Winter wasn’t going great for Kyle Rutledge.
In his second quarter at Northwestern, Rutledge was adjusting to a heavy load of classes, extracurriculars, and the vaunted Chicago weather. His grades were slipping. On the phone, his mother made a suggestion— stop going to so many Northwestern ultimate frisbee team practices.
With three formal practices and two weightlifting sessions per week, plus tournaments every other weekend, the hours were getting intense.
Rutledge had a simple response: “But I want to go.”
Commitment is what drives the success of Northwestern’s most accomplished athletic team you’ve never heard of. Sure, the Northwestern men’s ultimate frisbee team —or NUT— isn’t a varsity team. That doesn’t mean they don’t prepare like one, with weekly film studies and extra throwing sessions on top of practices and weightlifting. Its captains communicate via Slack and put in hours of work outside of practice.
“Basically, it’s like a fifth class,” senior captain Matt Niemer said.
NUT also has a coach (an NUT alumnus, Kevin Yngve) who makes in-game substitutions and outlines practices. And perhaps it’s the fact that there is no varsity ultimate frisbee team that gives NUT members a sense of pride, and a strong commitment to their craft.
“When we go out, we are competing at the highest level of ultimate,” Rutledge, now a junior and a captain, said. “That is definitely a motivating factor for me.”
Ultimate frisbee is a game where players try to catch a disc in the end zone to score a point. Players can’t move with the disc, and the disc can’t touch the ground without resulting in a turnover. In practice, ultimate looks like a mashup of football, soccer, and hockey— all with a disc.
Ultimate came to Northwestern in 1986, so the history of NUT is relatively short, but is intimately known to members of the team. Over the past half decade, it’s been characterized by heartbreak. Whether they were there or not, NUT team members remember the losses of year’s past.
“I know about all the injuries that happened. I know the opposing team, they had these two monster players that just went off,” Niemer says.
He’s talking about a loss in the regional tournament that took place a year before he arrived on campus.
The year-by-year results of each NUT season are passed down player by player, team by team, so new members are aware of what they are up against before their first regular season begins.
“The history is important to us because, like I said, our program builds year to year,” Niemer said. “We remember the hard work and dedication that our alumni have put in, and how much they have cared and all of the heart they have put into the team over their four years and those stories really inspire the next generation of players.”
History has gotten more important as the Wildcats have become more competitive. Until roughly ten years ago, NUT rarely made it out of sectionals to the Great Lakes regionals. Over the past half decade however, the team and its leadership committed itself to building a strong program, which meant weightlifting, film studies, and a coaching staff. According to Niemer, the culture builds upon itself.
“We keep giving more of our time,” he said. “In my four years, we have steadily ratcheted up the commitment levels and expectations for the ‘A’ team.”
The winner of the Great Lakes regional qualifies for the USA Ultimate Men’s Division I National Tournament. Each of the past three seasons, NUT has lost in the quarterfinals of the Great Lakes regional tournament.
Sophomore Keith Bohrer called it a curse. As Northwestern headed to the regional tournament in Ann Arbor last month, breaking through to the semifinals loomed in the back of the team’s mind. Intense mental pressure surrounded this year’s regional quarterfinal matchup with Purdue. Then NUT’s third line got a defensive stop and a score. And then another. And another.
The Wildcats were on to the semifinals, and an immense weight had been lifted off their shoulders.
“We kind of got over the hump, so to speak. At that point, we were sort of in uncharted territory,” Niemer said. “It kind of felt like just another two games after that.”
NUT upset the University of Chicago in the semifinal before taking on Notre Dame in the regional finals. The game see-sawed back and forth before Bohrer snagged the go-ahead point with a diving catch. NUT got a defensive stop and a score to seal the victory 15-13.
“It was so surreal. I couldn’t even describe the way I was feeling,” Bohrer said. “The fact that we are going to nationals has barely hit me now. I still don’t really believe it when I say it.”
Each of the past three years, the Wildcats had huddled on the field following a regional quarterfinals loss. Usually, the seniors say their goodbyes and the underclassmen thank the leadership for a strong year. It’s a teary moment that has become somewhat of a tradition for NUT.
Emotions ran high as the team huddled up following its win over Notre Dame last month. This time, however, for the first time in its history, NUT was going to nationals.
Almost as soon as the game ended, the calls started pouring in. NUT alumni who had been following the game on the NUT Twitter account began Facetiming team members to send in their congratulations.
For a non-varsity sport, NUT has an unusually strong alumni network. Each year, NUT hosts an alumni weekend, bringing team members from over 20 years ago back to Evanston. The weekend, referred to as “OvY” (for Old vs. Young), consists of an ultimate game, a disc golf tournament, and recounting how NUT fared in years past.
The alumni figure into how important NUT’s history is to the team, but the club also relies on its former players for fundraising. Financing weekend trips to North Carolina, Florida, and Texas is not cheap, so the team leverages its strong alumni base to ensure it can play the entirety of the regular season.
More than any other club sport, NUT alumni have a keen interest in the success of the team. The team’s recent accomplishments are the result of a culture alumni worked hard to instill nearly a decade ago.
Rutledge estimates there will be about 20 alumni at this weekend’s tournament in Milwaukee. Many are driving up from the Chicagoland area but some are flying in. Energy from the sideline usually comes from NUT team members on the bench, but this weekend, they will have some fans.
“I’m only now starting to realize, not like the weight on our shoulders, but there are some sort of expectations because alumni are keeping up with us and watching and we want to make them proud,” Rutledge said.
The bits began in Charlotte, traveled to Tampa, and stuck with the team in Milwaukee. A team whose stated values are intensity, humility, and discipline (IHD) needs some levity to keep everyone loose.
When the team traveled to the Queen City Tournament in Charlotte, Bohrer came up with the idea of Shark Week. As the defense ran on the field, their teammates on the sidelines placed their hands on their heads to form shark fins and hummed the “Jaws” theme loudly.
In Florida, a group of teammates bought hats with the backs cut out of them and “Turtle Time” inscribed on the front. No one could interpret their utility or their meaning, but NUT rocked the caps all weekend as they won six of nine games. “Turtle Time” was born.
Ahead of the regional tournament in Ann Arbor, NUT team members latched onto a phrase Ingve used and bought collared shirts with blue collars from Salvation Army to emphasize their work ethic and team-focused attitude. They wore the ill-fitting shirts over their jerseys for warmups.
It’s up to the leaders of the team to come up with game strategy and team values to preach— they read James Kerr’s Legacy together this past offseason. Yet, it’s the underclassmen who generate the jokes, as cheesy as they might be.
“They’re really good about getting things to stick, and latching onto a stupid bit and taking it to the extreme,” Rutledge said.
The team hasn’t decided on a bit for this weekend yet, but Rutledge is sure one will spawn. Heading into the biggest weekend in program history, the team remains loose.
For Niemer, NUT is playing with house money. He had expected to lose in the regional quarterfinals.
“I’m just going to have fun,” he said. “When it’s over, it’s over.”
Even Niemer knows that’s not entirely true, though.
“[NUT] becomes a lifestyle while you’re on campus,” he said. “My closest friends in my graduating class are the people I know from ultimate. My friends that have graduated in previous years, I’m still very close with.”
“I don’t know why, but it’s just the kind of community that lives beyond the sport itself.”