Most of the teams that you will find in Boulder, from top to bottom, are successful programs that are making repeat trips to Nationals. Out of the entire field, there are two teams making their first trip to Nationals. Most of those first time teams are relying on new found success, large senior classes to break through. While that is quite the accomplishment, it is much more difficult to build a program that will have repeat success. It involves the breeding of leaders, recruitment of new talent, and some form of stability from an outside source. With their second trip to Nationals, Virginia Night Train may be the newest elite college program. Robert Runner, former UVA captain, was gracious enough to share their story with me.
In 2006, UVA qualified for the Altantic Coast Regional but found little success. After losing 2 games, Night Train was out of contention and decided to spend the rest of the weekend watching others play. You might have expected UVA to continue steady growth, but that is not always the case with rising teams. However, in 2007 they failed to even qualify for regionals. Runner, “That was a low point in my opinion, we had several injuries during the year and was a tough way to end that season. We realized the next year was going to be pivotal in our development as a program” Often times, it’s at the low points that changes can be made that will effect the team for a long time to come.
Hunger, the want to get better, the will to succeed, are all important drivers for a team to grow and become great. The problem often is transitioning from a squad of pretty good players who want to rely on talent to have fun and win some games, to a team full of people willing to improve themselves everyday. On the field, it is possible to put the team on your back and win games. Off the field, you have to change the culture.
Runner, “2008 was a building year but it laid the foundations we needed for a successful program. We approached the season with more discipline than we had in the past, expecting people at every practice, holding people accountable, more off the field training. But the biggest difference that year was the sense of camaraderie we had off the field that made coming to practice and going to tournaments fun. We had a house where several guys lived that became a great place for social gatherings. Whenever we got together, it felt like all we could talk about was Ultimate, how to get better, what other teams were doing, good drills to run at practice… We stated our main goals at the end of the fall after the final A team had been set as winning the section in 2008 and making Sunday at Regionals. Everyone knew what we were working towards as we were running more track workouts at practice and doing more drills to better our individual skills rather than succumbing to the group mentality of “when are we going to scrimmage”.
The “when are we going to scrimmage” attitude is very prevalent among mid-level programs. It shows that a club is focused more on simply enjoying playing the sport, rather than individually getting better. This is not to say that scrimmaging doesn’t have a time and place, but that in itself does not reinforce or teach the fundamentals of the games. When a program is young, it is vital to start out with a foundation of skills that individuals work on improving. Marking, throwing form, pivoting, dump cuts, cutting in general are all learned better from specific drills that teach the individuals how to play. Scrimmaging creates chemistry, but that which is built on a bad foundation is doomed to fail from the start.
“Huge success to our game was structuring practice. That way people knew what to expect rather than just coming there and us winging it on the spot. We warmed up, stretched did plyos, accelerators then played 4v4 on mini fields (this was a huge part of our quickness and short game success in 2009) and then did drills for individual skills, conditioning, then strategy and scrimmage. Greg and I stuck with this plan for most of the year and the consistency I think helped make us better”
Rather than reinvent the wheel, it is important to find sources of experience. Ultimate may be a new sport, but there are a lot of things that are nearly guaranteed to improve the team. It is important to be a team full of people with large Ultimate IQs, to have many who have the experience. Easiest way to do this for most College teams? Get as many people as you can to play club. It also doesn’t hurt to find some studs to advise you.
Runner, “The year before people had been playing at the Club level (summer 2007). A few of us played with the mixed team Axis of C’ville and that was the first year they made Nationals before they won it in 2009. Being able to draw on that experience of competing at an elite level was critical. Several other guys played for open teams in the Richmond and DC area that helped improve skills much more the summer league ever could…We never had a specific coach but we did learn from several key Club players in the area and abroad (Ollie Platts-Mills, Kevin Kusy, Chase S-B, Mitch Psotka)”
With club experience and several mentors to shape the program, UVA began its rise. “In 2008 we won the section beating William and Mary and headed into regionals with some confidence. That year we played Florida well even though we eventually lost 15-9. We made Sunday at Regionals too. and even though we lost NC State on Sunday, it was huge for us just to get there and attain our goal.” It’s important to meet intermediate goals, because lack of success can undermine leadership and cause teams to veer off the right path. Lucikly, UVA had no set backs, but rather a promising outlook for 2009 and a close knit team.
Runner, “We only lost a handful of players from the past year and knew we had something going. While I and Greg E. were captains, We had around 8-10 seniors that were a true leadership group on the team. It was great to have that guidance to get everyone on the same page. Early in the fall we got together in the Navy ROTC lounge room (Greg was ROTC) with around 8-10 guys and laid out our goals and plans for the season. Builidng on the previous year we wanted to win the section, and go to Nationals. Winning the region would be nice but with UGA, NC State, Florida, UNC-W etc would make it tough to get out of the AC Region. We had a Frisbee house that was the central point of social activities, team meetings, goofing around, that built a social fraternity atmosphere around our team. Having this off the field closeness made us even better on the field. Because it wasnt just the guy you saw a few hours a week who was telling you to run harder it was the guy you saw everyday and hung out with and ate with and chilled with.”
