Ultimate is one of the fastest-growing club sports in the country, according to the 2009 Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association survey. The Grinnellephants and the Sticky Tongue Frogs, Grinnell’s men’s and women’s Ultimate teams respectively, had great seasons in this growing Frisbee-throwing noncontact team sport. Their efforts culminated in both teams qualifying for the USA Ultimate Division III National Championships, held in May 2011 in Buffalo, N.Y.. As one of only three schools with both men’s and women’s teams represented (the other two being Claremont and Occidental), Grinnell finished in the top 10 with both teams — the women placed seventh and the men placed third.
It’s no wonder that Grinnell has a growing and successful program. In Ultimate, two teams of seven players each compete and score points by completing passes up the field into the opponent’s end zone. Where Ultimate strays from many other sports, however, is in its cornerstone: the unifying idea of the “spirit of the game.” Players are responsible for calling infringements and resolving disputes. Similar to Grinnell’s own policy of self-governance, Ultimate’s “spirit of the game” relies on mutual respect, adherence to agreed-upon rules, and love of the community.
The Grinnell Sticky Tongue Frogs qualified for the first USA Ultimate-sanctioned Division III Nationals in the spring of 2010, led by captains Hanna Liebl ’10, Maddie Hart-Andersen ’10, and Sarah Ervin ’11. Although the bid was unexpected, Caroline Kory ’11 said it was a huge honor to get there. “We played better than we had all season, and the preparation was invaluable to our future.” Ervin recounted, “I thought we were going to lose all our games but we were actually really good! I never realized it before because our region is so strong.” The Stickies finished tied for third in the country in 2010.
This fall, led by captains Sarah Ervin ’11, Christine Grummon ’11, and Paige Hill ’12, the Stickies made it a goal to return to nationals. Winter brought a restructuring to Division III, and with it, the opportunity for more success. This spring, the Stickies made an intense commitment to strength, endurance, and acceleration training, an investment which paid off: The Stickies came in seeded fifth for the nationals. Hill wrote in forWithout Limits, an Ultimate blog, “Grinnell’s game to go to the Division III National Championships was one of the most meaningful and emotional experiences I have had as an athlete, and this season was one of the most exciting I have been a part of.” Knocked out of the championship bracket by a talented Williams College team, which lost a close game in the finals, the Grinnell women finished tied for seventh. “It was exhilarating. We got to live up to what we’ve been working towards. We played as a cohesive, coherent group of people who love each other,” said Hannah Bauman ’13. Cory Keeler ’12 agreed. “This year was last year squared.”
The men, captained by Tom Elliott ’11 and Aaron Swaney ’11, also made qualifying for nationals a goal this year. With a large, talented senior class and an incredibly dedicated first-year class, the scrappy Grinnellelephants created space and capitalized on their seniors through their offense, dubbed “the grinder.” Seeded low, the men won all their games in pool play. “We squeezed some narrow victories but everyone stepped up their game. The Grinnellelephants represented themselves well on and off the field,” said Elliott, team captain. Similarly, Carter Wiese ’14 was happy with the results. “It was awesome and so rewarding. When we first talked about it, I didn’t think we could make it, but I think it was a fitting reward because of our dedication to the sport and to each other.”
The future of the program is bright. As a club team with no coach, leadership comes from within, and players see each other as a family. While leading peers and friends is a challenge, Grinnell Ultimate has created a model that can be emulated by many teams in the future. As Keeler, captain for the 2011-12 year, put it: “It’s like we’re putting hieroglyphics on the walls. We are participating in the development of what in 20 years people will call the history of D-IIIs. Our men’s and women’s teams are spearheading that movement.”
Postscript: The history of Grinnell College Ultimate is sparse. The oldest information about Ultimate at Grinnell dates back to 1990 for men and 1992 for women. If you have information on the specifics of how the teams evolved over time, email webguys[at]grinnell[dot]edu.