Illini Paintball comes home with national title

By Dan Shah

While most would not be able to take a 16-hour car ride from Illinois to Florida, the Illini Paintball Team made the trip and came home with the national title at this year’s National Collegiate Paintball Association’s (NCPA) College Nationals held at Disney’s Wild World of Sports in Orlando on April 16 and 17.

The tournament that the Illini Paintball Team participated in consisted of larger and generally better Division A teams. The version of the tournament was X-Ball, in which the teams play until a point is scored by “tagging” an opponent – that is, hitting an opponent with a paintball. Then play is restarted and the teams play until another point is scored, and so on. Each game lasts about one hour and has two sixteen-minute halves. It was a single elimination tournament, where if a team outscored another it would move on to the next college.

With the win, the Illini Paintball Team holds the record with the most championships from the NCPA College Nationals. They have won the last five out of six years with a second place finish last year.

The starters for the team were James Leong, Jake Whittaker, Jon Schlebach, Nick Jones and Jeff Swanlund. The coaches were Steven Burmeister and Andy Bober, a graduate from the University.

“I feel really good about it,” said Burmeister, junior in LAS and coach at the tournament. “How many teams on campus can say they are number one in the field?”

Although the team got through their first opponents – Navy – fairly easily, the team still had to endure the car ride from Champaign to Orlando.

“The majority of us drove down to Orlando for sixteen hours right after we got out of class Friday afternoon,” said Leong, junior in business and captain of the team. “We were obliterated once we got to Orlando at about 8 a.m. Our first match was at 5 p.m. that day. We beat the Navy16-4.”

The team then got through their second opponent, St. Mary’s, fairly easily. Their toughest challenge was overcoming the University of Florida Gators.

“It was a tough and talented field,” said Swanlund, senior in business and president of the team. “The final match was very close with us coming back from a two point deficit with only a few minutes remaining. We avoided penalties for the most part and stayed out of the penalty box. We also just wanted it more.”

The Gators were an even harder challenge due to the hostile environment.

“Nobody was really cheering for us,” said Leong. “In our final match against University of Florida, the fans were booing us and trying to yell out false information to try and mess us up. It was difficult at the tournament to come back from behind against (the Gators). We had to pull together and work as a team, change our game plan around and keep our heads cool to beat (the University of) Florida and get past the hostile crowd.”

This was an extra challenge for the coach of the team communicating past the Gators’ fans.

“I ignored them and instructed the team to do the same, but their voices carried better than mine,” said Burmeister. “I gave them plenty of positive enforcement, and we had a couple of different cheers.”

The team invested much time and money to become national champions.

“We practice weekly,” Burmeister said. “Some of the guys on the team go broke each weekend to play. Some travel four hours every Sunday to practice when we go up to Chicago.

“They come through and they play their hearts out on the field. They never gave up and never considered second place an option,” he said.

“Paintball is expensive, too,” Swanlund said. “SORF has funded us in the past, as we are a registered organization, but they recently made it very difficult to get funding for off-campus events. This year, we paid 100% our own way. I would estimate I spent well over $2,000 just myself.”

Leong said the team did not receive any money from the University, but they still won the title.

“We’re going to apply to be a club sport in hopes of getting somewhere to practice on campus instead of having to drive an hour each week to practice,” Leong said.

Footage of the Illini Paintball Team can be seen Saturday at 10 p.m. on WGN. The team will also be on College Sports Television (CSTV) in the upcoming weeks.

Leong says that the team is always accepting newcomers. The team’s next tentative tournament is in June at the Paintball Sports Promotions Chicago Open.