Monday, May 16, 2011

UC-Santa Barbara Burning Skirts: Behind the Scenes of Building the Dynasty

The UC-Santa Barbara Burning Skirts have quite the successful program. It’s something comparable to an ultimate frisbee dynasty of the 2000s. Like many dynasties throughout history in sports, the Skirts have had early success, winning National championships and having multiple finals appearances. In the early years of the Women's College Championships, this is the resume the Skirts built:

1988: National Champions
1989: National Qualifier
1990: National Champions
1991: National Champions
1994: National Champion Runner-up

This strong history of finals appearances early on laid the foundation of excellence; however, the team had a 13-year drought from 1994 until it was broken in 2007. Current co-captain, Carolyn Finney has gotten the opportunity to be part of the recent success of the program. She remembers 2007 quite fondly. “In '07, no one on our team knew what to expect when we arrived in Ohio. When we got to the fields the day before the tournament, we were amazed at how beautiful the fields were and that every field was lined. We were very excited just to have made it to nationals, but we all knew we wanted to do more than just be at the tournament.”

Since 2007, the Burning Skirts have had a streak consisting of four consecutive finals appearances. Finney has appeared in all four of the finals appearances since 2007. In her fifth year, she helps to lead the team back to nationals, hoping to extend the streak.

Though her role has changed over the years, the expectation for the Skirts to excel has not. Preparation for this year’s journey started early in the 2010-2011 season. In order to prepare returning players for the start of the season, the captains met with each returning player individually. The veteran players on the team work collaboratively to keep the Skirts on top. “The team definitely has a different identity every year, and the leadership core of the team is definitely the defining part of this. It is not just the captains but all of the veteran players on the team. Everyone feeds off of each other, but it is up to the more experienced players to lead with a positive attitude and strong work ethic," Finney says. "As far as a vision of the team in '07 throughout the season we just wanted to make it to nationals, now it is that we want to win nationals."

Last year, the team had a great run. She explains that “Going into last season we had had a lot more big game experience over the years and making it to nationals had become more of an expectation. Coming into this year we were expecting more of a rebuilding season having lost 6 players, one of them being Kaela Jorgenson (who will be on our sidelines in Boulder).” With that being said, the Skirts continued to build depth in their program, but many expected this to be a rebuilding year.

Re-building is not a new concept for the leaders of the 2011 Burning Skirts, and they welcome the challenge. Finney explains that 2007 gave her and some of the veteran players an insight to how to rebuild. “After my rookie season half of our team graduated, we had 10 seniors. Aside from our seniors we only had 3 players who were not rookies returning,” she says. In order to keep the streak going, younger players had to step up to fill the voids left by the 2007 graduating class. She describes her process as going from a “lead-by-example” type player to a more vocal leader. Much of that stems from the system of captain-run practices, one of the unique unifying features of our sport.

Building fundamentals is important to UCSB, as they are to many teams. But the commitment to improving the fundamentals helps to perpetuate their strength. “We knew the struggle this season was going to be replacing throwers, so that's what we have spent a lot of time focusing on: our throws.” As such, the team has been focused on the basics for much of their season, right up to the meat of the college season in March, when some of the biggest tournaments take place. Finney elaborates on the teaching process:
“Slowly, we try to break things down as much as possible from fall quarter through March, then we get a little more intense as to what we expect from everyone. There is A LOT of patients required at the beginning of the season, and we all have to think back to when we were rookies and remember how new and strange everything in this sport is. We spend a lot of time working on throws in the beginning of the year to help give everyone confidence with the disc. Every college player can benefit from spending a lot of time focusing on throwing mechanics.”
After the recent USAU restructuring, the face of West Coast college ultimate changed forever. Having only 3 bids available for the California teams to compete for, the Skirts stepped up their game, winning the tough Southwest Region. She reveals, “With 3 bids in our region I think this was the most nervous I have been as a veteran player as to whether we were going to get a bid to Boulder. We do have a great group of veterans and rookies who have worked tremendously hard to fill the roles of those players who graduated and are excited to take the field in Boulder.”

As for what keeps their dominance alive, “There is no substitute for hard work,” she says. The drive to work hard is just one of the strengths of this program as a whole. Finney highlights that “Having big game experience really drives our competitive edge to want to play in those big games tournament after tournament. We are a very close group and want to work hard for each other which really helps to fuel our intensity at practices and workouts. We also have a great alumni support group spread across the country which helps to keep us pumped, and many of them come out to tournaments to help talk on the sidelines.”

But as to what really makes women’s ultimate special to the Skirts, it’s how it brings together the community. “This is a sport that almost none of us had heard of before college, and the comradery that we have with our teammates and other players across the country is something pretty unique about the sport. We have gotten to travel to so many places playing with the Skirts and have met so many people."

Nationals Outlook:
Coming off of a strong Southeast Regional Championship performance, the Skirts must combat the late season exam and paper preparation. Since UC-Santa Barbara is on the quarter system, the added pressures of preparing for the end-of-the-quarter “dead week” during Nationals, after many other teams have finished their semesters up.

Also noteworthy, senior cutter Shannon Bubb, suffered an ankle injury on Saturday of Regionals, but she will likely be back at Nationals. However, expect to see co-captains Finney and Marie Madaras alongside Stephanie Karba standing out among the field of talented teams and players in Boulder.

According to Finney, the mindset for the team is definitely to approach it as they do any other tournament. It seems to be working well for them, as they have not lost a game since March 26 in pool play of Centex to North Carolina-Wilmington; a loss which they avenged in the finals of Centex the very next day.

It may be too soon to tell, but the Burning Skirts will likely capture the 1-seed going into Nationals, having several impressive tournament victories at Stanford Invite, Women's College Centex, SoCal Conference Championships, and Southeast Regional Championships, the Skirts are looking to take the momentum to the College Championships. If they have it their way, the Burning Skirts will extend their finals appearance streak to five in Boulder.

1 comment: