Exploring the region's problems...and possible solutions.
May 29, 2019 by Patrick Stegemoeller in Analysis with 0 comments
For better or for worse (okay, just for worse), I’m a product of the Metro East. I played in high school growing up outside of Albany, New York, went to college at SUNY-Geneseo, and played club in Rochester after I graduated. The Metro East is in my VEINS. Yet despite all the time spent living and breathing ultimate there, I still couldn’t give a satisfactory explanation for why the region has been so singularly awful for much of the past decade.
Since the regional redraw in 2011, the Metro East has sent exactly one team to D-I Nationals1 in the Men’s and Women’s Division each year. The highest any of these teams have finished is tied for 13th. And while there has been the occasional team that can move the needle slightly — may history forever remember John Wodatch’s nine assists knocking out UNC Wilmington in 2016 — the vast majority of the region has been shockingly bad. In 2016, the average ranking for D-I Metro East teams in the algorithm was 148th. 148th! Rutgers and Cornell, this year’s D-I qualifiers in Men’s and Women’s, respectively, just went a combined 0-10 at Nationals, getting outscored by a combined 83 points in their games.
For years now, we have known that the Metro East is by far the country’s worst region, but it has bothered me that there never seemed to be a definitive answer for why exactly that is.
There have been plenty of theories thrown around trying to explain how one region could remain so bad for an extended period of time. It’s the weather. Or maybe the size of schools. Or maybe the types of schools. Or maybe just the cities in the region. Or maybe there is something in the water that makes people incapable of properly running a vert stack. Or maybe, like, seriously, have you seen how bad the weather is?
While all of these arguments seem plausible on their face, there are counterexamples to each that have not prevented successful programs from springing up everywhere else. The weather is bad in the North Central, but that hasn’t stopped Carleton, Wisconsin, or Minnesota. New England is made up of a million little liberal arts colleges — some that have quite high academic standards, or so I incessantly hear — but plenty of National title contenders have come from those ivory towers and, in fact, one just won a championship. Even the water thing can’t be it, because there is way weirder stuff coming out of faucets in the Southeast and they seem to do alright.
So, then, why is the Metro East this bad? Even some of the game’s quickest draws on a hot take are stumped. When I asked Kyle Weisbrod for his thoughts, he replied with, “I have no theories. It’s inexplicable. Like magnets.”
After reaching out to some people familiar with the history and development of the region in an attempt to hash all this out, it’s clear that no one reason explains it all. There are a variety of factors that put the region at a disadvantage. There are some things like weather and school size that can explain why early success didn’t take root, followed by structural deficiencies that have magnified failures in recent years.
What has become clear is that the Metro East seems to have a perfect storm of factors preventing the region from thriving, and if no changes are made, things will keep getting worse. And if that happens, we’ll be stuck having to deal with Twitter outrage from mid-level Regionals teams around the country indefinitely.
To put it succinctly, the weather sucks! But — and this is important — does it suck in such a way that is least conducive to good ultimate? Ari Jackson, Boston Brute Squad coach and Rutgers alum, postulates that the weather in the Metro East operates in a particularly suboptimal way. “It’s not cold enough like the Northeast or North Central, where teams have access to decent indoor space in the winter,” he said. “But too cold to practice outside.”
This bad-but-not-quite-bad-enough idea tracks with my own personal experience, as I spent my winters in college playing on a tiny basketball court in a gym that we were sharing with the quidditch and rugby teams, because turf was not an option. Playing on turf, or even a full-sized basketball court, would have been a game changer. And even when we could get outside late in the spring, practices would take place in the sort of mud and wind that make it very difficult to be productive, let alone convince interested freshman to stick around.
The weather seems to be a factor, but nearly everyone agrees that it’s just a piece in the puzzle. The makeup of the schools themselves also seems to matter.
When you’re looking at college programs, the actual number of states in a region is significant because each state is going to come with its own state universities, which usually have large student body populations. In the Southeast, you have all the Florida state schools, Georgia, Alabama, LSU, and Tennessee, with virtually each state having a flagship school and perhaps a couple more campuses that have high enrollments from which to draw talent. Now of course, not all of these teams are going to be nationally competitive, but they create a competitive atmosphere that fosters growth in the region.
