In less than a week, UNC-Wilmington’s College Easterns will bring the best college ultimate teams together for a three-day weekend of the very best competition possible. All eight of last year’s National Quarterfinalists will be in attendance, including 2011 Champions Florida and runners-up Carleton. Of the 16 teams at Easterns, only two (Virginia and Ohio) did not qualify for Nationals last year.
To call this year’s field impressive would be an understatement. Moreover, Easterns is no stranger to extremely high levels of competition. But it is worth noting that it has not always been this way, as Easterns has at times been subjected to the perils of college ultimate’s changing landscape.
In the early part of the decade, UNC-Wilmington’s College Easterns was the place to be for the country’s top college teams. The tournament winner in 2000 (Brown), 2002 (Stanford) , and 2003 (Wisconsin) went on to win the College Championships, and teams such as Carleton, Oregon, and Colorado were regular attendees.
In 2004, however, the tournament fell on some lean years. UNC-Wilmington’s club sports director imposed a more strict set of rules on then-tournament director Mike Gerics. Unhappy with the new regulations, Gerics discontinued his association with Easterns and scheduled Spring Collegiates on the same weekend in Baton Rouge. This left Hunter Alexander, a UNC-W player, as the tournament director.
2004 was also the debut of College Centex, and with Easterns in flux, many of the tournament’s regulars headed to Texas to play one another. A lot of schools had spring break the week after, and with Austin much closer to Baton Rouge than Wilmington, teams like Carleton, Texas, and Cal (that year’s Nationals runner-up) hit Collegiates the following weekend. While Brown, North Carolina, NC State, and Georgia were all in attendance at Easterns in 2004, the tournament definitely took at hit.
The following year, 2005, Georgia and Harvard were the only teams at Easterns to qualify for Nationals, and in 2006, there was only Harvard and Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, virtually all of the Nationals Quarterfinalists were at Centex. 2007 saw a bit of a resurgence with the return of Wisconsin (that year’s eventual Nationals winner), but in 2008, Easterns attracted only two teams from outside of the Atlantic Coast Region (perennial attendee Queens-Kingston and Ohio) and had zero Nationals teams in the field.
In 2009, tournament director Greg Vassar was determined to see Easterns regain its former prominence. Offering a free bid to national powerhouse Georgia so that he could use them as a headliner, Vassar hustled to hype the tournament on RSD (a tactic emplyed by Gerics in the early part of the decade) and at early season events, which paid off when Virginia, Williams, and Middlebury agreed to attend.
In 2010, Vassar built on 2009’s progress and brought in Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, Cornell, Georgia, Kansas, and Virginia, all teams that were at Nationals the year before. The tournament Finals saw Wisconsin defeat eventual National Semifinalist Pittsburgh, keeping the Easterns trophy in Madison because the Hodags did not return it after their 2007 victory.
In speaking about the ups and downs that Easterns has faced, Vassar noted how important it is to remain consistent despite college ultimate’s constantly changing landscape. He also noted the importance of running tournaments through schools rather than at independent sites because support systems are typically much stronger. “Going back into the early 1990s, UNC-W has always put on a great tournament because our club sports department provides such a great infrastructure and fields policy.”