in Missouri, the nearby women’s club teams included Filthy Gorgeous (St. Louis, MO) and Wicked (Kansas City, KS) for the 2017 club season.2 For mixed, there were four ranked club teams listed in the Missouri in 2017: Thoroughbred, Chalice, Free Ride, and Blitzkrieg.
Other options for league included the St. Louis Ultimate Association, Kansas City Ultimate Association, and the Columbia Missouri Ultimate Association. From Rolla, MO, St. Louis and Columbia are the closest at a one hour and 40 minute drive, while Kansas City is a 3 hour and 40 minute drive. No returning player for next year will have club experience.
While players from the men’s team stayed in the area and earned spots on the local club teams, most players from the women’s did not have the opportunity to make the connections in the cities in which they spent their summers or, like Rolla, those cities were similarly distanced from ultimate opportunities. Dunlap also noted that even if she had the time to try out and earn a spot on a club roster, a 3 hour round trip drive for practices and travel for tournaments would have been a challenge on top of a demanding internship schedule, with days starting as early as 7:00am and limited ability to take time off. While some younger players at the club level may be comfortable making drives this distance or longer for their teams, others may not have the resources (a dependable mode of transportation, gas money, or time) to make the commitment.
Once More Unto the Breach
Coming back to campus for the 2017-18 season, the women of Miner Threat hoped to fly under the radar and continue to play the underdog. They went 3-6 at Dust Bowl, breaking seed to take 8th place after a loss to Carleton Eclipse. At Midwest Throwdown, they finished 3-3 for the weekend, falling from no. 16 to 22nd place overall. They suffered two close losses over the weekend: 11-10 against Wisconsin Eau-Claire during pool play and Minnesota Duluth in the 17th place quarters. For intra-division play, while they notched a 10-8 result over Luther in pool play, they fell 5-4 in the 21st place rematch.
For 2018 SCCCs, the Miner Threat women faced the same challenges as they did in 2017. The tournament was again hosted in Houston, meaning no funding for flights, a 11 hour 30 minute drive without any stops, and limited availability due to academic demands. Junior Captain Erin Mann attributed their absence from SCCCs this year fully to resources and timing. “We would like nothing more than to be able to attend, but we just don’t have the means to get there,” said Mann.
While the team reached out to USAU coordinators to compete in the D-I Conference tournament, a more manageable 5 hour 30 minute drive to Fayetteville, AR, their request was denied. The team had a similar request denied in the 2016 when they asked to compete at the D-I event in nearby St. Louis rather than make the long trek to Houston. As in 2017, the Miner Threat Women’s season ended due to logistics, with the team and those in D-III wondering what might have been. At the same time, the Miner Threat men advanced to the D-III College Championships for the first time.
Regardless of the team’s final performance, the women of Miner Threat remain dedicated to a future in ultimate. For example, Mann expressed her commitment via her perfect practice attendance (one of three players to do so) and has been a key part of an additional workout program, helping build accountability through Snapchat check-ins and a Google sheet for tracking participation. As a program, they hope that the returning players will continue to serve in leadership roles and remain dedicated to recruiting new students to the sport.
“We think the program will continue to develop. We’ve seen four to five additional players join over the year,” said Mann. “We believe the women’s team will survive and hopefully thrive in future years.”
As part of the larger Miner Threat program, Bertoncin echoed his belief and commitment to development for players of all genders: “Whenever given the opportunity, I will emphatically recruit for the ladies’ fierce squad of twelve, because I know exactly how much power and inspiration that can come out of even adding just one more to their number. I anxiously wait for the day that the bright ember of this women’s team starts a blazing fire, that will not only create a national champion kind of team, but a permanent Midwest ultimate cultural change.”
As part of the outreach effort, Miner Threat has started to develop a partnership with Missouri Terror to build the area’s ultimate community and have been developing a plan to partner with a local high school to build ultimate at a grassroots level. For the players interested in growing their place in the club scene, they hope to relocate to cities with more robust opportunities after graduation.
Even if the women’s side of the Miner Threat roster never climbs into the high teens or twenties, the players have found a way to create a community on their own campus. The mixed program, rooted in a sense of gender equity, has allowed players competing in both divisions to develop an understanding and love of the game. As the challenges facing many D-III teams will likely remain, perhaps a recognition and awareness of these obstacles will be met by resources, solutions, and policy changes to improve the opportunities of all teams to compete at a higher level. Much as the gender equity conversation continues in the ultimate community, so too will that of geographic equity, as we work to improve and increase the experiences and numbers of women in ultimate. For the women of Miner Threat, they will hopefully continue to build on their deep ties, forged in the fires of long car rides, low numbers, and boundless spirit.
Miner Threat men’s players with club experience include Brody Johnson (fifth year senior), Will Imming (senior), and Louie Bertoncin (senior). Johnson has experience on Blitzkrieg, Imming played on Castle, and Bertoncin on Freeride. ↩
There are rumors that a new mixed club team, the Hellbenders, will appear in Columbia, MO. ↩