16 First Dates: Meeting the D-III Women’s Nationals Teams

And just like that, the 2021 D-III College Championships were on.

Eva Arfa of Brandeis Banshee winds up for an overhead throw at the 2021 D-III College Championships in Norco, CA. Photo: Paul Rutherford, UltiPhotos.com
Eva Arfa of Brandeis Banshee winds up for an overhead throw at the 2021 D-III College Championships in Norco, CA. Photo: Paul Rutherford, UltiPhotos.com

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With so many unknowns going into this weekend — a long hiatus, a short fall season, and more than a few teams taking the national stage for the first time ever — D-III women’s reporter and Laying it Out host Scotti Dempsey chose to use her Friday touring the complex and getting to know these teams’ stories and styles. Here are her first impressions after speed-dating the D-III women’s field at this year’s College Championships.

Pool A

Truman State (1)

True to their overall first seed, Truman State TSUnami came to work. With a 3-0 record on Friday, TSU’s only real challenge was Michigan Tech at the end of the day. Experienced players Lauren Wiggins and Jessica Tiller threw unstoppable offense: again and again, smooth, floaty cross-field hucks found their cutters waiting in the back corner of the end zone, epitomized by the game-winning throw from Tiller to Noelle Hogrebe that ended their day on top. On a first impression, they simply dazzled, and going into bracket play, they’re sure to be able to adapt to the playing style of any team they face.

Michigan Tech (8)

Michigan Tech was a bit of a wildcard, a newcomer on the scene making their first-ever Nationals appearance just four years into the program’s existence. Going 2-1 on the first day, the Superior Ma’s demonstrated their play style is a patient one, focused on handler movement, but not without deep-field range: whenever a huck went up, it was Laura Lyons who came down with it. This tech school wasn’t a well-oiled machine all day — in their fourth point of pool play, they found themselves locked in a 15-minute battle against Rochester before either team would score — but that grit and grind might be an asset, too. It will be exciting to see how they have shaken off any first-day jitters to compete in bracket play.

Puget Sound (12)

Puget Sound had a frustrating time meeting the rest of Pool A. In their first game against powerhouse Truman State, they played a number of very long, tiring points. Friday’s results were not necessarily the last word on this team’s capabilities, but do show how D-III is always a toss-up. Meadbh Koenigsberg was central to Puget Sound’s offense, exuding confidence from the handler space and throwing clean, floaty hucks to the end zone. Bethany Llewellyn continually made incisive throws with the success of her team in mind. They may have ended the day 0-3, but worthy teams strike out now and again.

Rochester (13)

Rochester went 1-2 on the day to take third in their pool, ending Friday with a hard-fought victory over Puget Sound that went to universe point. Across this pool, confident handler motion was key to winning the day; Rochester was no different, anchored by Madison “PJ” Lang. The win that kept them alive in the bracket would not have been possible without the impressive plays of Eileen Bequette, who was able to catch every disc a foot above the rest of the field. Rochester noted that they’ve been playing even lines all day, in order to maximize on each player’s natties experience. That openness paid off for them, and they’ll continue to play in title contention on Saturday.

Pool B

Carleton Eclipse (2)

A brazen, flashy streak can be charming on a first encounter. So can the kind of steady presence that speaks to rock-solid self-confidence and a lack of neediness for the spotlight. You could say Carleton had no standout players today, but that’s only because their entire team worked so efficiently together, with each player on the field touching the disc point after point. Watching the way that Eclipse’s offense relied on short, quick throws back and forth to keep their defense moving and disoriented, it is easy to see why they went 3-0 today.

If I had to pick one player to single out, it might be Emily Hall, whose throws reliably found their receivers with ease. Her hammer over the top of Brandeis’ cup would be considered a risky throw for many, but not for Hall and not for Eclipse: it landed directly in the hands of its recipient. Going into bracket play, Eclipse will surely continue to use their blistering foot speed and deep, well-rounded roster to make any opponent fight for each point.

Rice (7)

Rice’s roster runs deep, and so does its confidence in its players. Not only do these athletes know their own jobs, they know each others’, and they were able to maximize that chemistry with tons of quick under passes and smooth handler movement. Sandy Wu was everywhere on the field, making huge layout plays on offense and defense, while rookie-to-watch Sophia Figueroa made clean, speedy cuts to get open again and again. Rice’s capstone game of Friday was not their victory over Brandeis, but the fight they put up against Carleton, challenging the no. 2 seed by taking the first break of the game. Going into Saturday, Rice’s momentum is only building.

Richmond (11)

In their first-ever college nationals, the Richmond Redhots had a whole story to write. They came out… well, hot against Carleton in an imposing first matchup of the day, forcing Eclipse to work for every point they played. Their second round against Rice was a competitive, challenging game full of exciting plays and more hard-fought points. Donovan nominee Mimi Tran was ubiquitous, snagging floaty discs on both offense and defense, laying out in the end zone, and playing with an aura of cool collectedness that held the team together when play got scrappy. Victoria Davis and LeeAnn Dempsey worked the short game handler movement for their win against Rice. Ultimately, that focus on star players for Richmond may have been what tired the Redhots in the last game that left them with a 1-2 record — missing bracket play on a very narrow point differential. Nevertheless, program and players both made a strong impression on Friday, burning a fiery streak in the Nationals record of names and games to remember.

