Sunday, May 15, 2011

D-III: An Alum's Perspective

This weekend, 16 women's teams will descend upon Buffalo, NY for the USA Ultimate D-III College Championships. This is a huge milestone for college women's ultimate as two years ago, the D-III College Championships had only five women's teams in attendance.

Without Limits is working hard to expand our work to reach more of these teams. Half of the field this year attended one of our tournaments (as opposed to 100% of the teams at the D-I College Championships). We hope to serve these teams better moving forward and in the spirit of attempting to do so, we want to get these teams and athletes some of the recognition they deserve for all of the hard work they've put in this season.

We have a few D-III pieces planned for you this week, and to get things started, I asked my friend Hanna Liebl, an alum and former captain of the Grinnell College Sticky Tongue Frogs to write some thoughts about the changes to the college structure and their effect on her old team. Hanna has been a champion of college women's ultimate in the Midwest and an advocate for players at small schools. Check out what she has to say.


I graduated from college almost exactly a year ago on a Monday morning in Grinnell, Iowa. Just a day before, I was in Appleton, Wisconsin playing in the semifinals of the first-ever USA Ultimate-run Division III Nationals. That tournament was the highlight of my college ultimate career, and I still think it was a more fitting end to my time at Grinnell than walking across the stage to get my diploma. I’ve successfully gone through the stages of college ultimate withdrawal since then, and through it all, I’ve tried to keep up with the continued development of the division III college series.

I must admit, though, as an alumna living far away from Iowa and college ultimate in general, the changes were sometimes confusing. When I heard about how things would run in the north central region this year, these were my thoughts, “Wait…no more sectionals? A single tournament to determine who goes to nationals? Awesome!” I didn’t fully realize how much these changes had affected Grinnell until I went back for a visit after they had qualified for DIII nationals again.

A lot of things were still the same— the practice field, the jerseys, the cheers, and many of the good friends I’d left behind a year ago, but when I cleated up and began running though the drills with my former teammates, I began to notice some changes. There were fewer turnovers than I remembered. Everyone had better throws. And when people did misthrow or dropped a disc, they ran sprints. During scrimmages, people would call out “OPP!” for one-possession point, and often they would accomplish that. I had to step up my game, and I was more self-conscious of the mistakes I made. Everyone was more serious and more focused. I saw the team lifting in the gym alongside the varsity football and track teams. They convinced me in the week I visited that they were definitely the best Grinnell team I had ever seen and played with.

I don’t want to give full credit for the improvements I saw to the new college structure, because that somehow takes away from the determination, planning, and sheer amount of hard work that goes into making a whole team better. I do think the new division III series does give additional motivation to teams like Grinnell, though, and that helps to explain their improvements. From what I heard and witnessed, playing in tournaments all spring and knowing certain opponents would be at conference gave tremendous incentive to train harder. Having one do-or-die conference weekend focused training efforts for the entire winter and spring. The whole season took on more structure than it had last year, when the ranking system and bids to division III nationals were handed out after a series aimed mostly at division I teams. The ranking algorithm alone, as useful as it was then and still is now for calculating bids in both DI and DIII, just doesn’t give the same sense of urgency or excitement that a finals or backdoor game-to-go does.

From my perspective, after the changes I’ve seen at Grinnell in only one year, this sense of urgency and excitement is just what division III teams need. It’s been fun (and, as any recent graduate will tell you, a little bittersweet) to get phone calls from old teammates describing the emotions of their first conference weekend, their first tournament where the bids to nationals are in reach for them, and winning one more game means extending their season by another couple of weeks. In the years to come, as the kinks with the new system get worked out, I can only imagine the divisional structure will mean more exciting weekends for lots of division III teams, and motivation and improvements that will last far beyond those two days.

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