Fall 2011 /Time Travel/

Fun & Brains

How Claremont’s Braineaters Ultimate Frisbee team learned to loosen up and get its game back.

Ultimate Frisbee has a long, successful and slightly wacky history in Claremont. Over the decades, the five-college men’s team, the Braineaters, has held its own against much larger schools and has developed traditions that build a strong sense of team identity.

The Ultimate team wasn’t the main reason Riley MacPhee ’11 enrolled at Pomona. But it definitely was a selling point for MacPhee, who grew up in the Ultimate stronghold of Seattle and has been playing since sixth grade. Playing on the Braineaters “was probably the most important part of my freshman year,” says MacPhee, who went on to become captain the next year.

So when the team began to fall apart in the 2010 spring semester, during his junior year, MacPhee says the situation “pretty much crushed me.” Attendance at practice was way down, and the guys were divided over just how frequently and how hard to practice. “There was not much of a team and people weren’t having fun,” MacPhee recalls.

Things did not improve the next semester. Over winter break, MacPhee and the team’s other leaders came to the realization that most potential players just weren’t as into Ultimate Fris­bee as they were. “When I came here as a freshman, I was all about working out and being strict and rigid,” says Tommy Li ’12, one of the team’s current captains. “I think that’s why we didn’t do so well. It took me a while to get it.”

The solution: Lighten up and build team spirit. The team gathered for dinner after each practice. The guys hung out the night before each tournament. Parties were thrown. And guess what? Attendance at  practice soon doubled  to more than 30 guys. “We chose to focus more on the team and being friends with each other,” says MacPhee. “That really made all of the difference.”

As the camaraderie built, so did players’ commitment to the team. Weekend scrimmages plus extra time running on the track were added to their routine of twice-a-week practices. In games, their dramatic, go-long offense helped create a sense of excitement. But a bit of strategic caution also helped when it came to post-season play. After competing in Division I in the past, the Braineaters decided this time to focus on competing in Division III, leading to the newly formalized Div. III national tournament.

In April, the Braineaters won the regional championship held on their home turf in Claremont. The next month, it was on to nationals in Buffalo, N.Y., where the Braineaters crushed Colby, swatted aside Swarthmore and beat a slew of other teams on their way to the final game against the St. John’s Bad Ass Monks. Coming from behind, the Braineaters pulled off an 11-9 win to become national champions.

Best of all, they had a good time getting there. Lesson learned: “Frisbee is Frisbee,” says Li. “People play Frisbee because they want to have fun.”

About the Braineaters:

The Game: Created in 1968 by a trio of students at a New Jersey high school, Ultimate pits two seven-player teams against each other on a field similar to football. Players pass the flying disc down the field to teammates and score when one catches it in the end zone. Games are self-officiated under a tradition that emphasizes sportsmanship.

 The Name: Founded in 1979 by Pitzer College students, the Braineaters draw their name from a 1950s B-movie. As the lore goes, the newly-formed team was heading into its first tournament without a moniker when one of the players noticed The Brain Eaters would be on TV that night. 

 The Brain: Before each tournament, a jar containing a sheep’s brain preserved in formaldehyde is placed on the field. Forming a huddle, the players dog-pile atop the brain while shouting “Brains! Brains!”

 Sources: www.usaultimate.org & www.claremontultimate.com