Leading the UNC Pleiades to 13th place finish at the 2010 College Nationals, Leila Tunnell is already an accomplished college and club player. After finishing in the top 5 for the Callahan award last year, in 2011 she has the Pleiades’ sights set on a championship in Boulder. We caught up with Leila to talk to her about her college season, roots, and what its like to have a World Champion brother.
Skyd: When and how did you get involved with Ultimate?
Leila Tunnell: My brother introduced me to the sport of Ultimate when I was in the fifth grade. That was the year that he started playing ultimate under Michael Baccarini at the Paideia School in Atlanta, GA. He and I would go throw around in our front yard all the time, and that summer I started going to the Paideia Youth Ultimate Camp.
Did you play any sports in high school?
I played basketball and soccer throughout my childhood and I played varsity basketball my freshman and sophomore year in high school, but quit the summer after my sophomore year so that I could play club Ultimate with Ozone in Atlanta.
What makes playing for Pleiades different than playing with any other team?
My experience playing for Pleiades has been very unique because, more so than on any other team I’ve played for. Everyone on Pleiades loves each other so much. The social dynamic on the team is truly really special and I think that is a big factor in the success that we have had. Everyone is so willing to work hard for one another and always tries to keep the best interest of the team in mind.
Who do you look up to in the Ultimate world?
There are many people who have positively impacted my ultimate career, including Michael Baccarini ( Paideia High School coach) and Tina Booth (Amherst High School coach and Director of the National Ultimate Training Camp), but I think that my two biggest role models are my UNC coach and Phoenix co-captain Lindsey Hack, and my brother, Dylan Tunnell. Since arriving in North Carolina, Lindsey has taught me so much about the game and about how to be a leader. She has worked tirelessly to improve the direction of women’s and youth Ultimate in the state and the country and she has made me not only a better player, but a better teammate and person. Dylan has always been the person who I look up to the most in ultimate and in life. He exposed me to Ultimate and since has constantly encouraged me to be the best player I can be. He is not only a fantastic player and athlete, but he has always been my greatest resource as I’ve navigated the club and college scenes, helping me figure out how to get the most out of every season that I play and how to stay positive and motivated.
Describe what type of player you are. What is it that you do best on and off the field?
My main focus throughout my Ultimate career has been on improving the distance and accuracy of my throws. Through high school and college, it has been my primary strength and I have spent hours and hours and hours throwing outside of practices and games working on my hucks and my throwing form. Recently however, I have been working hard to improve my athleticism and conditioning in order to be dangerous both as an active thrower, downfield, and in one-on-one defensive matchups. Because I have been playing and coaching for so long, I can help teammates hone their skills, and largely as a result of my experience playing ultimate at Paideia high school and working at the National Ultimate Training Camp in Amherst, MA, I also have a huge commitment to spirit of the game and sportsmanship and I think one of my strengths on and off the field is pushing myself and my teammates to always be the best competitors possible.
What are your goals for the season? What are Pleiades goals this season?
This season has been so rewarding and exciting and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to compete at Nationals this year. I think that UNC Pleiades is stronger than we have ever been as a program with almost half of our team competing in the club series this past fall and 4 attending Club Nationals. I came into this season wanting to win nationals. That was my goal. We have had some really exciting wins over some great teams this season and I think that we could do very well at Nationals. However, after a lot of reflection, I have come to realize that no matter what happens in the series, my biggest goal is to fully appreciate the opportunity to play one more year with this incredible team. I want us to work as hard as we can and really enjoy each other and the program we have created, and if we do that, I think we will be very successful.
Tell us about your season. The highs and lows?
This has been a great season for Pleiades with many more highs than lows. A few of the highlights included our performance at Presidents Day where we had some really big wins over some of the top-ranked teams in the country, our DGP victory over Oregon at Centex and our sectionals victory over UNCW. We have had a few disappointing losses including UNCW in the finals of regionals, but our focus all season has been to learn from every game we play, win or lose, and to grow and improve as a team from each experience.
What does the Callahan award mean to you?
I think the Callahan award is a great tradition because it historically honors players that are not only very skilled and good athletes, but players who have demonstrated a commitment to sportsmanship and to the positive development of our sport. I think it is a great testament to the caliber of ultimate that the highest honor someone in our college community can receive is recognition for their spirit and their dedication to their team and sport rather than recognition for their talent alone.
Who is the most dangerous team in the Nation?
In my opinion, the most dangerous team in the nation is UNCW. Granted, they are our biggest sectional and regional competition so we see them frequently, but they are an incredibly talented and explosive team. After their 5th place finish at Nationals last year, they are hungrier than ever and incredibly motivated. They are scrappy, aggressive and athletic and with their finals appearance at Centex, they have clearly shown that they can compete at the highest level. They have an inextinguishable drive to win and all the tools to be an incredibly successful team.
Tell us about Regionals. How did the Pleiades ?
We had an interesting Regionals this year. We were really looking forward to playing UVA Hydra, a great team with exceptional spirit, and to get another matchup against UNCW. We played really well all weekend with some exceptional performances from our rookies Shellie Cohen, Lisa Couper and Kendal Beadelson and it looked like we would have another good matchup in the finals against Seaweed We started the game well with two back-to-back breaks, but then had a series of significant mental lapses that resulted in a very disappointing loss. UNCW played very well and we really struggled to recover from our little mistakes and they ran away with the game. This loss will only be fuel for the fire, though, and I know that we are all really looking forward to the opportunity to prove ourselves come Memorial Day weekend.
Do you have any club experience? If so, with whom?
I have been playing club since 2004. First with Ozone in Atlanta, then with Brutesquad in Boston, then with Backhoe when I first came to North Carolina. This past club season, however, Lindsey Hack, Cate Foster and I started and captained the team Phoenix; a new NC women’s team. We really wanted to emphasize respect and positivity in our new program and we had a really great season playing together and finished 8th at Nationals – a great accomplishment for a first-year program. This past season with Phoenix was the most a club season has felt like college ultimate to me. We all became really good friends and were more concerned with enjoying playing with each other than winning, and it reaped really fantastic rewards.
Most Memorable Game?
There have been lots of great games this season, but I think the game that sticks out in my mind where all of our team was on the same page and really clicking was our game against Santa Barbara at Pres Day early this year. I think it was during that game that our entire team realized just how much potential we had and became committed to reaching that potential to the best of our ability.
Nike Mercurial vapors.
If you had to nominate someone on another team for the Callahan award, who would you pick?
There are a lot of really talented players that are deserving of the Callahan award this year. Robyn Fennig from Iowa, Sara Casey from UNCW and Julia Sherwood from Oregon are all players that exhibit really exemplary sportsmanship and who are outstanding players on their respective teams. All of these women are deserving of recognition from the Ultimate community.
Any shout outs?
I’d like to give two shout-outs: one to Michelle Ng for all of the incredibly hard work she has done for college ultimate this year and the support she has shown me and Pleiades this season. Thank you so much, Michelle, for doing so much for our sport! I also want to thank all of Pleiades for the three most wonderful years of my life and my Ultimate career. It has been such a highlight.