Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Defending Champs: Oregon Fugue

There are talented teams. And then there are talented teams who have Lou Burruss as their coach. Thankfully, there is only one competing at college nationals. An already stacked Fugue team has a ton of athleticism and skill, and they also happen to have one of the best coaches in the game.

Fugue, the defending champs of the Women's Division College Championships, has had a history of strong season performances. The team finished 3rd in 2009 and 2nd 1998, qualifying ten times in 1988, 1989, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. The last four seasons have been with Burruss as their coach.

Lou Burruss, who has been playing and coaching ultimate since 1990, has been coaching in the college women’s nationals scene since 1997. He has led eight teams to nationals in eight seasons of coaching, and has been with Fugue since 2008. It’s safe to say he knows how to help a team realize its strengths and weaknesses, and put the plan into action.

Part of this is the knowledge of approaching each season as a different one than the last. “The challenge of coaching college is that every team is brand new, unlike club ultimate where there is a lot more continuity.  A big part of what you are doing is to try to develop individual players into a successful and valued role on the team and develop the team identity to a point where things click,” explains Burruss.

When it comes to applying this concept in the college women’s game, no one understands this better than Fugue. Defending the title from the 2010 College Championships, the team has set out to create a different identity from last year’s team. “We set out to distinguish ourselves from last year's team in our own minds, so we don't think about it [the title] much.  I don't think other teams are [thinking about it] either.  If we were 35-2 or so, it might be different, but we're 28-7,” says Burruss. The approach to the season must be different each and every season, to deal with the difference in team strengths and weaknesses.

Fugue has been preparing for nationals all season long. Burruss gives an insight to what Fugue’s players do all season long. “We do the traditional 3 practices and a track/agility. Additionally, I push the players to get in the weight room and I think about 75% of them are taking a weights class that puts them in the weight room three days a week.  I also give throwing assignments to particular players to work on outside of practice.” Though the team works hard, Lou tries to encourage individuals to work hard because they WANT to. “We are a varsity sport and we don’t have those expectations or identity of coach-player relationship, so I always try to set things up to say - if you want to get better you need to do 'this' or 'that.'  Then the player can decide for herself how much she wants to put in,” he explains.

Using this system, Fugue has run into very few personnel problems with conflicting individual and team goals. “We run on a philosophy of individual integrity and individual weirdness, so we have fewer conflicts than a team that uses a more my-way-or-highway approach.  I also try to find roles for players that are compatible with their individual styles/personalities/goals so that there is less likely to be a conflict.  When it does happen (which is very rare) it means a long conversation or series of conversations to get myself, the player and the team all on the same page,” describes Burruss.

Nationals Outlook

Fugue has locked down the 2nd seed behind UC-Santa Barbara. Fugue also returns 2010 Callahan finalist, Julia Sherwood, standout Bailey Zahniser, 2011 Callahan Nominee Katy Craley and speedster Christina Wickman, as well as adding talented freshman Sophie Darch to the lineup.

When Fugue is healthy, they are one of the toughest, most athletic teams in the game; however, this has not been the case in 2011. Fugue has been plagued by a ridiculous number of injuries in the regular season this year. “It's been rough.  In the 20+ seasons I've played and coached, this has been far and away the worst.  In ‘08 we lost three women to knees, but two were at regionals and that was the total injury situation.  Usually, I figure you'll lose 1 for the season and 2 or 3 little injuries at a time, but we haven't had less than 4 at any point during the season,” describes Burruss. This culminated at Women’s Centex in the end of March where Fugue had as many players in the game as they did restricted to the sidelines due to injuries.

This has caused Fugue to make some adjustments to get the team running as a championship contending team. “The mental adjustment has been to take a 'dirt road' mentality which is one of nose-down struggle and emotion.  Hard work over beauty.  Everything twice as hard as it needs to be, because it is,” says Burruss.

Fugue has had a roller-coaster of a season. Winning Pres Day. Finishing and taking 2nd at Stanford Invite. Finishing 8th at Women’s College Centex. Taking 2nd at Northwest D1 Conference Championship. Finishing off with a huge win in the Northwest Regional Championship over talented Washington and UBC squads.

Though the team is around Eugene and in school into June, the team is tapering into nationals. Going into Boulder, the team will have a smaller roster than they did in ’10, but will have about eighteen or so healthy players, according to Lou.

When it comes to X’s and O’s, expect Fugue to run quick transitions on O and D, challenging teams deep in every offensive possession (especially on turnovers) and coming up with big defensive plays: typical Fugue ultimate. The team also does a particularly good job of taking advantage of mis-matches on the turn.

Will Fugue walk away from the 2011 College Championships with a back-to-back title? We’ll see in a couple of weeks in Boulder.

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