Something’s flying around the St. Mary’s gymnasium, and it’s not a basketball.
For two nights a week, the old facility houses the Hucking Halos, Villanova’s women’s ultimate frisbee club team.
Unlike most sports teams, they don’t have a coach. Yet, they find a way to manage, each player knows the drill. It has become routine to have an absent-minded catch before every practice. Like all catches, they are basic and nothing but muscle memory movements. On the surface, tossing the frisbee seems instinctual and simple, as it is something that can easily be done in your own backyard. However, the casual appearance of ultimate frisbee masks the deeper complexion that goes into the sport and the operation of the team.
“It takes a lot of endurance,” says Ariana White, a junior. “It’s fast-paced, you’re constantly running back and forth.”
The game is played on a field that is just a bit smaller than a soccer field. Each team fields seven players. The objective is to get the frisbee into the end zone through a series of passes, resulting in a point scored. Sounds simple, but it’s not.
“You can’t just freely run around the field,” says Aubree Fairfull, a senior captain. “There is a strategy behind what we are doing.”
Whoever has the disc is not allowed to take any steps. They must pass to their teammates who are actively making cuts to get open. A turnover occurs whenever there is an incomplete pass, an interception, or if the player on offense does not release the disc after ten seconds. Substitutions can only occur after each point is scored. During that time, teams may strategize and make necessary modifications to their game plan. Games are self-officiated under a clause in the rulebook that stresses sportsmanship and fair play. Players call their own fouls and are quick to resolve them through compromise.
Ultimate frisbee is a relatively new sport; first emerging in 1968, with its roots tracing back to Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. It rose in popularity as leagues and competitions were organized throughout the 1970s. From there, it swept the nation and eventually, the world. It found its way onto Villanova’s campus with the formation of the men’s ultimate team 14 years ago. The Halos were born four years later.
The women’s ultimate frisbee team is one of Villanova’s 30 club teams offered on campus.
“With club sports, they’re intercampus,” says Max Miller, Director of Club Sports. “They do have that travel aspect and that competitive aspect; they just don’t have as much of a time commitment as a varsity sport.”
Club sports lie right in between the friendly competition of intramurals and the rigorous nature of varsity sports. Like most teams, the Hucking Halos participate in tournaments and compete against other schools. They play teams in the local area, never venturing more than just a few counties outside of the Main Line. What makes these club teams unique is the fact that they are student-run.
“They’re really running the show,” says Lisa Harris, Associate Athletic Director of Recreation. We provide the resources, information, and the history to help them make better decisions.”
It is a team’s responsibility to balance their budget, order jerseys and other equipment, run practices, and arrange travel arrangements for competitions. For the Halos, they have to worry about all this and more – the absence of a coach places more responsibility on their leaders.
With no coach, you could only imagine the discord that takes place in trying to rally a bunch of college kids to focus in on weeknights. However, that’s not the case for this team. At least, not if the captains have to say anything about it. Aubree Fairfull is joined by two others, Kristina Duarte and Rachel Malloy, to serve as a trifecta of leaders. The three captains help each other balance out their responsibilities. They set the pace in practice, striking the perfect balance of knowing when to joke around and when to take things seriously. One moment they’ll lead banana dances and later they will be sternly giving orders.
“It’s really easy when you’re playing after a long day and people just want to goof off on the sidelines,” says Malloy. “It’s important that they stay focused.”
All practices begin in a familiar fashion, a few laps to warm up and stretches to help loosen up before engaging in various drills. These drills were taken from an assortment of online resources, with a main one being YouTube. Captains have to do their homework before each practice, not only selecting what drills to do, but also figuring out how to run them properly.
“Google has been my friend,” says Fairfull. “Because I didn’t have prior experience, I just had to teach myself how these drills work.”
These drills often review fundamentals. They test throwing and catching techniques, as well as simulating game-time situations. One such drill was reminiscent of a bucket brigade. At one end, a player had to throw a short pass to a cutter and race to the other end of the gym. The first cutter would pass to a person making the second cut and this chain would continue. The one who raced to the end of the gym had to be there to beat the series of cutters and catch the final pass to complete the cycle. Each pass had to be both precise and rapid; timing is everything.
One of the challenges in organizing these practices is catering to the varying skill levels.
“We take in a lot of new players who have never played frisbee before,” says Fairfull. “The first thing we do is to teach them how to throw a disc. Some people don’t know there’s more than one way to it.”
