Ultimate Pioneers: An Inside Look at Davenport’s New Scholarship Program

Davenport's coaches and captains speak on the newest program with ultimate scholarships, and the first ever in the women's division

Davenport's Avery Smith runs through the spirit tunnel. Photo: Davenport Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team
Davenport’s Avery Smith runs through the spirit tunnel. Photo: Walter Cronk Photography

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There’s a few key firsts coming from Davenport University this year. It’s their first season as a team, both for the men’s and women’s division programs. It’s the first program in history to have a scholarship for a women’s team, with all twelve of their players on a comprehensive athletic scholarship, a scholarship available for both undergraduate and graduate students. Finally, it’s the first program to have salaried employees whose job title reads “Ultimate Coach.”

I had the pleasure of speaking with one of those coaches, Jessica Creamer, the coach of the Women’s Division team, as well as the three captains of that same team, Lanie O’Neill, Yasmin Bañares, and KayAnna Williams. Two things stuck out during our conversation: the first were the barely contained smiles everyone in the call had, including myself. The second was that at the beginning of the call, no one spoke too loudly. It was like we were all in on some secret conspiracy, or found ourselves in the middle of a dream and were wary someone might wake us up. Were these players really on scholarship to play ultimate? A sport that for most schools is a club, if there’s any legitimate recognition at all?

It’s not at all unusual for programs that make Nationals to pass on their bid because the athletes can’t attend due to financial or other personal constraints, a fate that befell the Berry Valkyries just last season. The Davenport Panthers have no such constraints though – the university sponsors their program in full, from the bus they’ll take to tournaments to the jerseys they’ll wear on the field.

The scholarships are fairly comprehensive as well. Coach Creamer isn’t at liberty to discuss the particulars, but did say it’s more than $1,000. “It’s definitely not like a stipend from an endowment,” she said.

The players are being compensated as full student athletes, to the point that each of the captains were able to go to grad school or change their career path due to the opportunity provided by Davenport. O’Neill in particular was affected by the institution of the program: “I had decided I do not want to go to grad school. I got my piece of paper and I was like, peace out, higher education, good riddance.”

However, a chance meeting with the Men’s Division coach Mike Zaagman changed her mind. She gave it some thought and decided: “I’m in.”

Davenport’s Lanie O’Neill. Photo: Walter Cronk Photography

Bañares was in a different situation, trying to decide on med school or going home to Canada to take a couple years off. However, she heard about the scholarship Davenport was offering for ultimate frisbee players and “did a lot of research about it, and I decided that it would be a great decision for me and a great opportunity as well.”

Moreover she was drawn to the idea that it was an all-women’s team. “There’s something about playing on an all-women’s team that I just love, absolutely,” she said. “And so I think that was one of the big drawing points for me as well, that it was a full women’s team.”

It’s not just that she wants to play on an all women’s team, she sees Davenport as an opportunity for “growing ultimate in this community as well. It’s not that big in Grand Rapids. And also growing it for women in this area.”

Williams was considering taking a gap year between undergrad and grad school, but said that after meeting the team, she was convinced to play ultimate. She said that when she “got to see some of the culture and realize how inclusive it is,” she realized how cool it was.

“Our team represents literally some of everybody. Everybody’s always welcome, but I think everybody actually feels welcome, and that’s one of the big differences,” Williams said. “There’s not like a token player. We don’t have like that one older student…they’re all valued equally. So I really like that aspect. And that was one of my biggest deciding factors.”

It’s bigger than ultimate for O’Neill as well; she views this as a huge opportunity to bring more accessibility to the sport, saying, “It’s not often people get to create accessibility in the sport. I believe affordability creates accessibility. We have girls on our team who would not be getting a college education if it were not for the opportunity to play frisbee. And so being able to do some of the work that I’ve done, in the community, being able to go to elementary schools and middle schools and say, ‘you can play this sport and if you’re good at it, you can use it to change your station in life.’”

In order to achieve these goals they’ve set for themselves and their program, they have to keep the program alive. In order to do so, the program must be successful – there are bills to pay and board members to please. The team must be successful on the field, a pressure Coach Creamer feels, especially now, when the program is in its infancy.

Photo: Davenport Ultimate Frisbee

“DU has been really supportive when it comes to this program,” Creamer said of the administration. “[The school’s] model is to bring in new enrollments. So this year, because we started late and we’re a first year team, we’ve had to pull from the student body a little more than they’ve wanted to,” but while there’s a learning curve she’s had a good bit of help from the athletic department. “I would say the athletic department staff at DU is incredible. Ryan is the assistant athletics director who’s in charge of non-varsity sports and we meet every other week to talk about any questions that I have and it’s been really, really nice.”

In spite of the pressures and expectations, Creamer is incredibly happy to be where she is, and has made a lot of people jealous. “Everyone I talk to wants my job,” she said.

