A pandemic-inspired pickup game became the locus of the sport on campus while official club play wasn't allowed.
May 28, 2022 by Jesse Strod and Patrick Stegemoeller in Profile with 0 comments
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You dream about being the first team in your program’s history to make Nationals, but actually being in a position to take that giant leap can feel more feverish than a soft slumber. Up 11-6 in the game-to-go to Nationals, the last of three bids in the South Central region up for grabs, and Washington University Contra are within reach of something that has eluded their program through its 35-year history.
It’s been a long weekend of hard-won successes and a humbling loss to Texas that knocked Contra into this do-or-die game against Colorado State. One win to cement the program into a new echelon of the sport, or one loss to add to the pile of season-ending Regionals bummers. In these conditions, even a five-point second-half lead feels precarious. You could wake up at any moment and find yourself back in the land of also-rans. So by the time the score narrowed to 12-10, game to 13, a potential nightmare had started to stir.
Another break from Colorado State and the meltdown would truly be on. So in this moment of intense pressure, a legacy-defining moment, who steps up? For Contra, it was a first-year, Cam Freeman, putting the disc into the end zone to sophomore Noah Stovitz and locking up Wash U’s first-ever bid to Nationals. A lot of teams making Natties for the first time are led by a golden generation of upperclassmen, often a generation optimized by mortgaging the development of underclassmen. But in this case, it’s appropriate that it was an underclassman putting the rock in for the winning goal, as this Contra team was propelled over the final hurdle by a swath of first years and sophomores playing huge roles in the biggest moments for the team.
Okay, you’re thinking. They must have gotten a bunch of YCC kids. Big recruiting pipeline from some high school powerhouse programs. All of these “underclassmen” have probably been playing high-level ultimate since they were in braces.
Contra forged their youth movement through a COVID-era necessitated, team-unaffiliated pickup game facilitated by a Snapchat group, which grew organically out of the pandemic boredom of a bunch of first years and blossomed into the spine of the team that made Nationals for the first time in program history. Not quite Triforce or ATLiens, but for Wash U, it was exactly the thing they needed. The story of how this pickup game came together forever changed the legacy of the Contra program, and the lives of the people involved.
Early Days of Pandemic
Flash back to fall 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is still in its pre-vaccine era of unknowns and anxieties, no one feeling sure what the next few months or even weeks could bring. And while some parts of life are suspended on indefinite hiatus, others are moving forward in awkward lurches of not-quite normalcy. Leaves are changing color. Babies are being born. Students are still matriculating into universities.
Two specific first years, Seth Fisher-Olvera and Nic Sprague, arrive on campus at Washington University in St. Louis and are randomly assigned as roommates. Seth is from Vermont and already has the frisbee bug; he started playing ultimate before high school and was excited to have the quintessential college ultimate experience he’s dreamed about. Nic is a high school soccer player from New Jersey, planning on trying out for the club soccer team. He’s never played ultimate before. His visions of glory in college involve kicking goals, not catching them. But they, like every other first year in the fall of 2020, were going to be in for a very different reality than what they had been envisioning.
As anyone who has gone through a regular first year of college remembers, the first weeks on campus should be full of random meet-ups, exploring campus, and finding your place in this new environment. Potentially that happens by joining one of the hundreds of clubs on campus all vying for your participation with varying levels of enthusiastic recruiting techniques. But this year, none of that was happening.
During that first fall of the pandemic, Wash U had closed off almost all activities on campus. Classes were all online for the semester, students were not allowed to be in dorm buildings that they didn’t live in, seating in dining halls was severely restricted, and everyone was masked all the time. As you can imagine, it was particularly hard on the first years who did not have any of those traditional ways to meet people and make friends as they start their college journeys. Thinking back to those first weeks, “it was very hard to socialize,” said Sprague, “especially in a safe manner.”
While varsity sports were allowed to continue under restrictions, club sports were not allowed to organize any regular events. This meant that both the men’s and women’s ultimate teams at Wash U weren’t allowed to practice. The teams depend on funding from the school to go to tournaments, and they couldn’t risk their good relationship with the administration. So even though they wanted to, none of the guys on Contra were practicing or getting to play regularly.
