A inside look at the challenges for ultimate programs at three military academies and the honor that binds the teams together.
May 16, 2018 by Michael Ball in Profile with 0 comments
Being a college ultimate player is difficult. Nobody who plays is at college just to play ultimate. Every player, at minimum, has class to attend, and most players are involved in so much more. Whether it’s a fraternity, a job on campus, a second club sport, intramurals, or involvement in other campus clubs, ultimate is just one piece of the puzzle we call college.
Now imagine being involved in all of those things, and training to protect our country from domestic and international threats. Imagine having formation every morning instead of getting that extra precious hour of sleep to recover from the past weekend’s tournament. Imagine having required study hours instead of getting to go throw with your teammates or getting in that extra game of Fortnite.
All of the above is normal for ultimate players at military academies.
Three of these schools also field men’s ultimate teams in USA Ultimate’s Division III field. Army West Point, Air Force Afterburn, and Navy Poseidon all take on the challenge of balancing the life of a normal college ultimate player with the life of training to be an officer. These programs encounter obstacles that are unique not just compared to a traditional college ultimate team, but also compared to each other. Even so, their experiences in balancing their life in the military and their life on the field create a level of character that makes the struggle worthwhile. As much as schedule limitations, administrative hurdles, and funding hang ups strain their abilities to succeed, these programs are connected by an honor code that guides them on and off the field.
Army West Point: More Than A Hobby
In May 2018, Montana Bilger will graduate from West Point with a degree in Physics. A three-sport athlete in high school, Bilger arrived at The Point with intentions of walking on to the varsity baseball team. Upon finding out that they weren’t taking any walk-ons his freshman year, Bilger turned his attention to club sports and found ultimate in the same way many college freshman do.
“I wanted to be on a team still, and walking around looking at the different booths on Club Night, I found ultimate,” Bilger said. “I fell in love with the sport right away.”
Over the course of Bilger’s four years at West Point, the team experienced incredible growth on the field. “My freshman and sophomore year, we weren’t very good. It was basically huck and play D,” Bilger said.
While this might have worked in fall tournaments and against smaller teams without the discipline to punish Army for the turns, Bilger said it didn’t translate to much success in the series.. “As a deep cutter, I was fine with it, but it didn’t really work against the good teams,” he said..
The team had a major breakthrough Bilger’s junior year. Players began to take ultimate more seriously, putting in the time outside of practice to help their throws catch up to their physical capabilities. Bilger was quick to give much of the credit for this growth, however, to their coach and ultimate legend Steve Finn.
Finn has a remarkable wealth of experience, having won five national championships at the club level, qualifying for club nationals with nine different teams in his career. The team at West Point doesn’t take having Finn for granted. “He’s provided so much help to the team, and his continued passion for ultimate and his efforts in developing the team has been one of the things that’s kept this team together and makes people want to play with us,” Bilger said.
Bilger’s junior year saw the team peak by making a trip to the D-III College Championships. The team hit a sweet spot, combining a strong senior class led by Ian Betzel with a talented group of underclassmen like Bilger and Zach Riemer to catch fire at the right time and win the Metro East. West Point anticipated being even stronger this year and had the best regular season in their program’s history, peaking at #14 in the Ultiworld Power Rankings. However, some untimely injuries at conferences, including a high ankle sprain to Bilger, became too much to overcome and Army lost in the game-to-go to Regionals to a young and hungry Marist squad.
“I felt like we had our best team since I’ve been here,” Bilger said, “but we were just totally crippled at that point. Having my college career end earlier than expected just sucked.”
While West Point saw tremendous growth on the field during Bilger’s four years, the team was not unable to make as much progress in the eyes of the academy. At West Point, the various sports teams are broken into three tiers: varsity, competitive club, and hobby club. Every week day from 4-6 PM the varsity and competitive club teams have practice, while the rest of the student body is split between intramural sports and parade practice. Hobby club teams are limited to practicing on either Monday or Tuesday night and on the weekends.
In order to make sure enough students are available for intramurals and parade, the academy limits the number of competitive clubs to sixteen. When one of those sixteen spots becomes available, the hobby clubs must go through a three-tier application process in order to become a competitive club. The club’s application must be approved by the Department of Physical Education (DPE), then the Director of Club Activities (DCA), and finally the Commandant.
For three straight years, the ultimate team has received approval from the DPE and DCA. And all three years, the team failed to receive approval from the Commandant.
