Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Restructuring and the Future of the Sport: A Perspective from the Central Region

This post comes to you courtesy of Robyn Fennig, the gifted player from Wisconsin Eau-Claire. Fennig's perspective is interesting and insightful because her program is representative of the rapid growth the women's division has experienced over the past few years. Eau Claire is a very young program that burst onto the scene in 2007 with a 4th place finish at their first appearance at Regionals. They followed that initial success by making it to the game-to-go in 2008 and 2009, only to come up just a bit short.

Like many young programs, Eau Claire has faced many challenges in their growth from a fledgling team to a much more competitive program. Weather, travel and budget are some of the classic obstacles that any ambitious team has had to confront at some point; teams in Wisconsin and Minnesota certainly know this better than most. In both the open and women's divisions, Carleton and Wisconsin have managed to be wildly successful despite these challenges, but up until recently, they had been the exception to the rule.

This year marks the first year of a major restructuring effort by the UPA, and the establishment of a meaningful, regular season is something that will have a major impact on the sport's future. As someone representing a hungry young team, one that represents the future of this sport, Fennig's take on the restructuring effort is an important one to consider.


On the Restructuring Process
According to the UPA, there are four main parts to the restructuring process, as listed in the UPA online summary. I am going to leave out the 2nd item about enhanced rostering, since I feel benefits all schools equally. We all have to verify our rosters for the series, so having better resources available to all schools is important. For the sake of this discussion I will limit my focus to the other three points.

Eau Claire, WI (like many Midwestern schools) is located in a wonderful climate for many winter activities, unfortunately the sport of ultimate is not one of them. For clarification, our school is located in the Northwest part of the state. Snow, ice, sub-zero temperatures, etc. are an every day experience in Eau Claire for the first two to three months of spring season. Of course climate alone does not dictate team success. Teams like Ottawa and Iowa State who experience similar climate have managed to break into and thrive on the nationals-caliber scene. What dictates success in these sorts of climates, however, is the advantage of having adequate indoor facilities to use. For the teams who get to routinely practice on larger turf spaces have an advantage of playing more realistic ultimate.

UW-Eau Claire is not a school with a lot of indoor facilities, thus we are lucky to receive a single basketball court to drill, scrimmage, and teach the game to our players. We are more fortunate than some of our Central Region counterparts, like the newly created women’s team at UW-Lacrosse, who gets a space misleadingly named the “Multi-purpose room” which is a space smaller than most high school academic classrooms. Imagine trying to develop a team, let alone a successful program in this sort of atmosphere. It is hard to keep new recruits hooked when they are attempting to learn the game in 10 foot x 10 foot space.

This is also especially difficult for teams who share gym space with their Open Division counterparts. SOL often shares indoor facilities with our men’s teams, Eauzone and Eau2. There are advantages to this, yes, but many of them are lost when 60 people are forced to share space. Several of our players have suffered major injuries, simply because there are too many people on a basketball court.

This means that, like many other schools, our experience playing realistic ultimate is limited to traveling long distances to tournaments. This is especially challenging to a team like ours who has been on the brink of qualifying for nationals for three years. Our team dynamic is often challenged when we get outdoors and we struggle to succeed in our first higher caliber tournament of the season…as it is far different than the modified situations we are forced to compete in during the crucial beginning of the spring season in Eau Claire. Like many other up-and-coming teams we must travel long way to experience any sort of realistic ultimate and it takes a few tournaments before we are really flowing.

These relatively poorer performances early on in the season hurt our team when it comes to rankings and earning extra bids for regionals/nationals for our section or region. Teams grow when they are challenged. But poor performance during the regular season at a UPA sanctioned tournament, though beneficial to your team, hurts your sectional and regional opportunities. This gives disproportionate weight to the teams located in those regions with awesome year-round ultimate playing climate an advantage to the regions that have colder climate, and fewer local UPA sanctioned events.

(Side note: I might have less problem with this rule if our spring break fell during the regular season. Our spring break falls after the regular season cut-off date. This means we have to travel far away before spring break. For many teams, attending a spring break tournament helps qualify them for the 10 game minimum.)

