seven UWEC grads on team bound for world disc tourney
The Chippewa Valley has produced world-caliber talent in a number of fields, and once again the good people of the Valley can bask in the knowledge that we produce good stock. The latest opportunity to show off our region to the world comes in the form of ultimate frisbee. Minneapolis-based ultimate team Drag’n Thrust has qualified to represent not only the Midwest but the whole U.S. of A. at the World Ultimate Club Championships in Lecco, Italy, in early August. This is a beautiful dream come true for Coach Jake Henderson: “Italian food, wine, the Vatican, mountains and great ultimate; what could be better?” Even though the team is based in the Twin Cities it boasts seven UW-Eau Claire alumni: Pat Niles, Jaime Glader, Anna Hettler, James Hron, Jess Haller, Marha Harris, and Robyn Wiseman. Henderson, a player-turned-coach, is also a UWEC alumnus.
For the uninitiated, the sport of ultimate is simple, requiring seven players from both teams on the field at once. The offense’s goal is to catch the frisbee – also known as a disc – in the end-zone, and the defense’s goal is to stop them. They do this by intercepting the disc or knocking it to the ground. Upon this “turn,” the defense picks up the disc and becomes the offense. An important and fundamental rule of the game prohibits players from moving with the disc beyond where they caught it. (If you wish to know more, check out the “About” page at USAUltimate.org.) The games are officiated by the players based on the tradition of “Spirit of the Game” – meaning there are no referees.
“(Spirit of the Game) is the coolest part about the sport and I think that that sets it apart from the rest,” said Pat Niles, a graduate of both Memorial High and UWEC and a player on Drag’n Thrust. Even at the highest level of play in the world, there is an expectation that players respect each other and come to a mutual understanding when it comes to fouls or other aspects of the game.
“Everyone was so excited about getting to play in the finals, that it took us awhile to remember that also meant that we got to go to World.”
– ultimate frisbee player (and UWEC grad) Jaime Glader on reaching the finals of last fall’s U.S. Club Nationals
The chance for Drag’n Thrust to qualify for Worlds came at the U.S. Club Nationals in Frisco, Texas, last October. Drag’n Thrust had never before made it past the semifinals in this highly competitive and prestigious competition, and to qualify for worlds they had to do just that. The team won and moved into the finals. “Everyone was so excited about getting to play in the finals, that it took us awhile to remember that also meant that we got to go to World,” says team member Jaime Glader. That realization, Glader says, “put a little extra spring in everyone’s step.” The team went on to win the title as the best mixed team in the country. The feat had been elusive for the past six years, so the victory was surreal for the whole team.
Locals Don and Bonnie Niles, parents of Pat Niles, have been to every National Tournament since the conception of Drag’n Thrust and are excited to go to watch the team play in Lecco, Italy. They are, by their own definition, “Ultimate Parents.” For their son, who has been to Worlds once before (in 2010), this chance is unique because he is going with a team he’s been a part of for six years. “I really wanted to be able to say I helped create and build a team that was worthy of a championship,” he says.
Each of the UWEC alumni players I spoke to repeatedly commented on the love they carry for the community of people they find themselves surrounded by. The team, according to Jake Henderson, “is like a family: Not only do we love playing competitive ultimate, but we genuinely enjoy and love each other.” This is evident in the relationships which have formed both on and off the field, some romantic – like that of Anna Hettler and James Hron, who are engaged – and some deep friendships, both on the team and with members of opposing teams.
If you are itching to watch some world-class Ultimate but aren’t ready to fly to Lecco, Italy, then check out this year’s Ultimate U.S. Open Championships, which will be held in Blaine, Minn., over the Fourth of July weekend and will feature the best teams in the country at their first major tournament of the season. Keep an eye out – well, at least keep your eye open, – for information on how to watch the games in Italy in August.