The Metro East is comprised of only three states: New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (as well as a small chunk of Canada). Compounding the issue, neither New York or New Jersey has what could really be considered “flagship” schools like UNC, Minnesota, or Washington that come with big student bodies as well as comparable facilities and funding. UConn has been the most successful men’s team in the Metro East over the past few years, and it is the closest thing to a flagship state school that the region has.
Furthermore, the region is home to many small liberal arts schools that attract out-of-state student populations. When the new Metro East was created, there were 33 schools that qualified for D-III status and only 25 qualifying for D-I, creating an unusual situation in which there were more small D-III schools than D-I ones. There are examples of smaller schools with great ultimate programs, but when was the last time a small, academically rigorous school became elite? Carleton, Harvard, Stanford, and Brown all got good before anyone was actually any good at ultimate and were able to build stable programs during the dark ages when population and funding discrepancies were less impactful.
Of course, the New England region has lots of small liberal arts schools that weren’t winning title 20 years ago, and they are light years ahead of most teams in the Metro East.
Bryan Jones, likely the preeminent voice on the Metro East — played and coached at SUNY Buffalo, coaches UConn and PoNY — has an answer for this. “Boston,” theorizes Jones, “Boston influences the vast majority of schools [in New England].
“Albany and Buffalo can’t recruit coaches from the New York City club scene. Albany and Buffalo have the size to be capable of being top 50/60 teams which would push the region closer to other ones.”
So why doesn’t New York have the same stabilizing impact as Boston? It’s the biggest city in the country and home to the current Men’s club champion. But, as has been well-documented, it’s less an ultimate paradise and more a desert that only the true frisbee lunatics can thrive in. There are fewer schools there than in Boston, and the schools in New York have a much harder time procuring fields. You should hear Charlie Eisenhood’s war stories about having to take two buses, a bike cab, and a ferry to get to NYU practice on a garbage barge floating out in the East River. The club teams that exist are less of a factor for the colleges, as so many students that go to metro area schools are from out of the region and return home after college, which makes a vertical relationship with club teams harder to establish.
While there are certain problems with the actual college teams themselves, other commentators urge us to look even earlier, down to the youth level. With the explosion of talent in high schools and middle schools across the country, shouldn’t the rising tide lift all boats, even the rickety dinghies of the Metro East?
Despite New York City’s size, its high school and YCC teams are nothing special. It’s the same case elsewhere in the region — Rochester and Connecticut are starting to get their feet under them, but nothing with the success and stability of a program to set up a pipeline like what BUDA or Amherst High School provides for Boston and other New England area teams.
There is one big exception here: New Jersey DEVYL. Both the boys and girls U20 teams were top 10 finishers at YCCs last season and have been elite programs for years. Go through the rosters of the past few iterations of DEVYL and you’ll recognize many names from their success this college season, such as Sadie Jezerski, Connor Russell, Jessie Sun, and Henry Ing. Of course, none of those names you recognize are on Metro East teams.
With DEVYL, we can see that the problem isn’t a lack of developed talent; it’s the lack of a pipeline to any Metro East school. “If you’re top DEVYL kid, why would you go to Rutgers or UConn when you could go to Pitt?” said Eileen Murray, a former USA National team coach who has put down roots coaching in the New York and New Jersey area.
You can see how this creates a negative feedback loop. The best YCC team in the region largely doesn’t feed players into the region, which makes the teams a less attractive option, which makes fewer top high schoolers want to go there, which makes the teams increasingly unattractive options…All of the factors that make the Metro East a tough place to succeed at the college level creates a lack of success that deters young stars who could help turn some of those teams around.
The Metro East seems trapped in a dead zone in which there are not any teams good enough to attract good high school players who factor ultimate into their college decision, but also largely not enough big, well-funded schools that have the resources on and off the field to create programs from within. If you aren’t getting top recruits and you don’t have strong systemic stability, where is success supposed to come from?
If there was one common theme that emerging from asking people about the woes of the Metro East, it was the lack of coaching and stability. Jones marked it as perhaps the most important factor and noted how the struggle to find good coaching is connected to all the other problems with the region.
Like the rest of the problems, the issue is cyclical and interconnected with everything else. There is a real lack of quality coaching at multiple levels across the region, partially because there aren’t many good club options that attract players who will stay and build programs. The best players that come up in the region, who are really committed to the game, leave and go elsewhere for club. New York City is the only place with elite club teams, but the ultimate population in the city is fairly transitory and not conducive to building a youth empire across the region. And without proper coaching at youth levels, new players in college come in with less experience, which in turn makes coaching these teams less of an attractive prospect.
