[stextbox id=”alert” color=”050505″ bcolor=”6cc3f8″ bgcolor=”ffffff” big=”true” image=”null”]School Name: University of Illinois
Captains: Austin Lien, Ryan Smith, Zach Frantz
Year Founded: Before 1996
Jersey Colors: White, Orange
2010 Record: 29-15
How did you get involved with Ultimate at Illinois?
Austin Lien: I started playing pickup Ultimate with a few of my friends the summer after my junior year of high school. We found out that the Minneapolis – St. Paul area has a large high school league, so a few friends and I started a team called TROUT in March 2007 (my senior year). After a short but successful season, I and three others from my team were chosen for the Open YCC team Superior. This was our first exposure to truly competitive ultimate, and I was hooked from then on. I immediately emailed one of the contacts at the University of Illinois to let them know I was on board.
What is Ultimate at Illinois all about?
Austin: Most of the guys on our team are engineers. When you combine that course load with our rigorous practice schedule, you truly learn the value of free time. The idea that people are volunteering what little time they have to work towards being a better team brings us all together. Any ultimate team will tell you that it’s all about this bond that develops. Playing well is nice also.
How did your team do last year? What was the highlight of your season?
Austin: The highlight of my season was definitely repeating as Great Lakes regional champions. As a team, we really set our sights toward taking care of business at Regionals. No matter what else goes on leading up to that point, this tournament is what we’re all about. We finished (tied for) 17th at nationals in Madison with several close losses to great teams.
Who is your favorite team to play against? Tell us about a memorable game.
Austin: We have a pretty intense rivalry with Michigan. They tend to slap us around a little bit in the regular season, but we have come out on top in the game that matters the last few years. We met in the semifinals of GL regionals in 2009 and 2010. In 2010, the final score was 9-8 Illinois. The wind conditions were near extreme, and both teams were emotionally charged. The game was filled with big plays, both on offense and defense. Universe point at 8-8 was one of the most exhilarating points I’ve ever played. Both teams had drops on the goal line that made my heart stop. Finally cashing in that goal provided a feeling of relief I doubt I’ll ever forget.
Tell us about your captains. What do they bring to your team?
Austin: This year we have two junior captains, which is rare for the team. Both are part of the huge 2008-09 freshman class which has been a driving force for the team.
Zach “Sid” Frantz is the first true product of Chicago Juniors Ultimate (out of Wheaton Warrenville South) that our team has been able to hang on to. Having played 4 years of high school ultimate, Sid brings a huge amount of experience to the team. He’s tall for a handler at 6’3”, and has played on the O-line since he was a freshman. He definitely has a calming presence on the field.
Ryan “Kennedy” Smith has about the opposite effect. Kennedy came in from Montour High School (near Pittsburgh) with two years of experience, lots of ego, and even more intensity. He runs the D-line as a handler, and everyone feeds off his seemingly boundless energy.
Are there players on your team who deserve consideration for Callahan, All-Region, or Freshman of the Year?
Austin: Everything in our offense tends to run through Sid. He has a cannon for an arm, and some of the best short throws I’ve ever seen. He’s fast, tall, and distributes the disc expertly. Other teams will have to adjust their defense to try to contain this guy.
Despite being 5’8” (on his tippy toes), Kennedy is a huge problem for the opponents offense. When he gets going, there is really nothing anyone can do to control him. Kennedy produces the most D’s on the team, and has the throws and handler cuts to make them count. His upwind forehand is phenomenal. He is easy to spot on the field, and has already nabbed FOTY (2009) and Second Team All-Region (2010).
Brian “Papi” (read: Pappy) Pierce is also a member of that ’08-’09 freshman class. This guy can get up. He’s 6’2” and very tough to match in the air. Not wanting to be one-dimensional, Papi developed a set of throws that would make any handler jealous. Most importantly, he’s left-handed.
Who’s a player you have to watch more carefully to see how valuable he is to your team?
Austin: Jon “Wego” Hatcher is one of few seniors on the team. He’s average height and build, but he can really move. Wego is great at making quick cuts in small spaces that don’t draw a lot of attention, but keep the disc moving. He has really developed his throws over the years, so you won’t see him throwing any turnovers. Players like Wego have been extremely important to the program over the years.
How does your team bring new players to ultimate up to speed?
Chicago has not had a very strong youth program in the past several years. As a result, the University of Illinois typically only gets one or two incoming freshmen who have played competitive ultimate before. We spend our entire fall season teaching the basics of the game and the general concepts behind our offense/defense. We typically don’t make our A/B team split until right before winter break.
Without giving too much away, what does your team like to do on offense and on defense?
Austin: Recently, we’ve had a relative surge in handler strength on the team. Our offense reflects this in a couple ways. We always expect our handlers to be able to get open in power positions, rather than to rely on quick swings to space. This tends to slow down the pace of our play, but usually results in a thrower with a lagging or absent mark for uncontested breaks or hucks.
On defense, we usually run only man-on-man defenses. The majority of our new players are fresh off of high school track or cross country careers, rather than ultimate. We like to think this gives us an edge in terms of speed.
Has your team set any goals for this season? What are they?
Austin: We haven’t all sat down to have that conversation yet, but I can tell you that we intend to defend our regional title. With the boundary changes and current team strength, making nationals will likely be more difficult than ever. The best way to go is to win the region.
What tournaments do you plan to attend in the spring? Which are you most looking forward to?
Austin: We have typically gone to Trouble in Vegas, Mardi Gras, Centex, and Huck Finn. We’re not sure which tournaments are even happening this year, let alone which we will choose, but those four have given us great competition in the past. It can’t rain in Vegas again this year right?
What does your team do to get pumped up for a big game?
Austin: We come up with a lot of cheers. We’ve had a few strong spirited and creative players on the team while I’ve been here who come up with most of them. Last year we had a pre-game huddle cheer we did together all the time. Sometimes they’re pretty stupid, but getting everyone together thinking about the same thing has a surprising effect on how we start the game. I like to think that having everyone yell a little helps with nerves as well.
Illinois has had a consistent appearance at Nationals for the last few years, how do you plan to achieve the next level?
Austin: In my opinion, our biggest problem with performing at nationals is that we’re not mentally prepared. We’ve had a remarkable number of close losses where we just can’t seem to close things out. If our season continues past regionals again, we’ll have to find a way to ramp up our focus all the way through nationals.
Bear, ninja or cowboy?
Austin: Bear. Even for the other two, I picture a bear in a ninja or cowboy costume.