Thursday, June 2, 2011

2011 College Championships: What it Meant to Me

(Author Note: You'll also find this post on my Without Limits Blog

The 2011 College Championships have come and gone. I'm back in Madison, working my internship. Heck, I've even started playing Summer League already. I've been doing nothing but reflecting about what my journey through college ultimate has meant, particularly the 2010-2011 season with Iowa.

SOL takes 3rd in the Central in 2010. There were 2 bids.
I started playing in spring 2007. Looking for something to fill the void that college softball left when my numbered days as a catcher ended, I chose ultimate after experiencing an indoor 6 am practice with 8 players at Wisconsin-Eau Claire. At Eau Claire, I have experienced, with my teammates, the heartbreak of 4 consecutive losses in the backdoor bracket: once in backdoor semis in 2007, and three times in backdoor finals in 2008, 2009, 2010. We were SO close every single year. Literally, as close as you can be without ever going.

There are countless talented players and talented teams that fall short of their goal to qualify every season. I relate to the experience of continuing to fall short year-in and year-out. I was certain that I'd never get the shot to compete with top teams at the College Championships. Robyn, face the reality: It's just not in the cards for a vast majority of the over 12,000 college ultimate players who compete in our sport. It's just not in the cards for me.

When I decided which graduate school I would attend in Fall 2010, I chose the University of Iowa, not for its strong tradition in ultimate like many of the grad students I see in the game, but for the Urban and Regional Planning program and educational/professional opportunities the school offered. The fact that there was a women's team was a plus and the fact that they finished in the top 4 of Regionals in 2010 was an even bigger plus. What I did not know was that I was walking onto the most talented college ultimate team I was given the opportunity to play in the brief 4.5 years of my "ultimate career."

This team worked harder than any ultimate team I had ever been part of, club or college. Every single player lifted, ran sprints, and pushed themselves harder than they ever had. Some of us overcame the physical and psychological challenges posed by knee surgeries, broken bones, stress fractures, months of extreme back pain, pulled quads, knee injuries, and severe ankle injuries to contribute to the team's success. More players made immense progress in their skill sets and physical abilities than I have ever seen before in just one short year. We had gone throughout the regular season kicking butt throughout the country. Winning Midwest Throwdown. Winning Easterns. Taking 4th at Centex.

Saucy busting off the line on D at the 2011 College Championships
Throughout the season, I felt the weight of the challenge to make it to nationals fall heavily on my shoulders. I'm not entirely sure why. The group of girls was extremely talented and hungry for improvement and success. My big fear is failure. I did not want to see my teammates fail. It wasn't really a problem until we got to the post season and the challenges increased with difficulty and consequences were harsher for failing.

The pressure mounted. Up until this point, our team had lived the Cinderella season. We hit a road bump at the West North Central Conference Championships. After playing extremely well in the 45+mph winds at Northern Iowa (imagine the Open Finals in Boulder, but it was 30 degrees and wet outside), our field chemistry was lost on Sunday without the wind. We struggled to play man-to-man offense. We looked gassed and nothing was working. We dropped a game to a talented Iowa State team. All of a sudden, everyone was questioning our legitimacy as a team. I felt like it was my fault. I felt the need to defend my teammates and our team.

We didn't defend it with our words (well, sometimes we did). We stepped up with our play: our actions on and off the field. We bounced back, winning decisively in the 2nd place game and headed into Regionals with the attitude that we controlled our destiny. We would not let anyone take our goal of getting Saucy Nancy back to the big show for the first time since 2005. Not a team could stand in our way. We overcame so many obstacles. We won the "pool of death" featuring both Wisconsin and Carleton (the teams with the most appearances at Nationals in our region). Breaking for a win in Regional Semis despite the elements and talented players in our way, sealing a bid to the College Championships was a dream come true. Looking around me seeing my teammates crying out of pure happiness. We had accomplished our goal. We had qualified for Nationals. We captured the 5th seed out of a talented pool of teams represented in the field of competition.

Saucy Nancy huddle at the 2011 College Championships
I'll be honest. Up until this point, I had been slightly disappointed. In my mind, I was absolutely convinced that our team was a semis team. Not reaching semis was devastatingly bittersweet to say the least. Writing this has been extremely cathartic. It has helped me to understand just how immense of an accomplishment the Saucy Nancy season has been. We proved that it doesn't matter how low your team or program goes, you can get the greatness back with some good old fashioned hard work and drive. I feel a sense of pride in myself and in my teammates for getting to Nationals and performing well. We accomplished the goal we set. It paid off.

