Injuries can be one of the most frustrating things in sports. No matter if you are a spectator, player or opponent, watching a team or an individual struggle through injuries can be heartbreaking. If the thought of lost seasons or potential makes you squeamish, you may want to stop reading now. However, if the thought of a team fighting through injuries and finding a way to making it into the most competitive UPA college Regional tournament in the nation then perhaps you should read on because, perhaps, the story of UNC Darkside and its captain president, Rob Sayre-McCord is your kind of story.
UNC and Sayre-McCord have both been players on the national scene for quite some time. Darkside has been to the UPA Nationals tournament for five of the last eight years and aim to make a return this season but first they’ll have fight for one of the top spots at the Atlantic Coast Regionals tournament on April 25th and 26th.
While Darkside has built quite a name for itself, Sayre-McCord has done the same. He was a sophomore when the team took its last trip to Nationals in 2007 and since then has developed into a complete player and leader for his team. However, Sayre-McCord and his team have run into some complications this season that have challenged even his leadership abilities.
“Our season so far has been one of unfufilled potential,” Sayre-McCord wrote us in an e-mail. “We graduated half our roster from last year and entered this season with more rookies than vets. For much of the year we’ve been playing without some combination of 4 of our top 7-8 players at any given time. The last time we were close to being all healthy was back at CCC (Classic City Classic) when we beat Virginia and beat Michigan before the injuries started.”
Darkside stormed through the historically competitive fall tournament by winning its pool and taking down Michigan 13-8 and then things started to fall apart. Sayre-McCord broke his foot and senior Andrew Ryan suffered his 9th concussion, UNC’s 2008 FOTY Lucas Darden injured his hamstring while senior captain Jason Rome ran into similar trouble and finally graduate student Gabe Hart (a transfer from Carleton College) severely sprained his ankle. All told, UNC suffered because of the injuries and lost 12-8 to eventual CCC champions, Wisconsin.
Darkside wasn’t out of the woods yet though. The team saw two more big injuries as two promising rookies were injured and lost for the season over UNC’s winter break.
“These kind of things seem to be routine for us this season,” Sayre-McCord wrote.
However, Darkside would bounce back at the beginning of the spring season. UNC hosted and played well in the ACC Ultimate Championships, making it all the way to the finals before losing to Virginia. However, injuries and disappointment would resurface at Queen City Tune Up where UNC would go 5-3 on the weekend and get kicked out of the championship bracket in the second round by Georgia.
UNC’s next full tournament was a forgettable trip to Austin, Texas to take part in College Centex. Darkside got in over its injured head as Sayre-McCord missed time still recovering from his foot injury and both Darden and Rome reinjured their hamstrings. All told, the team went 1-6 on the weekend and was well out of contention.
However, once the UPA Series rolls around everyone begins anew with a clean slate. The fact of the matter is, in Ultimate, much like in college basketball, once the UPA Series begins all a team has to do to become National Champions is win the rest of its games. Unfortunately, even that would be difficult for UNC as Sayre-McCord re-broke his foot and was lost for the season in the third point of Darkside’s first round game against NC State in the North Carolina Sectionals and UNC lost the game.
The rest of the weekend would be hard for Darkside. Another loss on Saturday put UNC matched up against Appalachian State in the first round of the 2nd place bracket. UNC was in a win or go home situation for the rest of the weekend. The team would fight all the way to a second place game against NC State through Appalachian State, Duke and Davidson and lose big to the Wolfpack. However, the third place finish was enough to move on.
It’s been a touch and go season for Darkside this year, especially against Regional competition such as NC State and Georgia, and Sayre-McCord recognizes that some things will need to change in order for the team to compete in next weekend’s tournament.
“What we need in order to have success against the UGAs and NC States, really, is some healthy veterans,” Sayre-McCord wrote. “I love our rookies this year and they’ve done a great job stepping up in big games and this experience is going to prove invaluable come Regionals. But if we can get some of our vets back on the field there’s understandably a noticeable difference in how smoothly our offense runs.”
In addition Sayre-McCord sees Darkside’s balance on the field and its style of play as crucial to the team’s success.
“The strength of our team definitely lies in our athleticism,” Sayre-McCord wrote. “We don’t run particularly smooth offense sets or a shutdown zone every time. We do a little bit of everything and rely on our players to make plays. We don’t quite live and die by the huck but that’s not that far off.”
“We play a very physical style on the field,” Sayre-McCord wrote. “On ‘O’ we like to run a spread offense that relies on individual cutters to beat their men. On ‘D’ we run a bunch of different looks, which, if you’ll forgive me, I’m not going to disclose now.”
Sayre-McCord is confident in his team’s ability despite all the adversity it has fought through to get to this point. That being said, he has plenty of respect for the field that Darkside will be facing at Regionals.
“This region, yet again, should be by far and away the most competitive one in the nation with strong teams top to bottom,” Sayre-McCord wrote. “Hell, Tennessee beat Wisconsin earlier this year, that’s our 10th seed, give or take, over the Central region’s 2nd seed. I know as a team that our goal has been to make Nationals ever since we lost to Georgia a year ago and nothing has changed. Anything short of Nationals will be a disappointment.”
Darkside still has plenty to battle before taking one of the AC’s coveted Nationals bids. As confident and talented as they are, there are 15 other confident and talented teams that have plans that inckude sending UNC packing for the season. UNC will have to battle through injuries and a lack of experience to make it to the top this season but Sayre-McCord thinks his team is hungry enough to make it happen.
“If anything,” Sayre-McCord wrote. “I think (this season’s adversity has) left us hungry because we know what we can accomplish and what we’d like to accomplish before it’s all over.”