Welcome Back: Returning to Nationals After a Year Away

Three teams have yo-yoed between the Pro and Elite flights of nationals teams and the Select flight of teams who missed out.

Arizona Lawless. Photo: Sam Hotaling — UltiPhotos.com

The 2021 club season was strange. Coming out of the sport’s COVID hiatus, some teams (San Francisco Blackbird and Boston Snake Country, for example) folded, others looked significantly different (Boston Slow rebranded and Seattle Mixtape added a host of ex-Riot players to push for a second title), and the time off helped some communities reform.

Over the pandemic, the Arizona ultimate community overhauled its structure, culminating in the creation of Lawless. In the ever-changing Boston scene, Sprocket combined much of the area’s young talent together. Nashville ‘Shine predates the pandemic break but benefitted from a few roster additions and reached a new competitive plateau in 2021. All three teams reached the club championships for the first time that year. They also all managed to miss Nationals one way or another in 2022 before bouncing back in 2023.

There’s a term for this kind of team. In European soccer when a team gets promoted up a level one season, down a level the next, and then back up (and so on), they’re called a yo-yo team. A closer-to-home analogy is that of a AAAA baseball player: somebody who is too good for the AAA level, but not good enough to hang in the major leagues for too long before they’re sent down to the minors again. Can these three mixed teams move on from being bubble teams into becoming staples at Nationals?

Impactful Impressions

Without any regular season requirements, USA Ultimate assigned the bids to 2021 Nationals based on a weighted average of bids received from the prior three full seasons (2017-2019). Had 2021 been a typical year, both Lawless and Sprocket may have had trouble earning bids, given their status as new teams that would not have earned invitations to top Triple Crown Tour events. They wouldn’t have needed them, as Lawless won the Southwest region and Sprocket finished second in a three bid Northeast. ‘Shine had to work through the gauntlet of the Southeast but made it after upsetting Durham Toro in the regional final.

Lawless was founded ahead of the 2021 season and made Nationals in their first year of existence. While some teams took a slower pace to that return-to-play season, Lawless entered TCT tournaments across the country, jumping up the Ultiworld Top 25 rankings. They knocked off 2019 runner-up Mischief in the regional quarterfinal before breaking Polar Bears twice to win the regional final. Already their season was a success, but they would go on to new heights at Nationals. The team upset Space Heater in the bracket and made it to the quarterfinal round. Sean Ham earned sceond team All-Club honors. Jamie Eriksson was the Breakout Player of the Year runner-up. Everything seemed to be coming up Lawless.

“2021 was the first time a lot of people in Arizona or even on our team saw what it took to play at this level, to consistently play and compete at the elite level,” Lawless coach Mark Borger said.

‘Shine was founded in 2018. Though their current roster only has a handful of names on it from back then, the ethos of a nationally competitive team was born. After the 2020 break, Jesse Shofner, Tori Taylor, and Jin-Mi Matsunaga all joined the team. Though they finished just 5-5 in the 2021 regular season, ‘Shine rolled through Sectionals and Regionals undefeated, taking down a Toro team expected to advance in a narrow 9-8 final. At Nationals, ‘Shine went winless in pool play, effectively knocked out on double game point by Lawless in a game that would have been remembered as an instant classic had it occurred in the bracket rather than at 1:30pm on day one. “We are excited to be here,” then-captain Liz Barnes wrote in 2021, “and we want MORE.”

Sprocket was another newcomer to the scene in 2021 and made an early splash with a win over AMP at Philadelphia’s home tournament. Riding their success to a Nationals appearance, Sprocket let the talents of Tannor Johnson-Go, Clara Stewart, Olivia Goss, Bretton Tan, Hazel Ostrowski, and Ivan Tran shine over more experienced competition. Wins over San Francisco Polar Bears and Denver Love Tractor were enough to put the team into the quarterfinal round when they ran into a red hot Madison NOISE team. For a team in their first season bringing back the bulk of their talent that was packed with youth and energy, it seemed like it could be the start of a dynasty.

“We really want to come back here next year,” then-Sprocket coach Colby Clarkson said. “We’re the youngest team here in mixed. It’s a great experience here for the half of our players who have never been to Nationals. And a lot of our players are still in college, so it’s a really good experience. They should come out of this as much stronger players.”

Sophomore Slumps

While each team hoped to capitalize on their success in 2021, the 2022 season was mostly a return to normalcy in the club division, and returning to Nationals was simply too tall a task for these three nascent programs.

In 2022, Lawless built themselves an ambitious schedule and did not produce strong enough results to earn a second bid for the southwest region. They lost to Polar Bears in the regional final and attended Nationals as spectators and volunteers rather than participants.

