I was recruited by Michelle Ng and Without Limits to write about my experiences in my final season of College Ultimate. 2011 has many possibilities...let's see how they pan out. E-mail me (robyn-fennig@uiowa.edu)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Underdog Mentality

Underdog Mentality

Lou wrote a really great story that was released just before the first weekend of Regionals. It captured the sentiment that people go into the weekend with, encouraging teams to cherish each game with their teammates.

What about the other side of the coin?

The week after regionals: this week is the happiest week of the season for dozens of team. We focus on their successes – the teams who have qualified for the championships – their triumphs, their victories, their road ahead to Boulder or Appleton.

Take it from me, this week can be the worst week of the entire season too. For hundreds of teams, the season has ended on a disappointing and heartbreaking note. Reflecting back, I have been part of a budding college team who has fallen short in the backdoor semis game once, and final game for three consecutive years with Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Me at my first tournament in spring 2007.
The first regionals appearance with SOL was also the first appearance in our team’s history. You could say that we were just happy to be there. We had upset Iowa in pool play and landed in the championship bracket. We had no intention of beating Wisconsin in semis, we couldn’t even compete with Bella Donna that season. We scored a few points, and we were thrilled to go and compete with teams we could handle.

We beat Minnesota-Duluth, and re-matched against Iowa. There was a bout of horizontal sleet in the middle of the game, and our field in a strong upwind/downwind orientation. We could not work it up against the Saucy zone until universe point. Guess what? I was wide open in the endzone and dropped the game winning point from Jaimie Glader. Iowa quickly hucked it downfield and scored, winning on universe thanks to hard cap.

In every essence, that point has defined my college ultimate career. In my first season, I had become accustomed to winning. I took for granted that I would catch the disc as I tried to check if I was in the endzone, without watching the disc all the way into my hands. I don’t think that I have ever felt entitled to win against any team, but I think I took a lot for granted that first season. You see this year in and year out: sometimes in some situations good teams and good players feel entitled to win.

By 2010, my last season with Eau Claire, I had transformed to a work horse. Every spare moment I had was spent training, developing new skills, diagraming new plays, watching ultimate...my boyfriend at the time thought my obsession was unhealthy (“Women’s ultimate isn’t a real sport anyway, Robyn.”). I always saw our team as an underdog. I always saw myself as an underdog. This mentality has carried me to where I am today.

One of my favorite plays from college. Laying out for a D vs. Wisconsin in finals of Mardi Gras in 2008.
It wasn’t until Centex 2010 that I felt validation. Despite decisively winning our pool, we continued to face team after team in the bracket who insisted that we couldn’t possibly be playing them. Before every game, our coach, Pat Niles, and I would approach the other team (not always the captains or coaches, just players on the team who were often times just standing between fields before the rounds start). In nearly every occasion in bracket play, we were “greeted” with this conversation:
Me: “Is this Field #__?”
Member of other team: “Yeah? What team are you?”
Me: “Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I think we are playing you.”
Member of other team: “Umm...are you sure you read the schedule correctly? The D2 and D3 games are over there.”
Celebrating our second break against Oregon in Centex 2010 Prequrarters to make it 3-0, SOL.
This happened EVERY SINGLE game we played, with the exception of Oregon. The mutual respect for Fugue will always be strong, as they were the ONLY team in the bracket who took us remotely seriously before the start of a game. They treated us with respect, and did not overlook us as an opponent. Everyone thought that "Fugue must have sat their starters...there is no way that some no-name team would have done that against them this year, they are untouchable!" False. They played their studs, we played out of our minds.

Guess what: UW-Eau Claire was the “winningest” team in Centex Saturday history (in addition to winning out our pool play games and cross over handily, we also won the danceoff). We finished 10th which is pretty good for a team that was in the D2 pools and gave Oregon their closest game all season (with the exception of Wisconsin later that day, who beat them in finals).

Setting up the first pull of the game vs. Oregon at Centex 2010.
Those other teams thought they deserved to win against a no-name team. It is the “This other team couldn’t possibly work harder or have more talent than OUR team” attitude that kills a lot of talented teams every season.

My college experience has forever impacted my approach to the game. With the exception of the time since Club Nationals this year (my body needed a LOT of recovery time after not taking any off after my last knee surgery), I have prided myself in working as hard as I can. Most of the time, this mentality will carry you far. At the end of the day, sometimes hard work and talent are not enough. Sometimes the dice just don’t’ roll your way, but roll in favor of someone else.

This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Minnesota-Duluth take home the coveted fifth bid out of the North Central in the open division. I enjoyed reading all the comments on Skyd and RSD about how they “don’t deserve to go” or “will most certainly get killed at nationals” or “this bid system is so flawed” etc.

Last year no one thought Luther would do anything and they took down Florida. Not saying that Duluth will likely win, but you never know. Rankings don’t mean a lot when the post season rolls around and teams have already been seeded. It all depends on who is smart enough to maneuver the system and who is peaking at the right time.

SOL was not expected to cross over into Division 1 at Centex (i.e. the best pre-nationals tournament that existed in 2010), but we beat UCLA 15-6, we went up 4-0 on Oregon only to lose by 2, and we beat UC-Santa Barbara. We didn’t win the whole tournament, but we upset some top teams and made some noise.

