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Ultimate takes flight at MUHS as new varsity sport

MIDDLEBURY — As Middlebury Union High School Ultimate Coach Michelle Steele pointed out, when the Vermont Principals’ Association last fall approved Ultimate (the game played with throwing discs, but no one is supposed to use their trademarked name, Frisbee) as an official varsity sport it was a big deal among the sport’s fans and players across the nation.
“Vermont is the first state in the country to sanction Ultimate,” said Steele, a language teacher at MUHS when she’s not coaching or still playing Ultimate at the women’s masters level.
“We’ve gotten a lot of attention for it. We even got a shout-out on SNL’s ‘Weekend Update.’ It’s really fun because the Ultimate community at large is really looking at Vermont to see how we handle this.”
Steele said the VPA took a little convincing that Ultimate deserved respect, despite the sport’s obvious athletic challenge.
JACK SINGH FOCUSES on the frisbee during a practice in the Memorial Sports Center last week.
Independent photo/Steve James
This is how it works: Ultimate is typically played on a football-sized field and can be co-ed or single-sex. In fact MUHS Ultimate plays on the MUHS football field.
Or, as Steele, who played Ultimate in high school in New Hampshire and then at the University of Vermont, puts it, “We play on the Ultimate field.”
Seven-member teams play to 15 points with a 90-minute time limit, with a point scored for catching a disc that is thrown by a teammate into the end zone. One of the game’s essential twists is that once a player catches the disc, he or she cannot run and must establish a pivot foot, as in basketball. The player with the disc is called the handler, who must throw the disc within 10 seconds or hand it over to the opposing team.
The other players are “cutters.” Because Ultimate is a non-contact sport, except for the incidental variety, defenders may not impede cutters’ progress or interfere with them catching the disc.
An incomplete pass or a traveling call gives the disc to the defending team from where the handler threw the disc. A completed pass or a defensive foul advances the disc to the spot of the catch, attempted catch or foul.
SOPHOMORE EVAN GREGORY practices at the Memorial Sports Center in Middlebury last week.
Independent photo/Steve James 
CALLING YOUR OWN
But about the VPA and those fouls: There are no officials, even at the highest levels of the sport. Ultimate players make their own calls. The VPA had to understand a sport without officials before it approved Ultimate.
Steele explained how it works:
“Ultimately we have something called the spirit of the game, which is a lot like sportsmanship, but is a little different because it does involve the self-officiating piece and having the integrity to make honest calls even in highly competitive situations. So it’s really important for all our players to learn and know the rules, which is also considered good spirit.”
If a player makes a call, his or her opponents may accept or contest the call. Coaches do not get involved, Steele said.
“Generally speaking the rules are — the people on the sidelines may not make calls. Coaches may not make calls. And it’s considered really poor spirit for coaches to get involved in the calls. Really, we leave it all up to the kids. So they’ll call travels or fouls, and there’s a whole system when a call is made,” she said.
SOPHOMORE JACK CHRISTNER lunges for the frisbee at a practice last week.
Independent photo/Steve James
If the parties do not agree, both teams’ “Spirit Captains” can get involved — senior Jack Singh fulfills the role for MUHS.
“The Spirit Captain is just someone who keeps an eye on the spirit, makes sure everyone is following the rules. If there are contentious calls they can talk to the person and calm them down, tell them to take a deep breath and tell them what happened,” Steele said.
If things do begin to spiral out of control, verbally or physically, the Spirit Captains or the coaches can take steps to reset the game.
“The Spirit Captain also has the power to call a Spirit Timeout, and that’s something the coach may suggest also. That’s if for example the game is getting disrespectful, if we feel like there’s been some contentious calls, some bickering, some trickiness,” Steele said. “Both teams might go over to their benches and take a minute to cool off and talk about what’s going on. Sometimes we get both teams together in one big circle to talk about what’s going on and what to do to move forward.”
Steele said with that unique game-management system it took three years rather than the customary two for the VPA to sanction Ultimate.
“The biggest hurdle for us to overcome with the VPA in becoming a varsity sport was the concern of no refs and the concern of safety. There were a lot of questions about how we were going to keep it safe, how do we keep it from getting it from getting out of hand? If there are no refs on the field how do you handle safety? And the Spirit Captains and the Spirit Timeouts were part of the answer to that question,” Steele said. “It is a system that has been tested, even at the world level they still use the self-officiating system.”
THE FRISBEE SPINS toward senior Jacob Galvin.
Independent photo/Steve James
ULTIMATE GROWS
Really, Ultimate at MUHS has been tested, too. It began in 2012 and has gradually grown and become more formal.
“At that point it was very informal. It was just a bunch of kids who wanted to play,” Steele said. “And over the years we’ve kind of gotten more and more serious and attended more and more games. And then Vermont Ultimate Youth League was formed, VUYL, and they started organizing all the local games and setting up the schedules for the high school clubs.
In 2018 there were 20 boys’ teams and nine girls’ teams statewide at varsity, but this year there are only seven girls’ teams, according to Steele. The Tigers plan to operate as an “open team,” as opposed to a “mixed” or “women’s” team.
“‘Open’ is really what it sounds like. Any gender can play,” Steele said, as opposed to mixed, which imposes a specific gender ratio of at least three of either sex on the field at a given time.
MUHS COACH MICHELLE Steele, a long-time Ultimate player, encourages senior Audrey Huston during a practice in the Memorial Sports Center last week.
Independent photo/Steve James
With only seven girls out of the more than 30 students who turned out (despite 12 seniors graduating after last season), the Tigers will run varsity and JV open teams. The varsity team consists of two girls and 10 boys. Steele said the program hopes to combine with six girls from the Mount Mansfield program to compete in a couple all-girls’ tournaments.
Teams can be structured, with assigned handler and cutter positions, but Steele plans a more fluid look for her team this spring.
“We’re running a new offense this year which looks at the positions a little differently and doesn’t necessarily assign specific roles,” she said. “We’re looking at what’s called a flow offense. It’s a really fun offense to run.”
Steele hopes fans will come and see for themselves how much fun the sport is. The Tigers’ first home game is under the lights on Friday, May 3, and the program plans to offer concessions and arrange for an announcer to call the action.
“It will be a showcase game to hopefully introduce Ultimate to our community,” Steele said. “That will be a fun opportunity for people who are interested in learning more to come and check it out.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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