This interview and the 2012 College Tour are presented by Spin Ultimate.
I interviewed the team that has topped the Skyd Power Rankings all season long to get a feel for how the Chicks Hucking Discs were looking going into the D3 National Championships in Appleton, WI.
Robyn Fennig: What have the Chicks Hucking Discs been focusing on throughout the season?
Erika Wagner: We have been focusing a lot on our team unity and flow. As always, our zone defense is our favorite so a lot of this season has been bringing our offense up to speed with our defense. Consistent, communicative ultimate wins games so we do our best to keep everyone on the same level and the majority of our practices involve honing individual skills and then applying that to working together.
Robyn: Your team has returned a lot of players from last season. How did qualifying for nationals last year lay the building blocks for this year’s run?
Erica: Our run last year was actually a little unexpected from the returning members last year. We had mostly freshmen and so it was exciting to see everyone come together at D-III nationals and apply all that they had learned in one short year. However, last year there were some points lost just from having such a young team that was largely still in the fledgling stages in a lot of ways. This year, we look forward to building from that excellent foundation now that our team not only has the natural talent from last year but also the experience of a few semesters under everyone’s belt to work with. I think everyone on our team is a valuable asset and a force to be reckoned with, and when we bring that all together great things happen! Unfortunately, one difference from last year is that our seniors have graduation on Sunday and will not be present to play in the championships. It’s a little bit concerning because that is a great deal of talent (not to mention subs) that we’ll be lacking, but I have confidence that the rest of the team will be able to pick up the slack and step up into some of those important roles.
Robyn: The CHD have been dominating all season long, and competing with teams near the top of the Division 1 circuit, especially in the Midwest. Has this added anything to the atmosphere/drive of your team?
Erika: Competing against DI teams is a huge benefit to our team’s growth. While it doesn’t always mean that we perform our best, it gives is great insight to our strengths and weaknesses and helps us to focus our practices from what we recognize in those tough games. I would love nothing more than to compete in grand tournaments like Centex or President’s Day, but Midwest Throwdown and Chicago Invite were huge learning experiences if nothing else. We played against a lot of good teams and won some important game and lost some even more important games, but that kind of competition can only make you better.
Robyn: What have your goals been all season?
Erika: We had a goal to work on man defense….that’s our goal every year. We didn’t quite get to the level I would have liked but we’re always getting better at it. We also considered going DI for a while after the region was only given one bid to nationals it probably ended up being a good decision to keep the DIII route. Less measurable goals like flow and team unity and versatility on the field were met though!
Robyn: Who has really stepped up this season for your team to become a big part of your success on O and on D?
Erika: It’s tough to choose a few people out of so many, but I think Rachel Okerstrom and Ellen Guisfredi have been very intimidating both on offense and defense as cutters and members of the cup. I also think Abby Matter improved dramatically taking on new roles of handling and deep deep this year after being a cutter and a rail before. She now can play pretty much any position on the field. And we’ll definitely be missing some important people on Sunday at D-III natties from graduation: Dannie Dolan, Ariel Jamison, Sarah “Fetch” Peters and Mandi “Diesel” Lazzaro.
Robyn: What was your favorite tournament of the season? Why?
Erika: Personally my favorite tournament was Chicago Invite. We lost a couple of tough games that were really heart-wrenching, but overall the team performed very well and we were able to keep our focus more than anything else. Valpo has always struggled with focus and keeping a consistent level of competition no matter who we are playing or how the game is going, so it was great to see everyone come together and work really hard to earn our spot in the top three. It was a very well run tournament, a great experience, and still leaves room for improvement next year!
Robyn: What is something that no one would know about your team unless they were part of it.
Erika: Our team is super goofy. We do all of these crazy things and have these excellent team sayings and traditions. One tradition is called cake party and has been going for 6 years strong now: every Thursday night of the school year, the team gets together and bakes a cake. The rules are, somebody has to tell a story (if it’s your first time at cake party you HAVE to tell the story) and it can be about anything, true or not, but it has to end with “and then they ate cake” which is the cue for everyone to dig in straight out of the pan. We also have team events like frisbee formal and Discmas for the holidays, so we have a lot of fun together. Some favorite team sayings, aside from “and then they ate cake” are “EAT FIRST, THEN SHOWER” (our team motto) or “teams that touch more, WIN MORE!” (if you know what I mean). We like to have a good time.
Robyn: Your offense has improved tremendously against man-to-man defensive sets throughout the season. How was your team able to do so, especially in an area known for ridiculous wind?
Erika: I truly believe that in women’s ultimate the teams who do well are the teams with a team with consistent fundamental knowledge. We do better and improve over the season because as we play different teams and have to compete with different strategies, we learn as a group and then emphasize what we learn in our practices. That way, our team is able to adapt quickly and efficiently no matter what we are faced with. This worked very well with offensive sets because if you understand why the cuts are being made the way they are, then you can adapt the same ideas for any situation. We use that same strenght of adaptation for defense which is where team unity and communication come in to play: if we can change a major part of our offense and defense after talking for 30 seconds and everyone understands what is being changed and why, it is a tremendous advantage over teams who are too set in their ways.
Also, as for the wind….there’s a reason they call it “Val-pour-rain-snow” around here. Practicing in lake effect midwestern weather is like a healthy dose of good competition in and of itself, except that the opponent is the elements! If you can play ultimate in Northwestern Indiana, you can play ultimate anywhere (and in any weather). Hopefully that answers your question haha =]
Robyn: What was your hardest game at the Great Lakes Conference Championships?
Erika: Unfortunately, we only got to play two games at conferences because the Great Lakes has so few teams. This actually ended up being a huge disadvantage to us because we haven’t had any really competitive ultimate since Chicago Invite which was now over a month ago, not to mention our RRI score actually dropped after conferences instead of going up like other DIII teams who had tough conferences. Hopefully in the future the Great Lakes can help promote DIII ultimate at nearby colleges and increase the level of DIII competition in this area, but for now we have to be satisfied with travelling to seek out more competition.
Robyn: How has your team grown all season to qualify for Nationals? What strategies have you been working on (Offense/Defense)?
Erika: Much of the focus lately has been on player versatility. Once we made the final decision that we were going to compete DIII instead of trying for DI, we had to face the fact that Sunday we will be missing a good number of people who occupy certain positions on the team, both for offense and defense. Fortunately, however, in our post-season practices when we have been rotating around a lot to make sure that everyone has had experience all over the field so that we can fill some of the spots from the missing girls, it has become evident that most of our team understands all of the positions pretty well even if they have never played it in a game. I look forward to seeing how our younger players grow from being thrust into field positions that they aren’t necessarily comfortable with. I think they’ll flourish though.
Robyn: What are you most looking forward to at Nationals? Who would you most like to face?
Erika: I really look forward to our games against Grinnell and Carleton-B, should we get a chance to play either of them. We have always had sort of a running rivalry with Grinnell and last year at D-III nationals that was our most intense, highly spirited game. They’re a great group of girls and I remember having competitive games with them even my freshman year, so I always look forward to playing them again. Carleton-B is more of a sore spot: we lost to them in a decently close game last year in the semi-finals. We haven’t had a chance to face them since then but I think it would be an exciting game if nothing else.
Robyn: What will the focus be on until Appleton?
Erika: We will mostly be working on a lot of scrimmaging and continuing our work on versatility, focus, and adapting to the competition.
Feature photo of Sarah Peters laying out for the grab. (Photo by Zach McGovern from the Great Lakes D3 Conference Championships)