Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Grinnell: Why the Small Teams Matter

The Sticky Tongue Frogs have been one of my favorite college teams since they started attending my tournaments several years ago. One of my friends, Heather "Citation" Smith (Maryland alum), has a little sister on the team, and so from the beginning, they were a team I was committed to helping. And they have made my job easy. The thing that stands out most in my mind about this team is their commitment to improving both their team and women's ultimate in the Midwest. Teams like this make me want to never stop running tournaments and clinics. They are hungry to learn and to grow- they just need the opportunities. I have so many great memories of the Stickies- them cheering Showdown to a win against a coed team at Mardi Gras, them being coached by Cara Crouch (one of my personal frisbee mentors) at Midwest Throwdown last year, their positivity in some horrid weather conditions, the note I have on my wall at the office that came with their roster... This team is something special. In this feature, captain Paige Hill shares some of her thoughts about her team and the opportunity to compete at the D-III College Championships.


Grinnell's game to go to the Division III National Championships was one of the most meaningful and emotional experiences I have had as an athlete, and this season was one of the most exciting I have been a part of. There has been a lot of discussion about the college restructure, in particular the DIII National Championships and its viability as an event that promotes the growth of ultimate in a legitimate and competitive way. Most of this talk has focused on why teams declined bids, whether DIII ultimate is ready for this type of change, and if it ever will be. What there hasn’t been enough of, however, are the voices of the teams that said yes to their bids, who believe in this process, and who have battled great opponents, bad weather, and challenging logistics in order to get to Buffalo.

I think anyone would be hard-pressed to find an ultimate player who doesn’t cite the community as a huge reason why they love this sport. I think a lot of the value that we place on this community, and why it means so much to all of us, is that being an ultimate player is different than being any other type of athlete. Our sport is exploding, and the competitiveness and athleticism it has come to embody at every level has largely outpaced the cultural understanding and institutional support of our endeavors. Every ultimate player, whether they play for Orgeon’s Fugue or Grinnell’s Sticky Tongue Frogs, knows what it is like to sleep ten people to a hotel room, or to beg your school to fund an extra set of cones, or to explain to your uncle that you do not, in fact, play competitive disc golf. Every player on UCSB Burning Skirts and the Wellesley Whiptails knows what it is like to run stairs in a dorm, or to practice at 11pm because there is no gym space for club sports. And, most importantly, we all know what it is like to love every second of doing that, because in making these sacrifices and facing these challenges, we aren’t just making our own histories as athletes and as teams, but we are writing the history of our sport, and changing it forever.

DIII Nationals and the restructure draws upon our sport’s commitment to fairness and opportunity, and allows DIII schools that face even more constraints than their DI counterparts to write that history themselves. It is easy to forget that even beyond close games and a national championship, it is an awesome feeling to be talked about on RSD, written about in USA Ultimate’s magazine, and show up on in a way that wasn’t possible with a single college division. I believe so strongly in the restructure process because I know that having a national championship to work toward creates the memories, heartbreak, and tears that ultimately define us as a community of athletes and makes us all more committed to each other and our sport.

When I came to Grinnell, a sanctioned DIII Nationals didn't exist, and our only goals were making it past sectionals and not getting bageled by giant Midwestern schools. I think that our story is similar to the story of so many DIII schools. As soon as DIII Nationals were announced, the Sticky Tongue Frogs knew that this opportunity was created for us, and that we were going to buy into it.

That year, it sometimes felt like nothing had changed. Placing last in our section, we still qualified for regionals, having only played one DIII school to get there. Our bid to Appleton had already been awarded before regionals, so even though that weekend provided some of our best DIII competition all season, those games were effectively invisible and meaningless. And even though just the creation of a sanctioned DIII national tournament was a huge step, in terms of what was happening at tournaments and on the ground it was relatively similar to years past, with the notable exception being our participation in the roundup division of Midwest Throwdown. What did change that year, however, was our mentality—knowing that if we trained and fought hard enough, there was something big at the end. That changed everything.

With the restructure this year, even more has changed, and I think that despite all the challenges and struggles that Grinnell and other DIII teams (in particular DIII women’s teams) have had, the season carries so much more meaning, because we are working toward the goal of a national championship every step of the way. Every game, every tournament, even every practice matters so much more. We’ve run more sprints, practiced harder, and lifted more weights. We’ve had tougher talks about subbing, team goals, and tactics. And this all culminated in a game to go, where for the first time, the Sticky Tongue Frogs knew what it was like to have to step up and play for keeps. Receiving a bid to Buffalo meant a lot more to all the Sticky Tongue Frogs than our trip to Appleton last year because we received it in the way all DI teams receive their bids—playing the best competition around, and having to prove ourselves with upwind breaks, crafty zones, and universe lines. The notion that we would eventually be playing in a game to go is what inspired all of us through ab-workouts and sprints and cold practices.

Grinnell’s story, and these connections, and our feelings can't get lost in discussions about why DIII schools might not be ready for a national championship event, or why the legitimacy of this tournament isn't there yet. There are many problems that remain in trying to cultivate a more competitive, more widely attended, and more legitimate DIII structure, and hopefully in another post I will get the chance to talk about some concrete and tangible solutions from my perspective as a member and captain of a DIII team. I wanted to make this fundamental point, however, that at the heart of these discussions is something that significantly enhances the opportunities for ultimate players and strengthens this community. The divisional restructure is giving teams like Grinnell and players like me a renewed love of the sport and love of their teams and, no matter how hard it is to pull off, is in my mind the best way to continue the growth of college ultimate.

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