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Article Published August 23, 2021

Ultimate Discourse on the Local Scene

By Chris Negrini/

In the pages of this sports section, we have written volumes on sports that have produced plenty of household names, but we also like to focus on athletes who aren’t quite household names just yet. Baseball, basketball, softball, football, hockey—we all know all about those sports and their intricacies.

In this story, we will be exploring a different type of sport, but one that features athletes who are still accomplishing a lot and are becoming more demanding of our attention. That sport is ultimate or, as it was originally known, ultimate Frisbee.


The exact date that ultimate came into being isn’t well known. There is evidence that a disc-based football game was played with pie tins in Ohio in the early 1940s, but what is often thought to be the birth of the sport came in the mid-1960s, when several students at Amherst College in Massachusetts played a game that featured most of the elements of ultimate as it’s played today.

The game was taught to others and spread through word of mouth. What is understood to be the first sanctioned game of ultimate Frisbee was played at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey in 1968. The first known ultimate Frisbee league consisted of four high school teams from New Jersey and took place in 1971. Some of the same players involved in that league continued playing into college. The first known ultimate tournament was hosted by Yale University in 1975, and ultimate was also featured that same year at the World Frisbee Championships held at the Rose Bowl.

Ultimate’s popularity grew over the years and, in 1979, the first national ultimate organization called the Ultimate Players Association (UPA) was started in the United States. The UPA was run by ultimate players, and it organized regional and national tournaments.

Europe held its first championship in Paris, France in 1980 and, the next year, the European Flying Disc Federation (EFDF) was founded. In 1984, the EFDF would eventually develop the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF), which is the current governing body for disc-based sports.

The American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) was founded by Josh Moore in 2010. The league’s first season took place in 2012, featuring eight teams. The first game was played between two now-defunct teams: the Connecticut Constitution and the Rhode Island Rampage. The league reorganized and expanded in subsequent years and now consists of 22 teams across four divisions.

In 2015, the International Olympic Committee recognized the WDFD, which has laid the groundwork for ultimate to be an Olympic game.

Rules and Regulations

A standard game of ultimate is played between two teams of seven players—or five if played indoors—competing for the highest score. Points are scored by catching a disc thrown by a teammate within a designated end zone similar to those on a football field. Fields and end zones can vary in dimensions based on the organizing body for the game. The game begins with a pull, which is similar to a kickoff in football, from one team to the other. On offense, players advance the disc down field through passes, but whoever holds the disc, often called a handler, cannot travel. The handler must establish a pivot foot after coming to a stop as quickly as possible upon receiving the disc.

Defenders can mark the handler to make throws more difficult. Anytime a disc falls to the ground or if an opposing player catches the disc, the other team gains possession and works toward the opposite end zone. A turnover would also result if a handler holds the disc too long. That is called a stall.

Old Saybrook resident Ethan Lavallee attends Middlebury College in Vermont and is also a member of the school’s ultimate squad. Lavallee enjoys the elements of ultimate that are immediately familiar to the average person. However, even with those familiar elements, people still have some common misconceptions about the sport.

“The Frankenstein element of the sport is fun. It has the down field cutting aspect of football. There’s also jabbing movements and working with a pivot foot like basketball,” Lavallee said. “One of the big misconceptions about ultimate is that it’s not that competitive. It’s really competitive, but it’s also one of the few sports that I’ve played where you can be hyper competitive. But when the game is done, the other team isn’t your enemy.”

There are fouls in ultimate, as well. One of the more common fouls is traveling, which is when you take steps with the disc. A player is allowed steps to slow their momentum on a catch, though. Another caveat is that a player may run three steps in between receiving and throwing the disc again. Any contact not deemed incidental is a foul. Stripping the disc is also not allowed. The first player to receive a disc and stop its rotation has made a catch. Ripping the disc from that player’s hand will not grant possession.

A unique aspect of ultimate is the way in which the sport is officiated. Most games are understood to be self-refereed, with players on opposing teams calling infractions and resolving penalties on the field together. If players reach an impasse, possessions can be restarted from the moment before the contested play. That is called a do-over.

In the AUDL, there are referees that call fouls. However, in keeping with ultimate’s spirit of self-officiating, players can still call fouls against themselves if a referee doesn’t see the infraction. Players can also waive off fouls if they feel they weren’t fouled. This is known as the integrity rule, and it is meant to preserve the spirit of the game.

Mike Drost, who plays for the reigning AUDL champions, the New York Empire, feels that the culture of mutual respect and fairness between competitors is one of the biggest reasons he’s stuck with ultimate all the way to the professional level.

