UW-Madison’s Men’s Ultimate Hodag Alumni Weekend
The Wisconsin Hodags Ultimate team had their 2023 alumni weekend on June 23-25 in part to honor the 20th anniversary of the program’s first National Championship in Austin, TX, in 2003. Hodags dating back to the beginning of the program in the early ’80s were in attendance. This event included a halftime ceremony at the Madison Radicals game at Breese-Stevens Field to honor the Hodags (and the players who went on to play for the Radicals) and an awards ceremony to honor the inaugural inductees to the Hodag Hall of Fame (Brad Wendt, Kevin Crowley ’93, Hector Valdivia ’03, and Ron Kubalanza ’97); the winner of this year’s Kevin Crowley Spirit Award (Joe Leibforth x’24), and this year’s Hodag nominee for the Callahan Award (Nico Ranabhat ’23).
The UW-Madison’s men’s Ultimate program started in 1977 and took on the moniker of the Hodags in 1994. The same year at Nationals, alum Sam Thomas ’97 coined the phrase “Hodag Love” which embodies the passion and drive of the faceless army. The famed Hodag logo was designed by alumnus Will Henry ’98 in 1998, and the team’s recognizable color — baby blue — was adopted in 1999. The program first qualified for the College National Championships in 1990. The Hodags went on to qualify for the College Nationals tournament multiple times in the ’90s. After failing to qualify in 1999, the program started the longest qualifying streak in the history of the college men’s division with 23 continuous appearances. The Hodags are also tied for the most attendances at Nationals in the men’s college division with 28 total appearances.
Among all of the tremendous iterations of the program, one team won the first of three men’s college national championships: the 2003 National Championship Hodags, who returned for the 20th anniversary of that championship run. In dominating fashion, this team went 6-0 at Nationals and won the championship in a 15-8 defeat of University of Oregon Ego. Congratulations to the 2003 team for bringing the first men’s college Ultimate championship to Madison!
During this alumni weekend, the program also honored four inaugural Hall of Fame inductees:
Kevin Crowley started his Hodag career as one of the best players in an era of Ultimate where roles were less defined, but he excelled at all facets of the game. He was captain of the Hodags in the 1992 and 1993 seasons. The Hodags qualified for Nationals each year he was on the team. Unfortunately, Kevin’s Ultimate career was cut short as a result of his unexpected passing. Thirty years later, former teammates continue to come together annually for the Kevin Crowley Ultimate Invitational to celebrate his life, and he is the inspiration behind the Kevin Crowley award.
If you played Ultimate in Madison in the ’80s and early ’90s, chances are likely that Brad Wendt was your captain and coach. Referred to as “Zeus,” Brad’s most significant contributions to the UW-Madison Ultimate program came as a teacher, coach, and organizer. He guided the team as a coach in 1990 to its first College Championship Tournament. Brad served as the overall competition organizer for the 1993 WFDF World Club Championships, hosted in Madison. Brad is a founder and longtime president of MUFA, one of the largest Ultimate frisbee associations in the country. For these reasons, Brad is considered by some to be the most important historical figure for the sport in Madison.
Ron Kubalanza served as a captain for the Hodags during his tenure. He managed to be a ferocious competitor, supportive teammate, winner, and genuinely good guy, all at the same time. Ron was an integral and featured player on the 1996 semifinals team. He also started for Madison, Chicago, DC, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver club teams and qualified for Nationals in the open division 14 times. For a few of those seasons, he was considered by some to be the best player in the world. He has national championships in the open and master’s divisions. In addition to recently coaching the Hodags, he has coached various teams throughout the years from middle school, high school, and college teams to nationals-level club teams in the open and women’s division and even the Swiss National Team.
Hector “Hh” Valdivia helped captain the 2003 Hodags to their first national championship as a fierce defensive handler. Hector went on to play at an elite level in Madison, Minneapolis, and Colorado for the next decade before returning to Madison to begin coaching the Hodags in 2009. Hector became one of the longest-standing coaches of the Hodags, continuing to guide and modernize the program through 2021.