Meet the D-III Women’s Players on the 2019 U24 National Team
May 7, 2019 by Sam Echevarria and Brad Kotecki in Profile with 0 comments
It’s a special recognition–of on-field talent, athleticism, and more–to be selected to any United States National team by USA Ultimate. When it comes to U24, players are selected from a cohort that is near or at the peak of their athletic talents, many with several years of high-level experience under their belts. For the 2019 U24 women’s and mixed rosters that will compete in Heidelberg, Germany, most of the names you probably know from the D-I college and club scenes: Ella Hansen, Dena Elimelech, and Claire Trop representing elite programs like Oregon, Dartmouth, and more. But dig into that list, and you will find the names of two current1 D-III players: Abagael “Abby” Cheng of Oberlin College, and Renata Pepi of Bard College.
The former has grown into a standout player for Oberlin Preying Manti for the last four years, a name that appears in tournament coverage and end of season award lists for Nationals performances; the latter plays for a team that has never made D-III Nationals and wasn’t even rostered for the 2019 postseason. Two players with unique paths to one of the largest stages in ultimate, whose roads run through the small yet passionate D-III division: these are their stories of earning roster spots on the 2019 U24 Women’s team.
Abby Cheng: The Strength “To Fight for Everything”
In a start not unfamiliar to many who play in the D-III women’s division, Abby Cheng, a current Oberlin Preying Manti captain, only began playing organized ultimate in her senior year of high school. A friend started a team, and Cheng played for a few months in its first year of existence while attending the Fiorello H. Laguardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City. When choosing her college path, Cheng said her new hobby didn’t impact he decision. “I wanted to play ultimate, but it carried no weight in my decision because I wasn’t playing at the time,” she said. Cheng emailed the Preying Manti at Oberlin after she was accepted inquiring about tryouts, but she was more focused on her career and studies – a double degree in Opera Singing and Math, with a minor in Spanish.
In her own words, that first year of playing with the Preying Manti in 2016 was “disorganized.” There were no players with club experience, yet the Preying Manti were able to earn an unlikely bid to Nationals. Even in her first full year of competitive play, Cheng had a taste for the game and making big plays on the biggest stages. “It was the last game at [Ohio Valley] Regionals, and we were up two or three with them pinned on the end zone. Hard cap had gone off during that point, and on that final point I caught a layout Callahan to win the game,” she recalled.
While Oberlin ended tied for 15th at D-III Nationals in 2016, that didn’t limit Cheng’s vision for the future. After that season, Cheng went to the back of her notebook and wrote down a now-prophetic note – “Goals: Make U24.”
“I always wanted to be on a national team. I want to shoot for the highest possible level of everything I do. I want to be the absolute best,” Cheng stated. “I want to play with the best players in the world, and for the best coaches. It’s been my goal for a really long time.”
After two club seasons with New York Bent, Cheng came back to college with additional experience and skills to help her as one of the Preying Manti captains in the 2019 college season. “I loved playing for Bent the first year because I had to work so hard that summer to get where I wanted to be. Everyone is fighting so hard for playing time, and as a rookie you learn so much from every moment and player,” she said.
“She quickly made an impression on the team with her energy and work ethic,” said Bent coach Megan Randall. She cited Cheng’s selection as captain for Bent in 2019 as well as an indication of Cheng’s personality and dedication. “That speaks to the physical effort she puts in on the field, at practice, and during workouts… her consistently high level of play… but most importantly it speaks to who she is as a teammate.” In particular, Cheng credits her club experience for helping her learn the ‘whys’ of ultimate and granting her the confidence in how to play and to teach ultimate to newer players within her own sphere of influence back at Oberlin as a captain.
