April 29, 2013 by Jesse Moskowitz in Analysis, News with 18 comments
While doing research about the D-III Regional tournaments in preparation for the Ultiworld preview, I scrolled through the Hudson Valley, noting that Wesleyan was going DIII for the first time in a few years. I evaluated a deep South Central region and the hypercompetitive Northwoods conference that features three of the country’s elite DIII teams. I arrived at the page for the Southeast conference, looking forward to checking out the seeding and format of the small, one-Nationals-bid conference. “All teams were migrated to D1 and the D3 Nationals bid was awarded to Georgia College,” it read. Wait, what?
No teams were listed, no fields were posted, and the heading disconcertingly implied that the tournament was no longer being held. Did Georgia College earn a Nationals bid before they stepped foot on a field? Were all teams actually forced to play at DI conferences? Who were “all teams?”
I spoke with Joseph Hanson, the captain of Georgia College Disconnected, to get some clarification on the situation. This season, there were ten active DIII teams from the Southeast region, half of which participated in sanctioned USA Ultimate competition. Of these teams, only Armstrong Atlantic State University and Georgia College reached ten sanctioned games. Initial problems arose when only four of the ten teams expressed interest to the SE College Coordinator in participating in the DIII series. Even for a DIII region, this level of participation is very weak.
Notwithstanding, the region has never been deep. In 2011 there were only five teams that chose to compete in the Southern Appalachian Conference tournament, a tournament that fed one bid straight into Nationals. In 2012, again, five teams competed with Southern Polytech State, Florida Tech, and Georgia College the three teams to return from the previous season.
Hanson went on to explain that “two locations were voted on to host the event, [either] in conjunction with the Southern Appalachian D-I CC in Statesboro, GA or with the Gulf Coast D-I CC in Tuscaloosa, AL. The vote split 2-2 and Statesboro was chosen as the location. The two teams that favored Tuscaloosa backed out, leaving only Georgia College and Armstrong Atlantic.” In the blink of an eye, ten teams shrank to four teams and four teams became two.
“Georgia College was awarded the Nationals bid because we performed better than Armstrong Atlantic in the regular season, though we did not play each other,” said Hanson. “All that we had to do to solidify our bid to Nationals was play in the Southern Appalachian D-I CC.” According to the SE Coordinator, there were not enough teams to conduct a formal tournament. This assessment was presumably under USAU stipulation III.B.2.C.ii: If fewer than 4 teams in a Conference register for the series in a given year, those teams may be migrated to another Conference for that year’s series at the discretion of USA Ultimate.
It would have felt at least slightly vindicating if Georgia College and Armstrong Atlantic got to face off at DI Conferences in a faux-game-to-go. Hanson himself indicated that he hoped to match up with the other DIII team in order “to rightfully claim the bid.” However, the Ultimate gods (and Armstrong’s ghastly performance on Saturday) did not allow it. Despite both teams finishing at the bottom of their respective pools on Saturday, since there were an odd number of teams, AASU was forced out of any consolation play come Sunday.
Georgia College finished the weekend 1-5, tied for 7th out of 11 teams, and outscored 51 to 109. And with that they had earned the Southeast regional bid to the Division III College National Championships.
It’s natural to want to place the blame on Georgia College for benefitting from the whole mess, but the problems are clearly not their fault. Hanson and his team have done everything they can to help develop the struggling region. “I spoke with the SE College Director about our region’s poor attendance and he said that most of the teams just didn’t meet him with much desire or effort,” Hanson explained. “I attempted to reach out to all of D-III in the Southeast earlier this year when we hosted our team’s annual tournament in hopes of creating a greater sense of community and promote growth on the D-III scene, but I too was met with little effort.” He later added, “I tried to make it a point to reach out to a lot of the teams that didn’t show up for Regionals early on in the season to come to our tournament and possibly build up some rivalries to give them something to play for at the end of the season. No response.”
It is understandable that, under extenuating circumstances, a team or two couldn’t make the regional tournament. Tournament fees, gas prices, and hotel deposits have made all of our pockets a little less full and, at some point, financial realities outweigh our love for the game. The lack of administration-allotted funds at the Division III level is one of the chief hindrances of the Division.
However, examined broadly this is not about dollars and cents, but rather a general lack of commitment from a collection of teams. What message does it send about the national commitment level of Division III ultimate when an astounding 80 percent of a region won’t participate in the most significant tournament of the year? The Southeast debacle presents an ugly blemish on an otherwise successful DIII campaign this season.
In an article back in January, I spoke about the necessity of growing Division III Ultimate from the bottom up. I discussed the importance of low-level teams like Belmont, Southern Polytech State, and Florida Tech laying down the building blocks that would strengthen their region, increase parity, and garner relevance. Georgia College has, over the years, established a strong program that can perennially compete at Nationals. The pertinent issue is that until some team commits to success (or even commits to playing in the series), Georgia College, an unimpressive team on the national level, will continue to cruise to the D-III Championships.
Many have argued that Disconnected, who will likely be seeded last at Nationals, are taking a bid from higher ranked, more deserving regions. The first that comes to mind is the North Central, which features three of the top six finishers at 2012 Nationals, but only a single bid. I think there’s little that can be done structurally to fix this problem. We can’t expand the Southeast as it already includes six large states. There are no real grounds to steal the region’s autobid, besides maybe the lack of participating teams. That said, you can’t punish a team like Georgia College who travelled to five tournaments and even went the extra mile to grow their conference. Smaller conference tournaments might limit travel expenses but tournament fees would eat up those saved funds.
I propose two possible solutions to this problem:
First, as Hanson mentioned to me, it’s important to target young players and recruit from high-schools. Georgia College reaches into the Atlanta high-school talent pool to pull players that are already invested in Ultimate culture. It’s easier to instill the values of growing a program to a freshmen class who has been playing for a number of years than to a couple of first year players. Reach out on campus to find ex-high-school athletes who understand what it means to be part of a constantly developing team as well. By consistently getting big freshmen classes, teams won’t have to start from square one when a large senior class graduates.
Secondly, I’d like to see top D-I programs in the region step up and encourage growth for smaller schools. It would be great for Georgia, Florida, or UCF to host clinics on how to run an effective practice or how to run a great ho-stack. As the DIII players become familiar with the culture, strategies, and work ethic of elite teams, they’ll be more inclined to take Ultimate seriously. Maybe we even need to put the onus on USA Ultimate. Require that every team that makes DI Nationals hold at least one DIII clinic in the fall and spring. It doesn’t need to be flashy or extravagant; simply gather a group of teams and teach them the steps they need to take to get better.
Changing the culture surrounding DIII Ultimate in the Southeast and around the country is clearly not an easy task. Getting small schools to work on their programs is hard enough when the teams are committed. Building a competitive multi-year team in an uninspired region is even more work. This doesn’t mean we need to accept that DIII ultimate is a bottom-tier program. We need to find solutions that ultimately prevent situations like the one faced in the Southeast and continue to grow the sport at small schools in every corner of the country.