“At the professional level, we have refs to move the game along and make it more entertainment friendly, but there is still this culture of integrity. In the AUDL, we have the integrity rule, where players are allowed to overturn a call by the ref,” said Drost. “It’s not that mentality of win at all costs. We can be playing a top team and, if the ref called a foul, someone on our team can overturn the call and say they didn’t get fouled. It’s not always perfect, but there is this undercurrent of respect that ultimate has built up over its lifetime.”

Local Flavor

Ultimate’s presence in Connecticut dates back to that first collegiate game held at Yale. Several local high schools in the state have varsity teams, too. North Branford High School has fielded an ultimate team since 2008. Thunderbirds’ Head Coach Nicholas Filippides believes that ultimate offers a great mode of competition for athletes who aren’t as intrigued with some of the more common varsity sports. Conversely, the fact that ultimate contains elements of football, basketball, and soccer makes it a great spring season option for athletes who participate in those sports during the fall and winter campaigns.

“Generally, what draws a lot folks that aren’t into other sports is the technical aspect of throwing a Frisbee. You have to master the angle of the Frisbee, the power of the throw, and the effects of the wind. That doesn’t require that much stature except for general physical fitness,” Filippides said. “We draw kids who are taking calculus and players from football team. We also have a lot of students on the soccer team that are on the Frisbee team. It’s a very fun group. It captures a huge demographic, and we’re also a coed team. People might not want to join a sport and buy a bunch of equipment. For ultimate, it’s a piece of plastic to play the game.”

While North Branford provides a nice outlet for those looking to play ultimate, most towns in the state don’t offer a high school program. Madison resident John Clyde, who is a member of the AUDL team the Austin Sol and attends the University of Texas, had to travel to Wallingford to play on Sheehan’s ultimate team during his high school career. Clyde also played with the CT Harpoon through the Youth Club Championships (YCC).

“In Madison, I played pick up with some high school players and other people like you would at college. One of them told me about YCC. At the time, the team was called Insomnia, but became CT Harpoon. That was when I started playing more competitively. My high school didn’t have a team, but my junior and senior years, I played at Sheehan High School,” said Clyde. “I tried out for New York Empire when I was 16 for fun and to test myself against some better players. I didn’t think about it until I went down to Austin. I get to play ultimate at a high level, and starting with YCC is great if your high school doesn’t have a team.”

Harpoon Head Coach Todd Larese enjoys seeing kids of varying levels and ambitions come out and try the sport. Larese believes that there’s room for everyone who has an interest.

“The level I’m coaching at is really high school level. We try to get as many kids as we can from high school. There aren’t many opportunities for kids under high school age,” Larese said. “I get a mix of kids who want to play in high school, but they don’t have a team. Then you have kids who are very dedicated and want to continue in college and maybe move to the AUDL.”

The Pros

The AUDL itself is home to some of the best athletes to ever throw a disc, and it’s been steadily gaining attention throughout its near decade of existence. Matthew Stevens has been in the league since the 2013 season and has played all of those seasons with the Empire. Lately, Stevens has seen the level of competition at the non-professional level look far more polished than ever. With increased opportunities for kids to play ultimate, the league appears to have a steady pipeline of talent for the future.

“The biggest difference between pro and amateur was the organization of the team and having a playbook. In college, we had a standard offense and standard defense. Now, you have kids in middle school learn horizontal stack and vertical stack. They can throw with both hands. For me, a lot of that education came at the professional level,” said Stevens. “I’ve noticed that Connecticut clubs have grown a lot. I didn’t know this was an option growing up. Now, we run clinics around Connecticut and Westchester County. There are more opportunities now. There is more social media and accessibility around the sport. It makes it so you can focus on playing and being the best player you can be.”

The AUDL doesn’t just work at the local level to help young athletes. The league has been part of a major push for the sport to gain wider recognition for things like potentially being played in the Olympics. Sarah Caro, who works in media relations in the league, has seen the AUDL’s efforts up close. Caro feels that it won’t be long before everyone can tune in to watch the best disc players in the world represent their respective countries.

“I speak with the league commissioner and chairman all the time. With the recent Olympics and all the new sports coming in like skateboarding, disc is not far behind. If it’s not Los Angeles, then it’s Paris,” Caro said. “The AUDL Championship weekend starts on [Friday] Sept. 10, and there with be a youth tournament and a youth clinic happening there. The league in general is doing that youth outreach to make it family friendly.”