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Opinion: Ultimate Frisbee, The Greatest Sport You've Never Heard Of

Photos courtesy of Jean Lehmberg
Photos courtesy of Jean Lehmberg

Submitted by Gregg Lehmberg

Seven years ago, our then sixth grade son came home from school and said he was joining the Ultimate Frisbee Club an Edison Intermediate School in Westfield.  He did his best to explain what the club was about but honestly, we didn’t totally get it.

Later that Spring, we were treated to our first game of Ultimate Frisbee.  Played on a field shaped roughly like a football field that is 70 yards from goal line to goal line, seven players on each team charge up and down the field until a point is scored when the disc (not a Frisbee) is caught in the end zone.  The disc can only be advanced by passing.  

This is done by the “Handler” (think Quarterback) and can be thrown in any direction; forward, sideways or backwards.  Once a “Cutter” (think Receiver) catches the disc, he becomes the Handler and must choose a pivot foot from which to throw to avoid “traveling”.  Play is continuous until possession changes hands the minute the disc touches the ground.  This can be when a Receiver drops a pass or when the defending team intercepts or deflects the disc from a Receiver.  Games are typically played to 15 points or 90 minutes, whichever comes first.

The kids had a great time, despite the dozens of dropped passes and the final score being overwhelmingly in favor of the opponents.  We were introduced to a whole new language containing phrases like huck, dishy, flick, O-line, stall count and vert-stack, one which we are still not totally fluent in seven years later.  But the most striking thing about the experience was what is known as the Spirit of the GameTM.  Ultimate is a game that exemplifies sportsmanship. 

There is no contact, except the incidental contact that comes with competing for a disc.  It is completely officiated by the players on the field, requiring integrity and a sense of fair play beyond most other sports.  The players compete fiercely but at the same time will compliment and congratulate each other after an outstanding play.

Little did we know back then, there are dozens of teams all over the state of New Jersey that compete on a regular basis at the Middle School and High School levels.  Today, there are four all-girl teams, including one in Westfield. The skill level of the players as they get older, stronger and faster is amazing.  

The speed and agility required to compete at a high level is beyond compare. The number of incredible plays with athletes skying (jumping) and laying out (diving) in pursuit of the disc in a single game of Ultimate could rival the ‘This week in Football” highlights footage. Tournaments typically involve six or seven, 90 minute games being played in just two days, requiring endurance surpassed only by “Iron Man” competitions. As spectator parents, there is no more enjoyable sport to watch.

This past Memorial Day weekend, our seven year adventure with Ultimate Frisbee reached a climax.  The Westfield High School Ultimate Frisbee Club won the New Jersey State Championship for the first time in the Club’s history. Twenty three WHS students and one EIS Middle School student were undefeated in six games on Saturday and Sunday. 

Our son, a senior at WHS, was one of the 24 member team.  They took the crown from Columbia High School in Maplewood who have been state champs for the past 13 years.  It was Maplewood NJ where, over 40 years ago, the great sport of Ultimate Frisbee is said to have gotten it’s start. And in a way, WHS can attribute some of their success to CHS for being the great competitor that they have been over the years and keeping the Spirit of the GameTM alive and well in the world of Middle School and High School Ultimate.  

Oh, and it was Maplewood’s Intermediate School team that soundly thrashed the EIS team in their first outing seven years ago.

The WHS Girls Team competed in the girls division of the NJ State championship, on Saturday, May 24, 2014.  Fourteen girls, many of whom were playing for just their first or second season, finished second in the state. They won two of their three games and lost a nail biter to Watchung Hills.  

The girls play a single day event due to the smaller size of their division.  Our daughter was one of the fourteen girls representing WHS, ensuring that we will have several more years of Ultimate in our future. Westfield had two other teams competing in the Division Two state championship that also made strong showings.  These players will continue to grow and develop and will fuel the continued success of the WHS team in future years.

The Ultimate Frisbee Club in Westfield would not be made possible without the usual recipe.  Enthusiastic students who love the game and supportive parents willing to drive far and wide to get the team to games and cheer from the sideline at various tournaments. But one man, Ryan Belline, started it all in Westfield.  Ryan is a math teacher at Edison Intermediate School and started fledgling programs at both the High School and Middle School when he started teaching in the district.  

He has voluntarily dedicated countless hours of his time building the skills and confidence of the players in Westfield and instilling the Spirit of the GameTM in each of them through his words and deeds.  He travels all over the North East and Mid Atlantic states with the teams so that they can compete in high level tournaments from Maine to Virginia.  

The program has grown into one of the largest in the region with over 100 students now participating from High School all the way into the Elementary grades.  He now has help running the program due to its sheer size.  Marty Collett from the Westfield YMCA, Jason Thompson, Beth Dorrity and Abby Newsome help to coach the various teams.

Ultimate Frisbee has been a hugely positive influence for our children and scores of others in Westfield who have participated in the program and we are eternally grateful to Ryan and the other coaches for making this possible. The sport has also formed friendships among the parents on the sidelines that will endure beyond our children’s participation in the Westfield Ultimate program.  

So to all of you who have not yet discovered Ultimate Frisbee, we hope you will check it out.  You may discover that Ultimate Frisbee is the best sport you’ve never heard of.

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