The Ultimate State

Story by Josh Parshall    Video and photographs by Sandra Davidson


 

When we think of sports traditions in North Carolina, a few things are likely to come to mind: last second shots in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, hotdogs and foul balls at a hometown minor league baseball game, the whine of NASCAR engines at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Of course, the state is home to other sports traditions — professional and amateur, old and new, successful and... the Hornets. “Ultimate,” often called ultimate Frisbee, is among our state’s newest sports, but in the last five years or so, North Carolina has become an ultimate powerhouse. This weekend (Friday the 27th through Monday the 30th), USA Ultimate’s Division I College Championship Tournament will be held in Raleigh at the WRAL Soccer Center. The D-III tournament took place last weekend in Winston-Salem.

If you have never heard of ultimate, or never seen it played, it is a simple game. You throw the disc, you catch it, you stop, you set a pivot foot, and you score by catching the disc in the end zone. Each team has seven players on the field, which in regulation is 70 yards long, 40 yards wide, with 25 yard end zones.  The level of contact varies between levels of play, but ultimate is more or less a non-contact sport. Outside of the new professional leagues, ultimate is self-officiated, with disputed calls mediated by “observers.”

 
 

Ultimate is a niche sport with a relatively short history. Invented in 1968 in New Jersey, it spread in part through summer camps and college teams, and it has generated a tight-knit subculture typical of what sociologists call “lifestyle sports.” Although novice players encounter a steep learning curve, ultimate doesn’t require much specialized equipment—just field space, cones and a disc. The relatively low barrier to entry has spurred a growth in pick-up games and recreational leagues, which are often co-ed. At least seven cities in North Carolina host regular leagues, with many of them offering multiple seasons or divisions of play.

For serious players, ultimate becomes a defining part of their lives. League and tournament play give a rhythm to the year: high school or college seasons take up the spring, semi-professional leagues play from spring into summer, and club season fills the summer and fall. College teams take on the intimate feel of a varsity athletic team, as many players live together, practice as a team and attend additional training sessions at the gym or the track. Within a single state or region, teams and players get to know each other as they cross paths at both competitive and more recreational events. And when they aren’t competing, players play catch, swap stories about a recent tournament or talk strategy, because, despite the apparent simplicity of the sport, there’s always a new throwing technique to master or some detail of zone defense to discuss.

Like beer-league kickball, ultimate is a perfect game for casual play, but, unlike kickball, it rewards athleticism, skill and strategy. As a result, players, and the sport itself, have advanced rapidly especially at more competitive levels. Regional and national tournaments draw highly competitive teams from high schools, colleges and independent clubs, who compete in men’s, women’s, mixed and masters (thirty-three-year-old and older) divisions. North Carolina boasts well-regarded teams at nearly every level — last year alone taking home two national titles. The men’s club masters championship went to longtime contender Raleigh-based Boneyard in their first title win, and UNC’s men’s team, Darkside, won their first college championship. At the younger end of the age spectrum, the Triangle area under-nineteen boys’ team Triforce took second at nationals, having won the year before, and the under-sixteen boys’ team NC Hammer, also Triangle-based, finished in fourth.

 
 

North Carolina also boasts a number of strong women’s teams, especially in the Triangle area. Raleigh-Durham’s top women’s club team, Phoenix, finished seventh at last year’s club nationals tournament. At the college level, UNC’s Pleiades narrowly missed this year’s nationals with a loss in the game-to-go at regionals. (UNC’s women also deserve special mention for the subtle cleverness of their name.) The Pleiades constellation is associated with the seven divine sisters of Greek mythology, the same number of players that a team has on the field. Among the state’s smaller schools, Elon’s women’s team, Wild Rumpus, represented the state at the D-III national championship tournament held last weekend in Winston Salem (along with UNCA’s men’s team). With a core of seven graduating seniors, the Elon women have reached the national tournament three of the last four years. In addition to these programs, North Carolina is home to two nationally ranked women’s masters teams, Ripe and Retro, both of which have roots in the women’s club team Backhoe, a precursor to Phoenix.

