After a hot start to 2014, TUFF ended their regular season on a less than ideal note. Already a perennial topic of national discussion, they were one of the earliest to establish themselves as a championship contender with a sweep of Warm Up. Their momentum was stymied out west, however, finishing a pedestrian 10th against stiffer adversaries at Stanford Invite. TUFF then looked to bounce back on their home fields at Centex, where there was potential for a Texas/Colorado clash in the finals. Instead, they fell in the quarterfinal round in rather bizarre fashion to Northern Iowa (not an outlandish upset by any stretch of the imagination, but TUFF essentially beat themselves in that match).
In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor bump on the road that will surely still lead to another College Championships appearance. Texas already more than saved face, concluding Centex and the regular season with wins over Oregon and Wisconsin. The players and the poise are still there to take it all if they heat up again at the right time.
But TUFF’s arsenal runs far deeper than the roster at present state. More than just length, athleticism, experience, and a Callahan hopeful, they have longevity on their side. The quality of ultimate coming from the UT campus is over a decade in the making.
Establishing a Tradition of Excellence
There is a difference between creating an ultimate team, and creating an ultimate program. The program at University of Texas came into being in 2001. At that time, there was a concerted effort by team leadership to place a greater focus on undergrad outreach to insert new blood and depth into Texas Ultimate. That year also saw the creation of a ‘B’ team, now known as Graze. What once was a highly competitive but rather small group in the 80s and early 90s evolved into multiple teams and a larger talent pool, with fundamentals and schemes being taught consistently across the board.
“We try to do get the same ideas in their mind at an early age, so that whenever they do come up they know the system and they can jump in and not miss a beat. We work really hard in the fall on trying to get everybody running the same system, running on the same page so that everybody knows what to do. That way you’re able to trust in what everybody is doing,” stated coach Matthew (Crank) Bierschenk. He’s been with the program since his freshman year of college in 2004.
Graze has grown into quite the complimentary 2nd-tier team. Whereas some B teams out there may be thin in numbers, neglected or even a subject of pity, Graze for quite some time has been beyond just competent. They are well prepared, fundamentally sound and play with absolute confidence. Many of them will eventually get the call up to TUFF, where their fundamentals will be honed to compete at the premier tournaments of the college season.
Just a year after Graze’s inception, TUFF returned to the College Championships for the first time since 1994. Since then, they’ve missed out just twice, in 2004 and 2010. Texas has continued to crank out roster after roster, bringing up generation after generation of top flight players. As the national landscape has changed over time, the Texas brand remains steadfast. Each team has its own unique approach to play and development. But Texas Ultimate is a demonstration of the success that can be gained over a long period of time, when a system and philosophy is in place and maintained. That, coupled with a multi-faceted approach to recruiting mentally tough athletes, has kept TUFF afloat among other storied programs.
Coach Calvin Lin, who began his tenure with Texas in 1996, has witnessed the entire process of building the powerhouse we have come to know.
“I feel like we’ve been really fortunate to have good team culture; guys who are dedicated and want to work hard and I think that goes a long way,” he said.
With nearly twenty years at the helm, Lin has had quite the vantage point to witness the evolution of the game. A team can experience many changes in identity over that span of time. But the program has kept their philosophy and approach to instruction intact. For Lin it’s about being prepared for increasingly rigorous competition.
“It’s not as if we do literally the same thing every year. I think every team has its own challenges and we’re always trying to tweak things to fit our personnel. But I think we just have to be more on our game. There’s just so much depth to the game now. You know, everybody’s better now. But I don’t think it changes anything,” he said.
Added Bierschenk, “For the most part I think philosophy and at practice I really don’t notice a whole lot of difference now as a coach as I did when I was playing ten years ago. It’s largely the same.”
Their style of play is clearly a reflection of that unwavering philosophy. Bierschenk himself acknowledged that TUFF is well known for their vertical stack. But more than just a dedication to a certain on-field scheme, it’s the totality of Texas’ approach to player development that results in the perennial on-field success.
Looking Toward the College Series
I conducted my interview with the staff on the Saturday of Centex – a day prior to that peculiar loss to NIU. At that point in the weekend the staff had already alluded to their squad’s vulnerabilities. The roster is dealing with injuries and, as Bierschenk put it, can “get in their own way.” But there’s no shaken confidence down in Austin. Coach Lin remains confident in their ability to claim the collegiate crown.
“I think our outlook this year is as good as any. If we can get some of our injured guys back I think we have a really, really high ceiling this year. We lost a ton of guys last year but I fee like for some reason we have even better potential this year. New guys have stepped up,” Lin said through a soft chuckle. Safe to say he knows a contender when he sees one.
Come College Series, TUFF will surely be chomping at the bit to return to the field of competition. Although there’s business to take care of at the Conference and Regional rounds, no one doubts they are poised for yet another return to the College Championships. As for their regular season struggles, that sort of experience is only an additional weapon to a team of this nature. You can be rest assured that the Texas brain trust will have their boys ready for another postseason run.