A team from a small, relatively unknown ultimate school making the College National Championships is unlikely. That same team having only 15 healthy players and being denied practice time by their university the month before Regionals makes the odds even more staggering.
And yet Hellfish, the open team of Eastern Michigan, overcame all to reach their goal.
This was the year the Great Lakes Region was going to be different. After several seasons of having only one bid to Nationals, four teams were in the mix with two trips to Cincinnati on the line and it was a new and surprising squad that earned the second spot.
The program of Eastern Michigan is relatively young. Having started in 2001, the team wasn’t very competitive in the early years, with Michigan-B as one of its main rivals, until about 2010, when things began to change. James Highsmith, former captain of Hellfish, and one of their top players, talks to Skyd about the team and their unlikely journey.
“The team took big steps in terms of being a competitive ultimate team in the 2011-12 seasons,” Highsmith says. “We hired a coach in Dave Wozniak (2012 GL Coach of the Year), which made us become a lot more disciplined. As a result, we started playing a more organized style of ultimate that maximized our strengths.”
Since the 2011 shift, EMU has finished 4th, 3rd and 2nd at Regionals, and punched their ticket to the big show only a few weeks ago.
The Hellfish no longer have a coach, and one of the first things you might notice about the team is how small it is. A mere fifteen players make up a very talented and athletic group that include several of the top athletes from High Five, a new and rising club team in the region. The two current captains are Mark Cooks and Austin Engel, with James Highsmith and Johnny Bansfield as two returning 1st-team all-region players. Engel is a rock at center handler, while Bansfield has some of the biggest throws in the midwest and is a huge athlete, along with Highsmith. Cooks, however, who is one of High Five’s best defenders, is out for the season with an achilles tear, while Austin Lewis, one of the few true handlers on the roster, is gone with a torn ACL.
The early challenges became clear in the fall after Classic City Classic. “We travelled to CCC with 9 players and ended up with 2 players out for the season and several other players hurt at the tournament,” Highsmith explains. “At that point, we picked our tournaments for the spring with attendance as our number one criteria, with competition a close second. We had at least 14 at every tournament in the spring and avoided any severe injuries.”
This also put Eastern Michigan on a path that was largely outside the mainstream competition schedule. The team attended only Terminus and the Old Capital Open in the regular season; both were respectable tournaments, but also lacking some of the top teams in country and the hype that went with them.
Despite the small roster, Eastern Michigan had high goals: 1. To earn an extra bid for the region. 2. To never lose a game in a Sunday bracket. and 3. To make Nationals.
The Hellfish had a strong regular season and did fairly well at all their tournaments, especially excelling in terms of their second goal. The team won the Old Capital Open and was 11-1 on Sunday for their season overall (winning 10 straight to close out the spring and clinch their trip). In the regular season, they fell just out of the bid picture, disappointingly coming in a 24th, despite their success.
The first team goal was not achieved, but the third and most important was, and this is largely thanks to NUT and a look at an entirely different (and somewhat controversial) schedule that earned a strength bid. Northwestern, attending only one tournament due to weather and barely making the minimum for games played, was successful enough to garner a second bid for the Great Lakes. The controversy concerning game minimums and the ranking algorithms are hardly new (Whitman in 2011 also comes to mind), but the fact is simple, Eastern Michigan benefitted because of that second bid.
“The biggest change with the Great Lakes region this year was the depth and parity at the top, which came along with a second bid for the region,” Highsmith says. “Going into the season, we knew MagnUM was going to be solid, but didn’t know much about anyone else. We soon found out that it was going to be a four team race for the Great Lakes region. Northwestern securing the second bid was huge, and erased some of the pressure we had from the one bid region in 2013.”
But the team’s dream ran into a roadblock. “After Terminus and Old Capitol, our confidence was at an all time high,” Highsmith explains. “At Conferences, however, we got a serious slap in the face from Michigan who beat us 13-5. We were holding back our offensive strategy a bit, but it still felt like Michigan beat us into the ground no problem.”
And the challenges only increased from there for Hellfish, with unexpected difficulties arriving.
“I would love to say that we readjusted and refocused on making our goal of Nationals, but that’d be pretty far from the truth,” Highsmith tells. “From Old Capitol until Regionals, we had our practice times cut by the University. Our only real option was to do things in pods. We’d have small throwing workouts and try to organize some drills, but with a roster of 15 players and switching the practice times at the last minute, we’d be lucky to get 7 people to show up to anything.”