Rachel “Rojo” Johnson, an assistant coach with Wild Rumpus and a player with Phoenix points out that the girls’ and women's’ teams from the state have not only been successful in their own right, but have contributed to ultimate’s growth in the state and produced nationally prominent players. Meg Duffy, a former UNC player and current member of Phoenix, coaches the Triangle area girls’ under-sixteen team, the Kitty Hawks (4th in the nation last year), and currently serves as the South Regional Girls Outreach Director for USA Ultimate. Leila Tunnel (UNC, 2011)  and Claire Chastain (UNCW, 2013) both won the Callahan Award for the top college player of the year, have gone on to high level club careers and are members of the current USA national team.

Johnson adds that, while UNC Pleiades “is indeed the powerhouse” among North Carolina’s women’s D-I teams, UNCW has a strong history and performed well this year and that NC State is a “team to watch” in coming years because of strong recruiting classes. She also notes strong seasons by the Davidson women in recent years. Additionally, the success of Triangle-based Youth Club Championship teams the Kitty Hawks (under sixteen) and the War Hawks (under nineteen, second in the nation last year) bodes well for the future of women’s ultimate in the state.

 

 
 

Two of the newest additions to North Carolina’s ultimate landscape are the Raleigh Flyers and Charlotte Express, semi-professional teams that debuted last summer with the expansion of the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL). The AUDL game takes place on a larger field, moves at a faster pace and is more offense-oriented than club play. Despite the differences, most professional players also play for elite club teams, and some are still in college. The Raleigh Flyers, who play most of their home games at Cardinal Gibbons High School, had a particularly successful opening season, winning the newly created South division and advancing to the semifinals in the league championship. Now in their second season, the Flyers’ performance is largely based on the strength of local men’s club team, Ring of Fire, as the two teams’ rosters overlap significantly.

Ring of Fire, or “Ring,” is one of the longest standing club teams in the country and serves—along with established women’s teams—as  a pillar of North Carolina ultimate. Founded in 1989, Ring is based in Raleigh but draws members from across the state. Ring has made it to the national championship tournament in the men’s division for nineteen consecutive years, the longest active streak in the country and, most of those years, have finished in the top eight. Despite a history of strong performances, they have never won a national championship. They came closest in 2002 but lost in the championship game to Vancouver’s Furious George. While they missed the mark last September with a sixth-place finish at the USA Ultimate (USAU) club championships, Ring reached the semi-final game in both 2012 and 2014.

Ring’s style, known for physical play and tight man-to-man defense, has become a hallmark of North Carolina ultimate. Troy Revell, Raleigh Flyers coach and longtime veteran of North Carolina ultimate, points to the close relationship between early Ring teams and defensively aggressive college teams in the state, as well as the influence of the North Carolina State men’s team, which won a national championship in 1999 and “formed the core of Ring for many years after.” According to Darkside’s J.D. Hastings, captain of the men’s club at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who also plays for Ring of Fire and the Flyers, many current or former Ring players are linked to youth and college teams in the state — Ring coach and Flyers co-owner Mike DeNardis also coaches UNC Darkside.  As a result, “most of North Carolina ultimate has been branded as being very physical.” Hastings adds, “We just think that pressure’s the best way to apply defensive force, and that’s the best way to get in someone’s head.” (A recent offensive play by Hastings ranked third on ESPN's SportsCenter Top 10 Plays.)

 
 Mike Denardis,  Head coach of Darkside

Mike Denardis,  Head coach of Darkside

 J.D. Hastings

J.D. Hastings

Pictured above, ESPN's SPORTSCENTER recently said J.D. Hastings, Darkside's team captain, is becoming a household name in ultimate.

 

Aggressive defense has caused controversy for UNC Darkside, the UNCW Seamen and Ring of Fire, but the teams’ coaches credit some of this to other teams’ expectations. According to Revel, “It ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy as [opponents] start playing physical first, and the North Carolina team is used to it, falls right in line with the reputation, and is happy to be in [the competition’s] heads.” Whether or not North Carolina’s top men’s teams actually play more physically than their opponents, their strategies have been effective, as all three teams have recently contended for national championships.

At the college level, UNC’s Darkside has earned a reputation as the most prominent team in the state. Since 2012,  they have won the regional tournament every year except 2014 and earned a nationals bid each year. In 2014 they finished second in nationals and last year won the championship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This year, however, their chief in-state rival, the UNCW Seamen, have had the upper hand. The Seamen have won all three of the two team’s meetings this spring, and while Darkside enters this weekend’s national championship tournament as the overall seven seed, the Seamen are the overall number three.