Against this backdrop, incoming first-years found themselves deprived of many of the opportunities and structures that would normally funnel them into the social and competitive environments college can offer. Instead, they would have to figure out how to create a college experience for themselves.
After dinner on their first day on campus, Nic asked Seth if he wanted to throw a frisbee in one of the central residential quads. While there usually would have been too many mandatory orientation activities, this year there was not a lot else they were even allowed to do.
It may not have been the most exciting experience of all time, but that first night tossing sure beat staring at a dorm wall and contemplating lost youth.
That evening out throwing at Mudd Field provided some semblance of collegiate normalcy, so Nic and Seth continued to throw regularly, making it an almost nightly ritual. A few days later they randomly sat down for lunch next to a fellow first-year named Sam Schwartz. Sam was interested in playing ultimate but had never been able to give it a shot. When he heard that Nic and Seth had been tossing, he wanted in. That weekend, the trio put together a Saturday morning game of 2v2 box with another first-year who had been drawn in by the flight of the disc during Nic and Seth’s sessions. It went great and became another part of the routine.
Soon, the word got out, and each time they played or were throwing, people would walk by and ask to join. More and more people wanted to get in on the action, and eventually a Snapchat group was created to coordinate the newly forged crew of frisbee obsessives.
The first women’s player to join was Casey Ellyson, a first-year from Atlanta who had played ultimate in high school at Paideia, bringing the grand total of people who truly knew how to play the sport to two. At the beginning, Seth and Casey were basically the only ones who knew the rules. But the lack of knowledge did not bely any lack of enthusiasm, and soon the group grew and grew until they were playing 7v7 (and even 8v8 one time when Seth and Casey weren’t there to explain why that was sacrilege). They played all-gender mini, almost exclusively barefoot and always masked. No one knew what a force was, let alone a stack, and most people could only throw either a forehand or backhand, if that. But that pure, simple thrill of chasing down a disc, of running around with a bunch of peers, more than made up for any deficiencies in skill. It was a group of people who played the games for the sake of having fun and coming together through frisbee in a time when there were not a lot of other ways to make connections.
Before long, the group became the center of gravity for people’s lives, including Seth, Nic, Sam, Casey, and the other mainstays at the pick-up games and throwing sessions. The group forged close friendships just from the organic collection of people who were playing frisbee together. They all met the people who are now their closest friends through playing mini and throwing. For Sprague, “It led to me having all of the friends I have now. 95% of the people I know on campus come from frisbee either directly or indirectly.”
Contra Gets Involved
About two months after the birth of this pick-up group, one of the members of the men’s team at Wash U, Rob Slutsky, walked by a mini session. Witnessing the closest thing to real ultimate he’d seen on campus since the start of the pandemic, he jumped right in. After working up a nice sweat, Rob put the word out to some Contra players through the team’s group chat: there’s frisbee happening, and it’s really fun. Eventually, a bunch of other players from Contra started coming to games; since it wasn’t associated with the team and thus was allowed by the school, it was a go.
By early February, there were over 100 people in the pick-up chat (which by that point had switched to a GroupMe to avoid the Snapchat group limit) and there were regularly over 20 people coming out for daily mini on nice days. It wasn’t organized with any divining principle beyond enjoyment but through all of these reps, the level of skill had increased substantially over the course of the year. Seth and Casey had been teaching people some of the basic skills and schemes, and when some of the Contra guys started to come, the number of people with frisbee knowledge skyrocketed.
This wasn’t how Contra’s leadership had envisioned their recruitment and player development process playing out, but this pick-up game soon became the locus point of ultimate on campus.