For you guys who are STILL reading this and thinking, “Robyn, that’s nice and all, and it works in the women’s division, which does not compare to the Open Division. You play womens...you can’t possibly get the Open Division,” I ask you, how does this not apply? Did UNI beat the #1 seed Kansas in the NCAA tournament in the same year (2010)? Sure, UNI didn’t go on to win it all, but they sure did do something, didn’t they?

SOL 2007: We qualified for Regionals. Underdogs, extraordinaire 
The taking point: the entitlement attitude won’t get you far in anything you do, unless you have the money to buy your way through life (but last I checked, there is no ultimate tournaments that allow you to buy yourself into finals). At some point, you have to earn your spot. That’s why the underdogs are so captivating to 90% of the people following, because they relate to that feeling, and it’s easy to get behind them when they finally succeed.

North Texas Envy

I had the opportunity to speak with North Texas's women's team. Envy embodies everything that I have been focusing on lately in my reading on sports development and outreach. They have worked to go from barely there, chippy, and not really aware of the greater movements in the ultimate community to a team that is fully engaged in ultimate, giving back, and revamping their reputation.

I have followed their season closely, as a friend of mine from Iowa has moved down to coach the team. Cara Massey and Blake McGlaun  answer some questions, and shares some insight on her 2011-2012 season with Envy. (Disclaimer: This interview took place prior to the South Central regionals, for which Envy qualified.)

Robyn: Tell us about playing ultimate at North Texas? What is the "ultimate scene" like?
Cara and Blake: The ultimate scene here at North Texas is somewhat of a hidden gem in the sense that not many students or teachers know it exists. There is a certain community that is established within the North Texas Ultimate Club that extends much further than the playing field. Envy has developed a strong support system of people who love and care for one another.Envy's alumni are always interested in our growth and development and often join in on traveling to tournaments just to show their support along the sidelines. Both the men's and women's teams are also very supportive of one another. Several members of the men's team come out to Envy's practices on a regular basis to give a few tips here and there or just to watch Envy in action. We often get together for "game night" or have a "bake off" just to hang out with each other.

How did you (Blake and Cara) get into ultimate?
Cara: I first got into ultimate through Grapevine League the summer before I transferred to North Texas in 2010. I did not think much of the sport until my captain had encouraged me to attend the Summer Solstice tournament in Tulsa, OK. That was the first time I had met and played ultimate with Envy. I immediately fell in love with the team's welcoming vibe and energetic persona and thus, fell in love with ultimate.

Blake: When I came to college, I tried many organizations to see where I would fit in and have the most fun.  Ultimate Frisbee instantly stole my heart. The vets, at the time, were super welcoming and already cracking jokes the first day I met them. I was stoked to start playing frisbee and travel with Envy because I just had this feeling that there was going to be many adventures I would never forget. The environment of ultimate is like no other I've experienced; it's chill, lively, and a complete blast with all the crazy, unique people. I love ultimate and I never want to stop  playing. 


What I really enjoy about ultimate is that it's based on 'The Spirit of the Game.' Before I've only played sports with a referee, and calling your own shots was refreshing because the calls depended on honesty between opponents. I see some teams take advantage of this rule and they lose my respect when they do, so with my team I  try to emphasize the spirit of the game as much as possible because I believe it's important to play fair.

What have your goals been over the season?
Cara and Blake: Over this past season, one of the main goals was to increase Envy's competitive nature. In the past, Envy has had the reputation of being a free-spirited and fun-loving team, but was never really looked at as a competitive threat. This year is different because although we are still free-spirited and love to have fun, we have the athleticism to show the ultimate world what Envy is really made of. Another goal was to develop new players so that they will be prepared to lead the team when the vets are gone. It was important to not only develop the rookies' skills, but to also show them that Envy abides by the "Spirit of the Game" and is more concerned with enjoying the sport of ultimate rather than gaining an unfair advantage over competitors. Our rookies have shown an unyielding passion for the sport that has been an awesome addition to Envy.

What is your team's practice attendance policy? Were there problems/difficulties in putting into place?
Cara and Blake: Our attendance policy gained a much more serious tone in January. We implemented the rule that if you miss practice, you are running sprints. None of the girls seemed to be bothered by the rule. In fact, many of the girls are enthusiastic when telling us they are doing their sprints or had just finished them. The rookies are always adamant about coming to practice; it is seldom when any of them miss.

What are your long-term goals past the season?
Cara and Blake: Long-term goals are more along the lines of creating a bigger name for Texas teams. We aspire to one day attract big names like Iowa and Wisconsin to tournaments like "Big D in Little d". We place a more personal focus on sustaining a positive name for Envy in the ultimate scene (through recruitment of incoming athletes and development of current team members).

What is your advice to other teams?
Cara and Blake: Advice to other teams would be to never let people's opinion of you or your teammates stop you from pushing yourself and your team to achieve its goals. Advice to any captains would be to always hold yourself to a higher standard than the rest of the team. In regards to practice, there is fine line between having fun at practice and working hard to become better. We believe that it's always important to practice like you would play in a competitive game setting. Also, there is a difference between calling a teammate out while at practice and giving constructive criticism in a positive way. The latter is much more beneficial for team moral.

Anything else you want to share?
Cara and Blake: One more thing we would like to share is the importance of giving back to the community. Our coach, Paul Utesch, has reached out to us from within our community and has helped us to believe in ourselves and to push ourselves like we never have before. Envy has never had a coach figure until now, and it has made all the difference in our playing. We think it is important for people who have the insight and the know how to share that knowledge with the community so that ultimate can continue to grow.