The final entry looks at who made it to Nationals and whose season ended at Regionals.
May 8, 2019 by Graham Gerhart, Lindsay Soo and Daniel Prentice in Profile with 0 comments
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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.
Previous Entries: Part I — Part II
“Go out there, and pretend like it didn’t happen. Forget about that half, erase it. It didn’t happen. The game starts now.”
That’s what UCLA’s captains remember their coach Cheryl ‘Kix’ Prideaux telling them as they were down 7-2 to Cal at halftime on day one of Regionals. With a deficit that large, and time winding down, the second half did not hold much promise for them. “Then, ‘Unwritten’ by Natasha Bedingfield started playing.” said captain Emily Beck with a laugh. “It sounds corny, but I think it helped remind us why we were there; we cared less about ourselves and making mistakes and played for each other.”
Within 30 minutes, UCLA had not only cut the deficit with Cal, but they had taken the lead. Up 11-10, and with cap on, BLU pulled off the largest comeback of the weekend with an upline pass from Erin Doyle to Audree Hsu. It may just have been a pool play game for UCLA, but the game was emblematic of UCLA this entire season.
“Our season has been defined by resilience and heart,” noted Beck. “It kind of felt like we were trying to prove something all season long, to ourselves and to the college ultimate community, that BLU has what it takes. Despite a few setbacks—in spite of those setbacks—we grew stronger and worked harder together. And it paid off.”
If anything, the season felt as if it had been about their losses as much as their victories. The team struggled through the Santa Barbara Invite, going 3-4, and fell straight into the consolation bracket at President’s Day. Even at the Stanford Invite, where UCLA placed third overall, they suffered blowout losses to Carleton and UCSD along the way. If there was any momentum they gained from making semis at Stanford, it was quickly stunted by a tough Centex tournament, where BLU once again went 3-4.
“Falling just outside of bid range after our Centex performance was a frustrating realization that when we get in our own heads, we beat ourselves,” said Beck.
The Cal game at Regionals was proof that they had learned their lesson. The team knew they had what it took to win after making the Conference final and only needed to get out of their own way to go the distance. The best way to do that? Bet on your rookies.
Embracing their Young Identity
UCLA is a young team. Only one full season has transpired since the team made quarters at Nationals and yet, of their 22 person roster, 17 of those players are too young to have experienced Nationals with BLU. At the beginning of the season, UCLA was at a crossroads: go all in on their veteran talent or commit to developing their young core. BLU chose the latter.
“We rely on our freshmen and sophomores just as much as our juniors and seniors,” said captain Malia Smith. “Two of our O-line handlers, Athena ‘Dallas’ Lynch and Cameron ‘Polaris’ Jewett, are both freshmen, but are corner stones to our success. They stay calm and chilly no matter what the situation, reminding everyone to do the same.”
Along with Anna Reed and sophomore Katherine Jordak, many of UCLA’s key cogs in their system have no college Nationals experience and hardly any postseason experience, either. That didn’t seem to stop them from making play after play at Regionals, though. Time and again, when UCLA needed a goal, their young stars came up big for them. This fueled their comeback win over Cal and carried them through most of pool play.
The true test only came when captain Emily ‘Mamba’ Beck went down with an injury against UCSB in their second-to-last pool play game. Beck was one of only five people that had been to Nationals with the team before, and was a veteran presence that helped fuel the team and keep them mentally engaged. She also happened to be one of the team’s best cutters. After a Santa Barbara defender landed on her arm, it was clear that Beck’s hand was broken, and that she would be unable to play the rest of the tournament.
This left a huge gap in the team’s offense, one that was filled in part by Jordak and senior Cameron Hastings. These players were accustomed to handling a large role in the offense, but it was UCLA’s rookies that now had extra pressure placed on them, especially if the team was to make Nationals. With Beck out of commission, the team used her as a rallying point for bracket play.
“On Sunday morning, we all put paw-print tattoos (that had been handed out all season by our coach, Kix, for getting a hand-block during a game) on our left wrist and wrote the #2 on it – Mamba’s injured hand and #2 for her number. We decided to play for her, play with the heart and intensity that she brings to every game,” said Smith.
UCLA’s young stars took the message to heart. Along with impressive games against UCSD and Stanford, BLU’s rookies looked every bit as composed as their senior counterparts in the game-to-go. Against Cal Poly SLO, their young core either assisted or scored on 12 of their 15 points, often tallying up the assist and the goal.
SLO was a perfect matchup for UCLA; they had a similar variety of senior and rookie talent, but had a shorter roster, and had tightened their already short roster in hopes of clinching the bid. BLU’s roster was not much larger, but the system that their coaching staff had drilled home allowed for the entirety of their roster to plug into a role, no matter how close the game.
In the SLO game, this discipline from BLU proved to be the difference-maker. Every UCLA player knew their position on the team, and what to do on both offense and defense. There was no wasted time clearing or dead space on the field. With both teams exhausted by the weekend, it was UCLA’s commitment to their structure that returned them to Nationals.
College ultimate doesn’t have its own version of cutting down the nets. There’s no ‘One Shining Moment’ played over a team’s highlights as they celebrate the culmination of their season. UCLA may have qualified for Nationals, but Regionals is still the summit they had to climb. Getting to Texas was the team’s objective this season, and they crossed that finish line. Regardless of their results at Nationals, the team outperformed all expectations, overcame every obstacle, and played for each other when it mattered most. There may not have been a highlight reel playing them out after qualifying for Nationals, but that’s okay. Their standout moments this season probably couldn’t fit inside a single video anyway.
Loss is hard. Loss in the bracket at regionals is harder. Loss in the bracket at regionals on universe is tragic. That’s how Flywheel ended their season this year. In heartbreaking fashion, Michigan started the last point of the game on O, but after a shortfield turnover, Northwestern converted to move onto the final, eventually taking down Chicago to clinch the singular bid to Nationals.
“After that last point on Sunday we were all extremely emotional, and you could see that emotion across everyone’s face,” said junior captain Megan Gordon after the weekend.
This is their first season missing Nationals since 2015, and Flywheel is feeling the loss. Unfortunately, the end of the season is accompanied by the stress of finals week. However, the reality of their limited time together and the adversity they shared has encouraged even more support among the team. “Our players study together all the time in pairs or threes. Today, we had at least 10 crammed around a nook in the library. People are taking that extra effort to be around each other,” captain Phoebe Hopp told me.
I asked coach Ben Murphy for comment on the weekend, but he declined, as he thought the three captains could say it best themselves.
“We had to take it one day, one game, one point, and one possession at a time. We reminded everyone that every single point mattered, including points that didn’t necessarily seem to be as important. I think the team really embraced that attitude, and people really fought on every point,” commented Laura Soter, the team’s Callahan nominee. According to all three captains, the team never wavered in their support for each other on the field and on the sideline, through the easier pool play games and stressful elimination games. “I am particularly proud of the number of marathon points where we ended up being the ones who scored, just showing that we wouldn’t roll over no matter what. That wasn’t (the captains or the coaches), that was the team.”
As always, they had their signature cheers to power them through the weekend. Hopp in particular was grateful for the endurance of their sideline. “Shoutout to Madison Nightingale and Socks especially for hitting that cowbell for five hours straight,” she said.
Their final huddle was bittersweet. They had just played hard, but come up short of their desired outcome. But they had still achieved their process goals of working hard every point, and getting better every tournament. Soter said they had two points to make at the end of the day: pride in what they had achieved, and hunger for more next season.
“Note how you’re feeling, and how hard it is to lose a game like that. Use that to encourage you to play over the summer, to throw and to lift and to run. Use it as motivation when you’re in the middle of the season and you’re tired and stressed about school and it’s snowing outside and you don’t want to go to practice. As heartbreaking as it can be to lose, I also think that having the experience of not being satisfied is a powerful force to drive you forward,” said Soter.
Despite the disappointment that Regionals brought, the captains and the team were still grateful for not only their season, but the hard work they shared and the bonds built among teammates.
“It’s glorious to be able to work hard with a great group of women and athletes, and that’s why it hurts so much when it’s over,” remarked Gordon. “Flywheel is something really special, and the team is focusing on enjoying each other and remembering all those little things that make this sport and this team something we’ll forever be grateful for.”
FUEL’s season reached its end in the Southeast Regional final with a 15-7 loss to Georgia. The loss meant Florida’s two year reign atop the Southeast was over; they wouldn’t be headed back to Nationals. FUEL entered Regionals on a high, having won the Florida Conference Championships for the third straight season. They kept that momentum through their start at Regionals, too, winning their first four games to make their third successive appearance in the regional final. But Georgia was too much for them, and their goal of making Nationals came up short.
Making Nationals has become the norm for FUEL over the last couple seasons, but they were still able to find joy and pride in their season, despite coming short of that in 2019. “We did not reach one of our main goals this season: making Nationals. And while that feels extremely disappointing, there is a lot of joy to focus on between the cracks,” said the team’s captains, Janina Freystaetter, Gabbry Krajniak, and Charlotte Talham. “There are currently only two FUEL teammates who have been on this team when we have not gone to Nationals. Everyone else does not know or remember a time before Nationals. This can be a humbling experience in how special and hard it is to make Nationals and be a top contender.”
In the Southeast, and in Florida in particular, there aren’t many pipelines for youth talent pouring into college programs. That makes it extremely difficult to maintain programs at a Nationals level the way others are able to do in different parts of the country, and the team’s captains appreciate the difficulties that come with that. “Coming from a state with very little to no youth scene, there is so much hard work been done teaching and learning the basics of frisbee, which can be time consuming, ” they said. “So having two large back to back years of large turnovers, and a lot of first time players, there is so much to be said of how hard we worked, and how much pride we have to have placed second in the region still.”
This year’s FUEL leadership and seniors were able to appreciate what this season meant for the future of the program, even though it ended in Foley, Alabama, rather than Austin, Texas. “What we are celebrating at the end of this year is our graduating seniors who have worked their asses off on themselves, and on helping their teammates fall in love with this plastic disc sport,” said the team’s captains. “Victories we had included watching first year players learn the joy of throwing a flick and making their first foul call on the field. Watching our second year players step up into huge roles and blossom as leaders is still our favorite sight to see.”
College careers ended for some of FUEL’s players on Regionals weekend, and, in some cases, ultimate careers altogether came to an end, including Freystaetter’s, who’s battled concussion repercussions for years. But even still, Freystaetter was able to appreciate what her career and this season has meant to FUEL, and the sport of ultimate in Florida. “The sport of ultimate grows with every new player who comes into the scene. Women in sports continues to grow, as we hand them a disc and invite them into this amazing and heartfelt international community,” she said. “This year FUEL fell short of our Nationals goal, but so many other joys and laughter of women coming together and throwing frisbees exceeded our expectations, and in that way, we won.”
For FUEL, the conclusion of this season is about the future, and that makes it something far greater than any kind of result they could have pulled off at Regionals. “Yes, we fell short to Georgia, but a newfound fire has been lit underneath of the returning players next year,” said the team’s captains. “And we cannot wait to see what they accomplish.”