Until 2022, no HBCU schools ever fielded an ultimate team. This year, two have sprung up and are already making an impact on and off the field.
December 13, 2022 by Alex Rubin in Profile with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 college ultimate season are presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author(s). Find out how Spin can get you, and your team, looking your best this season.
When I came across an Instagram photo of a group of players in early September, I didn’t think too much of it. I follow a lot of ultimate accounts and see a lot of photos of ultimate players. But this one was special. It was a picture of the new St Augustine’s University team that just started this fall. In general, new college teams are always a welcome development. However, in an ever more racially conscious community, a new team coming from one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is certainly newsworthy. This season, not one but two HBCU teams are joining the college ranks, the first ever teams hailing from HBCU campuses.
Back in 2020, Ultiworld reported about the beginnings of a team at Morehouse College, where Adam Cheese is a senior. Cheese’s parents and uncle are all part-owners of the local Atlanta Hustle AUDL team which promised to help build the first ever team at an HBCU. Two years later, Cheese’s dreams have turned into reality.
“In middle school, I played ultimate. It quickly became my favorite sport,” Cheese said. “I felt like coming into school, with everything going on with my family’s involvement with the sport, I felt like it would be really cool to find people who would want to throw around with me.” Throughout his first year, the 2019-2020 school year, Cheese built momentum for a Morehouse team, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic ground most student activity to a halt.
As students returned to campus during the ’21-’22 school year, he recruited two others who were committed to the team and could function as a leadership group. Cheese felt it was important to recruit underclassmen as the other club officers so the club can continue beyond his time as a student. In July 2022, the trio submitted the necessary paperwork to start a new club sports team and recruited a faculty advisor. Just after the start of the school year, Morehouse Ultimate was approved as a registered student organization. “It was so exciting,” Cheese recalled. “At the very least we’re an official club. There’s a tangibility to all of the work that we’ve done.”
Cheese and the team have hit the ground running this fall, getting practices started and building connections within the Atlanta ultimate scene. Unfortunately, most of the field space at Morehouse this fall was taken by the football team, but Cheese is looking forward to getting better access to available fields when they open up for club sports in the spring. “We’re trying to see how we can create a strong foundation,” Cheese said. “It’s been about student engagement, trying to create ways to bring kids in.”
Because the team did not become official until after the school year started, many students already committed to other extracurricular activities before they found out about Morehouse ultimate. While there are seven players who come to nearly everything consistently, there are more who are unable to make a fuller commitment this year.
The team is trying to design a schedule of scrimmages with local schools like Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and Kennesaw State. With a short roster, playing smaller events to start will help generate success ahead of what they hope will be a more formally competitive future. Though they are open to the possibility of competing as a registered team in the USA Ultimate season if they recruit enough eligible players, for now the team is only committed to playing unsanctioned events so that players from nearby schools like Spelman and Clark Atlanta (both schools have campuses adjacent to Morehouse) can play too.
Peter Thomas, Cheese’s uncle, and John Boezi — both of whom are on the Atlanta Hustle leadership team — have been instrumental in helping Morehouse Ultimate get off the ground. They’ve donated equipment, helped with fundraising, and dispensed general advice about how to make a college ultimate team work. The team was also treated to a guest appearance at practice by Hustle All-Star Matt Smith.
St. Augustine’s Is Making Early Waves
While SAU got a bit of a later start than Morehouse, they have already generated plenty of buzz even beyond their campus grounds. Mark Janas is an SAU professor who is known for coming up with innovative ideas to integrate non-traditional sports like cycling or rowing. Back in August, he announced intentions to start an ultimate team. Brandon Parris was one of his students and later became a leader on the ultimate team. “He has a knack for making a lot of firsts happen,” Parris said, reflecting on Janas’s influence on the team.
With the help of Triangle Ultimate, Janas was able to get the team off the ground, and they have already played their first event, a well-publicized showcase against UNC Darkside, the two time D-I defending champions.
Beth Stagner was introduced to the SAU team at this year’s Triangle Ultimate Hall of Fame event. She overheard a conversation about the team and volunteered to coach after realizing that she lives close by and could offer the necessary time commitment. She also lauded Janas as a persuasive person who has an ability to get others excited about the things he is passionate about. Just a few months into the team’s existence, it’s not just Janas who is excited about ultimate.
Most of the SAU players have only been playing for a few months. A handful had played in their high school PE classes, but when they stepped on the field for a showcase game against UNC Darkside, they were giving up 5-7 years of experience each. If you just look at the final scores, UNC won those scrimmages (final scores were 7-1 and 9-2 in a pair of short games). But for a bunch of brand new players, getting the chance to play against an elite team and managing to score against them was eye-opening.
“You could tell that that was so special to them and special to the whole team,” Stagner said, turning to talk to Parris. “Every time y’all step on the field, you’re going to encounter your first of something, no matter what it is.”
Like Morehouse, SAU is still fine tuning its recruitment. Janas does a lot of it because of his position as a professor in front of students, but Ryshawn Seaberry and Parris have taken the lead in targeting students to join. They have focused on getting in front of the student body. The team practices on a football field surrounded by an open track, so runners will see the team in action. The team has also taken to throwing on the quad every Monday so that passers-by can gain exposure to the team.
“One of the striking things for me,” Stagner said, thinking about the school’s population, “it’s so small, so the pool that you’re trying to pull from is what they’re also trying to do football and basketball from…It’s a challenge to get the same numbers out.”
“When spring semester starts, it will get a lot more traction,” Parris added, “because it is a much more inclusive sport in terms of cost.” The team benefitted from donated equipment including BE Ultimate reversibles designed specifically for the scrimmage and Tokay cleats. SAU is also fundraising for its spring season by selling its newly designed jerseys online.
SAU plans to remain an exhibition team for the rest of the school year. With low numbers (SAU’s total enrollment is under 1,000 students), the team is not sure it would have enough eligible players to field a tournament-ready roster. For the showcase game, a few graduated players who have stuck around the area were able to play, as well as coaches such as Raleigh Ring of Fire’s Terrence Mitchell.
They’re working with Triangle Ultimate to set up matches as the foundation for the competitive team while taking advantage of the ultimate hotbed that is the triangle area. “We are in such a rich community of games,” Stagner said. “Brandon and three others played in a one-day tournament mixed in with a few other teams…It’s good to get games in. You learn so much from playing. Each time Brandon goes out and plays winter league, he’s going to build his skillset there. We advertised that to the team who was still going to be around to play if you can. We’ll be looking for more opportunities to get them on a field with other people to keep playing.”
Though the team is still growing on a competitive level, it already has a solid commitment. Terric Buchanan, a player who lives in Washington DC, was at home rather than on campus on the morning of their showcase game against UNC but took a long bus ride down to Raleigh and then an Uber straight to the fields to arrive in time for the second part of the showcase. Though the trip was tough, “that’s how much it meant to him to be there and to be a part of it,” Stagner said.
Even though it’s possible that we’ll see neither team register for Sectionals this year, simply the creation of two teams on HBCU campuses is a victory. It’s a win not just for a sport that is trying to prove that it is as inclusive as it wants to be, but it’s also a win for the players who get the opportunity to play a fun, accessible game with their friends and other people who look like them.
“There is a real high potential for ultimate in HBCU spaces,” Cheese said. “There’s a lot of athletes who are not engaging in their sport anymore. Ultimate gives them an area to be extremely athletic. There’s more students at these schools than people know who already know about ultimate, who have played it, who want to continue playing it and do it competitively.”