The team has struggled to overcome preconceived notions the Commandant has about the sport. “Ultimate is seen as not a very professional sport,” Bilger said. “Our team has tried to tie in professionalism and show that ultimate can be an organized team who does well both on and off the field.”
The second tier effects of being stuck as a hobby club make it incredibly difficult for the team to reach their potential. West Point is limited to practicing on Tuesday nights, Friday afternoons, and Sunday afternoons, meaning players they’re recruiting have to be willing to sacrifice time every single weekend. Incoming freshman and athletes that quit the varsity teams are more likely to join a competitive club so they can avoid the stipulation of playing intramural or parade practice.
“A lot of the D-I guys that quit their varsity sport end up choosing competitive clubs like handball instead of us,” Bilger said. “We would definitely pull some of those guys if we had competitive status.”
Because he’s a professor who has a long drive to get to the base, the restricted practice times also restrict their access to Finn’s coaching. “He’ll sometimes come on Tuesdays, but he lives too far away to come on weekends,” said Bilger. “I’ll meet up with him during the week to talk about strategy and what to do at practice, but it’s awesome when he comes because he knows way more than I do, and he’s incredibly helpful at tournaments.”
While other schools are getting together to practice, the team at West Point is stuck at parade practice. While traditional teams don’t have to ask their players to practice on weekends, Army is grinding out a Sunday practice. While other students travel into New York City for the weekend, or go home to see family, or take a day to rest and catch up on school work, players on the ultimate team are planning around their limited practice opportunities. “The guys who are [at practice] want to be there,” Bilger said with a tone of respect. “They’re sacrificing their weekends to be out there with the team, getting better.”
“I’m proud that I got to be a captain on this team.”
Air Force Afterburn: Difficulty With Takeoff
Almost 2,000 miles away, just outside of Colorado Springs, CO, Air Force Afterburn faces their own unique circumstances. While practice time is plentiful, Afterburn is challenged with obstacles that prevent them from traveling and competing as a team.
Ted Jantscher is a junior at the United States Air Force Academy majoring in Behavioral Science. The youngest of three, Jantscher’s older brother and sister both went to the Air Force Academy; he knew early on in life that he’d be following in their footsteps.
Jantscher began playing ultimate his junior year of high school in Lakeville, MN, and when he stepped on campus, he knew he wanted to keep playing. He tried out for the team as a freshman and made the squad, joining a class of 2019 who has brought a level of success previously unseen in the program.
In 2015, Air Force lost in the game-to-go to South Central Regionals. In 2016, they lost in the semifinals of Nationals. The team missed out on the bracket of Nationals in 2017 due to a tiebreaker1, and they’ve qualified for Nationals in 2018 as the No. 2 seed overall.
Jantscher credits Air Force’s success to a couple of different reasons. The first is the individual talent and leadership on the roster, particularly from fellow juniors Alan Villanueva and Noa Chun-Moy. “Those guys put more work in outside of practice on ultimate-specific stuff than anybody else on the team,” Jantscher said, “and they have an incredible knowledge of the game.”
The other major reason for Afterburn’s success is the camaraderie on the team. Unlike West Point, there are no classifications for club sports at the USAFA, and Afterburn gets to practice Monday through Thursday from 4-6. Having a designated time slot with no competing obligations on campus maximizes practice attendance. “We don’t always have everyone there,” Jantscher said, “But it’s pretty common for us to have 80-90% of the roster at practice.”
All students have a set period at 6 PM for dinner, so the team takes advantage of that by having dinner together after practice. Experiences such as team dinners and traveling to tournaments bring the team closer and help with retainment. While this is true at all schools, it means a little bit more at the USAFA, where opportunities to get off the base are limited.
“It’s not just the ultimate we play together, but we’re all friends and hang out together,” Jantscher said. “Especially as freshmen, we’re not allowed to be off base a lot, so being on a club team that travels and spends so much time together is a really nice thing.”
While travel is a huge selling point for retainment, it’s also the biggest obstacle for the team to overcome. Carl Chan, head coach of Afterburn, said that the logistics the team must deal with for travel are unlike anything he’s ever heard of.
“I graduated from Whitworth University in 2010 and can remember having to jump through a few hoops to get our school to approve the team’s travel,” said Chan. “All of that pales in comparison to what the cadets of the Air Force Academy have to go through.”
