Follow the seasons of the women's teams at Florida, Michigan, and UCLA.
February 22, 2019 by Daniel Prentice, Lindsay Soo and Graham Gerhart in Profile with 0 comments
Spin Stories is a special feature series sponsored by Spin Ultimate. Please support the brands that support not only Ultiworld, but the awesome women’s teams we cover.
Part of the magic of college ultimate is that each season is unique. Teams are forced to constantly change and adapt, with a very limited window to play together. Virtually no team remains the same from season to season. And yet there’s a commonality to the unique journey each team takes.
Spin Stories takes a look at three teams–Florida FUEL, Michigan Flywheel, and UCLA BLU–and follows their seasons as they traverse the challenges of trying to achieve their goals. These teams, each sponsored by Spin Ultimate, will share their own thoughts and experiences, giving you an inside look at being an elite college program in the women’s division.
There’s an oft-overlooked dynasty bubbling in the Southeast. Florida FUEL1 are looking for their third straight Southeast championship this season, and their third consecutive trip to Nationals. They have a young squad this year, and have gone through some growing pains through the early stages of their 2019 campaign, but FUEL is an athletic, scrappy team with as impressive a pedigree as any team in the Southeast. They’re also a fun crew, who takes the sport of Air Cupcake very seriously, regularly throws it down on the grass field dance floor, and has just the right amount of Floridian bravado.
Season So Far
FUEL kicked off their season at their home tournament, Florida Winter Classic, where they finished fourth and logged wins over Central Florida, Georgia Tech, and current #25 UNC Wilmington. At Queen City, they had a tougher time, suffering an upset loss to Penn State in pool play and losing to all three of their opponents that also attended Nationals last season. But they did still make the bracket in Charlotte, and got a nice revenge win in the seventh place game over the Georgia team that beat them out for third place at FWC.
With just five holdovers from the roster that made Nationals in 2017, and many of the contributors from even just last year’s team gone, it’s not too much of an alarm for FUEL to go through some up and down results early in the year. It’s not out of the ordinary for FUEL to have to retool from year to year, and they always seem play their best when they’re able to fully embrace the underdog mentality anyway. They’re working in a lot of new players, and a lot of veterans into new roles.
Fortunately for FUEL, they have a strong team identity they can rely on, as they take some lumps in the early season tournaments. “We pride ourselves on being a scrappy and tenacious team,” said the team captains, Janina Freystaetter, Gabby Krajniak, and Charlotte Talham. “Ultimate is fairly new to the southeast and because of that, FUEL, and the southeast in general, doesn’t have the privilege of women who have grown up playing ultimate. Instead, we are a group of athletic and gritty women who have learned and grown to love the game in college.”
The team wasn’t disappointed with their Queen City weekend, but they did identify an area where they could improve. “Queen City did not go exactly as hoped. At times, you could say we were hoping we could just out-athletic other teams,” said the captains. “We hoped that sprinting up steps in The Swamp2) would translate to winning tournaments, but unfortunately that did not take place during QCTU.”
Never lacking for confidence, or a good sense of humor, the FUEL captains added some good-natured spice to their retrospective statement on Queen City. “Honestly, we have everyone right where we want them,” they said. “We got seventh place…but everyone loves a good underdog. We just want to keep everyone on their toes this season.”
What’s On Deck?
On the docket for FUEL is a trip out west to Stanford Invite, followed a couple weeks later by Tally Classic, where they’ll be the odds on favorite to win the tourney. They’re excited for the program’s first trip to Stanford Invite in recent memory, and the opportunity to it represents to play against a depth of Nationals-level competition in one weekend, which they don’t often get in the Southeast.
And in what is likely going to be a one bid region, getting those reps against elite competition will be more important for them than any results they may get. “We have a number of team goals for the season,” said Freystaetter, Krajniak, and Talham. “Most notable is to be first in the region again (#threePeat) and to attend Nationals in our favorite state of all time! #yeehaw #neverenoughhastags.”
Even with their eyes on the long term, Florida’s athleticism means they’re always capable of giving a tough game to some of the more Nationally recognized powers, like in their upset of eventual National finalist Colorado at Centex last year. They won’t be the most talented or experienced team at Stanford, but that doesn’t mean they won’t go out there and look to kick ass and take names.