Aside from the basic backhand throw that everyone is familiar with, players must also learn the tricks behind the more sophisticated forehand flick and overhead hammer throws. The two advanced throws require lots of practice to master, as they are unlike any other technique from other sports and one-of-a-kind to frisbee. In a sport that requires precise movements and timing, the slightest exaggeration of movement, throws everything off balance. The forehand flick is a quick release in which the player releases the frisbee from a sidearm throwing motion. The catch is that all of the movement comes solely from the wrist, the player has to place spin with the snap of a finger. At first glance, the overhead hammer throw appears to be a reckless baseball toss. In actuality, it’s similar to the flick, just done overhead. When done correctly, the disc turns and spins flat in a crescent pattern. How? Not so sure a physicist could even explain why.
“I’m still learning all this,” says freshman Lindsey Walsh. “I personally think I’m terrible, but I’m working on it. It’s like learning how to read again. You feel like a beginner, a baby.”
Witnessing the more experienced players executing the different throws of the game becomes a spectacle in itself to watch. It rivals that of a conductor leading the Philharmonic Orchestra. They are in control of the moment. Their arms move in a matter that is a smooth combination of passion, precision, and grace, providing the tools for a perfect symphony. The result: the disc dances through the air to the tune of a crescendo. One misstep in delivery and the outcome is just as noticeable as going off-key, the frisbee sputters in an unwanted direction.
The lack of a coach is something that doesn’t deter from the players’ experiences.
“I like that dynamic. It’s definitely different because you have to respect and rely on your peers,” says Lauren Clem, a senior on the team. “It’s a responsibility for the players who have been playing for a while to teach the newer players, but it works – you’re all learning together and teaching each other.”
It certainly wasn’t a problem for them in early November, when the Halos captured third place in a tournament at Franklin & Marshall. They took home a bronze hoe, a prize that humorously paid homage to the agricultural lifestyle that dominates the surrounding Lancaster area. They brought the trophy back to Villanova for the second year in a row. Last year was the first time the Halos brought an award home since the program’s inception.
“It was tough because it was really cold and windy that Halloween weekend,” says Kristina Duarte, a two-year junior captain. “We were able to do a good job of staying hyped up for the games.”
More importantly, they won their first Spirit Award. The Spirit Award embodies the biggest part of ultimate frisbee, “The Spirit of the Game.” It is one of the first clauses introduced through the official ultimate frisbee rule book. “The Spirit of the Game” holds players to the highest standard of fair play and respect for one another. Each team is given a survey in order to evaluate opposing teams based on their sportsmanship, if they were fun to play against, their attitude, but most importantly, their spirit. Their responses are tallied up and the Spirit Award is awarded to the highest scorer.
After every game, instead of doing the traditional lineups to shake hands and say “good game”, teams do a cheer for their opponent. It is a custom that is unique to ultimate frisbee. Teams will cheer and sing songs to their opponent, as a way to say thank you and good game. Frisbee lingo usually finds its way into teams’ cheers. The Halos’ cheers include parodies of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from Disney’s Frozen.
While it seems ludicrous to sing songs and cheer for your opponent after a win or loss, it proves to be therapeutic and beneficial for both teams.
“If you’re playing a really frustrating game and it’s really close, tensions start to get a little high,” adds Clem. “But you come together at the end, you sing a cheer for each other and it defuses that tension. It makes it all okay.”
The Halos look forward to their next tournament, which isn’t taking place until the spring. Until then, they’ll be practicing and dancing in the St. Mary’s gym. As they look ahead, senior captain Aubree Fairfull is looking back. The team has gone a long way during her four years here.
“I was the only person in my class that stayed from freshman to sophomore year,” says Fairfull.
As a freshman, they barely fielded 15 girls as a team, and now they’ve easily obtained a class of 15 freshmen to consistently show up.
“It was tough getting girls to show up to practice,” said former captain A.J. Montañez, who played for the Halos from 2010-2013. “Back then, four to eight girls came to practice each week, which wasn’t enough to do much. We didn’t really compete in tournaments. The men’s team didn’t recognize us as a real team.”
This generation of Halos has evolved from those that came before them, rising to new heights in every facet of the team – competitively, socially, and from a numbers standpoint. Recruitment is often done through word of mouth.
“I had a couple of friends on the team that encouraged me to join,” said junior Alex Connor. “They said there was a good group of people here. I came out to my first practice and I liked everyone here, so I decided to stay.”
No one is left behind; new players are greeted with open arms. Mistakes are met with patience and reassurance. Everyone is invited to team dinners, cookie baking nights, and service opportunities such as Villanova’s Day of Service. Each cracked joke and hour spent together only adds to the wonderful team dynamic that brings people back to the old gymnasium. It is a stable, promising time for Hucking Halos, with no cause for concern. The scintillating future of the Halos grows with each passing day, each new member, and every minute they are together. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter – they have each other.