I've been watching a lot of Elite Boys Ultimate in the last six months: spring season at Paideia Cup, Amherst Invitational, Easterns; US boys at Worlds in Vancouver; my fall "team" at Northeast Club Sectionals and Regionals. The total number of games I have watched this year is close to 100. By "elite" I mean teams that are skilled, experienced, successful, and coached. Things have changed immeasurably in this part of the Youth Ultimate scene and we are at places I never thought we'd go.
When I first started at Amherst Regional High School as an English teacher in the fall of 1989, I knew I wanted to start some kind of Ultimate team. At that point, I was still playing (gasp!) and I just wanted to find 14 kids to run around with after school. During the first few years of the team, I corralled any kid who dawdled too long in my room after the bell rang: the yearbook photographer, the theater geeks, and a number of kids who showed up to the first practice in jeans, wide leather belts and Doc Martens. To get them to wear cleats and shorts was one of my earliest successes.
Fast forward twenty years and I sometimes feel like the CEO of an Ultimate empire, the supreme big fish in a tiny muddy pond. I did not build this empire by myself, of course, as Jim Pistrang, Sue Morello, and other adult organizers all founded and developed different parts of the program. I have been lucky enough to benefit from all of their hard work, as the players who try out for my high school team each spring most likely have been playing Ultimate for five or more years. A quick overview of our current school and town program includes:
- Middle School Spring Program: 70+ kids in an intramural league plus a travel team that plays 40+ games, most of which are against high school teams.
- High school Fall Intramural League: 70+ players who play 2-3 times per week. We usually have two fall "club" teams from this league who compete in the Open and Women's Club Series.
- High School Spring Competitive Program: Six teams which include Varsity, JVA, JVB for both boys and girls.
- Summer Day Camps: Three weeks of different levels are offered. Counselors are current and ex-high school players.
- National Ultimate Training Camp: Founded in 2001 with 28 campers for one week; in 2008 we had 280 campers over three weeks.
- Summer Ultimate League of Amherst: Options for elementary through adult play.
So I guess I can see why we have a lot of kids playing Ultimate in Amherst, but I am still surprised at the level of play they have achieved. I remember playing UMass in the early nineties, and we were blown out of the water. The game was over in less than 45 minutes and I regretted exposing my players to a situation for which they were clearly unprepared.
I specifically recall thinking that high school team would never be able to compete against the older kids, as they were just too physically developed and fast.
Clearly my thinking has changed. We have won a handful of college tournaments and beaten or seriously challenged almost every elite college program in New England in the last 5 years. (I know, it's only New England, but still...). However, most surprising to me is that youth players and recent high school graduates are impacting club programs, a division I imagined they would cheer on from the sidelines at Devens, nothing more. This situation is not unique to Amherst, as Seattle, Atlanta, and other areas have had high school players on club teams too. These cities have developed parallel high school programs and all seem to be following a similar pattern. So what the heck is going on?
The gap between elite high school boys and their older elite counterparts is closing. One of the reasons in Amherst is that many members of my team play other sports and play them quite seriously. Most of them consider themselves Ultimate players first, but that doesn't stop them from playing soccer, basketball, or running cross-country. One of my favorite anecdotes was overhearing an ARHS football player tell an elementary kid which sports they should play in high school, "You should play football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and Ultimate in the spring." And this advice was from a kid who didn't even play Ultimate!
Our sport has become so institutionalized at ARHS that it simply is seen as a viable and legitimate option by many athletes. The players still get teased by some mainstream jocks, but we do get a certain grudging respect from most of them. We have fields, paid coaches, trainers, and games under the lights. The guidance counselors know that many players base their college choices on what kind of Ultimate program a school offers.
With this legitimacy, Ultimate in Amherst has attracted high-caliber athletes, driving up the competition for spots on the varsity roster as well. (We take about a total of 50 kids on our three teams each spring; if the number of tryouts is much more than that, we have to cut players from our JVB team.) Because the team is difficult to make, more is demanded of the players' athleticism, as well as fundamentals, of course.
We now have the luxury of taking only athletes who are accomplished throwers. Luckily, the level of throwing skills of Amherst players continues to improve each year to meet this expectation. We have many Ultimate families in town and the younger siblings often show up with throwing skills better than their older brothers and sisters. Most of you probably can't remember when you learned how to throw a ball, but you all know the excruciating details of when you were introduced to a forehand. We can recall where we were, who was trying to teach us, and how frustrated we were, but this current crop of young throwers doesn't even remember when they learned their flick!
The competitive options, particularly for elite young males, have also greatly improved. If you are from one of the top programs in the country, you may be able to play at Worlds, Easterns/Westerns, YCCs, state championships, or with a local college or club. These opportunities simply didn't exist ten years ago. And with these opportunities to play comes the chance to perform under pressure. The US boys at Worlds this August didn't look like a high school all-star team. They looked like an elite college or club team and, indeed, they performed like one.
A week after Worlds, the coaches and some of their players made their way to a club tournament in Chesapeake. No, there weren't playing on the same team. They all split up into their respective elite club teams: the two coaches went to PoNY, George Stubbs rejoined Ironside, Sub Zero got Grant Lindsley back, and Patrick Roberts, Russell Wallack and Andrew Lunetta took their place on Bodhi. For Stubbs and Lindsley, who played on Chain as high-schoolers, this was their second club team at the ripe old age of nineteen!
At Northeast Regionals a few weekends ago, the line between youth and club continued to be blurred. I brought a very small team of current high school players plus two ARHS graduates. Our tradition is to bring a team of returning varsity players, add a few JVA guys, and practice very little, if at all. Usually we play in Div. 2 and manage to finish in the top 4 or so. This year we played in Div. 1 for the first time, just to see how we would do. And although we went 0-fer, we put up points against teams that should have shut us out, or at least would have shut us out 3 or 4 years ago. We lost all four games by a 2 to 6 point margin, certainly better than I ever imagined. At one point, with our alums sitting on the bench, we scored with an all-high school line against a top-ranked club team, then broke them and scored again.
On Sunday, I sat with these same high school kids as we watched six of our alums on Bodhi, in their battle against PoNY for the third-place spot. Now these grads all have Junior Worlds experience and most play on elite college teams, but still, the team was only put together 5 months ago. They prevailed against PoNY (barely) and punched their first ticket to Sarasota. With most of their players well under 25, Bodhi's biggest problem approaching Club Nationals was finding enough teammates who were old enough to rent a car!
In reality, however, parts of this team was put together many years ago, on the elementary school fields of Amherst and at high school tournaments throughout the Northeast. As Ultimate continues to offer challenging competitive experiences to its elite high school players, these young men will continue to impact college and club Ultimate at a startlingly early age. Youth is not the future; youth is now.
Tiina Booth is one of the most successful coaches in the history of the sport. She has driven the creation and rise of the Amherst Hurricanes as well as the Team USA boys. Her book, "Essential Ultimate" with Michael Baccarini is the current standard on the game.