North Carolina has a rich ultimate history that is very often overlooked. The state has had several college championship teams (four open winners from three different universities in the 1990s, including a streak of three consecutive winners from the state), a club team with an incredible history and streak of Nationals appearances in Ring of Fire, and an underrated core of women’s teams, most notably Backhoe and Phoenix.
These days, the state of North Carolina is a resurging ultimate force, and there is no better example than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Its men’s team, Darkside, has been on the rise in the radars and rankings of the ultimate world, winning this year’s Stanford Invite and sitting at #2 on the final USAU rankings. Darkside is coached by Mike DeNardis, a native of the Midwest, now living on the East Coast and making his presence felt in the area.
DeNardis, like most ultimate coaches, works a full-time job in addition to helping out with his teams. He spends his time and his passion because he believes ultimate to be the world’s dynamic sport. Learning more about him provides an insight into what it means to be a successful college and club coach in the game today.
“I started [ultimate] the summer before my freshman year at the University of Iowa,” DeNardis says. “ I took a summer session at Iowa on the pretense that I would be walking on the wrestling team in the fall. One of the guys on my dorm floor played, so on my off days, I cross trained with ultimate. As the dream of wrestling quickly withered away, I found a competitive outlet that was unlike any sport in which I had participated.”
DeNardis was a key member of IHUC during his college years and continued to play after graduation: “Post-college, some of my Iowa teammates and other local Chicago players started a team called the Stonecutters,” DeNardis explains. “After a few years of smacking our heads into the wall called Machine, a few of us thought it was best for our sanity to be assimilated.”
DeNardis played for Machine for a few years, also getting his feet wet coaching Northwestern around that time, until a job opportunity took him out to Chapel Hill. There, he played for Los- a Mid-Atlantic contender- for several years and eventually would play with Boneyard in the Master’s arena. “Unfortunately, my last competitive game was a finals loss to those tyrants on Surly, damn their tasty beer. I can’t say if I will play again, but for now, I am focused on coaching.”
DeNardis fits the mold of the college ultimate coach in some ways and breaks it in others. He has a playing resume that no one can sneer, yet he has received the most recognition from his leadership roles. DeNardis takes the game and his analysis of it very seriously, and can very accurately be described as both a fan and an avid student of strategy. Similar to other coaches popping up in the college world, DeNardis is able to provide a clear focus and structure to his team, but he also brings in his experience from the midwest, as well as ideas that are new to the area.
So often, these college coaches are key to a program’s success. Ultimate is becoming more and more competitive, and it is rare to find a top program these days without a coach.
College players have traditionally had to invest a great deal of energy into building the team themselves, and that is one of the aspects that makes the sport so unique and valued; in order to be elite, players often need to create their own practice plans, workout regimes, and strategies, not to mention organizing, coordinating, and funding the squad. Adding a coach to the equation can change a lot; it can take pressure off of the players in some aspects, give them extremely important guidance in other areas, and also provide a continuous, unifying presence that helps build a program.
College offers players only a few years to shine, and many of these years – for programs without coaches – are spent in building, rebuilding, or defining a team. With a coach or coaching staff, a system can be put into place, growth can be streamlined, and success can be far more easily achieved with a lot less difficulty.
And yet, coaches – who can be so integral to preeminent success for programs, who can push teams over the top of the barrier into nationals contenders – names like Lou Burruss, Nick Kaczmarek, and Andrew Roca come to mind – are often volunteers, people who are not paid, who do not play, and who spend hours and hours of their time and effort to succeed. It is yet another amazing aspect of ultimate, and it is helping the sport grow and become even better.
DeNardis loves ultimate. “It’s pretty simple for me,” he says. “I think it’s the world’s most dynamic sport. For the last thirty plus years, the strategic layout of the game has been in constant flux. Think about most other sports, the major evolutions are from rule changes i.e. the forward pass, the three point line, the shot clock. You can argue that choices have changed based on analytics, but the overall structures have had little movement. The rules can certainly change, possibly better, ultimate, but the main reason my infatuation with the sport grows to this day is that we are just scratching the surface on the tactical/ability front. And, this has much to do with the fact that the sport is played with a disc and not a ball.”
DeNardis has been the difference maker for Darkside in the last few years. The team has had an overall successful history since its founding, but in 2014 UNC is in the National Finals conversation.
The challenges have been difficult over the years, and there have been highs and lows in this season, but DeNardis certainly gives the talented team a guide to navigate the treacherous hazards.
“When I moved to North Carolina and started coaching Darkside,” DeNardis says. “I had a toolbox of strategy and large scale plan, but the team had just experienced major roster turnover, losing a ton of veteran leadership. This lead to much of my time being preoccupied trying to teach fundamentals and simple strategy. Basically, I was trying to rebuild the knowledge base, so the team could eventually run itself at a high level again. It was a difficult time and we often struggled with results, but I’m really proud of the work those teams put in. The players that were rookies or younger vets back then, turned into the great role models and students of the game we have today.”
DeNardis, however, will downplay his role and focus on the team’s culture. “I really stress that a team should run itself,” he explains. “ I shouldn’t have to ever question our work ethic, it should be inherent in the culture. Every player is not only held to a high standard physically, but they are all required to put in the mental work. Nothing makes me happier than when one of our players throws out ways to make our team more efficient. I will always be there for support and tactics, but I want them to be at full go when I’m not around and that’s a hard balance if you are the focus all of the time.”
“This culture has fed our success in recent years,” he says. “The players demand the best out of each other and, only when we committed to this idea, have we reached the highest levels. It truly is remarkable how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time, but if you look at that last couple of years, it was more of a natural progression. The first year we returned to nationals, we could not compete against the top teams and learned to win against mid-level national teams. Last year, we won a good deal and lost a lot of close games against top competition. I think we had three losses in a major on universe. This year, we won our first major in nearly a decade, and have gutted out almost every close game against top competition we’ve had this season. Once again, I credit our culture for this progress.”
DeNardis admits the time commitment has grown more difficult. “As far as balancing “real life,” it’s gotten a bit more complicated as of late because I recently became a father. It’s been an amazing ride, but time has become short and you have to cut out things that don’t matter in the grand scheme. For example, I’ve watched literally twenty minutes of television this week.” But, he says it is all worth it for the team and for ultimate. “I believe in and support the future of the sport.”
Mike DeNardis and other coaches like him are a positive influence on the teams and programs they lead. DeNardis will continue to bring his time, talent, energy, and passion to taking the helm for Ring of Fire this summer, as he steps into head coach. Many eyes will eagerly be on his leadership, and many will continue to wonder “how important is a coach to a team’s success”? Can DeNardis help push Ring of Fire, with their sixteen straight Nationals appearances, into the Championship game?
“It’s interesting to think about what this means for the future,” DeNardis says. “In ten or so years, we’ve gone from almost no club and college teams having coaches to coaches on every level. How does that change the game?”
One thing is for sure: DeNardis is a coach to watch this season and his team will be in the hunt come May.