South Central: it’s the new kid on the block for D-III Women’s college ultimate that we can’t stop raving about. This year three teams from the large region that stretches from Texas to Wyoming have automatically qualified for the Division III Championships in Westerville: Rice Torque, Truman State TSUnami, and Harding Sky Bisons. The South Central Region is the most prolific region within the division this season, earning an automatic bid and two unprecedented strength bids to the National Championships.
A fairly warm region, it’s important to note that for the most part these teams have avoided numerous tournament cancellations during the harsh winter that most of the nation has experienced this year. During their tournaments, SC teams have noticed that three- or four-person cup zones are more frequently employed during games, requiring extreme accuracy throughout the handler core. Along with that, more programs have been using combination zones like the box and one, effectively shutting down handler movement and requiring cutters to make more upfield throws. Truman State and Harding both pointed out that awareness of the sport has increased hugely on campuses and throughout the region: they are seeing bigger rookie classes every year and more and more women’s teams joining the college circuit.
Despite growth this year and in previous years, USA Ultimate has not offered a Conference Championship tournament for D-III SC teams, requiring instead that the previous one SC bid to D-III Championships be either automatically earned by placing in USA Ultimate’s ranked Championship predictions, or by fighting through the D-I route. However, with seven sanctioned D-III teams playing in the South Central area this year, this spring has certainly showcased the growing quality and strength of this region. With the dramatic entrance of Rice onto the D-III playing field after previously competing D-I, Truman State’s consistency, and Harding’s rocket into the Top 16, this likely calls for the institution of separate South Central D-III Conference Championships in the future.
Let’s see what these top SC teams have to say about their road to the D-III National Championships in 2014.
The Rice Women’s Ultimate program went through a lot of major changes this year. They changed their team name to Torque, more players competed in the Texas summer club scene, and most significantly, Rice made the decision to play in Division-III. As a part of an ultra competitive D-I Region, Torque chose to play D-III in 2014 in hopes that they would be successful enough to advance to play on the national stage – and they were right. Captains Erika Danckers and Monica Matsumoto says that the most important aspect of this decision is to set goals ahead of time, in order to make sure that everyone on the team is on the same page. After that, Torque was ready to work hard and keep each other accountable during training.
After playing 25 sanctioned games at 4 spring pre-series tournaments, Rice is satisfied with their whirlwind of a season. Ending with a record of 23-2, the captains say that while this hectic spring schedule was difficult to balance with school work, it also amped up the team commitment, and “helped to bring our team closer and to solidify our playing style,” says Matsumoto. From an outsider perspective, it also seems that the relatively small size of the team has allowed for top players such as Monica Matsumoto, Erika Danckers and Nichole Kwee to share a lot of knowledge and field time with newer players–heightening their overall level of play.
With this amazing record, Rice has clinched the number one spot in the USAU Rankings and is headed to Nationals in a few weeks. Skyd checked in with them to about their goals for Torque’s first ever Nationals appearance. The captains say that in Westerville they hope to see Rice “playing the best Ultimate [they] have played all season.” Specifically, Torque is focusing on playing intense downfield defense, effective dump resets, unstoppable endzone plays, and encouraging sideline talk. Danckers and Matsumoto say that they are excited to play aggressive yet spirited teams at Nationals and although “winning a national championship would definitely be the icing on the cake,” Torque isn’t going to measure the success of this unbelievable season on a title. Coached by Bjorn Schey and Edith Teng, Skyd can’t wait to see this well-honed team compete under the national spotlight this May.
A relatively new program, the Harding Sky Bisons are ranked sixth in the final USA Ultimate Rankings after an impressive season of 14 wins and 3 losses–Harding’s best year in team history. Thrilled to have qualified for their first D-III Championships, Harding identifies as a sort of “Dark Horse” (or Dark Bison?) figure that will bring a lot of surprises to the national stage–perhaps even a national title! The Sky Bisons told Skyd that their ideal Nationals schedule would include some intra-regional matchups: a rematch against Rice and a chance to play against Truman State. Harding thinks that they can give these top teams a tough game, and in doing so would display unequivocally the strength of this year’s South Central region.
Hailing from Searcy, Arkansas, Harding gives credit for their success this year to their coach Taren Goins and their community-building team chemistry, which was largely due to a big influx of committed and talented rookies. The defining moment of this year came for the Sky Bisons at their first spring tournament, Big D in Little D, where they ended the tournament in fourth place against tough competitors such as Williams, Rice and D-I Texas teams. These results gave Harding confidence in each other’s abilities that has resonated throughout the season. Top players on Harding that have amped up the Skyd Bison’s level of play include the athletic talents of senior handler Meredith Whitman and sophomore cutter Brooke Rice. Additionally, freshman Courtney Senn is a smart cutter with an amazing field sense that makes her a serious defensive threat.
Truman State TSUnami is the only team of the three that has qualified and attended for D-III National Championships in previous years, and they have big plans for this year’s appearance. Having lost in the quarterfinals in the past three Championships, TSUnami’s goal this year is “to make it past the quarters and to do it playing games we’re proud of.” And from there, who knows how far they will go? Captains Jen May, Stephanie Sherman and Jessica Derry say that this year, they really hope to play Rice at the D-III Championships. “We’ve only played them once in the past 4 years, and it was a fall tournament with half of our squad. We want to have that South Central matchup once and for all.”
While a returner to Nationals, Truman State’s leadership team has been actively working hard to make practices more intentional and conditioning more intense. TSUnami captains also say that “On the field, we have strived to become a team whose talent and depth is apparent, not just depending on a sole player to carry our team to success.” It is apparent while watching TSU that their points are evenly spread throughout their roster, but some keystone players for their team include Juli Dworak, Stephanie Sherman, Sam Daugherty, Jessica Derry and Maddy Niehaus. These players are reliable, experienced, and unafraid to bid; and with this incredible depth of their roster nearly every team member is able to sub in and out frequently while still leaving a strong line on the field.
Despite having a team full of great players, TSUnami has seen some tough challenges this season in which they weren’t always able to respond in the way they hoped. The captains cite the Chicago Invite as one such challenge where they were rattled by a loss to the Seattle Fryz, a high school all-star team, and had a difficult time playing their following games at their usual level. However, since that experience Truman State has been focusing on increasing TSUnami’s mental toughness and maintaining a positive outlook even during hard games.
All in all, we cannot wait to see what the D-III Championships will bring for these talented South Central Teams. Stay tuned for more Skyd Magazine College Tour coverage leading up to the National Championships on May 17th and 18th.