I am definitely unsatisfied with the outcome of the restructuring. It harms medium-sized schools in colder climates a lot. We are not even closest to the largest of the UW-System schools, but are categorized the same way as UW-Madison with 40,000+ students. School enrollment (7,500 student body) is not the only significant factor that dictates team success. The Central Region alone provides two wonderful examples of this principle. If you have a team at a huge school, you are not guaranteed to qualify for nationals (i.e. the University of Minnesota). Nor are you guaranteed failure if you have a small student body (i.e. Carleton College).

What do I propose? I feel that a team, in order to qualify for any sort of D-II or D-III National Tournament, must fill out an application to do so. I think this application process should take a combination of “tradition” of ultimate at your school, student body size, location, and funding determines success. My suggestion is for the sectional and regional coordinators to sit down and determine the most qualifying applicants four to five schools from their region to submit the final applications to the UPA who selects the top 16-20 teams to attend this secondary national tournament. Sectional and Regional coordinators are most in tune with the smaller schools in the region. They understand these different qualifications at each school and can make educated and fair decisions; thus limiting the number of applications the UPA must evaluate.

On Contending with the Regional Powers: Madison and Carleton
It is definitely challenging on many fronts developing a program in a region that is dominated by Wisconsin-Madison and Carleton. When I started playing in Spring 2007, our team finished 4th at Central Regionals, in our first year making an appearance at that tournament. The next year, our captains tried to get us as many high quality games as possible to try to get our newer players as much experience as possible . We got in 3 games at College Terminus (though it was rained out…), and a few good games at Frostbite.

Since then our program has come a long way. What our captains have stressed every single year is that we need to get as much experience as possible. On a team where even our most experienced players are sitting on two years of mid- to top-level co-ed club experience, it’s hard to compete against players with junior worlds and elite high school experience. Wisconsin-Eau Claire is not exactly a school that draws a ton of ultimate players, even with our proximity to Minnesota. I don’t see that happening until we break into nationals.

With that being said, we take it season by season, with our focus being on trying to get our players as much game experience as possible. This means traveling to do this. This spring we will be heading to Philly Classic (17 hours away), Chicago Invite (only 5.5 hours away), and Centex (20+ hours away). I really appreciate the work of Michelle Ng and her crew at Midwest Ultimate are doing to help teams like ours get high quality games closer to home.

Another thing our team concentrates on is getting creative with what we have. Our practice facility consists of two basketball courts side by side. We concentrate on doing modified scrimmage situations with 4 on 4 and 5 on 5, and really emphasize our younger players getting the disc in their hands. We have experimented with randomly “freezing” game play to discuss positioning and strategy based on where players are standing. This has been successful on teaching field awareness. We rely on our captains and coach (Pat Niles) to come up with challenging, but game-like drills with the limited space we have.

As we found out two weeks ago, our facilities are not exactly what our Central Region friends have access to. We went to Iowa State for a turf/court scrimmage. Yeah, the turf was rough, but the fact that we could huck the disc was enough to excite us. I think that the scrimmage with Iowa State and Wisconsin-Madison was a good step to see how we’re developing this season. Next season will be difficult, there will be a lot of turnover for SOL. What the captains do next year I think will be a defining moment in the development of our program. Anna [Hettler] and I will be available to help in any way we can.

On How to Improve College Women's Ultimate
I think that women’s ultimate in general has a lot of work to do. As a former college athlete at a high level D-III program, I saw the type of work that we did to support high school and middle school-aged players. I feel that this type of relationship has yet to really be developed between elite women’s club teams and women’s college teams. The work that Michelle Ng and her crew are doing with Midwest, most noteworthy with the skills clinic and roundup division at Midwest Throwdown are the start of something. I feel that our club teams need to reach out more to the college teams, especially programs like ours. We do not necessarily know where to go for help, or even what to ask if the help is there. Once this sort of exchange takes place, womens college ultimate will thrive.

Fennig's Preview of the Central Region

University of Wisconsin (Bella Donna)
Yet again, the Bellas have one of the deepest, most ridiculous teams in the nation. Led by 2009 Callahan Award Winner, Georgia Bosscher, and all-region selection Emelie McKain, their talent pool is never ending. Impact players Frances Tsukano and Sandy Jorgenson now have elite level club experience. Add Laura Bitterman, FOTY ’09 Rachael Westgate, and Jenny Gaynor offer the team athleticism and speed. This team has the potential to be unstoppable.

