In sports, a championship is the ultimate indicator of accomplishment. The greats are judged by how many rings, jackets, belts, cups or giant crystal balls they have won in their careers before the statistics, first-team selections and all of that other filler is brought into consideration.
Especially in team sports are titles touted at such heights. It is the American way — the laissez-faire meritocracy of a sports field boils down to one result at the end of a match and, in the case of championships, the end of a season.
There can only be one winner, and in Women’s Division 1 College Ultimate Frisbee, the safe bet is the University of Oregon Fugue.
Since 2009, Oregon Fugue has never finished below third place at the College Nationals held in May every year by USA Ultimate, the sport’s national governing body. Fugue went to the finals on five occasions since that time and winning the whole shebang in 2010, 2013 and 2015. The Fugue chases back-to back titles on Memorial Day weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina as the heavy favorites.
They are the closest thing the sport has to a dynasty.
Ultimate player Jesse Shofner insists that the name Fugue comes from the musical term meaning many different melodies working together in harmony rather than the psychiatric disorder.
Shofner stands at about five feet tall, has a friendly smile and strawberry blonde hair, but has been described as a “steamroller,” a “pit bull” and “juggernaut” by teammates and analysts of the sport. A member of the U.S. National Under 23 Women’s team and the All Star Ultimate Tour (a college all star team that travelled the country last summer to play the nation’s best clubs), Shofner has built an impressive resume. The fifth-year senior and captain is receiving the team’s only nomination for the Callahan Award this year, given to the most excellent male and female player in college.
Ultimate Frisbee, or simply “Ultimate,” is played on a similar sized field as American football. Games are played seven on seven, and teams earn points by catching the disc in their opponents’ end zone. And despite images of disc sports as soft and gentle, games can be rough and wild taking stamina and agility to huck a disc to the endzone or flick it to another player racing down the pitch.
“This is the culmination of all the preparation for the last five years,” Schofner says of this weekend’s Nationals. “We’ve played in the finals every year that I’ve been on the team and never won it back to back. This is the team to do it. We’re a bunch of fighters.”
The sun has barely risen above Agate Hall on Oregon’s campus, casting pale blue light over the artificial turf fields on 18th Avenue. It is 5:45 am on a cold, misty morning, and Fugue is starting to warm up for practice.
This is the final leg before Nationals so the team is taking it easy today. They run drills, talk strategy, scrimmage, throw and catch. Some of the women talk about their midterms they are taking later that day, some laugh along with teammates.
For the most part they look like an average group of college women, relaxed and happy despite the time of day and despite the three-day-long pressure cooker of competition that is College Nationals being just around the corner. They have been here before. “Fugue thrives in pressure situations,” Shofner says.
Shofner is loud, screaming encouragement throughout the three-hour practice and giving out high fives like hotcakes. Her play style is fast and explosive. She is emotional and plays through injury.
Shofner is the perfect representative and embodiment of Fugue, a team known for its defensive grit and breakneck offense. They play with confidence and carry themselves with poise. “We know how to win,” Shofner says matter-of-factly.
University of Oregon Fugue, consistently the best women’s team in the country this past decade, has not had a Callahan Award winner since 1999. Shofner’s impressive body of work makes her one of the favorites to win this year.
“To be the nominee — it really is an honor on a team like this, ” Shofner says, adding “you put many of these players on many different teams and they would be that team’s best player.”
Fugue finishes the day with a set of fourteen 40-yard sprints. Clouds of foggy breath hang above the women in the now fully shining morning sun. Eleven more to go. Eighteenth Avenue is busy with pedestrians who are just getting up for class. Halfway done with the 40s, players are shouting to keep up the intensity, to not let up. Supposedly this is “taking it easy.” Three more sprints. Every player has her hands above her head to prevent cramping and to keep the lungs open.
Last sprint. Somehow the pace is faster than the previous few. Practice is over and the women of Fugue start to pack up their things. Some leave to go to class right away, some go home and take a nap, a few have work.
“Every team only happens once. You have to savor that,” Shofner reflects. “Fugue is everything to me. It’s family, it’s growth, it’s discipline, it’s friendship and hard work.”
This marks one of the last practices Shofner will have as a single note as part of a harmony.
Her very last moment playing for Fugue in Raleigh, North Carolina, will be available to watch for free on ESPN 3 May 27-30 in. Shofner will be chasing her third title, the Callahan Award and the chance to be cemented in place as one of the most dominant college players to ever play the game.