Ultimate frisbee squad seeks return to nationals
Sunburn Ultimate, the Arizona men’s ultimate frisbee team, began practice this year after having to replace both its captains fresh off arguably its best season ever.
Last year, led by captains Brice Dixon and Sean Ham, Sunburn earned a trip to nationals for the second time since the team was formed in the 1990s.
Nolan Schmalenberger, the team’s current president and senior handler, attributes much of the the team’s success last year to Dixon and Ham’s captaining.
“[Dixon and Ham] were probably the best captains we’ve ever had,” said Schmalenberger. “I think what was different last year was that they kind of set this tone of like, ‘We’re going to go to nationals this year.’ This is our year to do it.”
Shane Bekian // The Daily Wildcat Hung Wang, Computer Science Freshman, tosses a frisbee to one of his teammates during the Ultimate Frisbee Club's practice on Tuesday.
However, Ham graduated and Dixon will not serve as captain again, so to replace them and other losses, Sunburn stepped up recruiting.
“We lost a lot of our main players from last year, Sean and a couple other seniors,” Schmalenberger said. “But we would like to go to nationals again this year.”
The squad seemed excited to welcome back Dixon, a senior handler and one of the top ultimate frisbee players in college.
“Brice is coming back this year, and Brice is such a great guy,” Schmalenberger said. “In the ultimate community, everyone knows who Brice is. So we kind of have like an ultimate celebrity on our campus.”
Captaining duties will be passed to junior cutters Ben Lacy and Reilly Cleal.
“Brice was really committed to the idea since high school of going to college nationals, so there was no lack of commitment from Brice when it came to captaining the team,” Lacy said when asked about last year’s captains. “Sean is just a born athlete. He just has the drive and the want. Not to mention they played really well together. When I found out I was going to be captain, the first thing I thought was, ‘I’m just going to try and do everything like they did.’”
Sunburn opened practice this week with a lot of question marks.
“Last year we had a lot of people set in stone, a lot of returners,” Cleal said. “This year is a little more up in the air, so we can’t take everything they did. We got to change some things ourselves.”
Cleal said he hopes to replicate the success of last year’s captains.
“They were great captains because they presented a very united front. They were always on the same page,” Cleal said. “I’ve learned that Ben and I should try to emulate that.”
Prior to last season, the team’s last appearance at nationals was in 2008. Last season Arizona won two tournaments that Schmalenberger said they usually placed 10th or 12th in.
“We were ranked 3rd after then, which is unheard of because we’ve never been ranked before,” Schmalenberger said. “We’ve been a very mediocre team, and so when we won it was kind of like, ‘Wow, U of A’s like actually pretty good this year.’”
Sunburn Ultimate’s success led to Dixon being named for the Callahan award, considered to be the “Heisman of Frisbee.”
“It kind of put Brice on the map,” Schmalenberger said. “People started realizing who he was and that [Arizona] had one of the best players in the country.”
With the new momentum, Sunburn Ultimate continued its hot streak, competing in sectionals and advancing to regionals. UA rallied to beat Stanford on the last point, taking second place at regionals and cementing its ticket to nationals.
Sunburn Ultimate placed 13th out of 20 teams at nationals.
“The goal was to make it to nationals, so we were all happy to be there, but at the same time we wish we could have done better,” Schmalenberger said.
As for the future, Schmalenberger says he’d like to see the sport improve.
“I would love to come back in five or six years and just see the club have grown,” he said, “to be like a powerhouse every year.”
—Follow Brittney Klewer @BrittneyKlewer