It was game point in the game to go to Division III Nationals. Valparaiso University, ranked fourth in the country at the time, turned over the disc, handing offensive possession to Knox. Will Ensign-Church, then a sophomore, picked up the disc and saw then-senior captain Harper Garvey ’16 streaking deep toward the end-zone. Ensign-Church unleashed a massive forehand throw deep and Garvey jumped to catch it, landing with both feet just across the goal line. The two referees quickly conferred and then in unison raised their hands signaling a score — a game-winner. The entire team swarmed Garvey in the end-zone, rejoicing in the team’s clinching of its first-ever Nationals bid.
Weeks later, the Knox Men’s Ultimate Frisbee team, named the River Rats, broke seed and tied for fifth place in all of Division III, even after entering the weekend slotted 15th out of 16 teams.
Garvey now plays for the New York Empire, a team in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), which is the sole professional Ultimate league in the country and features 24 teams spread across major cities around North America.
“It was remarkable that Harper was able to transition from playing Division III Ultimate at Knox and go straight to the professional league,” junior Jonah Cabral said. “It is a testament to his immense skill.”
Garvey grew up in the Twin Cities playing a wide variety of sports. During his senior year of high school, he dropped everything to focus on Ultimate Frisbee.
His freshman year at Knox, he joined Knox’s Ultimate Frisbee team and the players surprised even themselves when they won the sectional tournament that spring.
In the two weeks after this accomplishment, Garvey noticed the team working exceptionally hard.
“I think that [win] kind of sparked something in the team in the coming years, knowing we had the potential to maybe go to Nationals, and that was always the goal,” Garvey said.
Garvey’s sophomore year was similar: a strong regular season, but still no bid to Nationals, as the team fell just short. His junior year, Garvey went abroad Winter and Spring Terms, missing the team’s competitive season. Without him, the team came close yet again, but fell just short of advancing.
With just one year left playing at Knox, it was the last chance for the strong group of seniors to finish what they started as freshmen and fulfill their Ultimate dreams.
“We ended up having a great season and a really strong team and we made it to Nationals. We did a lot better than anyone expected us to do and made it to quarter-finals,” Garvey said. “It was a really fun team and a really good team. I think everyone really enjoyed that experience. I did for sure.”
Before Garvey arrived at Knox, the team had rarely had players with prior Ultimate experience.
“I was able to provide the team [with] more experience, because the vast majority of people playing Frisbee at Knox had never played before. There were a lot of really talented athletes and people that were really willing to work hard. I think my knowledge was paired well with people’s attitudes and it worked out that a lot of players got substantially better just within the year,” Garvey said.
Garvey noted that the growth among individual players he entered Knox with up to their senior year was significant.
While it was a more socially-oriented and laid back club upon arriving at Knox, by the time his class graduated, the team had morphed into a competitive yet enjoyable program.
“His presence and his know-how and his technical skills elevated the team’s ability so much it was amazing,” senior captain Jonathan Yeoh said. “He was also just an awesome presence on the field because of all of his experience and he was a good leader and he really contributed a lot to the program.”
Not only did Garvey bring his wealth of knowledge to the team, he also brought skills rarely seen on the Division III level.
“He made you look good as a player. Wherever you are on the field, whatever you were doing, he could throw the disc to you,” Yeoh said.
“Harper is a very famous player within the Ultimate community, so our opponents frequently would come up to him and introduce themselves, or gawk from afar. To be honest, it is fun to brag about having played with Harper,” said Cabral.
Sophomore Meryl Davis, a captain for next year’s Women’s Ultimate team, also learned quite a bit from Garvey during her one year that she shared the field with him at Knox.
“Harper is the type of player I aspire to be. His throws and knowledge of the game are amazing. He’s always composed, consistent, and he’s not afraid to trust all of his teammates. He is the go-to player if a point needs to be made,” Davis said.
Even though he had this deep knowledge of the game and impressive abilities, Garvey never tried to divert attention away from the team and onto himself.
“Harper did not originally want to be a captain. He stepped into the role when the team needed him, but did not relish the act or try to sell himself as captain in any way,” said senior Margo Stanger, who had joined the team her junior year.
Stanger noticed that it was Garvey’s mere presence that helped improve other players on the team.
“Every one of the guys wanted to beat Harper at something. They all pushed themselves to their physical limits to try to beat him, which really pushed the team to the next level they needed to be at to go that far in Nationals,” Stanger said.
Not only was Garvey a talented athlete at Knox, but his personality and approach were equally impactful to many.
“Harper was one of the few seniors who consistently reached out to me, asked how I was doing and made me feel like a part of the team off the field. He was patient, gave great advice, constructive criticism and also was incredibly encouraging,” Davis said.
Yeoh noted that Garvey was known around campus for his “crazy, monochromatic, all pink, eccentric outfits.”
“Harper taught me a lot about acting with integrity and maintaining self-confidence. The [Ultimate] team is very tight-knit and at times inwardly focused. Harper was a great representative of the Ultimate Frisbee team for the campus, because there is not one bad thing that anyone has to say about Harper Garvey,” said Cabral.
After Knox, Garvey transitioned into playing the highest level of Frisbee an athlete can compete at. He moved to New York after graduation, and was reached out to by both the Montreal and New York teams. After trying out for the New York Empire, Garvey was soon competing at the highest level of Ultimate Frisbee. Playing in the Eastern Conference of the AUDL, the Empire play Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Currently, they’re about a third of the way done with the season and have a record of 2-2.
“Harper leads his team with 10 assists and his arrival on the team has completely revamped the team’s offense,” Cabral said.
Since Garvey’s start on the team, Cabral has become “the biggest Empire fan.”
Garvey believes the Empire will make it to the playoffs and can see the team advancing to the semifinals.
After finishing his four years helping to build up Knox’s Ultimate Frisbee, Garvey has continued to perform at high levels in the professional league, consistently squaring off against players who excelled at top Division I schools.