BYU's men's team is gifted with strong leadership and a youth pipeline; will not playing on Sunday hold them back?
December 15, 2014 by Alex Rummelhart in Profile with 6 comments
Brigham Young University’s men’s ultimate team is a program on the rise.
Last year they went 19-1. They are a young team with 19 of the 20 team members having played three years or fewer. Many of those same players have connections and futures with the AUDL Salt Lake Lions and the Utah Powderhogs (a team that battled Furious George in the game to go at Northwest Regionals this past club season).
Captains Bryant Boyer and Jason McKeen run the team like an elite club squad, with organized clinics, corporate sponsorship packages, and next level promo videos, understanding that the future of their program is not other college players, but the younger generation to come.
Coach Bryce Merrill, an alumnus of BYU himself, originally from Dallas, also understands this, acting as Vice-President of the Utah Ultimate Disc Association and captain of the Powderhogs.. His experience at the club level and as an organizer1 is pushing Brigham Young to greater and great success.
But there is one obstacle that stands in the way of Nationals, the ultimate goal of every collegiate ultimate player.
This team doesn’t play on Sundays.
For this squad, it isn’t a personal or religious choice, but an institutional mandate. Brigham Young athletes, if they wish to represent Brigham Young University, cannot participate in athletic events on Sundays. But that doesn’t stop Brigham Young from working, improving, and looking to the future, hoping to reach their ultimate goal.
No, They Don’t Play on Sundays
A few months ago, Tyler Bugden wrote a great piece discussing stereotypes of the ultimate community in Utah and the impressive rise of Utah’s ultimate prowess. He explained both their tremendous investment in youth development and some of the recent success of Utah’s ultimate teams, including the Powderhogs who were one game short of Nationals in 2014.
The stereotypes of Utah from the rest of the country are rightfully being changed; it is a state that deserves a lot of respect, and should be imitated in its methods in many ways, but that doesn’t change the fact that many players and institutions within Utah are connected to the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and face a Sunday question.
“Lots of non-LDS (Mormon) players here in the state who do play on Sunday,” said Merrill. “And some LDS players that make a personal choice to play on Sundays too during club season, city league, etc.”
Regardless of personal feeling, however, Brigham Young runs into an issue that many other college teams in the U.S. can relate to: rules and regulations laid down by the university that have a definitive impact on the program.
“For BYU,” explained Merrill, “it’s not necessarily a personal choice to not play, but an institutional choice: the doctrinal teachings of a religiously-affiliated member institution proscribing Sunday play. It’s just not an option for BYU students, representing BYU, to play on Sunday.”
BYU is well aware of the difficulties of only playing on Saturday. They realize that they have a unique situation, that their program has been shaped because of it, and that, in many ways, they are missing out on a key piece of the ultimate world.
But they don’t want their inability to play on Sundays to be what defines them.
“It’s hard for us to talk about it without making it sound like we’re whining and complaining, or that we’re trying to play the martyr,” said Merrill. “We’re not. They understand what it means to attend BYU, Mormon or not, and many are proud to go here and not play on Sunday, and they’re willing to make concessions.”
Many of the stereotypes appear when examining BYU’s success, especially in online comments or discussions.
“If we do get excited about any success on the field,” added Merrill, “people are quick (and many times rightfully so) to point out that it’s on Saturdays, against meaningless pool play competition. So this story always comes down to a lose-lose situation for us.”
But Merrill and the team want to look ahead, and what they can do in the future.
Who They Are and What They Do
The team calls themselves BYU Ultimate or BYU-CHI. The CHI is in many ways based of Revolver’s IHD motto.
“We came up with three principles that we wanted to play with,” said Merrill. “Competition, Humility, and Integrity.”
In addition to this motto, the Greek letter Chi, in addition to the letter Rho, is a symbol of early Christianity. BYU created a crest and wears it on their jerseys, proud to represent a religious school and proud remind themselves of exactly what they represent when on the field.
“[Our team] is full of dedication from so many players,” said Captain Jason McKean. “Not just dedication to the sport, but dedication to the program we’re building and to each other.”
This is a young team that is interested in continuing Utah’s investment into it’s ultimate youth, eager to build a foundation that leads to an even stronger future.
“The amount of time we spend on social media, high school clinics, community events, etc,” said Merrill, “is directly related to our belief that these things provide a stable platform to grow for years to come.”
“Playing for CHI Ultimate has been an amazing experience,” said Captain Bryant Boyer. “The brotherhood of players is really strong in this program. Everyone is willing to work, dedicate, and sacrifice for the good of the program.”
This team has put in the work off the field, but also on the field. They have done nearly everything in their power to face fierce competition and earn their success, but it has been difficult, both because their school is not well-known as an ultimate team and because they can’t finish tournaments.
“Heck we sometimes don’t even play full-strength teams on Saturday,” explained Merrill. “They know that we forfeit our results moving into bracket play, so some teams elect to sit starters, run weird rotations, experiment with offenses, etc. That’s their prerogative. It’s a struggle for our program to figure out how talented we really are since we don’t have a consistent measuring stick in competition.”
This squad has tried to reach for these challenges. Last year, BYU began betting teams that came to the Provo Open last year that they would refund their tournament fee if they beat them on Saturday. It has been difficult to find elite competition in the area, so they are making a greater push to travel farther distances to seek new opponents.
This year BYU has even more plans to be creative with their playing opportunities, possibly doing a NexGen-style tour of the Northwest region playing teams in the Cascadia Conference if they can get the opponents on board.
