In 1983, Todd Leber founded the Easter Eggstravaganza, a four-team ultimate tournament in Wilmington, North Carolina. “Not bad,” says Leber, “considering that at the time you were a big deal if you could pull in six teams.”
Five years later, in 1988, the tournament was still running, and with Easter falling on spring break, Leber received bids to attend the Eggstravaganza northeastern teams SUNY-Purchase, University of Vermont, and a number of others that he had not heard from before. By 1989, UNC-Wilmington was hosting College Nationals, and though they failed to qualify despite their top seed going into Regionals, the Seamen put on a quality event.
With the combination of an established reputation as a tournament director and a successful Nationals on the Wilmington campus, the next step was a logical one for Leber: an annual tournament that was both bigger and exclusive to college teams. Borrowing the Easterns name from a well-known club tournament in the Northeast, Leber founded College Easterns in 1990.
After the first Easterns tournament, which saw Tufts defeat East Carolina in the final, Leber would hand the job of tournament director over to fellow UNC-Wilmington player Ed Wagenseller. TD duties would change hands a few times over the next decade, with Leber returning for a spell and then giving the reigns over to Mike Gerics and Brock Adams. As the leadership changed, so did College Easterns, as the tournament became more competitive each year.
No two years were more important to both Easterns and college ultimate as a whole than 1992 and 1993. In 1992, after having lost the College National Final to Dennis Karlinsky and the University of California- Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, Wagenseller’s UNC-W Seamen team flew across the country to play at the Stanford Invite so that they would be more prepared to face the country’s high quality West Coast teams. They were the first college team ever to make such a long and expensive journey.
In 1993, Santa Cruz returned the favor, becoming the first West Coast team to travel so far east. This initial exchange can be attributed to a shared friendship between the Slugs and the Seamen, who competed fiercely but quickly came to respect one another. “We liked those guys,” says Wagenseller. “We played a really tough, physical game, and they didn’t complain one bit. Instead, they gave it right back.”
While the relationship between Santa Cruz and Wilmington’s teams is interesting in and of itself (in the summer of 1995, Karlinsky played and practiced with Wilmington’s club team, the Port City Slickers, and while there was a falling out between him and Gerics, Wagenseller says that “he and I are still friends to this day”), it is perhaps even more noteworthy for its impact on the competitive landscape of college ultimate. Before these teams’ respective trips, competition was much more localized, with teams that made it out of Regionals unsure of and unprepared for what they would face at Nationals. Once teams started to travel, they encouraged other quality teams to do the same, and the dominoes fell.
From 1993 through 1996, the Easterns final included only UNC-Wilmington and East Carolina, two arch rivals that were also dominating College Nationals. In 1997, however, Colorado broke through and finished second, and in ’98 Mamabird would defeat North Carolina State to take the Easterns title west of the Mississippi for the first time in its history.
“Our growth during this time really cemented Easterns as the top East Coast college tournament,” says current director Greg Vassar. “This was big, as we were up against storied events like Yale Cup and College Terminus. By the end of the 90s, it was Stanford Invite out west and Easterns in the east.”
Since then, Easterns finalists have come from as far away as Stanford, as far south as Florida State, as far north as Middlebury and Wisconsin, and as close as Virginia. In 2008, the Seamen returned to the final for the first time in eleven years.
“It’s great to see the West Coast teams like Cal, Oregon, and Colorado coming back this year. It makes this year’s event even more special.”