“We are a young team but we know what we do well and we are focusing on capitalizing on those things. We are excited to bring our athleticism and quickness to the west coast!” said the captains. “Are we on track? Hell yeah. We have a very motivated and loving group of gals. We have a ton of work to do, and after QCTU, we have a renewed energy to put the work in for our upcoming tournaments. And in the words of our Notorious Sophomore Duck Hunter, Gianna Arcuri, ‘If it flys, it dies.’ Watch out Cali, we’re comin’ for ya.”
To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what all that means, but I do know that’s generally a mistake to question FUEL. And while they may have a reputation that comes with being an ultimate team from the state of Florida, they’re really just like any other college ultimate team: playing for a love for the sport and each other. “At the end of the day, what matters most to us is the unique and indescribable bond we share with our teammates,” the captains said. “FUEL is a special group of women who love and support each other no matter what.” And with a nod to the club’s acronym-ized F.U.E.L. mantra,3 they concluded, “As always, L is for the Love.”
Michigan Flywheel is a strong and storied program that has been making Nationals appearances since its founding three decades ago. They are well known for their incredible sideline presence, with everyone on the team engaged and cheering unremittingly throughout every tournament.
“Nothing quite gets you ready to play like hearing your teammates in high spirit cheering you on,” says junior Megan Gordon, one of Flywheel’s captains. “We love to stress that there’s always something you can be doing on the sideline to help out your teammates and cheering is a great way to do that.” These cheers can be anything apparently. They might be best known for their distinctive “Go Blue” cowbell cheer, but they say that anyone is encouraged to come up with cheers based on inside jokes, pop culture, or even views from their long car trips. For example: “Tattoos and pizza, tattoos and pizza, pizza and tattoos, what?? Pizza and tattoos!”
Speaking of travel, the team has quite a few miles under its belt. Flywheel drives over 9 hours (or flies) to every regular season tournament in order to get the most competitive schedule possible. Some teams would have trouble motivating their players to stay bought in, but it’s not that way for Michigan. “It might seem crazy to some it just kind of becomes the norm. You get to explore cool new places with all your teammates that are usually much better weather-wise than Michigan, so it’s a good time,” said Gordon.
The time together yields quality content like this:
Frisbee is great
Frisbee is life
There’s really nothing to hate
We’re a team without strife
We love eachother a ton
even if practice is from eleven to one.
I forgot to take a picture but all is fine.
For a limited time only, you can watch these vines.https://t.co/zvezL8tCbC
— Flywheel Ultimate (@UMichFlywheel) February 15, 2019
Ups and Downs
Flywheel had a slightly disappointing Queen City Tune Up and isn’t currently in the Top 25 Power Rankings. However, this doesn’t faze longstanding coach Ben Murphy. “We’re working on improving as an entire roster over the course of the entire season so that we are playing our best by April and May,” he said. “We know that every season will have ups and downs, challenges and successes, and part of peaking at the end of the season means that we learn from our mistakes and opportunities to improve.”
Michigan isn’t focused on outcomes this early in the season. Their team goals are to create the best team they can and strengthen the depth of their roster. They plan to concentrate on hard work, mental toughness, and playing for each other, which Gordon thinks will make them strong contenders in the post-season. “Right now, success for us means seeing an improvement in players and in the team as the weeks continue,” said the captain. “I have full confidence that as we continue to practice and compete in competitive tournaments we’re going to find success and continue to be a Nationals contender come April.”
It’s 4:15 in the afternoon on President’s Day 2019. The weather is already chilly, and starting to drop fast. Of the thirty-six teams across the men’s and women’s division that chose to play in San Diego this weekend, only two are still playing. On one end of the field stands the California Pie Queens, on the other, UCLA BLU. This game isn’t the final, nor will it have much effect on the tournament at large. UCLA and Cal are playing for 13th place in the ‘Spirit Bracket’. Still, both teams are hungry for the win, spirits are high, and as the pull goes up 14 players storm the field for the final few points of Presidents’ Day.
