Chapel Hill: Sports

Darkside readies for this weekend’s ultimate nationals in Raleigh

Darkside players train before a scrimmage last week at Hooker Fields on the campus of UNC.
Darkside players train before a scrimmage last week at Hooker Fields on the campus of UNC.

When successful athletic teams graduate or retire key talent, the following season is typically termed a “rebuilding year.”

“We’re long on talent and short on experience,” a coach may rationalize during such an era of reconstruction. “We’re getting better every week, though.”

Then again, let’s face it: some teams rebuild while others re-load.

A year after winning a 2015 National College Ultimate Frisbee Championship, UNC’s Darkside squad of young athletes has earned a spot right back in the thick of contention for another title, to be decided at the national tournament this Memorial Day weekend just down the road, at WRAL Soccer Park in Raleigh.

The tournament features 20 men’s and 20 women’s teams from across the nation. Pool play starts Friday and championship rounds on Monday.

“There’s only four seniors this year, and only seven upperclassmen,” said Dain Neilsen, a UNC senior alongside Aaron Warshauer, J.D. Hastings and Vikram Sethuraman. “From the point of view of everyone we lost last year, yes, it’s a rebuilding year, but from the point of view of potential, it’s not a rebuilding year at all. It’s feasible that we can repeat.”

For more than 30 years, ultimate’s Division I College Championship tournament has been the crowning achievement of programs across the country. The 2016 tournament is hosted by the sport’s parent organization, USA Ultimate, and by Triangle Ultimate.

Begun by college students in the 1960s, ultimate Frisbee – or “ultimate” – is now played in more than 80 countries by an estimated 7 million men, women, girls and boys, USA Ultimate's website said.

“Ultimate combines the non-stop movement and athletic endurance of soccer with the aerial passing skills of football,” the site stated. “The object of the game is to score by catching a pass in the opponent’s end zone. A player must stop running while in possession of the disc but may pivot and pass to any of the other receivers on the field. Turnovers occur after a dropped pass, an interception, a pass out of bounds, or when a player is caught holding the disc for more than 10 seconds.”

Unlike most sports, however, ultimate places the responsibility for fair play on the players rather than referees.

“I think one of the reasons for its popularity among youth is that parents are shopping around to get their kids out of the more contact-heavy sports,” DeNardis said. The funny thing is that I wrestled for eight years and was never injured as much as I’ve been playing ultimate, but I would say that the types of injuries are far less severe.”

Founded in 1993, UNC’s Darkside Ultimate Frisbee team has become one of the region’s strongest programs. Since 2002, the team has qualified for Regionals regularly and winning Nationals last year.

Coach Mike DeNardis said Darkside’s talent is a reflection of how the Triangle has bought into the sport.

“Triangle Ultimate is a great umbrella organization that’s built from the base up. They’ve built a great youth scene,” he said last Wednesday at a scrimmage between the Darkside and DeNardis’s professional Raleigh Flyers.

Indeed, many on the Darkside team – even those who played against each other on high school club teams – were on the same 2014 Triforce U-19 national champion roster, including players from Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

“One of the biggest reasons for Carolina optimism this season is the Triangle Youth pipeline (that) flows through the veins of UNC,” Patrick Stegemoeller wrote for the website “The Triangle’s impact has been undeniable, and Carolina’s victory last year is a testament not only to the team’s growth, but the area’s development as well,” Stegemoeller added.

“Marc Rovner actually played four years at Carrboro, and he was a freshman when I was a senior,” Darkside standout and fellow Carrboro High School alum Aaron Warshauer said. “Elijah Long played at Chapel Hill High. I played with those guys on Triforce though.”

Long, once a captain on the Chapel Hill Ultimate Frisbee team, said the transition to college play took some adjustment.

Collegiate competition is not that much different from high school- or youth-level play, Long said, “But the level of athleticism is different, and the accuracy and pace – the pace is faster.”

Having lost a roster of starters that were all near or taller than six feet, Darkside now relies on speed, quickness and assertive play.

“In general, we’re play an aggressive style, and we’re pretty physical and intelligent on defense,’ Neilsen said. “With that combination, we try to get teams out of their game style and make them play ours.”

While UMass is the favorite to win the tournament, Neilsen said not to count out Carolina.

“We’ve seen the pools, and we think we’ve got a good draw, but there’s not a free game at Nationals,” he said. “It’s intense all around. Every game matters. If we bring our ‘A’ game, though, we think we can go deep into the tournament.”

DeNardis said he believes the national tournament’s arrival in Raleigh is a validation of the popularity in the Triangle and in North Carolina.

“It’s a testament to the local community and Triangle Ultimate building that community and support,” he said. “They choose tournament locations that have that base built or have (regularly) sent teams to Nationals.”

If you’re going

Tickets for this weekend’s tournament at WRAL Soccer Park can be purchased through USA Ultimate (www.usaultimate.or”) and at the event entrance with cash or check. Children 12 and under are free. The weekend will also feature a free Learn to Play Clinic on Saturday, May 28 from 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. for kids 8 to 16.