Ultimate Frisbee = Ultimate Independence

Many parents worry that their teens spend too much time in front of computer screens. But the parents of the high school students who play Ultimate Frisbee on the juniors’ circuit know that part of the time their teens spend online will translate into hours of outdoor activity. Although it’s a team club sport at some area high schools, and even a varsity sport at a few schools, such as The Beacon School in Manhattan, Ultimate, as the game is called, is very much one in which the kids themselves recruit and teach others. They also coordinate their own schedules.

The NYC scene Anne Liu, a senior from Fresh Meadows, Queens, is the games coordinator for the girls’ team at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. She schedules all their games, setting them up via email, gathering email addresses by word-of-mouth. She also uses two email groups set up specifically for juniors Ultimate. “Due to the lack of girls’ teams in New York City, it’s hard to find competition sometimes,” Liu says, so her team often faces off against college squads from Yale, Wellesley, NYU and Fordham. In fact, there are only a handful of teams in the New York area so players travel between the city and the suburbs, and also attend tournaments around the country as part of their regular season. “I have met players from literally all over the country, something I doubt would ever happen in other sports,” reports Scarsdale High School junior and team co-captain, Dan Buglione. In the suburbs, Scarsdale’s team is coed. Ossining High School, currently all-boys, has had coed teams in the past. In the city, Stuyvesant and Beacon host both girls’ and boys’ teams.

How it’s played Ossining senior and co-captain John Weir explains the game: “It starts with a toss. There are seven players from each team on the field at a time and you flip for the side or to receive. The field is 70 feet long by 40 feet wide, with a 20-foot deep end zone. You can’t run with the disc. Once you toss the disc and a teammate catches it, the other side counts, ‘Stall 1, stall 2’ . . . to ‘stall 10’. At ‘stall 10’, it’s a turnover if you haven’t thrown the disc. Unless someone on your team catches it, the disc changes possession. You get a point when the disc is tossed to a person standing in the end zone. Tournaments go to 13 points.” “Frisbee is very dependent on the wind and weather. It’s a lot harder to throw a Frisbee when it’s windy,” says Stuyvesant sophomore Annalisa Ignegno. So choice of side is key on a windy day when it’s tricky to keep the disc in play.

What they get from Ultimate The respect fostered by the game is a big part of its appeal. “There are no referees, so the players have to make all the calls,” explains Ignegno, who hails from Douglaston, Queens. “I love the whole ‘Spirit of the Game’, the way we are competitive yet show enough sportsmanship to make our own calls,” says Liu. “Ultimate is all about cooperation and team spirit,” agrees teammate Nancy Ma, a sophomore from Brooklyn. “It’s a real spirit and honor sport,” says David Kaen of the Bronx, a senior at Beacon. Teammate David Gonzalez, also from the Bronx, notes that despite the competition, the ‘Spirit of the Game’ fosters friendship among competitors. “Even if you lose, you’re having fun,” he says. Pauline Lauterbach, who travels from Brooklyn to Westchester each weekend to coach Scarsdale’s team explains, “the notion of ‘Spirit of the Game’ means that players are responsible for maintaining good sportsmanship. It’s an absolutely fantastic sport for kids to learn at an early age. You’re learning how to take on responsibility for yourself.” The players train hard. “Unless there’s a blizzard or heavy rain, the girls practice year-round,” says Stuyvesant coach Woody Kal. He leads a weekend practice at Kissena Park in Queens. The girls run and work out twice a week at school on their own. “I never thought I could ever run so much in my life, ever,” admits Ignegno, who joined the team this year. Senior Melissa Chu says, “It's such an awesome sport that I'm willing to spend four hours round trip every Saturday on subways and buses from Brooklyn to get to practice.” Until Kal began coaching the girls’ team three years ago, it was student-run. “The students have a big say in the direction of the team. There are three captains. We have monthly meetings where all students who want to voice their opinion, do,” says Kal. At Beacon, where Ultimate is a varsity sport, the kids still often run the show. Says coach Chris Lehmann: “We had a tournament this fall and the first day was Rosh Hashanah, so team captains Gonzo (David Gonzalez) and Trigger (Matt Troy-Regier) and the other team’s coach ran the game. They also run captains’ practices.” The camaraderie fostered by the game is very important to the players. “I think the best part about the game is your teammates become your family. You learn to bond with them. The teamwork is so much fun. It makes the game so much better,” says Beacon senior Joseph Anderson, of Manhattan. “Ultimate is all about team work because one person cannot possibly score by herself. The whole team has to work together to come up with a good strategy,” agrees Ma. Adds Chu: “Most of my friends who are on other teams are surprised at how close the Ultimate team is.” It is also an intergenerational sport. Many who started playing in high school continue to play not only through college, but as adults as well. Pick-up games in which high school, college and adult players all take part are common. Kaen travels from the Bronx to play in a pick-up game in Prospect Park in Brooklyn in which his coach, Chris Lehmann, also plays. “Those games are always great,” Kaen says.

On the national level Ultimate, invented nearly 40 years ago, has seen tremendous growth recently, according to Kyle Weisbrod, director of youth development for the Ultimate Players Association (UPA), the game’s governing body based in Boulder, Colo. “We have 17,000 members, almost 20-percent growth from last year. Our youth program has almost doubled — to 1,470 members.” The UPA provides instructional discs (Frisbees), a strategies and drills manual, and lesson plans to popularize the game through middle and high school gym classes, he says. Those interested can email him at kyle.weisbrod@upa.org. Stuyvesant and Beacon are among 16 teams from around the country slated to play at the Scarsdale Invitational tournament. As of February, the tournament was tentatively scheduled for mid-April. ”We are not sure if that date is going to work because it is very hard to get fields for a two-day Frisbee tournament. If that date doesn’t work, it will probably be in June,” says team co-captain David Meyer, who is publicizing the tournament on the Internet.

A high school legacy City kids aren’t the only ones who have to travel to find fields. Even in Westchester County, finding field time for practice and for games is an issue, say students at Scarsdale, Ossining and Rye high schools, since it is a club, rather than a varsity sport at those schools. “The game teaches self-respect and is a great way to learn conflict resolution. They learn so many leadership skills by setting it up themselves. The kids who play end up going to great colleges and being leaders at those schools,” says Weisbrod. Agrees Lauterbach: “The kids are really given this amazing responsibility to lead practices, support their teammates and organize things. These are really life skills that kids are learning early on.”