This article is part of of Skyd’s continuing coverage of Easterns in Wilmington, North Carolina on March 22nd, 23rd, and 24th.
“It’s weird that there’s not one team that comes out of Florida. There’s all these great players and enough that if all the best players in the state played together it’d be a really great team. I can’t really put my finger on exactly what it is.” – Mimmo Alfano, University of Florida alum, Florida State B and C team coach.
Driving from the University of Central Florida in Orlando to the University of Florida in Gainesville requires an 84-mile trek that takes a little under an hour and a half. From UF to Tallahassee, home of Florida State University, it’s another 150 miles and two and a half hours. Want to pay a visit to the ultimate communities in Tampa or Jacksonville? Both are at least an hour off of the route between the three schools.
Florida may land in the middle of the pack on a list of states by area, but for ultimate players, it can feel like one of the biggest in the Union. And given that club ultimate—taking the field with guys who came up in different systems than your own, playing under veterans that have been around far longer than the senior who captains your team, and getting a clean slate to fill a role other than the one your team has come to expect of you—is among the best ways for young players to improve, the space between Florida’s major ultimate hubs is a problem.
The talent pool at Florida’s three top schools is plenty deep: Central Florida made the quarterfinals of Nationals last year and put Mischa Freystaetter and Mike Ogren on the U-23 National Open and Mixed teams, respectively; Florida won national championships in 2010 and 2006 and features 2012 Freshman of the Year Bobby Ley; and Florida State is a veteran-heavy team who is currently sitting on a Top 10 ranking and is threatening to challenge deep into Memorial Day weekend (plus they gave us this). Add in older talent from around the state along with club commuters Alton Gaines (Ring of Fire), Chris Gibson (Doublewide), and Cole Sullivan (Doublewide), and a sustained Florida club team would likely be as strong—and yiend the same type of college farm system—as the nation’s perennial Sarasota quarterfinalists.
Easier said than done, though. “The problem is you’re not trying to get two cities to work together,” says Gaines. “You’re trying to get five. A Gainesville/Orlando combo team, for example, would be good, but not good enough to justify travelling every weekend. That’s a big problem.”
It’s not like Florida hasn’t put out strong club teams: between 1990 and 1998, either Gainesville’s Vicious Cycle or the Miami Refugees were at Club Nationals in every year but ’97, and a combo team called, simply, Florida, was there from 1999 through 2001. Vicious also made it to Sarasota in 2002, ’03, ’05, and ’06. Various Florida mixed teams also have a strong history, with Tallahassee’s Sabre Corp and Jacksonville’s Jacks and Jills most recently making Nationals in 2011. Other Florida teams, most notably University of Florida in 2009 and Vicious Cycle in 2010, have recently challenged to make Nationals. Staying power, however, has been hard to come by.
Animosity between the schools—some genuine and some a healthy product of rivalry—is another barrier to a single club team. “It’s every city’s fault,” says UCF coach and alum Andrew Roca. “We loved to hate each other and it carried on through club. We wanted to stay in our cities and grow as individuals. We didn’t want to expand our playing and thinking to accommodate other payers from different cities. It dumbed down our state immensely.”
Alfano says that this is nothing new. “This is second hand, but I’ve heard that when Team Florida went to Nationals there was a Miami team that played zone and then a line of UF guys that went out and played man.”
“Everybody builds a rivalry against teams in other cities,” he adds. “You learn the game, at least in my own case, from the club guys that are still in town and stuff. The guys that are veterans when you start college, if they say stuff like ‘I hate playing Tampa,’ that’s going to translate to the young players. Combo teams, when they happen, the rivalries don’t go away.”
Gaines, however, says that the idea of bad blood is overblown, saying instead that the second barrier to forming a top team is Florida’s transcient nature. “At UF, our big-name talent like Tim Gehret, Kurt Gibson, and Brodie Smith leaves Gainesville once they graduate. It’s mostly a college town so for the most part you’ve got to move somewhere else if you want a job. There’s no job market in Gainesville.”
“I think the rivalries are overplayed,” he says. “UCF and Florida, we really would get into it on the field. But given opportunity to be on the same field, we’d be excited about it.”
There are also reasons for teams to stick to themselves aside from dislike. “I think it’s that college guys have a lot of desire for their college teams and they put that ahead of any club hopes,” says Alfano.
Echoing Alfano, Florida State coach Peter van de Burgt says that Tallahassee’s insulated scene is in part to thank for DUF’s recent success. “Sabre Corp was formed as a means for improving DUF,” he says. “We were tired of failed attempts at playing on club teams with Orlando and Tampa folks.”
Florida United, formed last year and drew talent from all over the state (including Freystaetter, Ley, and Roca), is a promising new beginning for the state. United finished fourth at Southeast Regionals and seventh at the Ultimate Invite Championships and successfully drew talent from all over Florida while practicing in Tampa.
“Florida United did a really good thing in having guys from Orlando, Tampa, Gainesville who were major presences on the team that brought everybody in,” says Alfano.
“Last year was cool as an observer seeing Florida United thing,” adds Gaines. “It’s good to see Tampa and Orlando move in the right direction of developing an established club team in Florida.”
Florida State, the two-seed in Pool C, enters Easterns as the top Floridian team. Florida is the two-seed in Pool A and Central Florida is the three-seed in Pool B. All three will add to the Florida story this weekend, and at Florida Conferences and Southeast Regionals in April.