A Source of Inspiration
Watching UCLA play, it’s easy to spot their competitive edge. The team never shies away from tough opposition and has a penchant for playing their way back into games against the elite teams in the women’s division. The simple answer would be that BLU’s captains and coaches know how to spark energy on the field, and can make the adjustments necessary to grit out wins. But to hear them tell it, it’s not so much the on-field performance that has carried them this season, but what is happening behind the scenes. Their 2019 motivational quote seems to align with that perfectly:
“In talking about achieving greatness, Muhammed Ali said, ‘The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road; long before I dance under those lights.'”
A Working Identity
As a college student at UCLA, the week leading up to Presidents’ Day doesn’t allow for much time to dream about the tournament. The school is in the middle of midterm assignments and the team is filled with player involved in extracurricular activities. “Many players participate in, and hold leadership positions, in a number of extracurriculars,” noted captain Emily Beck. “Several members are very involved in community service and religious groups; various health organizations; Greek life; marching band; and engineering clubs; while amazingly still making the commitment to BLU.”
This is fairly common for the team. The active student life at UCLA often leads to players having their attention drawn in many directions. While many captains might get frustrated by the numerous activities that are pulling at their roster, Beck and Malia Smith see this as a healthy element of the team. The assortment of experiences outside of ultimate serve to inspire and encourage the team, rather than cause a fracturing within their ranks. It helps that they established a cohesive goal and identity early on. BLU makes a point of breaking their seasons into a theme, providing an identity that they can rally around to remind themselves of their goals.
“[One] year, our emphasis was on ‘Protecting the Cubs’. Fitting for the Bruins, we treated the end zone like our cubs and protected it at all costs like a mama bear would for her young, choosing instead to dictate on defense to force players under,” explained Beck. “This year, a recurring theme has been to ‘Accept your Greatness’ rather than to make excuses about some time in the future when you might be able to throw your huck a little farther, release your flick a little straighter, make your mark a little more active, or run a little faster.”
Identity has been a major focal point for this team from the moment they chose their roster. BLU added 11 new players this season, which has helped fuel them on the field, but also signaled the end of an era. Where once UCLA had built upon strong veteran classes that included household names like Han Chen, Kristen Pojunis, and Chip Chang, now they are embracing their youthful status. “There is a lot of potential with the new players on the team, all coming from different levels of experience,” said Beck. And while almost half the team is new, the veterans are very aware of their endgame and what it takes to have a consolidated, formidable team by the postseason.
The first key to that is building the team’s chemistry, a difficult task with so many new players. Along with practice, BLU focused on the social aspect of the team early on, and used road trips and plane rides to bond. “In the days leading up to a tournament, we each contribute a song to the playlist distributed for the car rides,” explained Beck. “Sometimes, they are just pump-up playlists, but other times there is a theme such as ‘guilty pleasures’ or ‘8th grade BOPs.’”
Even though 2019 has seen a sizable shift at UCLA, there are some things that remain constant. Coach Alex Korb (PHD) continues to provide a nurturing position as the head coach. According to the captains the support from UCLA’s alumni is ever-present:
“We have experienced the BLUmni bond firsthand; they have hosted us in their homes, cheered us on from the sidelines, given financially, passed down their old gear, and even returning to their old stomping grounds to coach. Thinking back on it, there was at least one BLUmni present at every single tournament of the regular season last year (including Centex), and that streak has continued into the current season.”
At the end of the day, BLU’s leadership has a purpose in mind, and that’s to earn back their spot as one of the most respected teams in the Southwest. After all, the team has come together to play ultimate and they’re not backing down from the challenges of a stacked region.
“We’re excited to compete. This season looks especially promising for the Southwest, and we’re excited to be a contender to challenge the top teams of the region,” said the captains. “After last season’s finish, we’re hungry for a ticket to Nationals and to re-establish ourselves in the rankings.”
Tune in next time to check in with the teams after Commonwealth Cup and Stanford Invite, some of the biggest events of their respective seasons, as they prepare for the Series.
That stands for Florida Ultimate Elite Ladies ↩
The common nickname for Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the home of the Florida Gators football team, where FUEL trains once a week. (Editor’s Note: Go Gators. -KR ↩
F is for the Falls you have to take; U is for the Ups we love to make;E is Elevation, Energy, Everything; L is for the Love ↩