 
 

Recently cast as an underdog to Darkside, the Seamen team has a longer history, dating back to 1989. They won their first (and only) national championship in 1993, the same year Darkside was founded. In the early 1990s, according to Ultimate: the First Four Decades, UNCW’s Seamen, along with their women’s division counterparts, the Seaweed, and the East Carolina University Irates — not a typo, they dropped the ‘P’ — were among the top college programs in the country, and were notorious for a win-at-all costs approach to a sport previously defined by a philosophy of even-handed self-officiating known as “spirit of the game.”

The Seamen returned to the national conversation circa 2009, and current incarnations of the team have inherited the stigma of their 1990s predecessors, whether they have earned it or not. They’ve been likened to a “buzzsaw” by competitors and analysts, based on overpowering style of play that may, at times, lack nuance or adaptability. Patrick Stegemoeller, a writer for ultiworld.com, contrasted the Seamen with the University of Pittsburgh men’s team, who “play near flawless offense, but have a reputation for not wanting to get those crisp white jerseys dirty.” (J. D. Hastings, by the way, referred to Pitt as “the Duke of college ultimate” because of their ability to remain near competitive each year, even when their top players graduate.)

The comparison may be overstated, but the Seamen have good reason to rely on sheer athleticism. Whereas a decade ago, most top college players were strong athletes who had converted from other sports, prominent programs now vie for experienced high school players. According to UNCW assistant coach Brian Casey, Darkside has had a consistent advantage in recruiting experienced talent. “We often rely on recruiting athletes with great potential and molding them into ultimate players. Our style of play is reflective of that dynamic, and we try to use our athletic advantage where we can.”

Heading into nationals weekend, one key piece of the Seamen’s “athletic advantage” is junior cutter Jack Williams. Williams, listed at 6’1”, 155 lbs, played basketball in high school, and he was introduced to ultimate by his sister, who played at North Carolina State. Ultiworld.com lists him as a contender for this year’s college men’s player of the year award, noting that he “has the raw tools — power, speed, and vision — to develop into an unbelievable player.” Hastings, who has played against Williams in college and with him on Ring of Fire and the Flyers, referred to him as “an absolute freak” and recalled a memorable defensive play in which Williams forced a turnover by Chicago club team Machine with “a head-high layout.” “He throws well. He’s really quick. He’s a good looking guy. It’s just not fair,” Hastings adds.

 
 

With college nationals taking place close by, both Darkside and the Seamen are excited to play in front of fans, friends and family, and  hope to enjoy a home-field advantage. Hastings notes, in the past teams have tended to underperform when their state has hosted nationals but thinks that trend can be corrected. He also notes that politics have interfered somewhat with the excitement. “It would be a lot nicer if we didn’t have HB2 around, because that seems to really be plaguing the whole thing.” USAU has addressed the controversy by announcing a new rainbow-colored design for all game discs at the D-I and D-III championships and coordinating with merchandise company Five Ultimate to sell “#WeAreNotThis” memorabilia and donate a share of the proceeds to the Equality NC.

Having college nationals in Raleigh presents a major opportunity even for North Carolina teams that aren’t competing, as well as for local ultimate organizations, including the Triangle Flying Disc Association — who are hosting the event along with the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance. Jon Nethercutt, a current Flyers player who won last year’s men’s college player of the year with Darkside, notes the importance of exposure for the growing sport. “The more eyes we can reach, the more people will jump into participating.” He adds that the Flyers have strong outreach programs, with pre-game clinics for youth players, but with forty teams competing in pool play and championship brackets over four days, “having college nationals is bigger than a one night AUDL game.”

Ultimate fans and curious first-timers in the Raleigh area can check out pool play all day Friday and Saturday in the men’s and women’s divisions. Bracket play begins Saturday at 5:00 p.m., and continues with quarter- and semifinal games on Sunday and finals on Monday. All college games are at WRAL Soccer Park. The semifinal and final games will also be available live on ESPN3, and ESPNU will air a highlights from the tournament on June 1st and 2nd.  In addition to watching ultimate, kids and teens are invited to participate in a free “Learn to Play” skills clinic at the fields on Saturday morning. And, if that isn’t enough, the Flyers host the Jacksonville Cannons at 8:00 p.m. at Cardinal Gibbons High School, a game that will also be showcased on ESPN3. As Nethercut says, “It’s definitely exciting.”