It was easy to doubt that Eastern Michigan would be able to come through in the end. Northwestern was the team on the rise, with the earned bid, but Illinois had defeated them at their Conference Championships, and Illinois has a history of peaking at the right time to make Nationals, earning four Region Championships in the last five years. With limited players, limited practice time, and three deep teams ahead of them, the outlook was bleak.
Still Highsmith tells of how the team stayed positive. “We were communicating a ton via Facebook and email as a team, telling everyone to stay focused. We were constantly sending out reminders to workout, throw and do whatever it takes to make Nationals,” he says. “In a way, I do think the one month break during the season may have been a good thing. It alleviated a lot of the stress we were having due to finals and gave our bodies a nice break from ultimate, but I do wish it wasn’t a month right before the series.”
Regionals started well for the team, as EMU cruised to wins over Michigan B and Eastern Illinois, but the University of Chicago almost ended Hellfish’s dream. “Chicago deserves a ton of credit for the program they’re establishing and how they played that weekend,” Highsmith says. “In that game, we were caught off guard by the soft cap, and found ourselves down 1 with the cap going off. We battled back and scored an upwind break on universe to win the game. The last point against UC was definitely the scariest moment of the season. Losing that game would have dropped us instantly to the backdoor bracket.”
The next game was against MagnUM and it turned out to be a tough loss. “Michigan came out hot against us, and we fell down early. We fought back with scrappy defense and some offensive adjustments, but ended up losing 15-12. After the loss however, we were still pretty energetic and excited to still have another chance at qualifying for Nationals.”
Sunday was a windy day, with gusts of 25 mph; however, EMU had played in the fierce winds of the North Central at the Old Capital Open and thus had the experience and strategy ready to capitalize. The team struggled early against Notre Dame, but found their offensive stride and won. This showed in the rematch against Chicago. Hucks from Bainsfield and Engels helped put the team up in a big lead, with a 10-2 advantage early, and they never looked back, resting their starters, getting ready for the game-to-go.
The game against Northwestern was a fierce battle. Both teams played tight rotation throughout the game, but Eastern especially so. The squad has been somewhat dismissed because they rely on so few players, even of their small team, but Highsmith explains that this is simply the way they win. “The game against Northwestern was extremely emotional and exciting,” he remembers. “I think we only used nine players total in the game. Many people keep questioning our legs and whether or not we’d be able to succeed playing such a small rotation. What people don’t really understand is that this is the way we know to play. Some of our players have been playing every point of games for the last five years. Others on that line have been doing it for the last three years.”
Despite what outsiders think, Highsmith knows what the team is used to and insists it is the only way they know how to play in college ultimate. The experience and the tight-knit presence of the core cannot be denied. The first half was a fest of highlight reels from both teams, but especially of Eastern’s studs. They fought hard, knowing it was win or end the season. “If you started to feel your legs or body hurt, just know that it’s the last game of the season potentially and there was nothing else to play for.”
Kevin Bruns, coach of Northwestern, acknowledges the other team’s advantage in the conditions. “I would say EMU had the better throws in the wind,” Bruns says. “Highsmith, Bansfield, and Engel all played great games.”
The first half ended on serve, with nice plays from both sides, and one break a piece from both squads. The second half, however, really showed the personality of the Eastern Michigan team. “We got fired up at halftime, and focused on using our legs to win the game,” Highsmith says. “We played some of the hottest D we’ve played all season. Dan Boynton was getting deep D’s, layout D’s and any other type of D you can think of. We just made plays
Defense and athleticism – the trademarks of their success all year – carried them through. A small team, a team that is not afraid to improvise or try different things, a team without a coach and without a status quo or set string of success, was able to grind out the win on hard cap.
The Hellfish are understandably excited about Nationals and believe that the schedule, with fewer games per day, can benefit their tiny team. They are readjusting only a few of their goals, convinced they can make some noise and surprise the field with their success.
Undoubtedly, Hellfish deserves respect for their tenacity and their ability to overcome challenges. With limited numbers, a depleted schedule of tournaments and practice time, and unusual and fluid structure, Eastern Michigan simply overcame, played hard, and won when it mattered.
“Eastern really did things our way,” Highsmith says. “In the Fall, we didn’t pick any general direction that we wanted to mold the team. We didn’t have a system that we wanted to implement or principles that we instilled on offense. Instead, we just played ultimate for a few months and hung out together a ton. We took the good things that we saw from just playing and kept them in our offense, and then built everything around what we saw.”
“15 guys, no coach, and our most popular workout regimen was doing a sprinting tabata a few times per-week. We really focused ultimate, but also on enjoying each others company and enjoying the last season on the team for a lot of our roster. It was quite the journey to get to Nationals, and the way we did it was pretty unconventional.”