By: Frank Nam
“Don’t swap horses in the middle of the stream, Wheels, Feves, and Gobies make a fine team!” – Rival cheer
For many years, when you thought about the Great Lakes Region in relation to women’s club ultimate, you thought about one team in particular: Chicago Nemesis.
And for good reason. The team has enjoyed incredible success over the years but they were rarely challenged in their own region for the right to represent at the National Championships. But every team needs a challenge. Every team needs another team to push them. Every team needs a rivalry. In 2014, they got one.
To understand the 2016 National Championships’ women’s division team spirit award winners, you have to dig into Rival’s Midwest background. They play Midwest ultimate. They focus on fundamentals, throwing the extra pass, and patience. They are methodical, safe and some would even say boring.
However, the formation of this team in 2015 and their success in 2016 is far from boring.
In 2013, five players commuted from Ann Arbor all the way to Chicago to play for Nemesis. In 2014, that number dropped to two players, and a group of University of Michigan Flywheel alumna started the idea of creating their own team called Surge.
According to Becky “Tots” Moore, they always wanted to “gather players from the Midwest to make [the] team and always had FEVER girls on the radar.”
Three hours away in Columbus, Ohio, many of the Ohio State Fever alumna on the mixed team Santa Maria started considering the notion of creating a women’s team, and they asked their college coach, DeAnna Ball, what she thought.
What they didn’t know was that Hannah Henkin and Tracey Lo of Flywheel had also reached out to Ball about Surge. Ball saw this happening and knew these two groups would most likely come together. They were familiar with each other. They respected each other. And in 2015, many of them would play on the U.S.A. U-23 National Teams together.
So in the summer of 2015, literally at the deadline of submitting a team roster for the Triple Crown Tour, Rival was formed.
(If you would prefer to hear this story via rap lyrics and a dope montage, check out their YouTube video.)
On paper, this was a team to be reckoned with. They had four players who had just finished up winning gold and silver medals with the U-23 mixed and women’s teams. They had a ton of players who had College Championships experience and a coach who had recently coached Ohio State Fever to a national title.
In reality, the start of their 2015 season was a mess, and doubts grew about their ability to bring together the Ohio and Michigan styles. What saved them was their focus on fundamentals and culture.
Looking back, Rival’s 2016 captains, Becky Moore of University of Michigan and Caitlin Harley and Janine walker of Ohio State, can laugh about it. Ohio State was known for a fast-and-loose style with less structure. They were late to things. They liked Bud Light. The Flywheel contingent was about spreadsheets, names for basically everything related to ultimate (they can thank former Flywheel coach Janet Jin for this, apparently) and structure.
It truly was the Odd Couple of ultimate but what brought them together was Midwest ultimate. Ball and Assistant Coach Andrew Theiss decided to focus on the fundamentals. They worked on the things both teams knew how to do, and then they learned from each other. Those who relied on a system were stretched to think about playing more loose. Those who played fast and free found value in systems. Although Rival 2015 did not make Nationals, they set a foundation for the next year.
In 2016, Rival did things they’ve never done before. They held tryouts. They added a new Midwest program in Case Western’s Fighting Gobies. They defeated Nemesis three times to earn their spot at Nationals. (Credit DeAnna Ball who had been tracking Nemesis for a few years and felt confident that this squad could match up with them. That confidence definitely showed throughout the 2016 season.) At Nationals, they upset the second seed in their pool – San Diego Wildfire, who was also at Nationals for the first time – and then upset the third seed in their pool, Austin Showdown, on double-game point. Their only loss on day one was to the eventual champions, Boston Brute Squad.
I asked Rival’s leadership what their goals were, and they said they were to beat Nemesis at Regionals and make Nationals. When I asked them if they were satisfied with that, they said absolutely not. Rival actually had to keep resetting their goals throughout the tournament as they kept enjoying success. When the dust settled, Rival had broken seed to finish 12th in the country, but that wasn’t indicative of how well they played. They took Vancouver Traffic to 11-15 and Madison Heist to 10-14. Both those teams made the 2017 Pro Flight.
The entire world now knows about the greatness that is Sophia Knowles of Case Western. Sara Scott is also a well-known commodity (one of two players on Rival 2016 not from either Fever, Flywheel or Fighting Gobies) as the Wisconsin product threw a ton of assists and scored a ton of goals. The U.S.A. U-23 teammates broke marks, got blocks and scored goals.
However, when you ask the captains and Coach Ball about the team, they will call out the often unnoticed work put in by players like Katie “Zeus” Backus, Kristen Smiach and Jodi McCloskey. Rival is all about how the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
As much talent as Rival has on the field, it is their sideline presence and their ability to gel as one team that really made them competitive.
Some teams win the fields.
Some teams win the party.
Some teams win the championship.
Rival won the sideline.
A huge part of that was players like Smiach and players like Sarah “Jules” Craycraft. It’s hard to miss Jules. She’s tall. She quotes pop stars and rappers. She makes up cheers on the fly. She reads her team like a world-renowned DJ reads a crowd, knowing when to be funny, when to be loud, when to be direct and when to just dance. All of Rival’s leadership pointed to her for her ability to keep the sideline in the game and to give energy to the field.
Teams don’t just show up fully formed. Team culture isn’t just something whipped up in a few meetings or practices. It’s earned. It’s the product of time, camaraderie and intent. For a team that’s spread out over three major cities (Ann Arbor, Columbus, Cleveland), this team was tighter knit than most teams that live in just one area. They always had double-weekend practices where they would practice on Saturday and Sunday and have structured team time every Saturday night. They basically spent their entire summer together playing games like Minute to Win It and passing around personal tidbits via what they called “van packages” on long car rides.
(Seattle Underground has a number of Midwest players, and we have done something similar, albeit on much shorter road trips. “Van packages” include games that allow players to get to know each other. They are an amalgam of games like Two Truths and a Lie or Never Have I Ever or Most Embarrassing Ultimate story.)
Although their team name is a play on the historic rivalry between the two Big 10 schools (their logo has both a buckeye and a wolverine on it – maybe next they’ll add a FIghting Goby??), this team never let that competition get in their way as they worked to be successful. In fact, they went out of their way to be one team.
“From an off-field team chemistry / social / unity perspective, from the very start, we’ve been one team working towards a common goal. Neither part more important or powerful in the relationship. On forming the team, both sides knew and believed we needed the other in order to be successful and that spirit has only carried through since.” – Becky “Tots” Moore
Maybe that is the heart of Midwest ultimate.