A bunch of teenagers running around in a field. Probably barefoot. Wearing tie-dyed T-shirts.
That’s the image most folks back in his ski village hometown of Waitsfield, Vt., have of his chosen sport, figures Chris Ward ’19.
Not everyone, he knows, completely gets ultimate—once known as ultimate Frisbee—a disc- throwing sport admired by a growing number of participants and followers for the value it places on sportsmanship, camaraderie, and athleticism.
“They don’t understand how competitive it can be,” Ward says. “That doesn’t always come across.”
Ward and teammates emphatically deny this laid-back, hippy image. This is not your father’s Frisbee.
Phillips Academy Ultimate goes by the nickname Blue Steel. The co-ed team started as a club and was elevated to varsity status in 2006, due in large part to the hard work and dedication of coach Scott Hoenig, who also teaches mathematics.
Ultimate features seven-on-seven games with handlers and cutters. Handlers are like quarterbacks and specialize in throwing the disc; cutters act similar to football receivers as they work to get open and help the team advance the disc and score.
“I feel like it’s a combination of every sport I’ve ever loved,” says Blue Steel team member Isaiah Lee ’19. “I love the fluid nature of it, the way plays can develop one after another, with seemingly no stops or starts. The art of throwing and catching a disc is something separate from any other ball sport, but it still has the same sort of movement of basketball or the strategy of something like football and soccer where you work as a team to move the disc down the field.”
Lee and Ward will captain Blue Steel in spring 2019 and look forward to continuing the team’s success, which includes a New England Prep School Ultimate League Championship in 2017 and sending a steady stream of athletes on to play in college and beyond on various semi-pro, national, and elite teams.
A sampling of PA ultimate alumni includes Piper Curtis ’13, who played women’s soccer and ultimate at Dartmouth College. Curtis won two national championships with Dartmouth and competed on the U20 and U24 USA National teams that won world championships. Charlotte Doran ’13 played at Vanderbilt and now competes with Boston Siege, and Jonah Guerin ’07 went to the Division III National Championships while playing at Connecticut College; he is now the operations manager at the Boston Ultimate Disc Alliance. Ben Feng ’07 played at Georgetown and on semi-pro and elite teams, coached national championship youth club teams, and covered the 2018 National Club Championships in San Diego as a journalist.
Coach Hoenig and his wife, Jennifer, have long-lived the ultimate life. The couple played ultimate together at Bowdoin College and after that with various club teams in Portland, Maine, and in Boston. Their boys, ages 11 and 7, are playing now.
“They like throwing the disc and being active outside with other kids—they have a lot of fun with it,” Hoenig says. “It’s cool that my boys have the opportunity to play at such a young age.”
Hoenig not only passes along ultimate strategy to his boys but also likes that they are learning some of the unique aspects of the sport, with its emphasis on sportsmanship and camaraderie. There are no referees in games or tournaments. Players must settle their differences and make rulings on their own.
It’s one of the things that Hoenig and Leon Modeste, Phillips football coach, and director of athletics, say they love about ultimate.
“Players have to know the rules,” Hoenig says. “We go over them every day. They have to make calls on the field and trust their opponent is doing their best to make fair calls as well. Players have to be able to keep a calm head if there are disagreements. Coaches are not allowed to interfere.”
“It’s a great game that requires lots of athleticism, cardio, strategy, and everything else we love,” says Modeste. “And it doesn’t have officials. Instead of looking to officials for calls, ultimate is more like, ‘You take this one, we’ll take the next one.’ It’s fantastic.”
Modeste calls ultimate “a beautiful game to watch.” He’ll get no argument from Ward, Lee, or any other Blue Steel alum.
“I love it,” says Feng. “Playing ultimate was one of the best decisions of my life.”