May 8, 2015 by Katie Raynolds in Profile with 1 comments
Since the Ohio Valley region was carved into existence in 2011, two teams have been stockpiling talent and trophies: the Pitt men’s team and the Ohio State women’s team. Both teams made it to their respective championships in 2011, and climbed ambitiously since. Pitt won the title in 2012 and 2013 while Ohio State rose from 17th in their first appearance to the title in 2014. The Ohio Valley region is small, yet it’s left a big footprint already.
But this story isn’t about En Sabah Nur or Fever.
It’s about Pittsburgh Danger, the team who earned the Ohio Valley region its first strength bid ever. The team headed to the College Championships in a few weeks for the first time in five years, who were one point away from upsetting the defending national champions in the process.
Danger hasn’t flown under the radar this season as much as they’ve been pushed under. Between the unseating of dynasties and the disqualification of teams, the Pitt women’s success has fallen below the fold. Yet the women of Pitt will step onto the Nationals fields as one of the more dangerous unknown entities in the lower half of the bracket. Their regular season shows they know how to play up, with upsets over Virginia and Carleton to their name.
Danger will be in Milwaukee in a few weeks to pit themselves once more against the nation’s best, ending a long journey that began with one pesky, coveted item: a bid.
The Elusive Strength Bid
The regular season looks different when you’re playing in a historically shallow region with a heavy favorite. Out of region tournaments are about development, but they’re also about notching the bed post, so to speak. If you want a strength bid, you not only have to win, but you have to win the right games.
Danger won the right games. While they struggled at Queen City Tune-Up, their finals appearance against Virginia at Commonwealth Cup boosted their rankings considerably.
Danger wanted that extra bid; the night USAU was slated to update the site, girls from the team camped out together at a Chipotle, waiting for the announcement. One of the team’s rookies even called USAU headquarters to ask about their potential strength bid. When the rankings finally did come out, the team still didn’t believe it.
“It was crazy,” said Danger captain Vaughan Skinker. “We couldn’t even believe it. What, that’s us up there?”
The rest of the country would spend March squabbling over bids, but the Ohio Valley region held onto their bid dearly. The bid was more than an extra seat on the bus to Milwaukee for Pitt; it was a message.
“I think it shows other teams here we don’t always have to be behind Ohio State,” says captain Carolyn Normile. “We can get our own bid.”
For some teams, the perfect season is carried on the shoulders of a star player, or it’s crafted from the chemistry of a strong senior class. For other teams, a perfect season looks more like collecting all the loose strings and finally tying a bow.
Danger had all the pieces they wanted: a solid roster, an elite-level coach, and, after graduating 7 seniors, they had a fresh start. The next step was mental.
“We put it on ourselves to look internally,” says Vaughan. “What can we do as a team? What do we lack?
“Our program stepped it up [this season]. We had a goal meeting at the beginning of the season, and we just decided we were going to work a lot harder this year.”
Workouts that had been assigned by the team in the past became workouts the team did together. Danger reached out to the men’s team for a new lifting regimen, and Nick Kaczmarek attended a few of their practices to offer strategic advice. Danger also contacted local alumnae and club teams like Hot Metal to scrimmage. They embraced their resources, and they put them to use.
Their coach Kelsey Delave was an equally strong resource: she came to Danger after several nationals appearances with Michigan Flywheel, and she brought her nationals caliber expectations for the team.
The new expectations for Danger didn’t suit everyone. After the team decided to buckle down in the Fall, six players quit. “We questioned if we were doing the right thing by trying harder,” said Vaughan. “And then we reassured ourselves: this is what we want. And realizing we all wanted the same thing brought us closer together.”
When a lot of veterans leave, teams either flounder or they step up. For Danger, there was never any question. Younger players worked hard to fill bigger roles, bolstered by an experienced rookie class. Freshman Haley Grajewski were able to take charge for Danger and earn a starting spot early in the season, displaying a mental toughness beyond her years.
With threats like Grajewski on the roster, Danger’s stronger players no longer had to handle for the team. Captain Carolyn Normile (2015 U23 Women’s) in particular has had the luxury of shifting into an initial cutting role. From this first cut she’s often able to launch the disc deep, setting their offense in motion and giving the team a new layer of depth they hadn’t had before. Sarah Russek is another big part of their downfield movement while Vaughan Skinker and 5th year Katelyn Loughery hold down the backfield.
The Airplane Test For Ultimate
During job interviews companies use the airplane test to judge candidates: he or she may be qualified, but could I stand to sit next to them for two hours on a plane? The answer is often no.
In our sport, it’s the tournament car test. “There’s always that one person,” as Normile knowingly puts it. A team may say they’re tight knit, but could they share a car with any individual teammate en route to a tournament? The answer is often no.
I’ve asked a lot of women’s teams why they think they’re successful, and honestly most of them respond with an iteration of “We’re all just so close. Everyone hangs out with everyone.” It’s our version of the post-game sports cliche. We all gave 110%.
But I listen when the Danger captains bring up that they can’t imagine anyone on the team who wouldn’t pass the car test. And I believe them. The response may be well-worn, but for many teams breaking into the upper echelon of competition, this response and the beliefs it fosters are what players need.
The Regional Final…And Beyond
A season’s worth of track workouts, Chipotle fundraisers, strength bids, and car tests came onto the field with Pitt during the Regional finals against Ohio State Fever. The hours in the gym and the wins on their record fueled their confidence: they could win this game. They could go to Nationals.
Pittsburgh Danger took three breaks to start the game.
Ohio State would go on to even the score, and both teams would trade points for the rest of the game until Ohio State won, 11-10. Watch the rest of the final to scout Danger’s talent and their strategy. But to scout their character and mental toughness, watch their first three breaks against the defending national champions.
That’s the team Pitt set out to become this season. And that’s the team they will be in Milwaukee.