Every team has a turning point when they begin to believe in themselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re a team struggling to make regionals, do well at sectionals, whatever your goal is. At some point you will feel it, at least one moment that gives you confidence. For UVA, there were several moments that made them realize that this team was different than the past.
Runner, “One turning point for us was winning Wolfpack in the fall of 08. We had a solid team go and I think that may have been the first tournament win for us outside of sectionals the year in a while. Going to Cookout on the way back tasted so sweet. We knew at that point we had a shot to do big things. Also that fall we did well at CCC and beat Texas and some other Nationals caliber schools that led us to believe we could hang with the big boys for more than just a half. A huge spring turning point was after winter break coming back practicing for a few days in the frigid cold and then heading off to Vegas. It was a last minute change because we were orignally planning on doing Centex. Beating Wisconsin in the first game with multiple big plays capped off by a layout Callahan by Matt King on Jim Foster and the fact that we had Ultivillage record the game. We were just hoping to use the footage to see how we could improve later in the season but having us actually win the game was so tight. Another turning point was beating UGA in quaterfinals at Easterns and then beating UNC-W in Semis at Easterns. The old UVA team would have come out flat against UGA. We had never been able to overcome these teams in the past but we knew we would have to get through them to get to Nationals.”
Leadership is so incredibly crucial in the rise to greatness. Without a steady hand to guide the team in times of trouble, or knowing when to speak to someone a team will often underachieve. With the advantage of a frisbee house, the leadership could interact in a low key manner with teammates. Due to this, each player had well defined roles.
“The best part of having the house and team and meetings there was that everyone knew what was going on so it felt like we were on the same page. Sure, there were differing opinions about what we should do, but the overarching goals for the year were well known by the team. Many of us had tasted the defeat of not making Regionals in 2007 and we knew how hard we had to work to improve our individual and team skills. Leadership wise we developed a good system that worked for us. Greg can be somewhat quiet sometimes but he knows his stuff. Greg, Neeley, and Tyler Conger were mostly O line guys and they were the leadership on that side of the disc. Myself and a few other guys would be involved and help out or come in when we needed to, but they really did a good job of managing the O line. Also it was huge for us to have O line and D line set by the end of the fall so that people could understand their roles on the team and work to improve the team my mastering their role.”
A common mistake for captains is to think that they are the sole leaders on the team. They of course have the final word, but have to remember that it isn’t meant to be a dictatorship. When most teams are lacking coaches, you have to draw on all the experience around you. Like Runner said, the offensive line guys were able to handle some of the leadership duties to allow focus elsewhere.
UVA’s 2009 season ended in Columbus, OH, at Nationals. They stormed through the Atlantic Coast Regional, taking down Florida along their way. They had implemented the right things, grown as a team. Runner, “The biggest change was how we approached practices. By setting the goals early in the season it made it clear what we as a team wanted to do. Yes that rainy day when its chill outside is going to suck to run in, but you did it because you knew your teammate and friend was doing it too and you were both working for a common goal of making nationals. Stating the goal early on was huge for us to get everyone on the same page. It wasn’t just the captains who weren’t as tolerant of lazy on field play or skipping practice. It was the entire team who was encouraging you to get out there and make everyone better.”
2009 Nationals in Columbus was the first one that I watched, and I was lucky enough to run into Ian Toner, current member of Night Train. Zack Smith and I were getting dinner after pool play on Saturday, and got to pick Toner’s brain for how UVA operated. We were looking to improve our team (after an abysmal regional showing), and Toner was nearly incredulous when we asked how they got turnout for practices. “You don’t miss practices. If you have something really important, you just don’t tell the captain, you have to tell the entire team.”
After 2009, UVA was unable to qualify for Nationals. With the senior class gone from the previous run, they were now relying on new blood to continue the work that Runner and company had started in 2006. This transition is the most important thing, because one bad leader can ruin all of the work that was done in the past. Out of all of the things that need to be focused on, recruiting, practice structure, breeding leadership is the most important of all.
Runner, “In terms of how we passed the legacy, Neeley was big in this and it helped that he stuck around for another year to help coach UVA in 2010. Also he is somewhat involved with the team this year too. We could identify some potential leaders in the younger group and this was key to getting them ready to lead others. One way we did this was based on the advice of Chase to create a brain group. This was a group of 5 who were cerebral about what stragetic items we wanted to go into. In 2009 we had 3 seniors a junior and a sophomore involved and it worked out pretty well. Having younger guys involved, even if they aren’t setting practices, it is good because it will let them know how to do it rather than inventing the wheel every year.”
With UVA back at Nationals in 2011, I’d say things worked out.