2014-05-09 / Front Page

It’s the ‘Ultimate’ experience

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Cape Elizabeth Ultimate players, including, from left, Rose Baillie, Izzy Brady, Emma Landes, Sierra Bates, and Amelia Morrissey, gather after scoring a point against Cumberland during an invitational tournament May 4. Cape won the game 9 - 5. (Courtesy photo) Cape Elizabeth Ultimate players, including, from left, Rose Baillie, Izzy Brady, Emma Landes, Sierra Bates, and Amelia Morrissey, gather after scoring a point against Cumberland during an invitational tournament May 4. Cape won the game 9 - 5. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND/ CAPE ELIZABETH — There are two things you need to know about Ultimate. First, it’s not Frisbee. That, after all, is a trademarked brand. The flying discs used in Ultimate are, well . . . they’re not Frisbees. Let’s just agree to that.

Second, Ultimate is not a lazy game of backyard toss. It is one of the most exciting, fast-paced, nerve-wracking athletic competitions one will ever witness.

It is, according to Richard Young, president of Maine Ultimate, a combination of basketball, football and soccer, in which opposing teams of seven players pass a Frisbee-like flying disc up and down the field, scoring points by catching it in the end zone. Turnovers are frequent and, Young notes, the game is, “constant running, always, always running.”

“People who don’t understand what Ultimate is, they think it’s a game you play on the beach with your dog,” Young said, “but when they see it played, they really get hooked.”

“A lot of the excitement is the element of anticipation,” said Matt Bates, who coaches the boys’ and girls’ Ultimate teams at Cape Elizabeth High School.

“The result of any play is not necessarily what you might expect,” Bates said. “Unlike in a ball sport where you can tell by its trajectory where it’s going to come down, in Ultimate the disc can float up or come crashing down. You never know where it’s going to go or how the players are going to react.”

This weekend, Bates will take both Cape teams to the Wainwright Recreation Complex off Highland Avenue in South Portland, where 28 teams from as far away as Pennsylvania will compete in the USA Ultimate High School Northeastern Regional Championships.

South Portland High School did not make the tournament, which is an invitational based on standings from the previous season, last spring. However, coach Cory Snow says the team is having a “solid season” this year.

“We have over 50 players, and most of our A team players are returning veterans,” Snow said. “We are 1-and- 1 so far and we look to have a winning record, and to go deep into this year’s state tournament, thanks to talent and some great team chemistry.

“We also have established South Portland elementary school and middle school Ultimate teams that are playing well. So the future of the program is bright,” Snow said.

Cape also has strong Ultimate programs in the lower grades, proving the popularity of the burgeoning sport in Maine. According to Rick Towle, director of parks and recreation for the city of South Portland, the regional championship event is expected to draw about 1,500 people.

“We are moving in the right direction for our long-term goals to meet the needs of our local residents, which of course come first, but also to generate revenue at the complex,” Towle said.

USA Ultimate is paying the city $3,000 for use of the community center and the Wainwright Complex, which in January won a “facilities of distinction” award from the Maine Recreation & Park Association.

South Portland won its bid to host this weekend’s Northeaterns following a visit by USA Ultimate officials last year.

“That’s really a kind of a big deal,” said Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings, a former board member of the Maine Sports Commission. “That’s big coup for our region to be able to get something like that.”

“I think what they liked was the small town feel of what the Greater Portland area had to offer,” Young said.

Jennings and Towle both said a study of the economic impact of the event is planned, with Towle adding, “I understand all the hotels on the west side are pretty well full.”

The event may have a positive impact on South Portland, but for players it’s the game itself that leaves a lasting impression. Ultimate is fairly unique among competitive team sports in that there are no referees. Fouls are adjudicated on the field by the players, using a philosophy known as “The Spirit of the Game.”

“Not even the coaches are allowed to get involved,” Bates said. “In addition to forcing the players to really know the rules, that results in a lot of mutual respect by the competitors.”

Because of the strict code of ethics that governs the game, Ultimate teams share of sense of community and spirit not seen in many sports, Bates said.

“They are really vested in it. They own it, and that commitment shows on the field,” he added.

Ultimate was invented at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey in 1968 by Joel Silver and a few of his classmates. If Silver’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s the Hollywood producer behind the “Lethal Weapon,” “Die Hard” and “The Matrix” movies.

Ultimate quickly grew in popularity, with the first college match staged between Rutgers and Princeton in 1972 and a national championship series launched in the mid-1970s.

By 1979 the Ultimate Players Association was formed in Boulder, Colorado to govern the sport. The group changed its name to USA Ultimate in 2010, and by 2012 could boast of more than 35,000 members nationwide, making it one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S.

Closer to home, Maine Ultimate was founded in 2012 as a Portland-based nonprofit to promote the sport by teams, leagues and events in the state. Today, there are 36 high school teams.

The Cape boys won the state championship last year, earning their way into this weekend’s regional tournament. However, many of the team’s key players have graduated and moved on to college play in advance of the regional tournament.

“The team we’re actually bringing to the Northeasterns is very young,” Bates said. “I think we will have limited success this weekend, but the experience of playing against the best of the best throughout New England will have very valuable results for our team in years to come.”

Cape’s girls’ team, meanwhile, is in its inaugural season, although many of its members have previously played on mixed and youth league teams. Although it did not play last year, the Cape girls earned a bye into the Northeastern tournament as part of the efforts by both USA Ultimate and Maine Ultimate to foster girls’ teams. Currently, there are just five high school Ultimate girls’ teams in Maine, Bates said.

“I think they are finding a lot more success and a lot of joy in the game playing with just girls, rather than on the mixed teams,” Bates said. “There’s more opportunity for each of them to be leaders and contributors to the team.”

Some of those girls could go on to become Ultimate stars at the college level, just as some Cape boys already have done.

Noah Backer, now sophomore at the University of Michigan, became one of the few starting freshman for the school. He will compete at the College Nationals May 17-18 in Westerville, Ohio, as will fellow Cape alum Henry Babcock, who now attends the University of Richmond.

“Maine has graduated a lot of players on to college teams who have made a major impact with their teams on the national level,” Young said.

With USA Ultimate entering a multi-year deal in 2013 with ESPN to broadcast its games, the sport that is way more than just Frisbee seem set to explode, with many Maine natives promising to be at the forefront.

“It’s an exciting sport,” said Young, “and what people will see this weekend in South Portland are the future stars of Ultimate.”

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