Wednesday, May 25, 2011

USC: The Road to the Top

One of the most inspiring stories in college women's ultimate over the past few years is that of USC. Brit "Mash" Belsheim, my former Showdown teammate Jess "Venus" Huynh, my current Molly Brown teammate Lindsey Cross, as well as Frankie Rho and his coaching staff, have been keys to the Hellions' success in recent years. In this feature, former captain, Callahan nomineee, and standout player Mary Kate "Uzi" Hogan, shares her perspective on the development of the USC program, and what it was like to go from being on a middle-tier team at Regionals to being one of the best teams in the nation. As the team continues to build upon the foundation laid by an amazing group players and leaders, they will continue to be a force in college women's ultimate. Hard work + heart took the Hellions a long way. What can your college ultimate team learn from the USC story?


When I joined the USC Women’s Frisbee Team, the Hellions of Troy, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I joined the team in the fall of 2007 with the encouragement of a few amazing veterans who put a lot of effort into recruiting young athletes in order to really build the team. There weren’t even enough returners to field a whole line and at Regionals the previous season, the Hellions had finished out the tournament with only 6 players. Determined to make the women’s team a permanent and successful program, the captains recruited a coach, Frankie Rho, and a bevy of assistants. Together, they started from square one, training a large group of rookies and a few returners in a new system that would eventually lead to a 5th place finish at Nationals. I am proud to have captained the Hellions for 3 years and to be able to look back on those years and appreciate all of the laughs, frustrations, wins, losses, lessons, and friends that are wrapped up in the journey.

Although credit can and should be given to many people including the captains, players, alumni, donors, assistant coaches, and guest coaches, the single most important part of the Hellions’ rise was our head coach, Frankie Rho. When he came in to coach during my freshman year, he recruited a talented group of assistant coaches to focus on different aspects of the team and the game. Frankie’s ability to create a strategy that would transition with the team was a key to our success. He started with the basics, teaching fundamentals and strategies that would serve us well no matter what offense or defense we were running. He set reasonable goals and focused on personal improvement, always focusing on the process and not the results. Successes and failures were never measured in wins and losses. My sophomore year, I became a captain and became a part of determining the goals for the following years. The team’s strategy and players evolved with our highly-set sights, and we changed our focus to winning games, proving ourselves in our region, and becoming mentally tough enough to compete within the elite sector of women’s ultimate.

Playing in the Southwest Region was a huge challenge. Attending local tournaments meant meeting up with some of the best teams in the country on Saturday morning in pool play. I remember playing against UCLA as a freshman and just being blown away by the skills of players like Taz, Kix, and Gizmo (to name just a few!). We often felt like those games were more like practices in which women at the top of the college game demonstrated how the game should be played. Frankie always reminded us that we could achieve the same things that they did, and that the way to do it was by making sure we kept dump-swinging, running hard, working on our throws, staying on our toes, and other fundamentals. Looking back on those games, it was a huge encouragement to put up numerous points against those teams because it really did show us that if we were good enough to compete with National-caliber teams, we could be an elite team ourselves. Mentally, we always had a leg up because we were forced to play against the best of the best. We never thought that we didn’t deserve to be on the same field as them.

I was a captain through most of the transition from being a middle-tier team at Regionals to Regional Champions. One of the most important parts of this transition was learning from mistakes, both as a team and on a personal level. My freshman year, we were lucky enough to try new things without any repercussions. We didn’t have anything to lose so we were able to huck whenever we wanted, try new positions and strategies, and learn through failures without getting down on ourselves. As we improved, we had to reign in our decision-making and build our mental game. We all still made mistakes, but we made fewer of them and the ones we did make stung a lot more. For me, the most difficult aspect of the transition was trying to become a better player as well as a better captain. I often found myself being so worried about warm-up drills, sprints, defensive strategies, rookie throwing form, practice plans, paperwork, questions and e-mails that I forgot to step out on my hucks or work on my backhands. As a team, the hardest part was constantly accepting all of the changes that were being made. Each semester brought greater demands with more of everything: commitment, practices, sprints, responsibility, tournaments, dues, e-mails, fundraisers, workouts, plane tickets, expectations, defenses, offenses, and even coaches.

The shape of the season evolved from year to year as our expectations grew, but the general structure by my last 2 years was set. In the fall, there were two main goals: recruitment and personal growth. We ran an IM league to teach basic skills and recruit athletic freshmen. We created social events to pull girls in, show them how much fun ultimate is, and make them feel like part of the community. We did “dorm storming” to put up flyers and talk to freshmen who might be looking for a new sport to play. Each veteran was given a “buddy” to Facebook, e-mail, invite to lunch, throw with, and specifically keep up with in order to make sure that no rookie slipped between the cracks. On top of putting a special emphasis on recruitment and retaining rookies, returners were all encouraged to focus on specific skills that needed work as well as to branch out and try new things. Cutters were required to handle at practice and handlers had to run deep. Defensive players had to learn how to be chilly and work the disc on O while O-line players started running in the cup. November was tryout time and we made hard decisions regarding who would make the A team and who would be on the B team. We then set the expectations for each team, sent everyone home for break with workouts and personal things to work on, and prepared for the season. In the spring, we set goals for each tournament and set roles for each individual player. Roles were a huge part of our strategy and really helped each Hellion feel like a part of the team. Each player was 1/21 of the team and without her, the team could not succeed. There was an emphasis on mental toughness, execution, and results. By the time Conferences (or Sectionals back then!) rolled around, we knew we could no longer make any big changes to our strategy. Therefore, we focused on tweaking what we already knew and really perfecting all of the little things. We already knew everything we needed to, we just had to execute, execute, execute in order to perform well at Regionals and Nationals.

College Nationals is unlike any other experience. There are a lot of things I could say about my experiences regarding how much fun I had, the feeling of walking on to those fields, and how amazing it feels to win games at such a high level. Yet, the things that I think really get down to the nitty gritty of it are the things that I hadn’t expected. For instance, playing only 2 games a day is WAY more difficult than playing 4 in a row. Often, we’d play a game at 9:00 AM, and then another at 4:00 PM. Staying mentally prepared, fed, out of the sun, hydrated, and keeping your muscles warm is trying on both your body and your mind. Instead of always feeling rested, it was difficult to get really pumped up, and then bring it back down, eat, nap, and then get ready to get pumped up again. Secondly, the first year I played at College Nationals, we didn’t win a game. There was nothing more disappointing than finally making it to the big show and then feeling like you didn’t deserve to be there. Intellectually, we knew we did deserve it – we worked hard, we beat good teams at Regionals in order to qualify and of course, someone has to end up at the bottom of the pack. But still, it was a terrible feeling. Part of the difference between that year and the next when we finished 5th was our mental game going into the tournament. The first year, we felt like getting to Nationals was the big accomplishment. The second year, we expected to be there and our actual goal was to win games and place at the top and that made all the difference when we were facing teams that we had lost to the year before. We were mentally and emotionally prepared for the wins and losses and we didn’t let them affect all of our other games.

I could write and write about my experiences at USC for thousands of words and still never be able to communicate exactly how I feel about such an amazing 4 years. I learned a lot about the game, people, and myself through these experiences and I would never exchange them for anything. Since I cannot explain all of these experiences and lessons, I will share one of my favorite memories to give you a glimpse at why the Hellions are so amazing to me. We had a policy at USC in which if you were late to practice without informing the captains in advance with an approved excuse, the entire team would run sprints for your lateness. Many teams, I assume, have a very similar policy. It was a way to encourage accountability and make sure that teammates held each other responsible for their actions because those actions affected the entire team as well. I was always happy to see the girls heckle each other when they had to run sprints for each other because someone was too tired from staying up late at a party the night before to make it to Saturday practice on time or someone repeatedly couldn’t leave enough time to make it to practice and cleat up on time. The heckling was part of the accountability and sometimes some of the Hellions would be noticeably annoyed that they were running sprints for someone else’s mess-up. But one of my favorite days was when one of the Hellions showed up REALLY late for practice, but the reason wasn’t because she just couldn’t get her act together. The reason was something personally upsetting – I think that her long-time boyfriend had just broken up with her and everyone knew it. I have never seen a happier group of people line up on a line to do sprints. They were doing sprints to be supportive of their teammate. There was no heckling, no animosity, no blame, no disappointment. It was just team. That was one of the days I will never forget – and one of the reasons that I am proudest to say that I am a Hellion.

If I could leave college leaders with just a few pieces of advice for their own seasons, I would say just a few simple things. First, set difficult, but achievable goals and then create a strategy to reach those goals. Secondly, listen. Listen to what your players need, listen to what your coach has to say; listen to other coaches, other schools’ leaders, your club team’s captain, NBA coaches on ESPN, etc. Take in all of that information and try to use it to create a system that is unique to you and your team. Third, try to create a network or become involved in a network that already exists. The main reason why USC was able to build itself up as a program so quickly was because of all of the support that we received from coaches, other schools, articles, and the ultimate community on the West Coast and across the country. We never would have made it as far as we did without all of the people who were willing to help us, encourage us, and donate their time and money to us.

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