Mikey Lun, my coach and friend, once told me that I'm a player who plays the odds, and that the dice just seem to fall in my favor. I'm not entirely sure what he meant by that statement, but I have my interpretation. I played this season like I do Blackjack (I like Blackjack because it's a simple game that I can understand...and when I play it in a casino, I feel like I have a chance to win). I sit down at the table, make my minimum bet and win a few hands before I start betting more. On the field, I choose my battles when the odds were with me, and I played them right most of the time. I tend to be a high risk/high reward player when the stakes are high and the rewards even higher. Sometimes, I don't even know how I come out with the disc when I'm out of position or complete a huck that should never have worked. Sometimes, I think "how in the world did we score that?!" But here's the secret to playing the odds in ultimate: believing in your teammates to beat the odds with you.

Saucy practicing in Boulder. Mountain backdrop. Sick.
This season, my teammates did beat the odds. Hucking upwind with a 20 mph wind to a receiver in double coverage sounds crazy. But when that receiver is Katie Johnson, the 5% decision, becomes an 80% decision if I can get the disc flat. Taking away an around on D on a team's best handler, giving her the huck down field becomes harder to complete when Audrey Erickson is on the downfield cutter and about to sky her. Placing the disc right on the line is okay, because I know Liza Minor is going to toe the line and make the play anyways. Putting a huck way in front of speedy little Jojo Peterson will probably get completed, even if she's covered by a team's best defender expecting to "pwn" on our noob (news flash: our rookies ARE good).

You have to trust your teammates to beat the odds too. You can't beat the odds by yourself (unless you're really good at throwing to yourself...and in that case, you should probably be playing disc hoops anyways). This team showed me how to believe in everyone  the same way I believe in myself. This team beat the odds by working hard to give every advantage possible. A percentage or two or ten in our favor allowed us to play and beat the odds all season long.

Me with my sisters at 2011 Nationals.
So, what did the 2011 College Championships mean to me? Spending hours spray painting neon colored shirts for my teammates at my garage in Muskego and getting a little dizzy in the process. Freaking out about how I'm going to get 20 t-shirts and like 40 long sleeve jerseys to my teammates in Boulder (those TSA workers better not TOUCH them).

Me and my mom at the College Championships.

Sending a lone Saucy on her Geology Field Camp trip in Montana her Nationals Jersey and a spray paint t-shirt, trying to tell her how much I would miss her smile and wonderful attitude in Boulder while she was hundreds of miles away. Being re-united with my teammates after their brutally long car-trip to Boulder with hugs and smiles (driving through Nebraska is the worst). Spray painting about 60 Saucy tats on my 21 teammates.

Dave takes home the silver in '11.
Playing a showcase game vs. Stanford...while two of my best friends announced the game (sorry I only sported the Jeadband for a few points). Watching ultimate and learning more strategy and things to bring back with me. Seeing people that I love and respect cheer on me and my teammates on the sidelines. Making it to quarter finals, and putting up the final fight in a game that the other team thought they had already won. Throwing a forehand huck with the mountains serving as the backdrop. Celebrating one last time with my teammates. Not having a voice 5 days after the tournament is done. Cheering my boyfriend and his team onto a 2nd place finish in the Open Division. Hugging my teammates and not wanting to let go.

Most important: sharing the game that I love with my closest friends and family, one last time as a college ultimate player. This experience is unmatched by any that I have had in the college women's game.

I recently filled out a tryout form for a women's club team. It asked me to include my "ultimate resume." Yeah. I can say "I was part of a top team in the Central Region for 5 consecutive College seasons." or "I made all-region in x,y,z years." or "Team finished 5th at 2011 College Championship" or even "helped to build a new successful college women's program at a small school." Who cares about that stuff. I already know it. Chances are my potential employer (or in this case, potential captains/coaches) already know it too.

I was always told that my resume was supposed to be short, to the point, using active voice to describe my strengths and experiences I bring to my potential employer. My cover letter is supposed to highlight the specifics that the resume can't speak to. The intangibles, if you will.

The most important intangible that allows me to keep beating the odds: the fact that I know my teammates like I know myself. Being a good teammate, working with them in and out of practice, helping them improve, supporting them at Dance Marathon, making them dinner, bringing them coffee before an exam when they are so tired. Holding yourself accountable to the same standards you hold your teammates. That huge list of things I listed, specifically about my experience at nationals this year, and taking the time to appreciate them.

After 2011, I know what my "ultimate cover letter" will detail: all the intangibles that help me beat the odds. After all, it's these intangibles that I finally realize only after the 2011 season and the College Championships that define me as a player and my college ultimate experience.
Indefinite free time. No more college ultimate. But I'll always remember these girls.