Pros, Cons, and Wishes from D-III College Nationals

A coach's thoughts after attending another D-III championship event

Author and Portland coach Dan Young at the 2021 D-III College Championships. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

After another year attending the Division III College Championships while coaching in the women’s division for Portland UPRoar, I wanted to share some thoughts on the event. It’s great to have a championship event for smaller schools: there are lots of things going well, but I also see things that can use improvement. Here are some pros, cons, and wishes for D-III Nationals.

USAU/Scheduling

Pro:

D-III moving to a three day tournament continues to be a big win. It’s hard to imagine back to the days where quarters, semis, and finals were all on the same day. Spreading out the games gives a huge boost to the quality of play: giving star players time to rest, coaches time to scout, and spectators time to take in all the great games being played.

Con:

Inconsistent scheduling continues to make some teams’ roads more difficult than they should be:

  • A quarters round that ends at 2:45 and a semi that starts at 3:30 is not enough time to prepare for the most important games of the season, especially given that 10 minutes of each pregame is eaten up by the same observer speech and USAU checks of the team uniforms.
  • Having teams play a placement game immediately after being eliminated continues to be unnecessarily brutal. This continues to happen in both the club and college divisions, where teams frequently play a tightly contested quarters game that goes all the way to hard cap. Then the team that loses is expected to emotionally recover from their season ending and move to a new field for a placement game starting in 30 minutes. If the rationale is to have players available to watch the semis, USAU should recognize that teams in this position usually need more recovery time anyways before wanting to watch the team that beat them continue to compete.

Wish:

really wish D3 had the same opportunity for the semis atmosphere that D-I Nationals has. Staggered semis that go into the night with lights in a stadium is a really special fan and player experience that isn’t matched at all by simultaneous streamed games on grass fields with no stands. Watching Minnesota beat Pittsburgh in the 2016 men’s semifinal is one of my favorite moments as a spectator, and that atmosphere is more than possible at D-III Nationals, too, if the semis are pushed back later into the evening.1

Field Site

Pro:

One unexpected and welcome change to this year’s field site was the lack of admission or parking fees. It made it so much easier to coordinate friends and family getting to the fields to support the teams, and it meant we didn’t have to sit in long parking lines or scramble through the trunk to find the Nationals wristbands.

The other big benefit of this year’s field site was that there were multiple entrances/exits and parking near each of the fields, so it was easy to unload or revisit the car without needing to walk across a huge complex. While there was a shortage of food/drink options on Saturday, the free dinner at the end of day Sunday was another unexpected bonus. It could have been advertised better, but having tournament dinner available immediately after finishing games is fantastic for athlete recovery.

Con:

There’s been plenty of complaints on Twitter about the fields, and I don’t have too much to add. Choosing a field location is hard, and there are tradeoffs with every decision. While I understand the value of having streamed fields in the “center” of the complex, it was disappointing that they were the worst fields we played on all weekend. The streamed fields were more sloped and bumpy — and had worse grass and field lines  — than most of the outer pool play fields. I’d prefer to prioritize quality of play over location convenience, and I wish we had better fields for those most important games.

Wish:

My biggest wish for D-III Nationals fields is to go back to being at the same time and field site as D-I Nationals. The 2021 College Nationals was one of the most special tournaments I’ve been to — being surrounded by that many games had an energy that I’ve only seen matched at WUCC. I know it’s much harder to find field sites able to simultaneously support 72 teams, but I think it would go a long way to closing the gap in coverage between D-I and D-III Nationals (and it’s the only time my players haven’t expressed feeling like a “second class division.”)

Competition & Quality of Play

Pro:

We just witnessed the continuation of one of the greatest runs in college history: Middlebury has only lost a single game since the 2019 D-III National Championships.2 But they didn’t do it against weak competition: the women’s division this year was stacked at the top. Middlebury, Wellesley, and Carleton Eclipse were all ranked top 25 overall in the country, alongside the D-I teams. The top five teams (adding Portland and Whitman) had a 61-8 record with only two losses to teams outside the top 20.

Middlebury has had an impressive run, beating each of the top contenders (Portland, Wellesley, and Carleton) in the last three finals with an average five goal margin in bracket play. The quality of play across the division has been impressive, especially given the difficulties many teams faced in recruiting and playing during the pandemic.

Con:

With a top-heavy field this year, the women’s pool play was mostly uneventful. Most games were 8+ point blowouts, with the only close games occurring between the four, five, and nine seeds in Pool D.3 In 2019 (the last year D-III Nationals was a two day event), the seeds that made semis were #1, #6, #9, and #14. The two years before that included Nos. 2, 3, 6, 7, 8 10, and 11. Since 2019, a top 4 seed has only failed to make semis once.

Extending play across a longer tournament is probably linked to a reduced number of upsets, but it has also made the first day of play much more predictable. Especially given the reduced connectivity in the D3 division, I’d be interested in USAU implementing the “soccer draw” style they’re experimenting with this year in the club division.

Wish:

In my opinion, too many teams are reliant on only one offensive set — and especially vert stack. I understand that there’s not many players in this division with previous playing experience, and that vert is easier to teach, but the offense doesn’t seem like the best choice for many of the teams running it. Defenses in the division have gotten much better at poaching the typical vert stack spaces, and not many teams have enough great break throwers to threaten both sides of the field.

