Every Ultimate program loses leaders. Such is the plight of college Ultimate, you have four (or five) years to be the best you can be and every year you lose the people on your team who have worked the last four (or five) years to be the best they can be.
However, a program rarely loses a leader like Robert Runner. Runner’s final year at Virginia was last season, when he lead Night Train to a Nationals berth for the first time in UVA’s history. He was last seen playing a large role in Chain Lightning’s championship run in the UPA Club Series.
“Robert was one of the most composed people I’ve ever been around,” UVA’s current captain, Tyler Conger, wrote to us in an e-mail. “That being said, when he was serious, you knew it was time to buckle down. I think everyone who played with Robert picked up on how calm he stayed in almost any situation. Also, his commitment to this team was something that I think we all try and replicate on an everyday basis.”
This year though, Runner is gone. In his stead are Virginia captains, Conger and senior Matt King. There have been some growing pains both for the team and the two captains over the course of the year.
“We are very different people, so last year, when I would get frustrated, Robert would be there to keep me level,” Conger wrote. “I’m working towards that, but like I said, Robert and I are very different people.”
While frustrations quickly mount with the new leadership of Night Train, positive emotions are also quick to boil over onto the field.
“Myself and Matt are two of the most competitive people you’ll meet and we really are passionate about winning,” Conger wrote. “However, unlike Robert, we express it more often than not.”
At the Tally Classic, earlier this spring, Virginia ran into its first huge bump in the road this season. Even Conger told us, after play, that Night Train’s offense just wasn’t clicking. From Tally Classic, Night Train had a week to improve their offense, and the captains were going to have to make some serious leadership moves if UVA expected to finish well at the Wilmington 8s.
Conger, King and the rest of the team put their heads together and gathered their wits and spent the week using their fresh leadership styles and fixing what ailed the team.
“That week was a big step for the team, but specifically, for the O-line, we grew mentally as a unit,” Conger wrote. “We made a lot of personnel changes that really paid off and the fact of the matter is that it just took a little time. I’m extremely confident in our offense at this point, we’ve really gotten back to Virginia’s brand of frisbee where we move the disc early and often and it just keeps improving.”
Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to the teams that have seen Virginia on the field this season. At the Tally Classic, Michigan State captains told us that it was Virginia’s ability to change strategy on the fly or come up with a new defensive look that was the difference in Burning Couch’s game against Night Train.
Conger attributes UVA’s strategic prowess to strong practices, but strong practices don’t come without strong leadership.
“A team needs practice,” Conger wrote. “We’ve spent practices on practices trying to get situational defenses and offenses to become effective. It is something we pride ourselves on. We work hard at practice and outside of practice to become a multi-dimensional team that really can respond to anything. We love playing defense and being able to come out early on a team and get breaks because they weren’t sure what we are doing.”
Aside from instituting good practice habits, the leadership of Night Train has spent a good portion of this season teaching the younger players on the team to focus on the larger team goals, versus individual victories and losses.
“The young people on this team know what we are about,” Conger wrote. “They know that a loss at 8s isn’t what we want or what we do, but they do know that winning comes at the cost of some losses. I hope, for our teams sake, that we never lose sight of the goals we made at the beginning of the season. For us to focus on early season losses would be to lose sight of the those goals.”
With all that in mind, Conger is excited about his team’s state going into Easterns this weekend. He believes that Night Train has taken a large step in producing a great Ultimate team.
“A successful weekend will be a weekend that shows the results of 3 hard weeks of practice and learning,” Conger wrote. “Hopefully, we will come out swinging early and really play the frisbee we are capable of that can produce wins. It’s going to be a good weekend, and coming in as the lowest seed we have been in the last year plus is something we are excited about. Physical toughness will get us a long way, but what we’ve been working on is mental, and that’s a much bigger part of this game.”
It’s not easy to replace a Robert Runner, in fact, after watching the way that Runner interacted with his team last year, we can safely say that it is nigh impossible. That being said, Conger and King are doing their best to, if not replace Runner, exceed the excellent precedent that he helped set.