An earlier Sectionals has meant a big downturn in participation in West New England.
September 2, 2015 by Tiina Booth in Opinion with 48 comments
I have a confession to make: I like Sectionals. I sincerely do. Every September for more than 15 years, I have made the trip to the Hanover, NH, area with some amalgamation of players. In the early years, I brought an Amherst Regional High School team, with perhaps an alum or two thrown in. Last weekend I was with Dark or Light, one of the three men’s teams from Amherst.
I like Western New England Sectionals because this part of the country is stunning in the middle of September. Any time you head north from here, the drive is easy and quick and gorgeous. I stay at the same hotel, one that allows dogs and offers a free breakfast. Some of the Canadian players stay there too, or camp in the parking lot. A few years ago I had to stop one of my dogs from stealing Canadian bacon off their hibachi. Just another fond ultimate memory.
But the main reason that I like our Sectionals is because it has historically given young players an opportunity to test their abilities against older and more experienced teams. If you look at the chart below, you will see that there used to be a Division 2 for the Open Division. We competed in Div. 2 and then advanced to Regionals. We spent the weekend at Devens competing against other Div. 2 teams and finished early on Sunday. During the Div. 1 finals, we lined the back of the endzone, eating Doritos and watching the usual suspects battle their way to Nationals. Again, one of my fondest fall ultimate memories in New England.
Before I get all weepy on you, I know that these tournaments do not exist for my own personal memory bank. I know they are the first step for any team who wants a shot at Nationals. We appreciate the inclusivity of the Classic Flight.
I understand why the fancy teams get byes and can advance directly to Regionals. I am not advocating at all that they return to Sectionals. They have earned it with their play and with their dollars.
However, I cannot help but lament what we have lost when there are 50% fewer teams competing than five years ago. In our Section, the change of date — and the unavoidable drop in teams — may have serious ramifications down the road.
|YEAR||MIXED||WOMEN||OPEN DIV I||OPEN DIV II||TOTAL||NOTES|
|2012||6||10||17||___||33||No more Open Div 2|
|2015||5||6||9||___||20||Only 1 US Women’s team|
Opportunities For High School Players
There was only one women’s team from the US at this year’s WNE Sectionals. The other 5 were from Canada. We had more than twice that many 3 years ago and, from what I can tell (weird names make it difficult to identify), eight were from the US, including Middlebury, Dartmouth and other schools.
Lauren Baecher, currently playing with Love Tractor out of Denver, says, “When I went to Sectionals as a high schooler, I was in awe. I thought so highly of myself as a high school player. Then I played against teams like Dartmouth and even Brute (at Regionals). It brought me down a peg in a good way. I KNEW I wanted to be as badass as all those women. I played in Sectionals all four years of high school. I learned so much from all the ARHS women I was playing with, as well as all the women at that tournament.”
Amber Sinicrope of Boston’s Brute Squad also appreciated the competition at a young age, “…being able to play at sectionals AND regionals with Team X (combo Amherst/UMass team) my sophomore year was completely invaluable as it allowed me to compete on the same field and in the same division as elite women’s players as a 15 year old. Being able to access the top of the women’s division through sectionals definitely contributed to both my confidence and motivation to tryout for Brute at an early age.” Amber made Brute when she was 16.
Where are the Laurens and Ambers now? Certainly not at our Sectionals. Are there really enough opportunities for young women to compete in hopes of eventually playing elite ultimate? Do high school and college women consistently see elite role models at tournaments? Taking this opportunity away is more than inconvenient. It allows stagnation in the very division that USAU wants to grow.
Opportunities For College Players
When we had 40 teams competing in the section, most of the colleges brought a team and some schools fielded three. They used Sectionals as a sort of tryout, an easy way to introduce brand-new players to our sport. Many of us can still remember the first ultimate tournament we attended and how quickly we became hooked. Andrew Hollingworth, an ex-player for Chain, writes about playing on Tufts at the ENE Sectionals: “…the fall was mostly about teaching…it was always fun to get a taste of real competitive ultimate mixed in.” Ironside’s Will Neff says, “Without a doubt it is highly beneficial for high school teams and low level teams to play college and club teams.”
All of the colleges in the area are still holding tryouts and fielding teams and will hopefully find tournaments in the fall. But an introduction to our sport at a USAU event still seems preferable. To say nothing of the membership and tournament fees.
No one is telling these missing teams that they can’t play in Sectionals. Teams with strong and aware leadership should be able to meet the earlier registration deadline, so maybe next year we will see an uptick. I wish we had been able to send a UMass team to our Sectionals but school doesn’t start until next week and a lot of our players are on club teams. I am certain that other schools have similar stories.
Visibility is often cited as the reason for the push toward mid-summer for Nationals. Northern cities could host the event and we could perhaps attract more fans in person and online. But there is more than one kind of visibility. With the stratification of our sport into flights, we lose interactions between the newest players and the more experienced teams. For young male players, they can still follow the top men, as the latter have a variety of playing options. For the young female players, the situation is improving, thanks to the All-Star Ultimate Tour, but the opportunities that Lauren and Amber had may be disappearing. Visibility at both the entry level to our sport and at the highest level of our sport are equally important.
I don’t know of any growth model that shows that growth can be sustained by whittling away at the base, even if it is unintentional. I also understand that high school and college teams have plenty of opportunities to play during their seasons, opportunities that they did not have five years ago. So maybe I am cranky about this because this infrastructure worked for us for years and I don’t like change. Maybe I have to be more active in promoting Sectionals next year and help reverse this downward trend.
1. Will our Sectionals disappear? From what I hear, the series will start and end even earlier in 2016. An even earlier start will almost guarantee fewer teams. And if only Canadian teams participate, will our Sectionals eventually move to Canada?
2. Is there any way we can find out the dates for future series soon? For next year and the next three years?
3. How will the earlier season impact college players? I think, more than ever, many club teams have college players on their rosters. Will these young athletes really be expected to go hard February through August?
4. After the Youth Club Championships, Arnoush Javaherian wrote a letter on Facebook to the organizers of the AUDL, MLU, and Without Limits. He noted that they all hosted major events that competed with YCC’s. Is the plan for USAU to add to this bottleneck by moving Sectionals and Regionals to coincide with our premier youth event?
5. Are other sections having a similar drop in teams? Andy Lee of USAU says that the overall number of TCT players has increased by 2.7%. I am curious to see if we are an anomaly.
6. What IS the purpose of Sectionals? I know that is the beginning of a selection process but if growth and exposure among high schools and colleges was an unexpected bonus, do we not want that to continue?
7. Does anyone really want the Series to move further into the summer? Is this change being driven by the players’ wishes?
8. If the series is going to be finished before Labor Day, will some enterprising entrepreneur please build a competitive fall series in the Northeast? We have limited time before the snow arrives and every opportunity to play is important.
Sectionals worked for us. The players I brought from high school played in college and some currently are on the top teams in the US. It was a feeder system and exposed young players to opportunities for further competitive play. I saw a hint of that last weekend, as high school boys were playing on a few of the teams. But the glory days of WNE Sectionals may be permanently in the past and it is more than nostalgia that is leaving me a little sad.
An earlier version of this article said that zero US-based women’s teams competed at WNE Sectionals this year. There was, in fact, one women’s team from Burlington, Vermont.