Before the pandemic, Contra would have a fairly conventional recruiting process. Current 5th year player on the team Josh Gabella outlined the traditional steps of shoving flyers about tryouts under the doors of first years’ dorms, putting posters up in the student center and sending a delegation to student event fairs. “That would all lead to about 80-100 guys showing up for tryouts. We’d get a mix of some people with experience at ultimate, some who came from other sports,” said Gabella. “It would be a quick process of open tryouts and a tryout tournament, and after about three weeks it usually boils down to about 8-10 guys getting rostered.”
But shorn of normal recruiting methods, Contra found themselves getting a good look at some promising players in the GroupMe games, and starting to think about how they could make the two worlds come together.
“There was some initial hesitation,” said Gabella “about potentially, like, moving in on their game. We had conversations about it, about not stealing their thing, but the people running the game had no problem with us being there. They were just happy to get more people at the games and we were just happy to be playing.” The team and the pickup group integrated seamlessly.
As the Spring 2021 semester wore on, the recruiting brains of the Contra players switched on. At the close of the semester and into the fall, as the school began allowing official club activities again, the Contra returners in the group tried to bring the GroupMe gamers into the Contra fold.
“It’s hard to recruit athletic sophomores,” said captain Ben Reimler. “Because usually they have already found their thing, especially zero ultimate experience athletic guys. The mini group had good athletes gain experience that they may normally not have gotten during the normal fall tryout system.”
Even despite this experience, the positive athletic upside, and the encouragement of the Contra players, several members of the pickup group had to be convinced that they were good enough to play ultimate at an officially organized level.
“A lot of them were initially intimidated, reluctant to tryout,” said Gabella. “We made it as simple as possible. Told them that we have an A and a B team, let them know that no matter what happens there was a place for them in our community.”
It worked. Heading into the 2022 season, Wash U Contra was flush with a strong sophomore class despite not having an official season the year prior, and a strong presence of first-years who had joined up through the continued presence of the pick-up game.
The 2022 Season
Fast forward to the spring of 2022, and Contra starts out the spring season with an encouraging showing at Santa Barbara Invite in late January. The team kept working through the cold winter weather in St. Louis, with a long stretch until their next tournament at Midwest Throwdown in early March. The contingent of sophomore rookies like Seth and Nic are carving out big roles for themselves, and soon almost the entire starting D-line is made up of new players, many of whom came from the pick-up GroupMe.
After a tough 11-10 universe point loss to Colorado College at Midwest Throwdown, the team doubled down even more on their youth movement, moving talented first years Cam Freeman and Joel Brown to the O-line to solidify Contra’s offensive firepower. They rolled through the competition at Huck Finn on their final day of the regular season and set themselves up for a run through the Series.
Then came Regionals, and the game-to-go, and Freeman finding Stovitz to seal Contra’s place in history.
Out of the nine sophomores on Contra who were on campus during 2020, all nine of them were regulars at the GroupMe games, and six of them had never played the sport before seeing it by chance one day in the early fall of 2020. Seth, Nic, and a third member of the pickup group Wilson Tryon are the leaders of the D-line, playing large roles all throughout the season. The contributions brought to the team by the underclassman who never got to play college ultimate before this season have been irreplaceable.
Messaging in the pick-up GroupMe has slowed this year with its core members playing on the organized club teams in a return to so-called normalcy. The empty void of time and in-person interaction that led to the group’s creation has been filled with the hectic schedules of college students that are balancing regular practices, schoolwork, social gatherings, all while trying to get enough sleep.
Casey, now a member of WUWU, the Wash U women’s team, notes some sadness that “no one has the time [for pickup] anymore — it was pretty special.” As Seth describes the bittersweet feeling of living a more normal college life, he also recognizes how those strange days of pickup stay with him. “Its legacy is the friendships and the players on our team who learned how to play frisbee on Mudd.” Nic joins in, “if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
It’s unlikely that Contra will ever get to repeat this formula for building the foundation of a Nationals qualifier. Hopefully, they’ll never have to. But as we all reckon with the changes forced upon us by the pandemic, how our expectations and dreams have been shattered and diverted, take a little joy from seeing how Contra made a dream come true by picking up the pieces of how they thought things were, and creating something that should be.