“We said at the end of that game, ‘now we’re ready to put in the work,’” Borger said. “It starts at the end of last season. Really as a team, everybody came in…their baseline conditioning was higher, their baseline throws were higher, and everybody was kind of willing to put in the work. Some years you have teams that really just want to play. Some teams can drill on the things that they can or can’t do. As a team together, we looked at our culture and we looked at our work ethic and decided it was worth it to kind of make it back.”

For some teams, the bitter disappointment of not meeting their goal could cause the team to fold, or it could ramp up their efforts. Both Lawless and ‘Shine nearly immediately got back to work, putting their 2023 season on a pedestal of effort rather than luck.

“Last year, we had a pretty tough loss in our season,” ‘Shine captain Chris Calhoun shared, “where our region had three bids for mixed for the first time in like a decade and we got fourth. We were the first team out and we were expecting to win the region.” With Toro regaining its form, Atlanta Dirty Bird entering the picture with some high profile pickups, and Huntsville Space Force rolling into regionals with an undefeated record on the season, one team had to be the odd team out of a talented Southeast.

“The best teams in the country should be playing at Nationals in front of an audience for something that matters,” Motycka said. “Like for the title. And I think we all were not just sad to miss Nationals but embarrassed because we were like, ‘we’re better.’”

“After we lost at Regionals,” Calhoun said, “there was a period where we were all pretty down, but surely after three weeks out, we all got back in the gym and we slowly started building an off season, building that momentum collectively…rebuilding the team emotionally in the gym from the ground up.”

While Lawless and ‘Shine let the emotions of a stunning loss motivate their physical preparation the next offseason, Sprocket also strategized about how to put themselves in a better situation schedule-wise in 2023.

“I honestly think a lot of last year we had like a lot of really good puzzle pieces that we didn’t necessarily put together,” Johnson-Go said, reflecting on 2022. At the 2022 Pro Championships, Sprocket won their first three games on double game point, coming back from multi-goal halftime deficits in each one. They shockingly fell to San Francisco Classy and needed to beat Dallas Public Enemy in consolation to secure a third bid for their region.

“Those hungover placement games tomorrow could legit flip bids,” rankings expert Cody Mills tweeted at the time. After Sprocket lost to Public Enemy, they knew they’d need to upset either New York XIST or Boston Slow at Regionals to make it back to nationals. Though Sprocket made the regional final, they lost that game and the subsequent game-to-go in a heartbreaker to local rival Slow.

Resurgent Returns

Once you make Nationals, nothing else compares.

“We wanted to make Nationals kind of after last year,” Johnson-Go said, “not exactly hitting where we wanted to get to. Like that was a major thing. And then along with that came a little bit more strategy that we should take earning a bit a little more serious. And the fact of going to two travel tournaments makes a lot more sense and being sure that we get to competitors that like can help us earn that bid.”

Sprocket can point out their delicate scheduling as a reason they made it back to the Club Championships, but they also won some impressive games. Taking down Philadelphia AMP, ‘Shine, Lawless, Ann Arbor Hybrid, San Francisco Mischief, and XIST this season proved that Sprocket belongs not just in the Nationals conversation, but in the Pro Flight one. With a powerful run at Regionals, Sprocket upset XIST to clinch their return to the Club Championships without even needing to drop into the game-to-go and take advantage of that third bid.

‘Shine took the opposite approach by focusing on winning Regionals; they did not want their attention to be divided between trying to play as competitively as possible in the beginning of the season in an attempt to earn a bid and growing slowly as a team over the course of the season. “The results of regular season,” Motycka said, “they matter if you’re planning to lose the region, but they don’t matter because every region has [at least] one bid and that’s what we stayed focused on…We don’t talk about rankings, but we know that we were on the bubble…We told ourselves that’s another team’s problem because we’re gonna go win the region.”

‘Shine embarked on a three-part journey to their season, laid out by Calhoun on a tri-fold as part of an early presentation to the team. They spent the beginning part of the season learning how to play together. “The results at this stage aren’t the thing that matters,” Calhoun said. “It matters that we’re building chemistry, learning new defensive sets, O-sets, all those things. So just kind of like relieving that pressure.”

The next phase in ‘Shine’s season–the late regular season–is called Edge, focused squarely on competition. In one of the most competitive regionals in the country, Nashville clearly had a physical and mental edge as they made light work of their scheduled opponents. The final phase of their plan is called Perform – and the results speak for themselves on that front.

