If one could see a list of all the teams that have ever qualified for Nationals it would be apparent that there are such things as dynasties, powerhouses and traditional powers in Ultimate. It would also be apparent after looking at that list that many of those powerhouses and dynasties have qualified this year, among them are Wisconsin, UC Santa Barabara, Georgia and Cornell.
One name that you will not see on any lists is Luther College. No lists other than the list of qualifiers for this season’s National tournament, of course. LUFDA is appearing in its first Nationals tournament and won the West Plains College Open Sectionals for the first time this season. LUFDA is primed and ready to compete in UPA Nationals in Columbus, Ohio over May 22-25 although the team is merely six years old as a program.
While this season has been a season of firsts for Luther, it also has been a season of goals. Shirbroun recalls a specific meeting over Luther’s winter break when the idea of Nationals came up during a discussion of goals. It was at that point that Shirbroun began to think about his team making the trip of a lifetime when May rolled around.
“Prior to our winter break we had a team meeting to discuss goals, and one we discussed was Nationals,” Shirbroun wrote us in an e-mail. “Having seen the elite level of ultimate this summer, and knowing the athleticism and spirit of this team, I had complete faith that we could accomplish this goal. Of course, you never know until you start playing in the spring.”
After play started Shirbroun’s faith proved to be well placed. Luther sprinted out of the gates and finished third at Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge, La. with only one loss the entire tournament. Only a few short weeks later, LUFDA had its first tournament victory of the season at Frostbite in Springfield, Missouri. Not only did LUFDA run undefeated through the Frostbite competition but it ran rampant and unchecked through the competition. Luther wasn’t challenged all weekend, winning its games by an average of eight scores. Needless to say, some of the early preseason questions about the team had been answered. However, Luther and Shirbroun still kept their heads down and eyes on the prize.
“Overall, I guess after these two tournaments I knew it would be possible (to make Nationals),” Shirbroun wrote. “However, the road to Nationals is incredibly long and treacherous, and there was really not much time to think about the big picture goal. Keep winning each game, that was always the mantra, even Sunday at Regionals.”
However, there’s more to making it to Nationals than a simple setting of goals and a good mindset. It takes strategy and it takes skill. Luther certainly knows this from years of experience in just missing a tournament win at Sectionals. While this season did not mark the first trip for LUFDA to Regionals, making the trip as a Sectional champion definitely had a different feel about it.
“Luther teams of old had been so close to winning Sectionals in the past, but had always come up short,” Shirbroun wrote. “As a freshman, that is what I would hear about – last year’s sectional loss against Iowa State on universe point, or two year’s ago losing to Iowa. Then, I suffered through such disappointments my first two years at Luther. To finally be able to put this goal behind us, it was a great feeling. After the championship my co-captain (Drew Lee) and I talked, and couldn’t help but think about all the past post-season disappointments. It really was as though we had turned a page as a program, and you could almost feel the collective sigh of relief from our alumni.”
The keys to success for LUFDA lay within the teams skill set and strategy. On offense, Luther relies on a spectacularly effective sidestack that focuses on isolating a cutter and a defender with a lot of open space. LUFDA has the speed and throwing ability to utilize this kind of space and annihilate an oppositions defense with a transition to its reliable horizontal stack from an initiation throw from its sidestack offense. Among those throwers and cutters are freshman Eric Johnson, the Central Region Freshman of the Year and junior Aaron Taylor. Both Johnson and Taylor crucial to Luther’s downfield game and plenty of teams have suffered at their hands. On the other side of the disc Luther employs a team defense that focuses on the fundamentals of forcing as many throws as possible and making those throws as hard as possible.
These playing styles have led to a great record for LUFDA which went 29-5 on the season and took third at Central Regionals, finishing only behind the No. 1 team in the nation, Carleton and last year’s national champion in Wisconsin. With such an impressive resume and a great finish, one would think that LUFDA would be satisified, especially since they are such a young team but Shirbroun is certain that his team is not finished yet. They’ve made one more goal this season.
“The most important thing in our minds, and the way we think we are going to make some noise, is by bringing our absolute best in each game, and being aggressive both on offense and on defense,” Shirbroun wrote. “Our team will go into each game knowing we can win. After the five losses we have had this season (almost all to teams at Nationals) we have gathered around as a team and discussed what we could have done to improve. I think each game will be winnable at Nationals. Of course, it takes great consistency to put together a run, and that is what we will be focused on doing. We will be disappointed if we don’t end up on top, but with that being said, whatever happens we will still use the experience as a way to learn and improve for next year.”