20 Days of Nationals and the 2012 College Tour are presented by Spin Ultimate
For most ultimate players, the season ends at Regionals. There’s talk of Nationals early in the year, but by the time April rolls around, the seniors are more committed to bars than they are practice, the star freshman has plunged into frat life, and everyone is swamped with finals, papers, and portfolios. You might go farther than last year or get a big win over a Conference rival, but finishing atop the pile would require the guy who can’t catch to suddenly have sticky hands, the turnover machine of a handler to spend the weekend in a moment of Zen, and the entire team to play “our game” all at the same time. It’s all an impossible dream.
But for Minnesota-Duluth Northern Lights, it became a reality when they beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee 13-10 to take fifth place at last weekend’s North Central Regionals, earning the region’s final bid to the College Championships.
“It’s still hitting me in waves,” said Duluth captain Jay Drescher. “To be honest I didn’t think we had a great shot at making it. But we played our cards perfectly, Mikwaukee upset Iowa on universe point, and with Milwaukee tired, our fresher legs pulled away in the second half.”
In a five-bid region, Drescher and his fellow captains knew that there would be plenty of chances to fight on. Just four wins would get them into Nationals, so in both pool play against Wisconsin and in the second place bracket against Iowa, Northern Lights started at full strength but rested its starters when nothing got going in the second half. “We knew that we just needed one key win,” he said. “Our goal was to play for the fifth place game and put forth full force against a demoralized and tired team.”
Though Milwaukee broke upwind to start the game, Duluth’s plan got back on track when Northern Lights took the first half 8-6 and broke three time in a row to start the second. “We let off a few breaks before the game ended, but felt very confident with a five-point lead as soft cap went on,” said Drescher.
To be clear, this was not supposed to happen. Duluth was the seven seed overall and the third seed in its pool. It went 1-2 in pool play. Had an eleventh-hour bid to Regionals not come through because a few Division III teams declined theirs, Northern Lights’ season would have ended when they finished third at Northwood Conferences!* And until 2011 national semifinalist Iowa went down to Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the fifth-place semifinal, Duluth was still a long shot in just about everybody’s book. Before last weekend, the closest that the team had ever come to getting out of the region was a 2009 11-10 loss to Minnesota in the second place bracket (Minnesota went on to lose 11-10 to Luther, who was making its first run to Nationals and featured a freshman named Eric Johnson). But here’s Minnesota-Duluth, tickets punched to Boulder.
Northern Lights will be a bit different from other teams once they get there, and not just because of the crazy jerseys. For one, the team doesn’t make cuts because it can’t afford to. “We have to take everybody because you don’t know who is going to progress and be a good player,” said Drescher. “I’ve seen guys that seem worthless come up through the ranks and start on the O line.” As a result, Duluth avoids top tier tournaments like Centex and Easterns because “we’d have to play our top guys at the expense of development.” Also, Duluth’s lack of high school recruits and a roster comprised of all but one Minnesota native make it difficult to gain outside influence. “We rely solely on veterans to pass down their experience to new players.”
So while opponents at Nationals rely on dedicated coaches and players that have been throwing since middle school, Duluth will take pride in what it has achieved through years of internal development. “This is the accomplishment of an entire program, not just one season,” said Drescher. “When we qualified, the first people I found and hugged were alumni.”
Though many expected Iowa to round out the North Central Region’s five Nationals teams (the other four are Carleton, Luther, Wisconsin, and Minnesota), Duluth’s success is a testament to the North Central’s deep strength. “We are the fastest growing and most competitive region,” said Drescher. “We can compete, and I know we’re going to notch some wins.”
To prepare for Nationals, Duluth will move this and next week’s practices closer to most of its players’ homes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. At school, the team practiced two or three times per week depending on field slots that the administration assigned on a weekly basis. Most Northern Lights players are also flying to Boulder early to acclimate to the high elevation, a move that Drescher pushed for because of his experience at Colorado Cup while playing for Sub Zero in 2009.
It’s tough to know exactly how Duluth will perform at Nationals. But in reflecting on Regionals, Drescher noted a similar uncertainty. “I could see the path all the way to the backdoor game,” he said. “And then it ended.” While many share the dream of turning it on at the right time and making it out of Regionals alive, few stop to consider what comes next. But as the Northern Lights Twitter account reads, one thing is certain: “It’ll be hard to play a team with nowhere to go but up.”
*Drescher noted that the team would have earned another bid for the Northwoods Conference had it submitted an official USA Ultimate roster for Southerns. “None of our captains knew that we needed an original roster for each sanctioned tournament. It would have been a rough year if we had been done at Conferences due to captain error, but we found out before we played Minnesota [for second place] that we were going to Regionals.”
USA Ultimate Membership and Sport Development Manager Anna Schott provided the following: “Teams are required to start their rosters in the online system by Monday so that they get the email that I send to all teams through the rostering system on Tuesday morning (that email has a reminder that the final roster is due at 5pm). If any teams do not have their roster started by Monday, the tournament organizer is required to provide me with an email contact for that team so that I can send the email to them directly. The tournament organizer has access to the online rostering system for their event so at any time they can see which teams have a roster in and which teams do not.”
Feature photo by Alyssa Graham