When the military academies travel for tournaments, they must have an OIC (Officer in Charge) with them. An OIC is an officer who provides institutional approval for the team, fulfilling tasks such as submitting paperwork to the correct channels and supervising the team to make sure no rules are broken while representing the academy at tournaments. The two requirements for an OIC are that they must be an active duty officer and a faculty member of the academy.
Unfortunately, Chan is a civilian employee of the Air Force and works at Peterson Air Force Base instead of at the USAFA, so he doesn’t qualify as an OIC. Instead, the team has to find an OIC who will travel with them to every tournament, convincing a professor to fly and drive great distances with them. Afterburn generally has to find a different OIC for each tournament, as the commitment of flying to a full season of tournaments is too much to ask of one person with little stake in the team.
Even when an OIC is in place, the team must get approval from the Scheduling Committee in order for them to travel while representing the school. The team has to provide as much notice as possible to the committee for what tournaments they plan on going to, including detailed plans on how they’ll get there and why they’re going.
All classes and training sessions are considered a military duty requirement at USAFA. If any players need to miss class or training sessions to attend a tournament, they must get a formal excusal called a “military duty requirement” that is reviewed and approved by the Scheduling Committee.
“Historically, the club’s faculty advisor and team captains didn’t have too much trouble convincing the faculty board to let the team travel for weekend tournaments,” said Chan. “However, this year has been an extra challenging season as the school’s superintendent came down saying that too many students are missing too many classes.”
“It’s completely up to the school if we get to travel,” said Jantscher. “It’s a privilege, not a right.”
Navy Poseidon: Dried Up Funds
Back on the east coast in Annapolis, MD, the ultimate program at the U.S. Naval Academy is still working to try and make a breakthrough on to the national stage. While they share many of the struggles facing the Army and Air Force teams, Navy Poseidon faces a familiar foe for college ultimate programs but in a way that’s specific to their institution.
Spencer Cobb is graduating from the Naval Academy in a couple of weeks with a degree in Ocean Engineering. Cobb knew from his freshman year of high school that he wanted to go to school in Annapolis, and after playing two years of high school ultimate for Yorktown High School, he also knew he wanted to play college ultimate.
The team wasn’t very good when Cobb first arrived, finishing tied for 5th at D-III Northern Atlantic Coast Conferences his freshman year and failing to qualify for Regionals. However, the team began to get more serious during his sophomore year, and they finished third at Conferences after putting a double game point scare into eventual region champions Richmond in pool play, eventually finishing sixth in the region. The team went on to qualify for Regionals in Cobb’s junior and senior year, improving their regular season performance each year.
Similar to Bilger at West Point, Cobb gives Navy’s coach much of the credit for their uptick in performance. Dave Stira started coaching the team in the fall of 2015, and his impact was felt immediately. “We got really lucky,” Cobb said. “He just kind of showed up on campus and reached out to our captain at the time, asking to be our coach.”
Stira played his college ultimate at Indiana and George Washington, where he qualified for College Nationals in 2004 ). Stira’s experience, guidance, and leadership have proven instrumental to Navy’s steady improvement.
“He’s been enormous to our growth on the field,” Cobb said. “With Coach Stira, we’ve been able to turn the program around and gather a lot more investment in the program. Having a structured practice and tournament schedule has helped legitimize the club, both in the eyes of administration and the student body as a whole.”
Cobb’s experience at Navy has been a combination of Bilger’s at Army and Jantscher’s at Air Force. The club sports setup at the Naval Academy is similar to West Point, but with different names. The three tiers of sports are varsity, club sports, and extracurricular activities; Poseidon is considered an extracurricular activity (ECA). However, Poseidon’s scheduling is more like Afterburn’s, in the sense that they’re available to practice almost every day from 4-6. Field space can be tough to come across, since all teams and ECAs are free to practice during this period, but the team has managed to find a space that they’ve claimed as their own.
“It’s not a great field,” Cobb said, “but it gets the job done. It’s shaped almost like a triangle, but we can barely squeeze a full-sized ultimate field on it.
“Guys do sometimes still manage to throw it into the trees, though,” he said..
Despite the plentiful practice opportunities, there are many setbacks that come with being an ECA instead of a club sport. For example, the academy requires ECAs to be open to all students for participation.
“The administration wants extracurricular activities to be inclusive, so we weren’t allowed to hold tryouts until recently,” said Cobb. “Granted, we’ve not had the numbers to really make cuts, but tryouts still make the team appear more serious to recruits.”
