In this post I opted to refer to individuals by their first name.
In the four years I played at UNC Asheville, we beat Richmond once out of the five times we played them. The Atlantic Coast was a very different region in 2013 when we beat the team that would vault into the top tier of D-III teams just a year later. For the rest of my time playing at UNCA, and for as long as I’ve covered ultimate since graduating, the University of Richmond has dominated the Atlantic Coast with more region titles (and more national titles) than any other team. When I was a senior training and preparing for my last college season, I put “winning the region” as a personal goal alongside the team goal to “make nationals.” Knowing how good the Bulldogs were in 2016 gave me enough realistic hope that in I would get a chance to make that happen during my last year. Winning the competitive Atlantic Coast for the first time in addition to going to nationals for the first as a team was what I worked for when I saw a trainer early on a Tuesday morning or came out to an evening practice.
Both Asheville and Richmond earned bids for the region that but because of shaky results from sectionals we ended up in the same pool. I think we were still getting out feet under us mentally for the series when we played Richmond in the first round of regionals and they rolled over us 13-5. We went on to play some of our best ultimate of the season after that game and ended up in the Sunday morning Final lining up across from Richmond. I’d never felt so focussed coming into a game early on Sunday and I think everyone was riding some version of that high was we got a chance to redeem our Saturday loss. We sunk into an 8-5 hole at half but stormed back to tie the game at 9-9 putting on what is to this day the most memorable defensive run I’ve been a part of.
I still think about how enticing a prize winning the region is. I watch game film of that final and still talk to players about that 2016 Final. We didn’t win and we didn’t need to with a second bid to play for. But ever since that particular game and coming so close to something I wanted for the team for so long, I’ve always wondered how amazing it would have been to remake a 15-12 loss to Richmond in the regional final into a win. My good friend and former teammate Chad Gerber and I are very guilty of reminiscing on what might have been during that amazing season – along with a lot of the other players I still talk to. I helped precipitate the run that started the game throwing two big lefty forehands downfield and watch John Ernst, who had a comparatively small flurry of ultimate experience, sky future first time Donovan award winner Henry Babcock for the 8-7 goal. That game was a personal moment of supreme validation for all the things I trained for during my last season as a Bulldog – and for that matter, my entire run as a player from high school through college. The view I had of John getting open upfield with Henry trailing a few steps and everything I felt in that small span of time from when I threw the disc to when he caught it is going to be burned into my brain for the rest of my life.
Asheville played Richmond again in 2017 when I was working my first college season as a reporter with Ultiworld. Once again the Bulldogs went down 8-5 and came back to tie the game 8-8 in the second half. Richmond adjusted and turned up their execution and intensity to win the game comfortably 13-8 on their way to an eventual national championship later that season. Asheville could always through a good punch but it’s hard to stay on your feet against a team as deep and as well coached as Richmond – and their coaches are some of the best in the division. I got to know Matt Graves a lot better during the 2017 covering Richmond’s run to their first championship and while I certainly have a very biased lens, I think he is one of the best college coaches out there. He has helmed some of the best player development in the division and certainly in the region. He makes smart adjustments and know how to counter an offense with a flexibility that I’d argue some of the best D-I coaches sometimes lack. There is undeniably a talent difference at play between Division I and Division III coaches but I think Matt could take what he has done at Richmond over the years and replicate it with a D-I team. He’s someone I never get tired talking to about strategy and he’s been one of the important figures building Richmond into a D-III powerhouse.
Richmond is certainly not a flawless team but they are the most recognizable program in the Division from the Atlantic Coast. Any team in this region who plays against them can appreciate what it means to compete against some of the best competition out there in the Division. I don’t know what’s harder – beating the best team in the region to go to nationals, or playing an additional game in the backdoor final to go to nationals. Asheville had another regional final game against Richmond last year and once again the Bulldogs came up short after expending all of their energy in the semifinals upsetting Mary Washington. Graves told me later as we were spectating the DI semifinals in Austin that having Asheville in the final was the best possible outcome Richmond could have. Given the quality of MoG last year I completely agree.
