Decline, recovery and redemption. That's the classical comedic template, and the pattern for all the best sports stories. It's also the path the UW-Madison women's Ultimate team has followed for the last five years.
Often called Ultimate Frisbee, the noncontact, self-refereed team sport - played with a flying disc on a field resembling a soccer pitch where each side tries to pass the disc into the scoring zone at their opponent's end of the field - calls for speed, endurance and agility and has exploded on college campuses all over North America.
And now the UW women's team is poised on the brink of a happy ending.
Five years ago, Bella Donna - that's the team's name - finished ninth at the national collegiate championships. The Wisconsin women finished third at regionals in each of the next two years, failing to advance to nationals. Then, in a breakthrough performance at last year's nationals, the Wisconsin women finished in a tie for third after falling in the semifinals, 15-5, to eventual champion Stanford.
There's your decline and recovery. As for redemption, Bella Donna has stormed through the collegiate ranks this season to compile a 48-2 record. The Wisconsin women enter this weekend's collegiate nationals in Columbus, Ohio, as the number-two seed. And co-captain Holly Greunke is among 12 women named as finalists for the Callahan Award, presented each year to the male and female collegiate players who, in the estimation of their peers, best exemplify the Ultimate ideal.
"We're looking to win our pool on Friday," Greunke says with the sort of quiet confidence that suggests a sweep is within reach. Wisconsin faces Delaware, Dartmouth and British Columbia, in that order, this Friday. "We played both Dartmouth and Delaware this season," she says, "and won pretty handily." The respective scores were 13-2 and 15-5, both in line with Wisconsin's season average of 13-5. Seeded seventh in the 16-team tournament, British Columbia is the sole unfamiliar factor.
If, as expected, Wisconsin advances through pool play into Saturday's quarter- and semifinals, the juggernaut on the horizon will be top-ranked UCLA. Finals are scheduled for noon this Sunday.
Greunke evinces no sense of intimidation. "We lost 9-7 to UCLA," she allows with a subtle shrug. Wisconsin notched that loss in February. From the perspective of mid-May, Greunke views the narrow scoring margin as an indication that Wisconsin can play with the best.
In preparation for nationals, Greunke says, practices have been focused on "trying to work on details" in both the defensive and offensive side of the game. "It takes a little more extra work on our part," she explains, "because in winter we can't practice outside." In a tournament field dominated by schools from more temperate climes, northern universities must adapt to winter by resorting to indoor facilities such as the McClain Center.
But extra work is not the only reason for the team's recent success. "I think a lot of it is, a lot of us have been playing together the last couple summers," Greunke adds. Many of her Bella Donna teammates sign on to the elite Madison Jazz women's club team, which competes in a summer program that, like the collegiate division, is organized under the auspices of the governing Ultimate Players Association.
Sitting on the steps of the Wisconsin Historical Society on a sunny afternoon, Greunke betrays no sign of any pressure that might be borne by the co-captain of a team seeded second at this weekend's national championships. Neither does the team itself. Practicing later in the day on the University Bay Fields near the Waisman Center, the Wisconsin women appear relaxed and focused as they work through a sequence of strategies.
"Most of the people on our team," Greunke observes, "do fine with pressure."
Hodags tops, too
The UW-Madison men's Ultimate team, the Hodags, were runners-up at last year's national championships but enter this weekend's collegiate nationals as the top seed, and team member Dan Heijmen is among 11 finalists for the men's Callahan Award.
For more on the 2007 UPA College Ultimate Championships, including competition schedules, brackets and updates throughout the weekend, visit the tournament Web site at college2007.upa.org.