The biggest benefit the ultimate program misses out on by being an ECA instead of a club sport is funding. The sixteen club sports teams fall under the umbrella of the Naval Academy Athletic Association (NAAA), the governing body for varsity and club sports at the academy. The NAAA handles the funds for the varsity teams, but the club teams also receive budgets. Even the smallest budget from the NAAA would be a game-changer for Poseidon.
“From a financial standpoint, it’s tough on us because are pretty much entirely self-funded, and there aren’t a lot of ways that we can fundraise because of rules for where money comes from,” said Cobb.
The rule that Cobb refers to is a Naval Academy policy known as the By Our Own, For Our Own. This policy says that student organizations are only allowed to fundraise within the student body and faculty. This eliminates a lot of traditional ways that college ultimate teams raise money for their season. The team isn’t allowed to set up a GoFundMe for donations from friends, family, and alumni. They’re not allowed to host fundraising nights at local restaurants. Poseidon isn’t even allowed to host a tournament and raise money from the bid fees.
The team has tried several ways to raise money on campus, and they’ve had some success. “This year, we tried selling discs on campus, and we actually managed to sell 260 discs,” said Cobb. “But it’s tough because we can’t have that kind of success every year. There are only so many discs you can sell before you’ve tapped out your market.”
Beyond funding, Poseidon also struggles to balance ultimate with other academy requirements. This goes beyond the typical commitments for cadets such as drills, formation, and classes. One of their biggest conflicts? Football games.
“In the fall season, we’re required to go to every home football game, so we have to build our fall season around the football schedule, causing us to miss tournaments we’d otherwise like to go to,” said Cobb. “This also means we have to take up the few free weekends in the fall that people have, making the time commitment pretty daunting for rookies.”
When you combine the financial burden of playing on the team with the time commitment, it makes retainment pretty difficult. But Cobb and the rest of Poseidon approach these obstacles with the mentality of appreciating the teammate in the huddle next to them who’s chosen to make the sacrifice to step on the field with them.
“Our mentality has always been that we’re not looking for people who don’t want to commit,” said Cobb resolutely. “People who leave the team because the time commitment isn’t what they’re looking for are likely people who wouldn’t commit on the field either.”
Spirit of the Game: Beyond the Field
While each of these programs have their unique challenges that they face as part of attending military academies, their experiences at these institutions have created one common bond between them: an interesting view of and appreciation for Spirit of the Game. Each school has an honor code that is nearly identical. Each one sounds like a definition of what ultimate players refer to as spirit.
Army: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
Air Force: “A cadet will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate anyone among us who does”
Navy: “Midshipmen are persons of integrity. They stand for that which is right. They do not lie. They do not cheat. They do not steal.”
All three programs believe that the character they develop at their academy makes them more spirited players on the field, and they take pride in how this shapes their opponents’ views of them.
“The rules are strictly enforced here, and we have a lot of character incorporated into our classes,” said Bilger. “The cool part about ultimate is that it’s all about Spirit Of The Game, and that helps us continue to cement our values and share our passion for character that we have here.”
“I feel like the teams we play consider us a very fair, hard working, gritty team, and that we’re not cheap and don’t whine about things on the field.”
The military academies stress accountability amongst the ranks; if your fellow cadet is doing something wrong, then you’re expected to call them out and correct them rather than getting a higher up or governing body involved.
“You can swap these real life scenarios out with situations from ultimate,” said Cobb. “having that tough discussion with someone you caught cheating on an assignment is like having a conversation with someone about an in-out call during a crucial point of a game. We’re taught to have those difficult conversations.”
Most of all, the experiences these players face at their academies help them keep in perspective what they’re doing; they never lose sight of the joy of playing the game. Spirit of the Game says that “highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of… the basic joy of play.” Through all of the stressors the players at these institutions face off the field, they never lose sight of the basic joy that comes from playing ultimate.
“The experiences we all go through at the academy really help create a team instead of just a group of guys,” Jantscher said. “We’ve all gone through basic training and other things together, and having through those things brings us closer as a team.”
These players face and overcome obstacles that most traditional university teams never have to consider, all while training to protect our country. They carry themselves on the field in a way that commands the respect of both their fellow officers and fellow ultimate players. To be a college ultimate player requires hard work. To be a college ultimate player at West Point, the Air Force Academy, or the Naval Academy requires so much more.
Had the prequarters round not been eliminated, Afterburn would have made the bracket ↩