USA U24 National Team: East Coast Tryout Recap

Atlanta played host to the east coast's best college-aged players.

U24 USA National Team in Heidelberg, Germany. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

AUSTELL, Ga. — More than a hundred of the best young ultimate players in the country gathered on an unseasonably cold day in metro Atlanta to begin the Eastern edition of U24 tryouts. Spirits were high and competition was sharp as players attempted to make impressions on a star-studded coaching and talent evaluation staff.

“The day was pretty crazy,” said Brown’s Rita Feder. “I think the level of competition was really high, which was both really fun and really challenging.”

It’s difficult to argue with her assessment of the talent: it was crazy to see so many typically far-flung stars clustered into a single field complex, all wheat and no chaff. For all the wow-factor, though, the coaches did a good job ingraining structure and purpose throughout the day.

The steepest learning curve belonged to the mixed division – most players in the age bracket are far more experienced with the women’s or men’s competition they play in college. “It’s hard because I think men’s and women’s teams are running different schemes and it’s hard to gel as one unit,” said Vermont’s Kuochuan Ponzio. The coaches’ approach seemed to be to just throw them into the deep end and trust that they would begin to adjust to each other on the fly. And adjust they did. Every group found their way into nascent lockstep, particularly with the kind of artful red zone play that has become a staple throughout both divisions of the college game.

There was a more roundabout path to collaboration on the women’s field. “In women’s we tried to establish that chemistry through smaller detailed fundamentals,” said Feder.

The coaches began sessions with simple set drills: when and where to cut for a swing pass, how to shape the throw to minimize the risk of a block. The players ran through dozens of reps at slow speed, often without defense. The upshot was deeply shared understanding of structure that provided a foundation on which to create more elaborate play. By the end of the day, a number of players had found ways to take advantage of horizontal movement to get off the kinds of big throws that make for quick, exciting scores.

“A bunch of hours into the day we were able to connect on things,” said Feder. “We were able to open up the break side, swing the disc, understand each other on the field better. So that elevated play despite exhaustion.”

“Men’s was more upbeat – keep it moving, be active,” said Temple’s Nate Little. The last two sessions of the afternoon saw players hyping each other up with a gauntlet-style quick movement drill. It set the table for explosive scrimmages full of acrobatic catches and blocks. There was palpable excitement generated by players getting to try each other out for the first time, learning how to work with people they have spent years working against.

“Any college player, you learn to have that respect for them when you play against them. And then being on the same line: that’s a privilege,” said Ponzio.

“Actually playing with these guys you’ve played against so long… it just feels different,” said Little. “You feel like you can definitely develop your game and just be comfortable.”

“Comfortable” was more a state of mind than an actual fact due to the extreme mental and physical challenge of trying to execute at a high level while remaining positive about what, for most players, was a high stakes, high-pressure event. The tryout the coaches set up was clearly fun, productive, and organized – but it was also grueling. Players used every ounce of energy for bids, for technical footwork, for maintaining control over key throws during long points.

The hardest moments came in the sessions after lunch when the mixed and women’s coaches ramped up the demands. In mixed, this took the form of a double score scrimmage: the team that scored had to walk the disc back out to a sideline in the red zone and, from stopped play, score a second time for the goal to count. It was a struggle for everyone. Success was rare on the second attempts, and frustration was evident.

The women’s coaches demanded, if anything, even more. They had a section of players in each session “warm up” with a full-field four-on-four scrimmage. That’s already a lot of ground to cover, but there was a further twist: scores had to be accomplished within a set number of passes. The structure of the scrimmage essentially turned into a maddening deep drill – with a huge number of turnovers. Players not only had to push through the fatigue of near-constant cutting, but also the mental stress of making so many mistakes. It was planned adversity, seemingly designed not to gauge performance so much as to push players into discomfort and see how they responded.

Like the coaches, players came into the day with a plan. They each wanted to highlight something about themselves that an evaluator could remember.

“I wanted to play good defense,” said Ponzio. “I think I’m a defensive specialist, so it was definitely a focus of mine. It’s hard to play good defense when everyone is so good at offense, but I think I accomplished that.”

“In the club world I’m a cutter, and in college I’m a handler. I decided that I wanted to show off cutting more, specifically deep cuts and short space give-goes,” said Feder. “And also flick hucks.”

“I really wanted to be that active cutter, be that initiator or the continuation or that deep guy threat, and I feel like I executed that well for the coaches,” said Little.

This flaunt-it-if-you’ve-got-it mindset led to some spectacular play – it’s frankly amazing how high players can reach with a supportive sideline and a reason to play up to the moment. But it’s even more amazing that they were essentially just being themselves. Dawn Culton (UNC) and Henry Ing (Pittsburgh) made enormous defensive bids, just as you would expect to see from them. But the big play wasn’t limited to the stars everyone already knows. Far from it.

For every crisp Alyssa Earhardt (Carleton) or Clara Stewart (Northeastern) backhand, there was a forehand bomb from Feder, Tayara Romero Pena (Syracuse), or Wilhelmina Graff (Yale). Hayden Austin-Knab (Georgia) certainly won in the air a few times, but not any more so than Little – and both of them demonstrated extreme competence marching an offense up the field. Leo Gordon (Brown) has had his motor at full throttle on large stages for well over a year now: it was great to see the somewhat less celebrated Albert Yuan (Duke) take the same assertive approach. Jocelyn Sun (Chicago) displayed phenomenal body control at various points during the day. Erica Brown turned heads with a furious greatest attempt on a disc already five yards out of bounds, as well as a visionary backhand from motion to the middle of the endzone to a shallow Jonathan Sillivant (Alabama-Huntsville) away cut.

There were too many performances to highlight: the list above is not at all comprehensive and should not be taken as an indicator for who might make the cut for one of the teams. If there are any clear conclusions to draw, they have much more to do with the character of the event than the quality of its participants.

“I love how supportive and loud everyone’s teammates are. I think that a really huge part of being an athlete is you have to be motivated by the people around you… We were able to pick each other up. We were loud… And throughout the day we got louder, we were hyping each other up when we made big plays, the disc was getting spiked a little more,” said Feder.

Joy and community clearly won the day as players anchored themselves in their (sometimes extremely new) teammates – a welcome sight for any Team USA supporter.

“I thought it went really great. Definitely nervous at first. But talking to a lot of players, it really felt welcoming,” said Little. “I’m terrible with names, but I would say [I clicked with] this one dude. I have to learn his name tomorrow.”

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