The Dagger - NCAAB

The first time Brian Butch heard about Wisconsin's unusual approach to offseason conditioning, the former Badgers big man admits he was baffled.

"I was happy we didn't have to run sprints, but I remember thinking, 'We must be the only basketball team in the country that plays ultimate Frisbee," Butch recalled. "I thought everybody was nuts."

A month-long intrasquad ultimate Frisbee competition may seem like a silly summer ritual to the average wide-eyed freshman, but Wisconsin players who have participated in the July tradition often cite it as a key to their trademark team chemistry.

Newcomers build instant camaraderie with teammates through the friendly trash talk and banter that has become a staple of the competition. A new set of team leaders naturally emerges based on which players take charge of their respective squads. And every player endures a fun yet surprisingly intense workout sprinting up and down a campus soccer field during the fiercely contested games.

"It's a way for me to basically fool them into a great conditioning session that's specific to basketball," Wisconsin strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach said. "We've had such incredible games over the years that guys talk about it all summer long. It's grown to be a pretty big deal. These guys really get competitive with it."

The annual ultimate Frisbee competition began 16 years ago when Hettenbach concocted it as a way to break up the monotony of the basketball team's daily summer weightlifting and conditioning sessions. Hettenbach chose ultimate Frisbee because he enjoyed the game and he believed it could improve players' hand-eye coordination and test their ability to fight through fatigue.

Before the competition begins each year, veterans spend an afternoon in early July scouting how comfortable the newcomers look throwing and catching a Frisbee, then two senior captains draft their teams in alternating order. The two teams compete in a best-of-three competition in which games are held once a week on the final three Fridays in July.

For a program like Wisconsin that doesn't attract one-and-done phenoms and relies on team defense, unselfish offense and toughness to win games, the importance of an annual summer bonding experience like the ultimate Frisbee competition can't be overstated.

One year, one team ripped up towels and created bandanas for each player. Another year, players wrote intimidating nicknames on their bodies in Sharpie marker. And seemingly every year, the story of a diving catch or embarrassing drop dominates conversation from the end of summer session until the start of basketball season.

"We definitely get into it," sophomore guard Josh Gasser said. "All week long, all we talk about is the game coming up. It's good to get your mind off things but still get a workout in. It just shows how competitive we all are that we're playing a sport that isn't really natural to any of us yet we all want to win so badly."

Seniors Rob Wilson and Jordan Taylor served as team captains this season, selecting Gasser and fellow guard Ben Brust with their respective first picks and waiting until the final round to snap up big men Zach Bohannon and Evan Anderson. Wilson's team holds a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series so far, meaning Taylor's team faces a must-win on Friday.

What amazes Hettenbach about the competition each year is the correlation he typically sees between ultimate Frisbee and basketball. Hettenbach says he spotted Taylor's natural leadership skills, Gasser's ability to thread passes into tight spaces or Mike Bruesewitz's willingness to sacrifice his body long before any of them displayed those traits on the basketball floor.

"It's a chance for me to see who steps up and who works through fatigue in a game-type situation," Hettenbach said. "A lot of that comes out early. It's surprising how much carries over into practice. You go, 'Man I could tell that three months ago in July when I watched them play Frisbee.'"

Much like most newcomers to Wisconsin basketball, it took Butch just one summer to appreciate the change of pace Wisconsin's annual ultimate Frisbee competition provides. Butch still recalls the pride and excitement he felt in July 2003 after his teammates mobbed him for making a game-winning diving catch in the end zone as time expired.

"That was one of the better times my freshman year," Butch recalled. "To have the whole team jump on you like you'd hit a game-winning shot, it was a pretty cool thing for me as a freshman. Every year after that, I always looked at ultimate Frisbee a little differently.

"Our team chemistry is the reason we've won all these years, and that starts in the summer time. It starts by hanging out and it starts by doing the goofy ultimate Frisbee."

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