Varsity Letter on Urbana High's Champion Ultimate Frisbee Team

By Preston Williams
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Like many Ultimate Frisbee enthusiasts, Urbana High School senior Ryan Fagan finds the essence of the sport difficult to describe. It combines elements of many athletic pursuits, yet has a sort of anti-sport heritage. It beckons free spirits, yet demands teamwork. And it is at the fledgling level at high schools, at least in the Washington region, yet in some ways might be the purest high school sport because it was invented by New Jersey students in a school parking lot more than 40 years ago.

So it somehow made perfect sense last week when Fagan, during a break at practice, said that "a lot of kids come out here and think this is different from a lot of other sports, but it's still kind of the same, but it's just different."

Yes, trying to get a handle on Ultimate, as it is known (the sport uses disks other than the trademarked Frisbee brand), is like trying to get a handle on a fluttering disk on a blustery day. One thing is for sure: Club teams have found a home at high schools in the area, particularly at Urbana, which, in its third year of playing, won its third Maryland state title last weekend.

Urbana, which plays in the Washington Area Frisbee Club, beat Calvert Hall, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Magruder and Mount Hebron to defend its championship.

An Ultimate primer: The seven-on-seven, no-contact game is played at a caffeinated pace. The field is 40 yards wide and 120 yards long, including 25-yard end zones. Players, throwing disks mostly with forehands and backhands and from various release points, advance the disk by passing it to a teammate. A player has 10 seconds to throw, and can use a pivot foot. Possessions can last as long as a team can cleanly handle the disk. A player runs to get open, but he can't run with the disk after a catch. A disk that's dropped or intercepted or sails out of bounds results in a turnover. Games usually go to 15 points and take about 90 minutes.

There are no officials, so the game has a backyard feel, with players resolving differences themselves. In fact, a sportsmanship code is written into the rules and is ingrained in the sport's culture. Ultimate players travel light; other than cleats, a disk and cones to line the field, no equipment is necessary. Check out clips on YouTube for a visual aid.

Mention of the word "Frisbee," Ultimate or otherwise, still evokes images of picnic blankets, splashing in the surf or leaping dogs chomping disks out of the air. Skeptical queries of "That's a sport?" have triggered many an explanation from Ultimate players.

"You'd tell [classmates] you're playing Ultimate Frisbee, and they'd laugh," said Urbana junior Daniel Henry, a former soccer player. "Once you bring cleats and stuff into school and put [them] in your locker, they're like, 'You need cleats to play Ultimate Frisbee? Like, seriously?' "

As a club team, the Urbana Ultimate squad is not funded by the school in Ijamsville and does not use the school's name or nickname on its jerseys. Team founders three years ago dubbed the team the Hodad Priests on a lark. A "hodad" is a wannabe surfer, and the founders were amused at the image of a surfing priest.

Ultimate might not be a school sport, but it resembles a lot of others, including soccer and lacrosse, in the way the game flows. It is like football in that the idea is to make it into the end zone, often off set plays or patterns that the players run. It features a "pull" that's similar to a kickoff. There's a bit of golf in that players can direct the disk's flight by the manner in which they flick the 175-gram disk, a bit heavier than most conventional disks.

Ultimate has some cross-country elements because of the endurance it can require. Players run several miles when they play multiple games during a tournament weekend. It's also like tennis, in that the athletes do their own officiating. There is a hint of basketball in it, too, particularly in the way that teams have to immediately transition from offense to defense or vice versa after a turnover, and the way the "handlers" distribute the disk as a point guard would.

"It's a sport," Fagan said. "We're running, we're sprinting, we're diving, we're catching. It's a sport."

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