Brandeis (14)

Some teams are striking at first, then lose their luster a bit as the day goes on. Banshee only impressed more and more as their first day went on. Coming out with a scrappy first half against Rice, Brandeis couldn’t seem to relax into a flow until the latter half of their second game against Carleton. Although a Brandeis break train couldn’t change the tide of game two, they went on to roll through Richmond, quickly going up 4-1 and never looking back. Eva Arfa was consistently wide open in the end zone for scores, but Brandeis’ real strength is their unity across the roster. According to captain Ally Mundis, they’re a second-day team, so it will be interesting to see how they build going into day two… of a four-day tournament.

Pool C

Portland (3)

If you like excitement, Portland is the team for you! This team was simply electric from the moment they stepped on the field. As a whole, they were willing and eager to put up a deep shot as soon as it was available — the most exciting way to play, high risk and high reward. Luckily, they’re able to back up those shots with an elite athlete like Kim Dorr who can attack the downfield space. This team only brought upperclassmen and alumni this weekend, showcasing what they might have looked like in 2020, and no holds have been barred for this last adrenaline rush. If you’re looking for someone to cheer for — roar for Portland is your team.

Union (6)

If Portland isn’t your style, then maybe Union will be; their matchup with Portland was a tale of contrasting styles. While Portland was eager to shoot deep, Union kept their throws short and steady, thriving on resets and small passes to advance the disc gracefully — a type of ultimate that’s beautiful in its own right. It’s a kind of confidence that’s striking to see from a team with Union’s history: this isn’t only their first-ever Nationals, it’s their first ever Series, and they seem entirely prepared to go toe-to-toe with some of the nation’s best. Talking to the team, that steady confidence seems to come from internal trust and respect: this is a team competing for themselves and for each other. From their second-place finish in this pool, you’d hardly guess they’d never been here before.

Vassar (10)

Vassar hasn’t seen a D-III Nationals quite like this before: at their last appearance at a national capstone event for the division, in 2009, there were three other teams at the fields. Sharing a pool with Kenyon, Union, and Portland, Vassar was in for some tough games, which found the Boxing Nuns fighting through ironclad defense. Setting aside the wide point differential across their two losses, Vassar found opportunities for highlight plays throughout the day: Ella Foster with an unbelievable bid that put Vassar on the board against top pool seed Portland, Alouette Batteau slinging beautifully-calibrated hucks to her teammates.

Kenyon (15)

Kenyon Blu-Ray brought a massive roster to their first Nationals showing and, with it, the most fun sideline of the entire tournament. This team brought energy and spirit to every game on Friday, even when the score wasn’t close. They had their tightest game of the day against Vassar, initially going up 7-6, Rose Fisher catching a deep shot to throw an assist that put them in a competitive position. They may be out of the bracket, but they aren’t done with this weekend or this year of college ultimate. For Kenyon’s captains, the nationals experience has been a learning one, and an opportunity to build camaraderie among their up-and-coming program. Who wouldn’t be glad to see a team like that again in the spring?

Pool D

Middlebury (4)

The Pranksters were not joking around in Pool D. Their O-line didn’t give up a single break all day, and their goals and assists on Friday were distributed across 16 players, suggesting a deep roster that means business at this tournament. Leading it was Claire Babbott-Bryan, throwing thread-the-needle hucks through the stack and laying out in the end zone to score. Against Wheaton, sophomore Sarah Rifkin notched a callahan! Capable isn’t necessarily staid-and-stately, however: Middlebury comes across as scrappy, quick and smart. Quickly taking control of their three games today, the Pranksters are sure to work their way through the bracket smoothly as the weekend progresses.

Lehigh (5)

In a tournament where most teams were lucky to be running any sort of stack or set, the Lehigh offense ran some of the prettiest initiations that I saw all day. Their side stack cutting had the coordination and field awareness of a young club team, creating big windows of downfield space to capitalize on the speed of cutters like Belle Sullivan. Some execution issues prevented them from rewarding these initiations with goals, but the foundation is there for this high-level offense. Lehigh’s raw athleticism — highlighted by layout grabs by Anna Sivinski — is sure to help this team in bracket play, maximizing their strategic strengths as well as helping them recover from any errors. There’s a lot to be said for making your assets work for you, and Lehigh is more than ready to do that this weekend.

Occidental (9)

Some teams play pretty ultimate. Some teams play cautious ultimate. Occidental plays ruthlessly aggressive ultimate. That’s not to say they’re dangerous or unspirited, but rather that they pursue scoring with ferocity. Any time an opponent made a turn, WAC was there looking for the fast break opportunity, scoring many of their goals just one or two throws after gaining possession of the disc. Occidental aren’t just out to break you, they’re out to demoralize you. This is a team that plays like they believe they’re capable of beating anybody — and if they catch fire for an extended stretch in this bracket, they very well might be. Follow this team and you’ll be in for a thrilling ride.

Wheaton (16)

Wheaton entered this tournament as a mysterious stranger, a first-time Nationals team who qualified from the Great Lakes without playing a single game in the Series. There’s real intrigue in a team like that, and when Wheaton took the field — dressed, it must be said, in some of the most stylish kits across the division — they left an impression to remember. While their games weren’t close, they forced each team to fight hard for their points. Captain Katie Bristol led the team on offense and defense, while the sideline kept the morale up. They exit title contention after pool play, but not without a sense that there are stories yet to be told for this team. We almost certainly haven’t seen the last of this team — and when they enter the scene again, it’ll be with more intrigue than ever.

  1. Scotti Dempsey
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    Scotti Dempsey is a co-host of the Laying it Out podcast. She is a graduate of Lehigh University, and now plays mixed club in New York City. You can reach her through Twitter @scottidempsey.

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