To prepare for the U24 tryouts in the fall of 2018, Cheng teamed up with Oberlin’s former track coach and director of wellness for a training plan with the November tryout date as the goal. The plan included two track workouts a week, which Cheng supplemented with a weight room workout about once a week. Due to an opera rehearsal the weekend of the East Coast tryouts, Cheng had to travel to the West Coast event (which she skipped another rehearsal for), a cost familiar to those balancing ultimate and other pursuits. Cheng’s heart was set on making the women’s team, and she felt she performed much better during the women’s team portion of the tryout than she did during the mixed team events. However, after the second day of tryouts, she was far from confident in her chances of making the team. “The scrimmage had about 50 players, so there were very few points. I touched the disc once and then it was over,” she said.
Upon making the team, Cheng was in disbelief. “I read the email six times that night, and then read it again the next morning,” she admitted. She credits displaying her drive and desire to compete as major factors in making the team. “I felt I did a great job of showing that I really wanted it. I felt like I was one of the best and most vocal teammates there, and I think they were looking for that.”
“Abby’s timing, competitiveness, and field spacing are probably what separated her from other extremely athletic players,” said U24 Women’s coach Jason Adams, who also praised her speed and athleticism. After seeing her ability to make defensive plays, Adams and the other coaches saw a defensive playmaker who could add offensive pop going the other way.
As for how her experience playing in D-III has shaped her view on ultimate and her U24 experience, Cheng credited the community feeling: “We allow everyone to be leaders within their own way. We’re not a varsity team, and don’t have the strictness that comes with it. There’s a grittiness and a dedication to each other – a very communal feel to it.” She also credits her leadership role for helping her in other facets of an ultimate team. “Teaching people and being the leader of a team has taught me so much about what it means to be a good teammate. I know how to support people, and have learned from practicing it and from my teammates who support me.”
Oberlin co-captain Zoe Hecht described Cheng’s leadership as being driven by making herself and her teammates better. “She has a way of looking at the game that’s totally focused and growth-oriented and seems to always know exactly what she, and also everyone around her, can and should be doing to improve,” added Hecht.
Coming from a lesser-known program, Cheng was motivated by her relative anonymity. “There were some people that approached me and said, ‘You should play club.’ Some of the coaches didn’t recognize that I’d played club before because I was outside of that elite community,” she said. At first, it felt like a disadvantage that some of the coaches had coached and played with many players before, but Cheng approached the feeling as a challenge and used the extra motivation to shine brighter during the tryouts. “An amazing gift coming from D-III is that I have to fight for everything. The only way to get as far as I can is to work really hard.”
There are rewards for that hard work to look forward to for Cheng–the time she’ll get to spend in Germany, making connections and friendships with the youngest generation of ultimate from around the world. Even so, her current focus is on the college Series, and the effort yet to come. Currently ranked #6 in the Ultiworld Power Rankings, Oberlin and Cheng are looking to improve on a ninth place finish from 2018 Nationals, after claiming the single bid they earned for the Ohio Valley to Nationals in College Station this May. “We have a lot of high hopes for this year,” said Cheng, set on stages both small and large.
Renata Pepi: “Finding the Balance” For Yourself
For Renata Pepi, developing into a U24-caliber talent required diverging from the path of her D-III program, to build her own way into being ready for the National team.
A YCC product of the well-known Boston BUDA program, Pepi started playing ultimate in 8th grade, moving from the mixed to the girls’ team as it became available, and developing her skills through local leagues and pickup. When it came to college, multiple factors came into play: Bard College had the right balance of financial options and academics for Sociology major Pepi, although the ultimate program was small and of a lower competitive level than what Pepi had grown up with under BUDA. It did come with one very particular draw: Pepi’s older sister Lydia attended the school. Lydia, who had captained Reneta, was someone Pepi grew up playing with. Together, the Pepi sisters had hopes that they could grow Bard College BomBARDment into a larger, talented ultimate program that could ideally field a women’s division team as well.
