The Emory student body consists of many elite athletes. The varsity programs’ combined 27 NCAA titles and 116 NCAA Postgraduate Scholars are testaments to this. But some of the very best that Emory Athletics has to offer can be found beyond the confines of the 17 varsity programs.
Front and center stands Justin Burnett, a freshman on Emory Juice, the Emory club Ultimate Frisbee team, who will be traveling to Sweden in July to compete for the USA Ultimate National Team in the WFDF 2020 World Junior Ultimate Championships (WJUC).
The WJUC are the highest level of youth Ultimate. This summer, 27 nations will send a selection of their best Ultimate players under 20 years old to claim the title of the world’s best. It is no small feat to be named to a national roster.
While most students were using the winter break to relax, Burnett was anxiously waiting. In Nov. 2019, he had competed at a tryout in North Carolina against hundreds of the nation’s best and was waiting to hear if he was one of the select 24 to be representing USA Ultimate.
On Jan. 2, he got the call.
“I was excited, definitely,” Burnett said. “It’s a big deal, and I was really pumped when I got it.”
Burnett’s journey toward this moment began six years ago when the Atlanta native was introduced to Ultimate, his older brother’s favorite sport. Burnett quit travel baseball in favor of the faster-paced game of Ultimate and joined the Atlanta-based youth club, the ATLiens.
With the ATLiens, Burnett developed quickly. His explosive athleticism and instincts made him a natural at the sport and he quickly became a key member of a team that has reached the Youth Club Championship quarterfinals every year since 2013.
T.J. Martin, head coach of Emory Juice and longtime coach of Burnett’s at ATLiens, is incredibly proud of the development Burnett has shown as both a player and a person.
“It’s been a really awesome journey to see him develop as a teammate,” Martin said. “He’s become a great teammate and supporter of the people around him.”
Juice senior-team Captain Houston Shrader credits Burnett’s work ethic toward practicing as an important part of what makes him a national talent.
“He’s a very competitive and fun guy that likes to challenge himself against the team’s best players in practice,” Shrader said. “He brings his youth and energy to the field.”
With his place on the national team secured, Burnett can now focus his talents towards a Juice team that continues to grow in stature and looks to be one of the best collegiate teams nationwide.
Shrader is optimistic that players like Burnett can help the team surpass the No. 11 national ranking they received two years ago — their highest ever.
“We have a bunch of guys that are young and really skilled,” Shrader said. “The team is definitely trending upwards.
Burnett is hopeful that Juice’s high-level play will draw more attention to Ultimate on campus if people give it a chance.
“I definitely wish [Ultimate] got more attention,” Burnett said. “No one watches [Ultimate] and thinks it’s lame.”
Currently, however, Ultimate struggles to compete for attention with other collegiate sports that benefit from the structure and exposure that the NCAA gives them.
Despite these challenges, Burnett has doubts that the institution of collegiate Ultimate as an NCAA sport would be a positive step. Being so strongly rooted in principles of sportsmanship, Ultimate trusts its players to referee their own games. Along with the NCAA comes stricter regulations, intense officiating and controversy that raises the stakes both off and on the field.
“[Ultimate] doesn’t need to be an NCAA sport,” Burnett said. “The NCAA might impact the integrity of the game.”
Despite not having the glamour of competing for NCAA titles, Burnett and Emory Juice are proof that the NCAA doesn’t represent the be-all and end-all of elite collegiate athletics.