But the biggest news of late has come in the form of a highly anticipated early season tournament: Florida Warm Up.
Looking Past Sunday
BYU-CHI will have a great chance to truly test themselves at last.
They will be heading to Warm Up: A Florida Affair in Tampa Bay in mid-February; there they will face off against some of the best programs in the country — Carleton, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, Central Florida, and more.
But they will not play on Sunday.
“We’re still confident that we’re a good team, and a growing team,” said Merrill. “That’s why we’re excited to go to Florida Warm Up this year. Even if those teams play with second strings and weird lines and are still working out their offenses, we’ll be pushed as a team. We’ll lose games and learn a lot more than we did with our 19-1 last season playing a mostly powderpuff schedule.”
Florida is a three day tournament, which will give BYU a second day of competition, something they rarely see at tournaments.
There they will get a chance to grow, improve, and test themselves, but the future is still uncertain; just how much can they accomplish in this sport where the two-day weekend is so critical for logistics and format?
“I wish we could just be like everyone else and settle it on the field,” said Merrill. “I wish we could push deep into bracket play. I wish we could know that when we won or lost a game, we really knew. But we don’t, because we only play people in pool play on Saturday before the series. We get just a limited picture of the college ultimate experience. Now, all that said, this game is fun enough that we still love to play. Everyone’s season ends sometimes, and ours just always ends a bit early.”
Is there a possibility of a future nationals appearance? Can they have a chance to at least appear at the greatest tournament in college ultimate?
BYU in the NCAA
There is precedent for accommodation.
Some fascinating examples exist, especially in the history of BYU itself, and BYU-CHI are aware of them. There are no constitutionally-compelled requirements for agencies like the NCAA and USAU to make accommodations for religious universities, but there have been precedents of successful lobbying, even if there is disruption of schedules (athletic or television), and possible financial ramifications, for competition changes.
Specifically, the NCAA adopted legislation in 1963 requiring that championship schedules be “adjusted to accommodate” institutions with a prohibition on Sunday play; this ruling, known as the “BYU Rule”, was then eliminated in 19982).
Only two schools at that time — BYU and Campbell University — in the over 300 D-I NCAA members lodged formal protest.
However, BYU and Campbell, lobbying with the help of other schools, forced the NCAA to review and eventually create a new rule which required accommodation for scheduling changes based upon specific days that were “no play” days for religious reasons. That rule has been successfully been used several times in the last fifteen years, such as by both the women’s softball teams of Campbell and BYU in 2008 to compete in a North Carolina regional to avoid Sunday play3.
The rule is still in effect.
This generous religious accommodation is allowed by one of the most powerful entities in American sports, despite scheduling inconveniences and possible financial loss due to TV markets.
Other universities, such as Messiah College for example, have made school-wide allowances, specifically to help teams in the post-season that are forced to play on Sundays4.
“Would we like if it changed so we could somehow play in the series, and eventually have a shot at qualifying for nationals?” Merrill asked. “Of course. Do we understand why that’s a long shot? Of course. One thing is clear: No one should care about changing the rules for us until we’re relevant. And to be relevant, we have to be the best.”
New changes in ultimate have also had promising hope for the future.
The AUDL and MLU leagues have brought single-game ultimate to a high level of attention. Club teams and other ultimate organizations (such as NexGen before its demise) have also seen the value in single-game ultimate showcases.
Even USAU has made subtle moves that lean towards a heavier emphasis on single-game eliminations, rather than tournament pool schedules. Club Nationals now sees every team enter the elimination bracket, regardless of group play results.
Small-scale events, or single game formats, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, are on the rise and there are benefits, both logistically for organizers and for fan experiences whether watching live and at home. A prevention of injuries (coming from overuse in weekend tournament play) is another thought of benefit of a format change.
The road isn’t laid yet, but it isn’t too hard to imagine that a single-game format, at or at the very least a smaller tournament format, might be the future of the sport.
Regardless of what happens in the years to come, BYU will bring their best to the table today.
“One positive from the Sunday play situation is that our goals as a team are different,” said Boyer. “We can’t make Nationals or Regionals our goal because we don’t have a path there. We do what we do for the future of the program. Someday there might be a path for BYU to advance in the championship series and our goal is to do all that we can to make that team competitive — to build this program so that our future teams will be able to compete.”
In some ways it is hard; they have to truly focus on the limited amount of games they have. On the other hand, it is fun to concentrate on one game at a time.
As far as the post-season, it isn’t completely forgotten. “Would it be fun to end the regular season with a strength bid for the Northwest?” asked Merrill. “Sure. That’d be fun too. And I’m sure the ultimate community would be in a buzz about it and if the Northwest got to keep it, or if it would bump down and go to the next region. That would be fun to see.”
Nationals isn’t forgotten either, but there are so many things that would need to change that it isn’t the focus. Merrill plans to keep advocating for his team and working to get them as many meaningful games outside of Sunday as possible.
The squad is focused; they are training and working as hard as they can to bring themselves to their peak ability. Most of all, they simply wish to prove themselves against the best, playing at the highest level, to see how good they really are.
They’ll begin their 2014 season at Warm Up, and hope the teams they face, on Friday and Saturday, will bring all they have. Even if they do, they might find BYU a tough team to beat.
Merrill and the BYU team helped Ultiworld track statistics at the 2013 Club Championship ↩
Kevin J. Worthen, The NCAA and Religion: Insights About Non-State Governance from Sunday Play and Endzone Celebrations, 2010 UTAH L. REV. 123 (2010 ↩
See id. ↩