BomBARDment has a history of playing mixed, out of both number requirements and at times out of choice. With a squad currently too small to split into men’s and women’s teams, mixed is the default; where there have been numbers to split, there have also been tensions on whether splitting is the right choice for team culture and experience. “College mixed isn’t always very disciplined,” said Pepi. That type of competition can be dangerous when younger and newer players play together without having mastered the basics of body control or field awareness. Part of the goal to building the program to larger numbers and better skills would be to help players of both genders master the basics, and enjoy the game safely. Pepi likes to cut deep and own the deep space–and without the basics, the possibility of unsafe contact by a male player without the awareness of smaller teammates is a very real one. While she certainly doesn’t discount the successful and enjoyable experiences of others playing mixed, particularly at the higher levels, personal experience gives Pepi a slight personal preference for playing women’s.
The Pepi sisters worked with other Bard players to grow the program, but after the class of 2018, when Lydia and a large number of the team graduated, the 2019 roster was one of the smaller rosters in the last decade. Additionally, as Bard captain Christina Secor puts it, “This year, in particular, is a developmental year–a good two-thirds of our committed team members are first-years with little to no previous ultimate experience,” said captain Christina Secor. Even with enthusiastic rookies, the team has struggled to pull the kinds of numbers and resources needed to have full practices on what little field space they are allocated by the school, working with the knowledge of older players themselves to run and lead those practices. “If I’m at a practice, I’m helping running it,” as Pepi put it, due to her wealth of experience, even without being a team captain.
While the small roster size has helped in getting players lots of time with the disc and forcing them to step up into roles–like handling, in the case of Pepi, who primarily plays the downfield space as a cutter–there haven’t been the same opportunities to be coached and to work on personal skill development for higher-level players. Pepi has sought other opportunities by playing club, most recently with Boston Siege in the women’s division for the last two years. “Because the college season is so short, I try to internalize everything,” she said. Adams, the aforementioned U24 women’s team coach, also coaches Siege for club. “She always shows up [to Siege practice] with a smile on her face and is ready to learn and be part of what’s going on,” he said of Pepi. “She’s one of those players where you know that no matter the level of competition she’s going to be competing and playing her best.”
Even with the background and talent on her résumé, making the leap to trying out and working towards the goal of playing for the U24 team almost never happened. “It wasn’t on my mind or even in the realm of possibility,” she said, without playing for a top-tier club team or college program, and after being humbled by an unsuccessful U20 tryout. But those around acted like her attendance at one of the tryout weekends was a done deal. Friends Zoe Hecht of Oberlin and Annie Shriver of Vassar–still close from playing youth ultimate and growing up with Pepi–would discuss it as a given: Pepi would be at tryouts, gunning for a spot. Hearing those around her so sure in her abilities soothed some of her personal doubts; Pepi started working towards making the U24 team, committing to the work and cost it would personally require to put on a great showing.
The most obvious cost? Making the decision to isolate and remove herself from the Bard ultimate team at large, in order to focus on personal growth and staying disciplined. Instead of attending practice and helping lead it regularly, or running throwing clinics with Secor, Pepi threw on the sideline, running track workouts and more, zoned in on the target of performing at tryouts. Pepi retreated from most social scenes as well, working out or throwing six days a week to be ready for tryouts. “It’s so hard to push yourself to do one more sprint when you’re doing it by yourself and not a team,” she said. While much of the work was lonely and difficult, she had the encouragement and support of close friend and captain Secor.
In Secor’s own words: “My role in [Pepi’s] preparation was to be the person that reminded her of and held her to her goals…that said, even with my help, she had to have an immense amount of internal motivation to have gotten to the place that she has. There is no coach here to tell her what to do, no more experienced players to push her.” Whether working on feedback Pepi carried over from her work during the club season with Siege (“I had to practice stepping out and getting around the mark”) or calling up Secor for another throwing session, Pepi put in the work to hone her skills and athleticism with the intensity and focus required by her goal.