The no-dump vert sets I saw this year (Olaf, Carleton, etc.) ran into a lot of trouble against set defenses because the initial movement was too predictable. While it worked well for Carleton in the beginning of their finals game, they had more than a handful of quick turnovers because resets got more difficult late in the game as Middlebury settled in to stopping the front-of-stack fill cut. My wish for the division is that teams experiment with more offensive creativity and really increase the play style differences across schools.

Media Coverage

Pro:

Ultiworld’s switch to streaming two fields vs. one stream and one filmed game has been fantastic. It’s wonderful that more teams are able to share a link with family to follow along at home, and because the games are available immediately, they are so much more valuable for game-planning than relying on a few stats or names from articles. Ultiworld’s diverse coverage (including articles, podcasts, a live blog, and tweet updates) makes it easy to follow the tournament from anywhere and to quickly prepare for the next matchup. USAU tweeted out great graphics for all of the streams, and UltiPhotos was reliable as usual for quickly posting their best shots of the day.

Con:

This is consistently one of the biggest gripes post Nationals — that the D-III coverage pales in comparison to coverage of the D-I division. All but a single stream per day were paywalled behind an Ultiworld subscription, which is a huge burden to ask family/friends to sign up for (even if they can cancel afterwards — the complexity overhead is substantial compared to YouTube). It’s disappointing to see Ultiworld announce the anticipated “Event Pack” for D-I Nationals only. USAU continues to publicize D-I nationals more frequently and has often called it “College Nationals,” even just a day or two after the D-III division finished.

The disparity in the number of streamed games between the two events is staggering. USAU even published last Thursday that they are extending their ESPN contract — putting club and D-I games on the sports network with no similar investment in D-III visibility. It’s disappointing how much the coverage of the D-I division has grown in the last few years, while D-III continues to lag significantly behind.

Wish:

My main wish for the division next year is that there’s more investment into regular season coverage and connectivity. Getting film of teams earlier in the spring elevates the play come Nationals because it allows teams to plan for their opponents and create specific strategies that might help bring back more of those top-seed upsets from 2019 and earlier.

  • Pre-nationals filmed games of D1 men’s was 110 games overall.
  • Pre-nationals filmed games of D1 women’s was 81 games overall.
  • Pre-nationals filmed games of D3 men’s was 18 games (12 games covering 12 nationals teams).
  • Pre-nationals filmed games of D3 women’s was 6 games (5 games covering 7 nationals teams).

Mike Ball has done a terrific job organizing FCS D-III Tuneup, a premier regular season tournament which brings D-III men’s teams together from across regions to boost algorithmic connectivity, add more drama to the #BidWatch, and provide more opportunities to film D-III teams. Hopefully, a similar tournament can be created in the women’s division so that teams in the sparser regions (SE, SC, etc.) can have more opportunities to get meaningful reps and filmed games during the regular season.

Quick Hits

Some additional thoughts after wrapping up another fun nationals:

  • Similar to what some people say about NBA playoffs, sometimes a game comes down to “can you solve this specific problem right now?” rather than how good of a team you are. Watching Union’s prequarter against Williams, they had more than a handful of chances to win but just couldn’t figure out the William’s 3-3-1 zone. Halftime and timeouts are so short in games that it’s really hard to implement meaningful adjustments: your team needs to be ready for everything you’ll see before the game begins.
  • The tournament merch continues to be exorbitantly priced, but that’s a repeated problem at all large USAU events. I wouldn’t be surprised if the apparel companies would make more overall if they produced more items and sold them at a lower price (see Atlanta Falcons).
  • My favorite moments from coaching and watching ultimate these past two few months have been either from players getting visibly hyped and willing their teams to wins, or from players’ reactions after getting point blocks. One of the best games of the weekend was an absolute dogfight between St. Olaf and Mount Holyoke. Leina Goto had an incredible footblock on a long back and forth point, and Erica Collin contributed more than her 2G/2D stat line might lead on, as her vocality and energy propelled her team during their 6-1 run. Gemma Munck also showed incredible leadership during Whitman’s game-to-go vs. Lewis and Clark, leading a big comeback in poor conditions despite having fewer than 10 healthy players. And, of course, I won’t forget the crowd roar after this Harper Brooks-Kahn footblock in the finals.

Footblock in the Finals

  • My favorite cheer of the weekend was William’s O-line call and response: “Liberal… ARTS….Conservative…OFFENSE”

  1. D-I Nationals this year had its last semifinal from 8-9:45pm. 

  2. It was a 9-8 loss to Carleton Eclipse on the first day of play in Spring 2022. 

  3. With point difference, Portland only needed to be within 5 goals of Mount Holyoke in their final pool play matchup to finish first in the pool. But the game was tightly contested, went to universe, and can be watched here

  1. Dan Young
    Dan Young

    Dan is an Ultiworld contributor and has coached the University of Portland women’s team since 2020. He has also coached Case Western men, where he was recognized as a 2016 Coach of the Year, and has captained club teams including Cleveland Smokestack and Portland Rhino Slam!.

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