There aren’t many people as qualified as she is though, especially not for the unique challenges of the program. Not only are her bona fides long, but they’re perfectly tailored to the position she’s in. When it comes to just getting programs off the ground, Creamer has experience in that department, having started her college program when she was a student at Northern Arizona University. As for coaching experience, she has that in spades. She was captain coach at Northern Arizona when she played and more recently was the coach of the LA Astra in the Western Ultimate League. She’s no stranger to detail oriented jobs either, having spent time working for NASA in their Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Coaching ultimate isn’t quite rocket science, but it’s not just Xs and Os and dialing up plays either. As any SEC football fan knows, you need to stick to the ABCs of coaching: Always be ‘crootin. Creamer is well aware of her role not just as a strategist, but also as the one in charge of the personnel. A lot of her job is traveling: “[traveling] to youth tournaments, and speaking with teams after their spirit circles, letting them know we exist, seeing if there’s any seniors there that want to talk about the program and the opportunity, and emailing disc orgs, emailing coaches.” She’s honed in on trying to get the word out to potential recruits and not only selling the university, but also the culture of the program.

Creamer isn’t just working to build the future of her team, but is working on the present bunch of players to build a solid foundation. She works 40 hours a week with them, “and 40% of that is being a life coach,” she said. “There’s so much about mentoring young women at school for the first time away from their families. I am responsible for making sure that their grades stay up. I’m responsible for making sure that they’re going to class.”

On top of mentoring young women, starting a program from scratch, trying to implement new strategies, and recruiting new talent, Creamer and the team are trying to build a culture that people want to be a part of. Indeed, this seems to be the number one goal for the coaches and captains at Davenport University. Creamer said that while the scholarship is a great bonus to recruitment, many of the players she’s spoken with about joining are more interested in the vibe of the program. It’s scary for someone to join a program without knowing what it’s going to be like. More than anything Creamer wants Davenport University to be a recognizable name.

“I want people when they’re considering where they’re going to go to college to be thinking of us as an option,” Creamer said. “If people want to get better at ultimate and have a dedicated ultimate staff focused on their improvement and their skills as a player and as a teammate and as a human being, I think DU would be an excellent choice.”

The captains also seem focused on building the team’s identity. As an example, O’Neill highlighted that they “try really hard to not say sorry for making a mistake. I think just really trying to instill that you belong on this field, you’re supposed to be learning this sport, and we’re happy to have you here. We’re happy to teach you everything you wanna know about it. And just really creating that sense of, yes, we hold each other accountable, but we also give each other a lot of grace and a lot of space to learn and grow as human beings as well.”

It’s an entirely new experience for the players, too. O’Neill, who played ultimate at Clemson before going to Davenport for grad school, says that there’s a lot of new pressures that come with being a student athlete. It’s a part time job – practices, lifts, scrimmages, and all other team events are mandatory. Moreover, there’s the pressure that comes with being an official representative of the school. She’s had to think more about how she spends her free time, asking herself questions like, “should I be going snowboarding every other night? Which teams can I play with? Is it a good decision to go to this pickup or that pickup?” All this stems from her responsibilities to the team, she said, “because now everybody wants to stay well and wants to stay healthy. Now it’s my job to be strong, and it’s my job to keep my joints together.”

As different as Davenport may seem to other D-III programs, there are still many similarities to other programs from the division. They only have 12 players right now, many of them without any prior ultimate experience. They still have to balance school and life with ultimate. They still only have a handful of teams in the region, six total if everyone from the 2023 season competes again this year. Creamer said she hopes that will change though. While Davenport’s immediate results based goal is to win a spot at Nationals, Creamer hopes their program will lift the region as a rising tide lifts all ships. One way that she hopes to do that is to use their resources to run low cost tournaments for D-III teams since they have access to free fields and facilities.

The team has also gotten support from the Grand Rapids community as well. Joseph Cubitt, captain of the Detroit Mechanix, has joined Creamer’s team as a volunteer coach. Cubitt has four years of experience in the Ultimate Frisbee Association and played club in Texas for a few years before that. It’s his first time coaching, but he’s already enjoying learning from Creamer and learning a West Coast style of ultimate.

The Davenport University women’s ultimate team. Photo: Davenport Women’s Ultimate

If you were hoping the Davenport players would be eligible for NIL deals, no such luck. That, apparently, is an NCAA thing, but the team itself is eligible for sponsorship deals, so if you’re a business owner looking to break into the ultimate market, for a nominal fee you can have your logo printed on their jerseys, Premier League style.

On a more serious note, look for Davenport to be a real threat to anyone in the D-III women’s division. Despite most of their roster having a limited amount of ultimate experience, all of their players are athletes, some being two sport athletes at that. Those players that do have experience in ultimate are gunslingers. Lanie O’Niell is a name that will receive a lot of Donovan buzz come May and Yasmin Bañares is no slouch either, having played for Team Canada. It’s exciting to see them shaking up the landscape and hopefully signaling a bright future for D-III women’s ultimate as a whole.1

 

 


  1. P.S. If you’re a highschool player and interested in joining this team, Davenport is actively recruiting for Fall 2024 and Fall 2025. You can email Coach Creamer at [email protected] 

  1. Zack Davis
    Zack Davis

    Former D-III player for Spring Hill College, poached on the breakside.

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