USA Ultimate’s College Series laying groundwork for a big comeback post-COVID

·Special to Yahoo Sports
·5-min read

STEVINSON, Calif. When Carleton College first-year player Alyssa Ehrhardt linked up with senior Anika Thomas-Toth in the endzone to take down Tufts Ewo in the women’s final of the 2020 Stanford Invite, nobody knew this was going to be the last meaningful ultimate frisbee throw that would happen on U.S. soil for almost a year and a half. The star-studded team from the small college in Minnesota dispatched Tufts for the second time that weekend, winning the final 13-10.

The mid-March tournament hosted in dusty Stevinson, California, always gives a glimpse into the title contenders heading into the postseason. The Stanford Invite is one of the last stops for college teams to feel out who’s going to head into the college championships with momentum come May.

Teams were acutely aware of COVID-19 as they left the fields on the afternoon of March, 8th, 2020. Aside from the excessive amounts of hand sanitizer, it was an ultimate tournament like any other. The weekend in the valley had been an escape from headlines, even as outbreaks were beginning to crop up in places like Seattle. Players boarded their flights that night and some passengers were wiping down their tray tables with Clorox wipes, others smothering their faces in their sweatshirts and light jackets. Less than a week later, the entire country would shut down.

Like the rest of the world, college ultimate frisbee competition came to a screeching halt. The regular season, which runs from January to the end of March, was cut short, and soon enough, post-season events (sectionals, regionals, and nationals) were all canceled too.

Now, some 14 months later, USA Ultimate, the sport’s governing body, has definitively announced that the college series will return this fall. October sectionals will make way for November regionals, and December nationals outside of Los Angeles. They ambitiously plan to let players that graduated in both 2020 and 2021 play, as long as their respective colleges allow them to.

Tom Manewitz, the leader of USAU’s college division, says it’s vital for teams to have the option of bringing graduated players back onto their rosters for the modified series. He said senior players who have held leadership positions are necessary for ensuring the longevity of mid-sized and smaller college teams.

“There’s a lot of teams that without a fall series are going to go away,” Manewitz said. “If they don’t have the motivation to continue to exist in the fall, we’re going to lose teams in the spring.”

USAU is also planning on holding a traditional series in the spring of 2022, giving teams options about how they plan out their year-long campaigns. Try to go as far in the nation as possible both seasons, or just use the fall as a chance to teach the sport, and focus more on integration of new talent, rather than competitiveness and winning.

Some colleges didn’t have the option of practicing at any point during the 2020-21 academic year, let alone traveling and competing, which makes player retention extremely difficult.

An artsy farts from ultimate frisbee action at Flemingdon Park. 14/05/03 (Photo by Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
USA Ultimate, the sport’s governing body, has definitively announced that the college series will return this fall. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

“If they can get people to go to a tournament and show everyone what the best part of ultimate is, which is traveling with your team and playing in a tournament, that’s when you get most people to stay,” Manewitz said.

But the major issue isn’t just playing in the fall, it’s convincing colleges with strict insurance and rostering policies to allow students that aren’t enrolled to compete under the banner of the school. Manewitz is optimistic about this.

“Any [college] I’ve talked to directly with the exception of one, and that school I haven’t talked to since last spring, there is some form of allowing it,” Manewitz said.

He added that with many colleges requiring vaccines for the fall, it adds a level of player safety to an event like this.

Keith Raynor, the head coach of UConn’s women’s ultimate team, is similarly optimistic. For his squad, the fall is just going to be a chance to get some experience for what’s going to likely be a fairly green roster.

“I think for us, we’re going to be looking at this as an opportunity to play, and that’s first and foremost because we want to bring new people into the culture,” Raynor said.

Raynor hasn’t met with his team in any in-person capacity for over a year now due to UConn’s COVID-19 policies. Not only has this hurt player development, but it’s also impacted team communication, something that’s vital to any team planning to have a successful fall run. He thinks that the powerhouse college teams will have a major advantage over developing ones.

“If you’re at a program that has a lot of institutional knowledge, where you have 20 players that have played, you have captains that have already been in a leadership position before, it’s going to smooth the whole process out for you,” Raynor said.

There’s still a number of variables that make a fall series different, though. Travel, time of year, players having moved onto careers and deciding not to come back and play, an evolving COVID situation nationwide, and teams choosing to take the fall more casually all are going to impact who’s crowned as the Division I & III college champions in December. Raynor expects to see the usual suspects on the podium.

“All that stuff can come up and add a little bit of variance, but when the dust settles, I think we’re going to see the power programs way in front of everyone else,” he said.

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