When the Boxing Nuns, Vassar’s all-women’s frisbee team, first heard they had qualified for USA Ultimate College Championships, they hadn’t exactly been expecting it. Not because they didn’t think they earned it, but mostly because of when and where they heard it. They didn’t hear the news after winning their last game, or even after a last-minute score. They didn’t hear the news when the tournament was over and all games had finished, or because a team randomly dropped out. They didn’t hear the news at any of the normal places or at the normal times. No, the person that told the team that they had qualified for the USAU national tournament was, in fact, one of their opponent’s coaches.
While warming up before their first game on day two of the regional tournament, University of Rochester’s coach walked over to tell them the outcomes of their games today didn’t matter––the Boxing Nuns had already qualified for Nationals. Stunned is just one word to describe their reaction. “We found out in the morning during our huddle … we were shocked and screaming and hugging each other,” explained Boxing Nuns player Mattie Drucker ’22. Teammate Sophia Wanzer ’23 expressed a similar reaction when asked how she felt after hearing the news, “Astonished. I don’t want to say disbelief because we wanted it. And so we knew we deserved it. So it was really exciting.”
The Nuns’ advancement to the national tournament is a first for the team, and the team made it clear it was not an easy journey to their current level. For Drucker and Rachel Blair ’22, their freshman year team looked much different than the team they play for today. When the team first formed in the early 2010s as an official student organization, the sport of frisbee itself took a backseat to parties and other social events put on by the club. Although talented individual players joined, commitment to competition and athletic improvement did not make it high on the list of priorities for a majority of members. Blair reflected on the culture back in the early days of the club: “[It] was a very different dynamic. In the most Vassar way possible, it felt more fratty. It felt more like we played some frisbee, [but] there was more emphasis on going hard on the weekends. My freshman year was the very tail end of that culture.”
Because of this lack of focus on the sport itself, results on the field fell short as well. “My freshman year, we were not even placing at regionals. We were just so, so bad,” described Drucker. It wasn’t until the captains during their freshman year, Olivia Lederman ’19 and Annie Shriver ’19, as well as other upperclassmen involved in the team decided to implement a change in the team culture that not only prioritized winning but left a blueprint on how to get there. “Our captains our freshman year, they had been playing their entire lives, and they really cared about the sport and were really trying to teach us, who were all beginners,” disclosed Drucker. “It was their dream to go to Nationals, but they never could, because the team wasn’t really at that level yet.” Blair further elaborated: “We just decided as kind of a collective program that we wanted to shift, we wanted to start being more competitive.
One of the major steps in achieving that mentality was simply teaching players how to play frisbee. Many members join the team with little to no experience, so it became the responsibility of Lederman and Shriver to try and properly develop players’ skills. Much of that training came from the knowledge of more experienced players, but Lederman and Shriver were also able to connect with a local ultimate frisbee player named Luisa Neves, who now helps coach the team and travels with them to tournaments. Because of this drive and groundwork built from former players like Lederman and Shriver, the Boxing Nuns have begun to achieve the success their alumni had only dreamed of, and it has made their progress even more emotional. “[I was] definitely close to tears. I can’t believe we’re going to California. It’s like a totally new feeling for our team, ” admitted Drucker. Wanzer confirmed: “It’s been a dream for many years. When I was a first year, we were talking about going to Nationals … and it was this far off mystical goal. To have that become a reality was incredible.”
As for many teams on campus, returning to play after COVID-19 restrictions has been an adjustment, but the Boxing Nuns have been able to use COVID-era changes to their advantage. The USAU competition typically occurs in the spring, but because the college championships were cancelled in 2020 and Spring 2021, the organization decided to hold a championship series for this fall, as well as Spring2022. Having competition this fall has allowed Vassar another opportunity to compete, and the squad jumped at the extra opportunity. For qualifying, the Boxing Nuns won their sectional easily in October, beating Connecticut College and Wesleyan, next advancing to regionals in November. After winning out against Rochester and Wesleyan on the first day of regionals, even though they didn’t know it at the time, the team had secured their tickets to the national tournament. After automatically advancing from the first day, the second day of regionals saw the squad competing for seeding. The Nuns beat Wesleyan again, but ultimately fell to Rochester, earning the second seed in their region, the Metro East.
Vassar will be competing in Norco, Calif. from Dec. 17-21, for the USAU DIII College Championships as one of the top 16 teams in the country. Although nationals has been a goal for a few years now, the team didn’t exactly expect this season to finally be the one that launched them to the next stage. Blair elaborated on how the team had begun to show potential during her sophomore season, but didn’t know how this season would play out with the return to competition after COVID-19: “We were playing really well, my sophomore year. So it was looking like a promising year until our season got canceled. But yeah, we were starting to advance farther. And we were like, ‘Let’s just shoot big. What if we go to nationals?’ That’d be crazy. I don’t know if I knew we were going to make nationals before I graduated, but I knew the team was going to get to nationals within a few years.” For Drucker, she didn’t believe nationals had been a specific goal for the season, but became more of a reality as their success progressed: “We always say ‘[W]e’re gonna make nationals, we’re gonna play worlds’ because we like to be so positive and hype ourselves up, but it wasn’t like, ‘[O]h, this is a goal.’ It [was always] possible, [but] it just so happened to play out like that. Winning our section was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ And then winning our region was like, ‘[O]h, actually wait.’”
Even though the team established that they are now a competitive program, it doesn’t mean a positive community isn’t still a priority. The team emphasized how fundamentally important sportsmanship and collaboration are to the sport. Games are self-refereed, opponents create cheers for each other after games and friendships often sprout between opposing players. “There’s this thing that’s really core to the sport called the ‘spirit of the game’, where the whole sport is based on conversation and community building. And I didn’t really realize how valuable that was until after all my four years of playing ultimate, I actually ended up being friends with a lot of my opponents, and followed them on Instagram. [Tournaments are] really big social events,” Drucker explained. Wanzer believes it is this sense of community that attracts many people to the sport: “[T]hat kind of spirit, I think, is really welcoming to people who might not want a super competitive, cutthroat atmosphere for playing a sport, [but] for the love of the sport and the love of the game, and the fun and the community that comes from that.”
It is in this amiable and virtuous atmosphere that has the team most excited to compete in California next week. The opportunity will not only allow the team to grow as athletes as they compete at the highest level, but also bond with each other and interact with other players across the country. “I feel so lucky,” beamed Wanzer. “What I’m looking forward to is bonding as a team. I think there’s nothing like traveling across the country. Playing teams you’ve never played before––that brings you closer. And I’m sure we’re gonna reach a new level of playing, which is exciting. But that’s not my top goal. My top goal is for us to learn a lot and be present for this whole experience that we’re so lucky to be a part of.”
The reality that Vassar is competing as one of the best teams in the country is satisfying for all the past and present players who have watched the team go from occasional disc throwers to legitimate contenders. “I think I’m just excited for the experience,” said Blair. “It’s gonna be really cool. We’re going to be in California, it’s probably gonna be televised or to a certain extent live streamed. This little underdog frisbee team that was founded by a couple students is now this nationally recognized DIII team.” After years of hard work and dedication, the Boxing Nuns are finally ready to enter the ring.