“You have to spend all your time producing throwers in the fall and it’s not glamorous,” said Jones.
Those unglamorous college teams then generally become more dependent on their players to build structure and solidity. But players leave, and good players often leave craters . Without stable coaching in place to keep teams running smoothly from one year to the next, weathering the ups and downs of talent disparity, teams will often end up worse than where they started. As Murray observed, “Every program has ebbs and flows, but the ebbs are more impactful in the Metro East because there is less structure and the coaching situation is worse.”
A team in the Metro East may “flow” their way into a good group of seniors who have a shot at Nationals, but once they leave, the program falls apart. It becomes harder to attract good players and get people to commit, and the team gets worse. Plus, because the team is worse, there is now less competition in the region, so other teams get worse. You don’t have to squint to see the downward spiral this can create.
Both Jones and Murray agree that the lack of solid competition in the region depresses success as much as anything else, with teams failing to get enough good reps. As competition decreases, teams get weaker. Cornell’s men’s team is the clear example, as they made the semifinals of Nationals in 2010 before the redraw and have gotten worse virtually every season since as the level of competition around them has plummeted. Now, most of the region has crossed a threshold in which they are too poor to gain access to higher level regular season tournaments and get quality reps outside of the region.
The combination of all of these factors have created a situation in which a region that already struggled is getting worse, with each year acting as another revolution in the downward spiral that the various feedback loops have created. The Metro East either needs to be stimulated, or it will fester in a depressing decline.
In my mind, there are two real approaches that can be taken if we want to fix the Metro East (and this is assuming that we do, in fact, want to “fix” the Metro East. I’m on the record as thinking that it is kind of awesome).
The first is a top down approach from USA Ultimate that redraws some borders to make the region more competitive. Maybe it gets Vermont and Delaware. Or maybe you get a little more ambitious: how about a map that splits Western NY into the Ohio Valley and then puts Maryland, Delaware, and Eastern Pennsylvania into the Metro East? These changes would introduce some more stable programs and areas of youth development to the region, and over time may help with the competitiveness of the region as a whole.
The more holistic approach, one that would come closer to “fixing” the problems with the region, is large scale investment of time and resources from the bottom up. Murray advocates for the development of coaching infrastructure across all levels, from middle school to club. This is easier said than done, of course, but there are some specific ways that this can happen. USAU could activate more funding and training for affiliate programs to encourage local communities to take up the challenge of youth development, rather than club players who may only be in the area for a few years. It’s more important to install a long-term stable program that allows teams to navigate the ebbs and flows of talent than to get a great temporary coach who can only make an impact on a handful of seasons. Building up coaching infrastructure will take a lot of time and money from people at many levels, but this kind of overall change may be the only way to stop the atrophy of the region and make it competitive on a national level.
Right now, things look bleak for the Metro East, but as the sport grows and people who care about it start focusing on sustainable development, even this anemic region may have a chance. Before we got off the phone, Murray told me about a new middle school program launching near her home in Montclair, New Jersey. Her son will be playing for the team, coached and managed by some community members who wanted to create an opportunity for youth players to get introduced to the game in a structured way that will set them and the sport up for success down the road.
“This is what you need if you want to build something,” she said. “You need adults with a vision for the future, because youth athletes are only thinking about the now.”
“The now” is an unpleasant line of thought for people who care about the Metro East, as the obstacles are apparent and intertwined in thorny knots. But the future doesn’t have to follow the same path as the past, and if there are dreams of spring sprouting up in places like Montclair, New Jersey, then maybe the Metro Least can become just a little bit greater.
A note about D-III: For the purposes of this article we’re mostly talking about the region’s struggles at the D-I level, although of course some factors will have an impact across divisions. On the Men’s side, it’s better at the D-III level, but not by much; a Metro East team made D-III semifinals in 2015, and various ME squads have been ranked in the Top 25 since. But it still has been a one-bid region since 2013, and 2015 excepted, no team has finished higher than 10th. The women’s D-III region has definitely not sucked the past few seasons, with Wesleyan in particular stringing several successful years together. You can consider them exempt from the approbations of this article. ↩