“We’ve been preparing for Regionals all season,” ‘Shine captain Eli Motycka said. “…When we showed up, we showed up at just a much higher level than we had played all season. We showed up at a higher level than other teams showed up. And no, it wasn’t easy, but we were completely firing, and every single game felt like it was completely within our control from start to finish. It was a good feeling.”

Unlike Sprocket and ‘Shine, Lawless didn’t focus on their schedule while planning this season, instead leading the team through a personal transformation and a cultural shift. In 2021 and into 2022, Lawless were known as a physically dangerous team and received incredibly low spirit scores, but that has changed this season. “I’m proud of the steps that this team has taken culturally from year one to year two to year three,” Borger said, “So I’m excited for people to see us and to play us at the highest level of the game.”

On the personnel side, award winners Ham (after 2022) and Eriksson (after 2021) moved on. Perennial All-AUDL contender Travis Dunn joined Lawless in 2022, alongside San Diego Growlers teammates Sam Fontaine and Garrett Hable in 2023. “Travis has lifted our expectations,” Borger said, reflecting on the leadership and play of one of the best two-way threats in the division. One more X-factor is the success of the local WUL team, the Arizona Sidewinders. With stars Kody Lippincott, Melissa Dunn, Kay Powell, and Cynthia Thomas suiting up for both teams, Lawless has an added bit of chemistry that can be hard to find in the mixed division.

With a rejiggered roster and a renewed emphasis on positive spirit, Lawless set their sights on a return to the Club Championships. Though they also had what could be called a rough regular season (Lawless went 1-5 at the same Elite-Select Challenge tournament in which Sprocket made the final and buoyed their record), Lawless finished strong. The team reclaimed the SoCal Sectional crown that they’ve owned since their inception and at Southwest Regionals delivered two wins over a San Francisco Sunshine team favored to advance, including one in the game to go.

Beyond the Bracket

The redemptive arc that each of these teams have undergone makes for a nice story on its own. Players from three different locales around the country have all overcome adversity, worked hard, and found success. What makes this story even more special is realizing the impact that each of these teams have on their local community. Sprocket in many ways represents the future that Lawless and ‘Shine hope to see with their investment in local youth scenes, even in areas that could be called ultimate deserts.

Often, players on a team in a small ultimate community like Arizona end up filling a lot of roles just to keep the existing ultimate infrastructure operating. “Cynthia [Thomas] and Kody [Lippincott] have been a part of WUL,” Borger mentioned. “They help with the college teams in the area. They make sure that they’re at like just about every league. They’re always out in the community. And then with our team, they lead by example. With the track workouts, with optional and mandatory pods, with making sure they’re present and posting and kind of backing each other up.” As Lawless ascends back into national relevance alongside the Sidewinders, the entire Arizona ultimate community benefits from their success as the lessons that players like Thomas and Lippincott learn get passed down to the next generation of local stars.

Similarly, ‘Shine expects that their success will not just benefit the players and coaches involved with the team, but also the regional community. “We have like a mission statement that’s about more than frisbee,” Motycka said. “Nashville, previously, has been a bit of an ultimate desert as far as elite clubs go. We’ve had great players and we’ve had good teams here and there, but especially having a mixed team where we can have all gender matches. We have a lot of our team that’s coaching college teams and high school teams and middle school teams. We just try to play Frisbee at a really high level to show like the world, the country, but also like our city and the youth that there’s more for them to work towards.”

‘Shine represents more than the city of Nashville and is proud to represent the Southeast region on ultimate’s biggest stage. “We pull proudly from more cities than just Nashville,” Motycka continued. “Asheville and East Tennessee and Memphis…We had a lot of players who grew up here, like me and Chris and learned to play here, and we want to say that you don’t need to have any superstars (though it helps like Jesse [Shofner] and Justin [Burnett]) But you don’t need to have any superstars. You can build a great team with commitment and buy-in and hard work and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”

In many ways, Sprocket is a model that teams like Lawless and ‘Shine are aspiring to. Of course, Sprocket is likewise embedded in their community, with players and coaches giving back to the local scene by coaching YCC, high school, and college teams. Even a young team that in many ways is the beneficiary of an established ultimate scene that has the knowledge-passing institutions already built finds a way to set up the next generation for success.

So whether these teams stick at the nationals level for years to come or end up yo-yoing their way around a variety of results, it’s important to celebrate their success this year because of the impact it has on communities not just in Boston and Tennessee and Arizona, but for the hope that it provides to teams across the country pushing for a new level of success.

  1. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years. After a stint in Los Angeles coaching high school and college teams, they moved to Chicago to experience real seasons and eat deep dish pizza. You can reach Alex through e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@arubes14).

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