Carleton College (Syzygy)
This team is always a mystery to me until Regionals in May. Their strength during mid-February is relatively weaker than the team that shows up to Regionals, as it should be. This team always peaks at the “right” time. Most other teams in the Central refer to this phenomenon as the “Carleton Learning Curve.” I expect an equally impressive squad come May. Anna Snyder is in my opinion, the most dominant player on their team. She’s athletic and has a field presence matched by few in the region.

Iowa State University (Women Scorned)
SOL has a friendly rivalry with Iowa State. They are some of my closest friends and greatest competition that pushes me to my limits. Jasmine Draper and Christine Rosen are the two that most people know by name and face. They both played for the Chad Larson Experience (CLX) who took 2nd at UPA Club Nationals and are heading to Prague this summer. However, many overlook impact players like Jessy Erickson’s huge plays, Sarah Hoistad’s sick break throws, and Jiear Vang’s overall skills add depth to Women Scorned.

Wisconsin-Eau Claire (SOL)
SOL has been on the brink for three years. This year we have some good depth with some players that are extremely under-rated. But this is the year where people will get to know them. Anna Hettler, one of our co-captains, gets 3-4 solid handblocks a game is a great leader on O and D. Brit Gartner is a versatile, balls-to-the-walls player that any team could hope to have. Martha Harris’ low breaks and sick throws…Jess Haller’s athleticism, Melissa Jordan’s ridiculous NCAA D-III championship sprinting speed. We are looking to make some noise and throw off the status quo.

Other players to look for:
-Alyssa Olson, Minnesota (Ninjas)
-Depalma sisters, Minnsota (Ninjas)
-Megan Greenwood, Iowa (Saucy Nancy)
-Eyleen Chou, Wisconsin-B (Atropa)
-Emily Karoblis, Wisconsin-Stevens Point (Shockwave)
-Alex Haroldson, Wisconsin-Whitewater (Schist)
-Hailey Bronson, Winona State (Bad Monaz)
-Beth Langer, St. Thomas (Rainy Day Women)


Michelle said...

Robyn-- thanks for the shoutout. It's been a rough stretch, but I'm glad that these tournaments have made a difference to someone out there.

More connections between college and club teams? My next big endeavor: Not excited about returning to the state of Pennsylvania, but stoked to be working with Brute Squad and looking forward to seeing where all of this goes... There are some good people involved with this project and I hope it takes off in a big way. :)

Gambler said...

Great post, Robin. It's great to hear more about your team's particular experience with the regular season. In the inaugural year of having a UPA official regular season, I think that a lot of teams were left trying to figure out how best to get games at UPA sanctioned events while also balancing the need to develop new players.

The scrimmage with Iowa State and UW-Madison you attended is exactly the type of thing I would encourage college teams to set-up if they are worried about the effects of regular season rankings. For teams that struggled to get in 10 official games during the regular season, having "tournaments" of just 3-4 teams (or even match-play games) could be useful if they were UPA sanctioned (which is not that hard to do). For teams that were already attending multiple bigger tournaments with UPA sanctioning, smaller scrimmages (that are not sanctioned and thus do not affect the official rankings) like the one SOL attend can be a valuable tool for letting younger players get PT and having the team try out new strategies that one might not be willing to risk in a game at a sanctioned regular season event. With a little planning a team can develop a schedule for itself that would balance the need to develop players and team chemistry with the desire to perform well at sanctioned events.

As for your suggestion of a different system for placing teams into tiers of play such as Division III, remember that the 2010 season was the first step towards a larger restructuring plan for the UPA. The college restructuring proposal that the UPA board passed this January includes mention of a few points that could help address some of your concerns:

- Redraw the regional boundaries to include 10 college regions.
- Standardize the size of sections
- Stage regions into one of four phases based on certain team requirements.
- Allow regions in different phases to host various tiered competition structures.

In particular, developing different phases for different regions, and having different tiered competition structures for each phase, could help tailor the overall system to more of the individual geographic regions' needs.

Also, being able to read your thoughts on this blog is great, but I would also ask that if you have ideas for how you would like the UPA to implement their policies differently, please feel free to also submit them to the UPA for review as well.

Thanks so much!
Gwen Ambler