Playing on the West Coast (USC), I always thought I had a pretty good perspective on how women’s ultimate is played and how much diversity there is within the college scene. Moving to New York (NYU) confirmed some of the differences I had previously assumed and witnessed, and added a whole slew of things to my list that I had never considered. While I think that the biggest difference for me was the type of community on the East Coast, there are also numerous other aspects I will touch on like strategy, weather, tournaments, and performance.
Both offensively and defensively, I experienced a lot more diversity in sets on the West Coast. Many West Coast teams often had at least a few defenses that I would witness regularly, mixing up man, junk, and different types of zone depending on their opponents and the weather conditions. This also meant that many teams were used to having to adapt their offenses pretty quickly – or have a whole repertoire of offenses ready to go. I also saw defenses that were unique to just one team without too much consensus amongst the teams as to the “superior” defenses. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a 3-2-2, a 3 man cup, a 4 man cup, a box-and-one, a cup with man downfield, man, and clam all in one day. On the other hand, I have almost exclusively experienced man and a 4 person cup zone on the East Coast. Every once in a while I may have seen a slight variation with a little bit of poaching or a little different cup formation, but all in all, the sets were similar. I’ve also seen more vertical stacks on the East Coast and fewer isolation plays in the end zone. I do not have an explanation for either of these observations, but the end zone sets have surprised me. Isolation plays seemed to be one of the only ways to consistently get open on the West Coast – but East Coast teams seem to be just as effective using vertical stack plays with cuts often originating from the back two cutters. (I can only speculate that it possibly is related to the type of defense being played, but I will have to do more research on the topic to have a better-informed guess.)
The difference in the sheer number of sets may be related to the divergent general strategies that teams have to utilize due to where the threats are coming from. On the East Coast, I often hear about one or two really stand out players on opposing teams and the name of the game is to shut down those players in order to even the playing field (Anne Mercier of Ottawa is one great example of this). On the other Coast, the biggest threats were numbers 3-7. Sure, you always knew that Kayla and Finney of UCSB could destroy on the ultimate field, but if a team lined up their top 2 against those two powerhouses, it would only mean that their next defenders would have to work just as hard to stop the next 5 in line who were stepping up to the plate to take on a bigger role.
Being able to play ultimate 12 months out of the year is a HUGE advantage, and the strength of the Southern Californian section in the past definitely exemplifies this. Never having to deal with trying to run drills in a tiny gym at 1:00 AM because you’re sharing with every team at the school is obviously a big plus. But on the flip side, you also never learn what it’s like to play in miserable conditions. Rain? Barely ever saw that in L.A. Wind? Not unless you leave the urban sprawl and hit the beach. Cold? Only if you count 40 degrees on winter nights. The first time I went to Regionals in Arizona with USC, the wind took all of our throws every which way and it was basically like trying to learn how to play ultimate again. (Of course, this is more of Southern/Northern divide, but it was still a big difference for me!) The weather is definitely both a blessing and a curse, but there are ways for teams to overcome some of these hurdles through a diverse tournament schedule.
On the West Coast, the typical tournament schedule enables teams to play high level ultimate year-round with tournaments like Pres Day (San Diego, CA), Centex (Austin, TX), and Santa Barbara Invite (Santa Barbara, CA) to provide warm weather in the winter and tournaments like Sean Ryan (Santa Cruz, CA) and Stanford Invite (Palo Alto, CA) to offer a fall warm-up and an almost-to-the-Series tournament, respectively. This really made sure that competitive teams had a tournament every 3 weeks, often drawing the best competition from across the nation to each tournament. This is a major benefit for middle-tier teams who are constantly pushed by the best teams across the country that would come to their Region to play. On the East Coast, the teams in the Northeast often don’t play a tournament until winter has passed and the fields are playable again. And even then, tournaments are often rained out. In addition, teams are often torn between which tournaments to go to because there are only a few tournaments that recruit all of the best talent on the East Coast – and sometimes those are even passed up by teams who choose to travel to Pres Day or Centex instead. The differences in tournament schedules are also related to the organizational level of the leadership networks.
Organization / Community
Teams on the West Coast have been able to gain a lot from having people in the ultimate community who are really dedicated to women’s ultimate. With experienced women’s players and talented leaders who are willing to not only coach but really work on networking and community-building, the West Coast has grown in size and skill very quickly. Part of what has really enabled the West Coast to excel, though, is that fact that many of the captains and organizers have taken it upon themselves to meet together to get all of the teams on the same page. For example, I remember attending a meeting after games on the Saturday of Sean Ryan in 2007. All of the captains talked about how we needed to prevent having the competition split between 2 tournaments as had happened the year before when teams unilaterally decided whether to go to Pres Day or Vegas, leaving each without some of the best talent in the country. It was there that we decided that we should try to maximize the outcomes of our experiences by communicating and trying to move all of our programs in the right direction, together. I have less experience with the communication amongst the leadership on the East Coast, but from what I have been involved in and what I have discussed with leaders on this coast, there is not nearly the same level of conversation and reliance on each other. I think this is one particular area where the East Coast could really learn from the West, and the West should reach out and bring the East into their conversations in order to help women’s ultimate advance as a whole.
Taking a look at the past 5 years, the West Coast has been dominant at Nationals. The top 4 teams since 2006 have been from the Northwest and Southwest with 2 showings by Wisconsin representing the North Central Region. Besides some of the aforementioned qualities of the West, I attribute much of this to the fact that a few of the programs on the West Coast, like Stanford, have been solid programs for years now – constantly qualifying for Nationals and often do extremely well. Because these programs are well-established and have veterans and alumni who keep supporting them, it is no wonder that they continue to perform at a high level time and time again. They are also always being challenged by the best teams in the country which keeps them on their toes. In order to get out of their Sections and Regions, they have to work hard for every point. For some of these teams, Nationals is a less-trying tournament than some of those they have had to play during the season because there are fewer games per day and there is often a greater disparity between #1 and #20. I think that the East Coast has a lot of talent, but it will take a combination of the above-mentioned things before we really start seeing East Coast teams consistently at the top. Hopefully Region re-structuring and the recent increase in communication on the East Coast and between the different Regions will help even the playing field and better the entire division.