All of the hard work was on display in Pepi’s chance to make her dream a reality: the East Coast tryout weekend in mid-November. Initial jitters and feelings of intimidation (“Angela Zhu is here; Claire Trop is here!” Pepi recalled) melted away as she played with the group. “Zhu [and others] made people feel comfortable and excited to be there–they really wanted to involve everyone,” she said, referring to both attitude and playstyle.
Adams described the Pepi who came to tryouts, compared to the player he had coached over the summer with Siege: “[Pepi] had obviously put a lot of work into her throwing and general disc skill. I had not yet seen her throwing with as much confidence and touch as she showed at U24…her athleticism and play-making ability jumped out for the coaching staff, and she took some really tough defensive matchups and showed that she can be a high level defender and then contribute to what we’re doing on offense.”
As she would consistently get the disc in the deep space on hucks against top-notch defenders, each touch served as affirmation that Pepi was ready to compete at the same level as players she admired. The weekend was one of the hardest she’s ever played. “I couldn’t really walk the entire week after,” she said. But she was left satisfied with her personal results and play, personally fulfilled regardless of results.
Yet the results did not go unnoticed, nor the hard work unrewarded–the selection email landed in her inbox while on a road trip with friends. “The email wasn’t addressed with my name, so I wasn’t sure it was meant for me,” confessed Pepi. But slowly, it sank in: she had been named to the U24 Women’s team. None of Pepi’s friends on the road trip played ultimate, and didn’t quite understand the magnitude of everything Pepi had worked for and achieved; in a way, it was a mirror to the isolation that Pepi put herself through to be physically and technically ready to make the U24 team.
Pepi will be in anything but alone as she joins the U24 squad at training camp in Colorado, and later, in Germany this June for the tournament. “I’m beyond excited to play with the other [players],” she said, even while working to build chemistry and integrate herself as part of the team among elite players who’ve played with each other in many other contexts. In the end, the easiest way to sum up her goals for the summer: “bring the group’s energy from tryouts and letting loose and ‘playing up’ together.”
D-III and the Confidence to “Play Against Them All”
When asked about advice for other D-III players trying out for U24 and other National teams in the future, Pepi contrasts the efforts of “finding the balance of growing yourself, and using your team to learn or improve certain skills.” For those without strong programs from which to necessarily build skills, it’s critical to find the motivation. “It has to be something you really, really want,” she explained.
It’s also important to recognize that there will be sacrifices in order to put in the work, the travel time, and to play, across different aspects of one’s life. But while Pepi wasn’t able to find the support in the team structure available to her, she built her own out of the supporters within her life to make it happen. Even so, Pepi credits her D-III experience that made her learn to grow confidence when she needed to–on the field with the disc out of necessity, and in some ways, off of the field in following the path she made for herself to make U24.
For Cheng, one of her greatest strengths is the refusal to give up – whether it be for a disc in the air, during an arduous point, or during the tryout process itself. Her advice to future D-III players is advice that was given to her: “Be confident in the fact that you can play against them all, regardless of their backgrounds or fame.”
“My biggest advice for any tryout is to play to and exemplify your strengths,” she continued. “They’re not looking for a person who can do everything, they’re looking for a team of people that can fill a role in their system. Use every moment you can to show that off.”
No two college experiences are the same; neither are the experiences of any two U24 National team members. For Cheng and Pepi, there are similarities–personal growth in club, a personal work ethic and effort to bring their best to tryouts and the U24 team. There are obvious differences between predominantly playing mixed or women’s in college, or captaining a squad with Nationls aspirations as compared to withdrawing from the ultimate one might find on their college campus. If there’s one thing to remember, it’s that these weren’t paths any player–D-I or D-III–can just take and be successful. Cheng and Pepi sought them out, willing to put in the work to play at the next level, and the end results remain the same: hard work does not go unnoticed in the D-III division, nor beyond it.
Helen Eifert, who will be competing with the mixed team, played D-III with St. Lawrence, but currently attends Northern Arizona for graduate school. This article focuses on players currently playing in the D-III Women’s division in 2019. ↩