In January when the 2020 season began, both UNC Asheville and Richmond came to Carolina Kickoff. The first game of the season for the Bulldogs was a rematch of the Atlantic Coast Final. The Asheville team I used to play for was represented by two fifth year seniors who are the only players left from the 2016 team that went to nationals. Ultiworld assigned the game as the first we would film in 2020. In the tournament preview I said Asheville could throw a good punch with its top end and maybe get the win that eluded us for seven years. I knew that all of the top returners would want to win that game given their own history playing Richmond. Ethan Cole stood out to me as someone who truly has wanted to beat Richmond into the grass every time the teams played the last five years. As a freshman in 2016 he was probably the person I spoke with the most about my personal ambition to see it happen in the regional final.
Like much of the rest of the team I didn’t initially recognize Ethan on Saturday morning. Aside from Chad who was helping out with calling line, Darius Anglin, and Ethan, everyone else started playing after 2016. There was still a very strong sense that winning a game against the best team in the region mattered, even in January when the season was still pretty young and just about every score reflected that. Junior Wilson Matthews ran particularly hot in the first half with a streak of multiple goals. Sophomore Trevor Pentland made several athletic plays for UNCA’s D line as the team took a two point lead, probably the most a Bulldog team has led in a game against Richmond. Matt and Richmond adjusted and ran zone, taking back the lead into halftime 7-6.
The horn to cap the game came during halftime making it very clear that the only scenario in which Asheville could win the game would be to break Richmond twice in a row to win 8-7. In short Richmond could not score a single point in the second half. The rule I operate under in a double game point scenario is that the team that pulls is the team that loses. I’m not sure if there’s been a study done on games that come down to sudden but it’s generally safe to bet against the defense on those points especially in high level club game. But this wasn’t a high level club game. This was a college ultimate game between two D-III teams with a long history. With only two points left to play in the game at most, Asheville wasn’t going to sit anyone. They were going to throw their best punch and maybe make their own luck with a strong D line. Walking back to my camera I couldn’t help but think about that last regional final, one of the times I can distinctly remember feeling like there was nothing to lose and everything to win by scoring two points in a row.
Asheville switched their offensive line over to defense. They set a smart poach that stopped Richmond’s pull play and made them look for a different option. Just outside of midfield Dean Merritt got an amazing hand block but overthrew a backhand swing which got batted down into the turf. Richmond again slowly worked the disc up field before UNCA’s Paul Inkenberry got a run through block. Dean took a little time to let the offense set up before immediately sending a backhand to Darius in the back of the endzone. The game was tied at 7s. Asheville once again pulled to start double game point. Richmond marched the disc up to midfield against UNCA’s zone and another turnover came on a backhand swing that sailed too far past the reset space. There was nothing very flashy about the last possession of the game until Dean caught the game winning score and punted the disc into the sky.
I was doing the math in my head of how long ago Asheville beat Richmond before the tournament. I held off bringing it up until after the game talking with players on the sideline. There was a significance to that game for alumni like me and Chad. We never really cracked that game when it happened though we were close a couple of times. There are certainly some question marks around what it will take for the team to crack it again in April. Richmond was missing five starting players and they were barely edged in a game that they will be studying later this season. For players who competed in the seven years that we didn’t win that game, the 2020 win sits outside the timescale of a single season. It’s a piece of an ongoing project to build a great team at Asheville, a project that has many different forms and meanings to a lot of people. For the 2020 UNC Asheville team it was the best possible start to the season they could have hoped for. The confidence gained from beating the best team in the region could be a serious strength for the team down the road. For the very few older players like Ethan and Darius it’s a win that has come on the back of a lot of tough losses and one they can be proud to have earned at last. It was a low scoring and sometimes pretty sloppy and raw game that has a lot more meaning outside of the scoreline. That’s what college ultimate is.