SOUTH PORTLAND — Like a flying plastic disc on a gust of air, ultimate has taken off as a club sport at Maine high schools.
The national governing body of ultimate – once called ultimate Frisbee – has noticed. For the first time, Maine will host a USA Ultimate championship this weekend. Some of the best high school-age teams in the Northeast will descend on South Portland’s Wainwright Recreation Complex.
Sixteen boys’ teams and 16 girls’ teams are expected to play in the USA Ultimate High School Northeastern Regional Championships, including defending champions Amherst (girls) and Lexington (boys) from Massachusetts.
Representing Maine will be the boys’ and girls’ teams from Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth, and the Fryeburg Academy girls’ team.
Megan Tammaro, a junior from Falmouth, went to the 2013 Northeastern championships as part of an all-star girls’ team from Maine. This year, she’ll be on the Falmouth team.
“The level of play will be really high,” Tammaro said of the event. “I’m really excited that it will be in Maine, right down the street, and people will get a chance to see ultimate. I know I very quickly fell in love with this sport and wanted to be part of this amazing community.”
A popular recreational sport for adults in Greater Portland since the first leagues were formed in 1993, ultimate has been a high school club sport under the direction of Maine Ultimate since 2009, when there were six teams. This year there are 36 teams, representing 14 school districts.
New this spring is a separate girls’ league with six teams. Most games are played at the Cumberland Fairgrounds, but that site has been maxed out by the scheduling of games. Several games are played each week at the Wainwright Recreation Complex.
The young Maine players are part of a growing number of ultimate players nationally and worldwide. According to USA Ultimate, the sport is played in more than 80 countries by about 7 million people.
The Sports and Fitness Industry Association says 5.1 million people played ultimate in the United States in 2012, with more Americans playing ultimate than lacrosse and rugby combined.
NO REFEREES, JUST SPORTSMANSHIP
The high-energy sport is played by teams of seven on a field 40 yards wide by 70 yards long, with each end zone 20 yards deep. Teams advance on the field only by throwing and catching the disc (Frisbee is a brand name; ultimate players now prefer a product made by Discraft).
A player who catches the disc has 10 seconds to release it. If it falls to the ground or goes out of bounds, or is knocked down or caught by the defense, it is a turnover and the action swings in the other direction. An offensive catch in the end zone is worth one point. Games are played to 13 points (teams must win by two) with a time limit.
“With ultimate, you’re constantly doing something as part of a small team,” said Maine Ultimate President Rich Young. “You get to be the receiver and you also get to be the quarterback. That fuels the growth of the sport.”
Players extol the community vibe of ultimate and attribute it directly to two key components of the game: There are no referees, so players call fouls and resolve disputes on their own; and the sport is ruled by a concept called “Spirit of the Game.”
Spirit of the Game (trademarked by USA Ultimate) puts the responsibility for sportsmanship squarely on the players. Taunting, dangerous aggression, intimidation and intentional fouls aren’t allowed.
SCHOOL SUPPORT OF CLUBS VARIES
Falmouth girls’ coach Nicole Welch said players are “empowered by having control of their own game. For younger kids picking up the sport, they’ll learn conflict resolution and also the ability to stand up for their self.”
The players get the concept and find it a refreshing change from traditional high-pressure high school sports.
“I was actually a lacrosse player, and I started playing the game and I was instantly converted,” said Sierra Bates, a junior who’s a third-year player from Cape Elizabeth High. “It’s definitely the people who play Frisbee. We are all athletic, happy, easygoing people. Spirit of the Game (is) all about making your own calls and being a positive player on the team, and that really appealed to me.”
As a club sport, ultimate is not sanctioned by the Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees high school sports in Maine. The level of support varies from school to school, Young said.
Islesboro has a team that is allowed to leave school early, take a ferry to the mainland and then bus to the Cumberland Fairgrounds. Young teaches at Merriconeag Waldorf, a private school in Freeport that supports two teams in the league. Other schools accept the sport as an activity without giving it official support.
“Our athletic department is definitely supportive,” said Bates at Cape Elizabeth. “We have our state championship trophy from last year in the trophy case at school, and a few of the girls are playing ultimate and a school sport.”
LESS INTENSE, MORE FRIENDLY
Young said an introductory email sent a few years ago to the Maine Principals’ Association “received no response.”
That may be a good thing, said Cape Elizabeth coach Tom Stoughton. He’s afraid that the core of the game would change if ultimate became an “official” school sport, especially if referees were mandated.
Other coaches, like Welch and Cape Elizabeth girls’ coach Carrie McCusker, said status as an official sport would help with funding and transportation costs, though McCusker wonders “if it would take away some of the freedom.”
Brandon Ledoux, a scrappy sophomore on the Cape Elizabeth team who is called Bubba by his teammates, is glad that ultimate is different.
“Other sports, like basketball, sometimes the kids can be a little mean and trash talk,” said Ledoux, who also plays basketball at Cape Elizabeth. “Out here, the atmosphere is so great. Everyone is nice.”
During a game Wednesday, the 5-foot-10 Ledoux was matched up against Cumberland’s 6-foot-4 Kyle Wood, a senior who played offensive line in football and was a two-year varsity basketball player at Greely High.
Wood is playing ultimate for the first time this season. “It’s fun,” he said. “It’s not as intense as other sports and it’s also a good workout.”
But make no mistake: Ultimate is a competitive sport.
When Cape Elizabeth junior Daniel Menz scored a sudden-death “universe” point in a victory over Cumberland, after freshman Eli Babcock zipped a pass off a Cumberland turnover, Menz celebrated and was mobbed by his team.
Just as quickly, the Spirit of the Game floated over the field as both teams embraced and gave each other a unique celebratory cheer.
“When it’s a universe point, you want to win,” said Menz, who is a Nordic skier at Cape Elizabeth. “At the end, we’re all friends and we play for the love of the game.”
Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or at: