Fourteen guys are flying around the field shouting “dump,” “too deep” and “up.” As strange as that sounds it’s a pretty typical Thursday night for the Jaxx.
During the last practice before spring break, the Jaxx are trying to keep everyone sharp before they’re separated, and on a night with no wind the disc is flying further and faster than usual. The throws are tighter, causing a scrimmage to look more like a competitive game than teammates practicing.
I’m on the sidelines dreading the fact that I agreed to come to practice to try to play a little bit with guys that are more focused on this sport than I am about most things.
The guys on the sidelines are nonchalantly throwing ridiculous trick throws to each other as they watch the game and yell out a few commands or words of advice to the guys on the field. This version of Ultimate is so foreign to what I know, it feels I’m watching from the top of the stands instead of being a foot from the field.
Ultimate is the game of athletes on the fringe of normal athletic culture. They are not the prototypical jock by any means. When scrolling through Google images of ultimate players the same archetype of player appears consistently—skinny white guys wearing sweat-wicking, some with long hair, backwards hats and even gloves.
My dad says that apart from the new clothing technology, the players looked and acted basically the same when he was my age. There were two types of players: nerdy guys who played at Caltech’s campus and guys who hung out at the beach.
Today the game is dominated by those same kind of people, but they are more organized now due to the growth in popularity. Now there are rec leagues all over the country and colleges have club teams.
Union’s team, the Union Jaxx, have a similar feel in terms of looks and behavior. Some are the Union version of hippies in terms of hair or fashion style, most are laid back and almost all have the same Ultimate vocabulary and jokes.
The difference in the fringe at Union and other places is there are none of the typical “drawbacks” of being a hippie that your parents dealt with. Being fringe at Union usually includes good, clean fun, like climbing buildings, pulling pranks and playing Ultimate.
The Jaxx aren’t just dudes who like to have fun and throw around a plastic disc in different ways. They are a well-oiled machine. They have a coach, Harrison Hayes, a trainer and assistant coach in Dodgen Swanson, Union alumnus, and three captains.
The Jaxx have a better system for player development—turning athletes, some of whom can’t throw a forehand (or flick), into great frisbee players—than my high school’s football or basketball teams.
Practice is the key for that kind of development and a Jaxx practice is intense. I was invited to attempt to catch a frisbee against Garret Wilson, team captain and junior business administration major and Stephen Neu, sophomore business major and deep cutter for the Jaxx.
I used to play a lot of pickup in high school, so I was confident in my ability to not get completely embarrassed by the Jaxx if I were to scrimmage with them.
I was wrong. Several of these guys were clearly my physical superiors like Neu, Wilson and several other guys and the ones who I felt like I could run with some could make throws routinely that I’ve made maybe once in my whole life with the wind to my back. One flick of the wrist and discs were flying the length of the practice soccer field.
When I arrived they were in the middle of a scrimmage between the red and white teams. I realized they weren’t playing the same game I played in high school as the offense set up in the middle of the field, in a stack formation.
A stack works kind of the same way a basketball stack does on an in-bounds play. The players line up closely together and then certain guys take off in different directions at certain times so they can make a cut to get open for the “handler,” with the frisbee to move the disc upfield. One guy cuts deep and it’s always a tall, long and very fast man that can outrun the defense and go get the disc when a long pass is thrown. They’re the kind of guys that were the biggest, fastest dudes most places and teams they’ve played on and now they assert their dominance in this game when the defense has a lapse in focus.
The rest of the guys in the stack that aren’t the deep guys are “cutters.” Their role is to get open for the handlers to move the disc upfield. They have choreographed cuts toward and away from the disc that help them but will free lance and go deep if the defense doesn’t pick them up.
The “handler” and “dump” are positions held by the guys who can throw the disc well, and they are constantly holding or hovering around the disc. They act kind of like a quarterback or point guard in the way they distribute the disc to their teammates and make the decisions of where to go around the field. The dump guy stays around the handler so he can get an easy, short pass off if none of the cutters get open.
When I played in high school we were positionless, not because we could all do everything well, but we didn’t really know how to play organized Ultimate. I usually stayed in the midrange and would throw the disc downfield when the opportunity presented itself. My goal was just not to get embarrassed on defense and try to either get a long scoring pass or make a cool catch.
The problem with my experience playing Ultimate is that the level the Jaxx are currently in terms of organization and on-field smarts is the difference between an NFL player and a run-of-the-mill high school player. Garret Wilson is Tom Brady and I’m a less talented Mark Sanchez at best, butt-fumbling my way through an Ultimate game while Wilson dissects it like a surgeon.
The Jaxx practice moves at a seemingly frenetic pace during the end of practice scrimmage. With it being the last practice before spring break the players are all pushing as hard as they can on the cool, windless night. Their practice was the only movement or action that could be found late on a Thursday night.
One guy even threw up due to the intensity of the practice. It left behind a chunky, orange puddle as the dude rested for a bit before jumping back into the scrimmage a couple points later saying he was ready to go.
The scrimmage is starting to get heated as competitiveness of the teams rise to the surface. No one is getting angry at anyone, but you can feel the frustration from a team when the other team scores. I’m glad they didn’t ask me if I wanted to join for a point because my lack of knowledge of their system surely would have cost a team a point.
After the game was over the team’s final huddle was pretty typical of any team I’ve ever been on. The coach and captain say their inspirational, encouraging or motivational propaganda, everyone does the end of huddle breakdown and then they pray.
After the huddle is over the team doesn’t just scatter to go study or chill, they stick around to watch me get embarrassed and to hang out with each other.
I’ve already established that Neu is my superior, but I was really hoping he wouldn’t posterize me as we tried to chase down the disc.
“Hey, I’m Stephen,” Neu said. It was so innocent, but I knew as I shook his hand and introduced myself that this beatdown wouldn’t be personal for him, but as a former cross-country runner it was for me.
He gave me a head start for the long throw so I went out at 85 percent speed, hoping to throw him off by using a little bit of an extra gear to get there. I then realized that I was in position and gathered to jump.
As I began to leap in the air to get the disc at the highest point possible for my vertical jump, Neu soared by. His body spun around me, gracefully, snagging the disc at a point that was maybe a foot higher than I could have hoped and landed with it in hand. It was like Larry Fitzgerald in his prime plucking a ball one-handed from a crowd of defenders.
He did all of this while wearing a wrist brace.
The team went wild like any good teammates do after a highlight play as I just trotted back to the starting spot to prepare for my next challenger: Wilson.
The goal was basically the same— beat Wilson, a former Union cross-country runner, to the disc, but Wilson wasn’t going to jump around me. He was going to try to lay out for the snag. It would be more embarrassing, but I had a little bit of hope that I could maybe snag one.
The first throw was high and a little short of the desired target. Wilson didn’t have as much time to catch up to me or the disc due to my headstart, and as he jumped for it we both touched it at the same time but he tipped it up and fell down. This left me to trot to it and pull it down. I caught one.
I decided to throw a forehand back to the guys throwing to us, but instead of traveling in a straight line and staying level in immediately turned on it’s side as soon as it left my hand. It rolled further away from them than I already was standing.
My newfound confidence quickly and viciously squashed by my poor toss, I hung my head and ran back to the starting spot hoping for redemption that would never come.
The next throw Wilson got almost horizontal in the air as he snagged the disc right in front of me. He didn’t come down with it, but it was a great defensive play.
I quickly thanked the guys for their time, unlaced my cleats and drove back off into the night to pick up Taco Bell and watch college basketball as the Jaxx continued to throw discs the length of a soccer field at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night.