Ariel Fogden was a freshman at Fryeburg Academy when friends encouraged her to take up Ultimate, a team sport played with a flying disc.

Fogden had never heard of it. Her first reaction was that Ultimate seemed “kind of stupid.”

But before long she became a convert. Now a junior, Fodgen is in her third year as a member of the Fryeburg Ultimate girls’ team – the reigning state champion – and finds herself recruiting others.

“I start by telling them it’s really not as scary as starting another sport because we tend to cheer each other on,” she said. “Nobody makes fun of each other like in other sports. It’s a lot more welcoming and that makes it a whole lot more fun.”

In fact, having fun and promoting good sportsmanship is literally written into the rulebook.

Ultimate is not an officially sanctioned high school sport, but it has become a fast-growing alternative to more traditional sports. Fogden is one of more than 600 Maine high schoolers playing this spring.

Started in 2009 with eight boys’ teams, the Maine High School Spring League has 54 teams representing 24 schools or towns. Teams are fielded in boys’, girls’ and co-ed divisions. While predominantly played in Greater Portland, the league has a new team this year in Dexter, and squads as far away as Islesboro, Belfast and Bangor.

Maine Ultimate, the nonprofit organization that oversees the high school league, has affiliate groups for adult recreation play in Bangor and Houlton that are starting to increase involvement among high school athletes.

The fast-paced 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 flying disc.

A player who catches the disc has 10 seconds to release it. If it falls or goes out of bounds, or is knocked down or caught by the defense, it’s 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.

Games are played on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and at neutral sites – one of the aspects that make Ultimate different from traditional high school sports. Here are some others:

 There are no referees. Players regulate themselves.

 Most programs have a no-cut policy. As their numbers grow, they just add extra teams.

 Many athletes play Ultimate in addition to being on a spring varsity team.

 Because it’s a club sport, Ultimate players and coaches can practice all year, travel out of state and even design their own uniforms.

Players often talk about a concept called “Spirit of the Game,” a phrase trademarked by USA Ultimate, the national governing body.

As outlined in the Official Rules of Ultimate, “the integrity of Ultimate depends on each player’s responsibility to uphold the Spirit of the Game and this responsibility should remain paramount.”

Fogden said playing a sport without referees “instilled a sense of sportsmanship that I hadn’t really experienced in other team sports.”

DIVIDED OPINIONS

This season, Fryeburg Academy became the first Maine school to recognize Ultimate as a varsity sport, fielding teams for both boys and girls. All other squads in the Maine High School Spring League are classified as club teams by their high schools.

Ultimate is not sanctioned by the Maine Principals’ Association, nor any similar entity in the United States.

The Vermont Principals’ Association recognized Ultimate as an “exhibition sport” in 2014 with an eye toward possibly granting varsity status as soon as 2016.

Within the Ultimate coaching fraternity, opinion varies widely on whether being sanctioned by the MPA would be a good thing.

Kevin Massey, the coach of Cumberland Ultimate, is adamantly opposed to Ultimate being under MPA rules.

“We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Massey believes MPA involvement would eliminate the opportunity to have co-ed teams, out-of-state travel and players participating in more than one sport during the spring. Most concerning is MPA oversight could mean an end to one of the sports’ defining characteristics: that the game is played without referees.

But many others see a union between Ultimate and the MPA as something that at the very least needs to be talked about.

“It would lend an air of legitimacy to the sport to have the biggest sanctioning body in the state, the MPA, recognize Ultimate,” said Rich Young, the president of Maine Ultimate. “I would love to have the conversations to see if it would work; to see where (the MPA) would want to go and where we want to go.”

Fryeburg Athletic Director Sue Thurston said Ultimate’s participation rate and the athletes’ commitment level warranted varsity status at her school. She feels others will follow.

“I’d like to say in five years it will be sanctioned,” Thurston said. “I think it’s coming. So many kids are playing it. It’s a great sport to watch. Maine Ultimate has done a great job promoting it and they have a middle school league.”

With new varsity status, Fryeburg’s teams must comply with MPA and school guidelines relating to things like in-season and out-of-season practices, and abiding by the school’s student-athlete behavior contract.

“The pros are that it is varsity status so those kids who play will get varsity letters, and now they have full access to our athletic trainers and buses, uniforms, equipment and a paid coach,” Thurston said.

Falmouth Athletic Director Cooper Higgins said keeping Ultimate as a club sport – without oversight from the school department – is the best fit in his community.

“Because they are an outside (activity) it allows the best of both worlds,” Higgins said. “Kids can play a spring sport and play Ultimate. If Ultimate were a Falmouth-sanctioned team, they would then fall under the one-sport-per-season rule.”

Like Thurston at Fryeburg, Higgins said he hasn’t seen evidence that Ultimate is siphoning players from other sports.

“That would be more likely to be true if they were sanctioned by the MPA or Falmouth Schools,” Higgins said.

THE LURE OF THE GAME

The high school season starts Sunday at the Wainwright Athletic Complex in South Portland. Cumberland Fairgrounds is the league’s other primary site.

Last spring, Maine hosted USA Ultimate’s Northeastern High School Championships for the first time. The event, which featured 32 of the top boys’ and girls’ teams from Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont, will return this year to Wainwright on May 16-17.

Thomas Edmonds of Falmouth is one of several former spring league players now competing for top-level college club teams. A junior co-captain at the University of New Hampshire, Edmonds is also a member of Boston Whitecaps, a professional team that plays in Major League Ultimate. At the pro level, Edmonds is paid a small per-game salary, and gets his travel and meal expenses covered by the team.

A former cross country and track athlete at Falmouth High, Edmonds said he “got hooked immediately” by Ultimate.

“It’s just one of those sports where you always want to get better,” Edmonds said. “You have to be very athletic but you also have to be able to run. And it’s kind of like hockey in that you could be on offense or defense at any given time.”

Cape Elizabeth Coach Tom Stoughton said Ultimate’s constant motion and interchangeable positions are what make the sport appealing.

“In a course of a game, everyone is the quarterback, the wide receiver, the cornerback or the goalie,” Stoughton said. “It’s much harder to get pigeon-holed.”

It’s also a game that requires teamwork, said Sydney Andreoli, a senior on the Fryeburg girls’ team who also played varsity field hockey.

“It’s one of those sports where you can’t have one person outshine the rest,” Andreoli said. “There’s not one person who can carry the ball the whole field and do cool tricks. There are people who can throw the disc amazingly well, but you can’t have just one person control the whole thing.”

Most of all, there is an esprit de corps that may be the sport’s greatest appeal.

“I feel like it’s a mutual agreement that we’re all going to have a good time and that we’re all going to respect each other,” said Emma Massey, co-captain of the Cumberland Ultimate girls’ team. “It’s just built into the sport.”