So We Didn’t Make Nationals

A D-III senior reflects on four years of playing, the disappointment of failing to meet goals, and the joy of the experience anyway.

Vassar Boxing Nun on the line at Regionals 2019. Photo courtesy of Anne Shriver

This article was written by guest author Annie Shriver, a senior at Vassar.

Freshman year, I had Natties dreams. We came dead last in our section, but I believed that we had potential. I imagined the Cinderella story we would be my senior year, a literal worst-to-first in which the Vassar Boxing Nuns would ascend to the top of the Metro East and head to the D-III College Championships.

I gave up my Nationals dreams in two stages over the next few years. First, I gave them up because I was frustrated. Our practices were more jogging than sprinting and more walking than jogging. We often started 45 minutes late. Only a few people came consistently, which meant that our captains were constantly re-teaching. At a team meeting my sophomore year, one of the seniors said, “Aside from having numbers to scrimmage seven on seven, I really don’t see how it affects the team whether you come to practice or not.”

I spent a lot of practice time thinking about what I wished were different and a lot of practice time thinking about quitting. There was too much work to do and not enough time. I couldn’t imagine the team culture changing as dramatically as I hoped it would in the time I had left at Vassar.

Coming back from a semester abroad junior year, though, I found myself letting go of the Cinderella fantasy for a different reason. Vassar’s not a school that attracts top rookies from around the country. Most of my teammates started playing in college. Many of the Nuns have academic, work, or extracurricular commitments that conflict with our practice times. People join the team to play ultimate, but also to have a community and a family at school. We’re not the sort of team that collectively has our hearts set on Nationals, and I decided that it didn’t make sense for me to hold onto my own selfish dream when I knew that the team wanted something else.

So I shifted the way I thought about the future of the Nuns. Last summer, as my co-captain Liv and I began planning for the season, I came up with three goals that really mattered to me for my senior year:

  1. Hard Work. I wanted us to commit to giving 100%, physically and mentally; to feel tired after practice; to run through discs; to force teams to work hard.
  2. Learning and Growth. I wanted to build from one drill to the next and from one practice to the next; to see players develop as individuals and to see the team grow more cohesive; to determine where we struggled and find ways to fill those holes; to know that we played in each tournament better than we could have in any previous tournament.
  3. Supportive and Positive Team Culture. I wanted us to celebrate each other’s accomplishments, large and small; to be a loud, active, and engaged sideline; to check in with each other and look out for each other; to be as excited about the development of our teammates as we were about our own individual growth.

In other words, I wanted us to care and to commit. And we did. Everyone stepped up this year in a way that I hadn’t seen in any previous season. We’ve had juniors and seniors lay out for the first time, committing to doing all they can to get to the disc. We have players who show up at practice – even our 6:30 AM practices – when they’re sick or injured to learn and be with the team. We struggled against zone defense earlier this season, but played calm, patient, and efficient offense against those same zones during the series. When we circle up mid-practice to do shout outs, Liv and I usually have to cut off the praise so that we can move on to the next drill. We’ve forced more turnovers this year than I’ve ever seen us force before. We talk to each other from the sideline, and we storm the field between points. We have some players who touch the disc more than others, but no one person dominates our stats. We have a diverse and dynamic range of leadership presences, and we’re constantly teaching and learning from each other. We work hard. We get better. We support each other.

After our last game at Regionals, we stood outside in 40 degrees and wet cleats for an hour talking about how much we love the Nuns. I’ve played in a lot of contexts – from high school to youth club to summer league to college to elite club – and no team has ever felt more like a family.

Sophomore year I gave up on the idea of being happy while playing at Vassar. Two years later, this team is my inspiration and my motivation. We’ve bought in to changing our culture, elevating our play, and valuing each other, not because we’re trying to accomplish a specific outcome goal, but because we’re chasing after our potential as individuals and as a team. That’s a special feeling. It’s a feeling that reminds me of why I love sports, of what’s meaningful to me about all the hours I spend playing ultimate. It’s a feeling that makes me want to be the best version of myself.

We lost every game at Regionals this year, but it doesn’t feel that way. We kept our energy high. We put other teams on edge. We played our game. We played with each other and for each other. We didn’t make Nationals, and, to be honest, we weren’t that close. I’m not writing the planned underdog-succeeds-against-all-odds-movie-story because it didn’t happen that way. I’m writing this instead, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

So we didn’t make Nationals. We worked, we grew, and we supported each other, and I’ve never been prouder.

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