MIDDLETOWN – The teams’ names are one indication that this is no ordinary sport. Among others, there are the Disc Drives, Static, the Nietzsch Factor, and, of course, the Puking Vultures.
There are end zones like those in football, but a playing pattern more similar to soccer or lacrosse. There are “stars” – such as Nietzsch, from whom the squad at Wesleyan University took its name – but no coaches, no referees and no trophies. And one of the game’s most important rules pretty well defines it: “If you stop having fun, don’t play.”
If the Wesleyan team is any indication, Ultimate Frisbee players are having fun. Now in its 10th season at the private Middletown university, it has become the, well, “ultimate” sport on campus.
The Nietzsch Factor has been winning at a clip unmatched by any other Wesleyan sport, and growing in popularity. Currently, the club team is ranked 11th in the nation – the only tam from a small school to be ranked in the top 20. Since the original team grabbed a Frisbee disc and formed in 1977, the club has grown from 12 players to 50, divided into “A” and “B” teams.
This weekend, the Nietzsch Factor is host to an invitational tournament, where 14 teams are spending two days playing a round-robin series of games on fields all over campus.
Although most players trying to arrive at a definition of the game agree that it can be compared with many others, in the end, they say, Ultimate stands on its own.
“It combines parts of soccer, football, and basketball, and adds something of its own,” said Steve Mooney, a 1980 Wesleyan graduate who played on the team during his college years and has been playing on a club team in Boston ever since.
“There are seven players to a side, who pass among themselves, advancing up the field trying to score a goal in an end zone,” he said. “The only rule is that when you have the disc, you can’t run. The rest of the team takes off, and you have to pass to them.”
Although Ultimate players run the gamut from people who enjoy tossing around a Frisbee – a “disc” to devotees – to people who are serious, competitive athletes, most Wesleyan players fall somewhere in between. Because the game demands a great deal of running, however, all players must be in fairly good shape.
“Part of Ultimate is catching and throwing, but mostly you do lots and lots of running, chasing the disc down the field,” said Temple Blackwood, a senior at Wesleyan. Blackwood had been playing on the Wesleyan team for three years, even though he broke his collarbone the second day of practice his sophomore year, when he decided to try the ultimate dive used to block a pass.
“I went down, but I came back,” Blackwood said. “My roommate was a Frisbee freak. I couldn’t live there and not play.”
Like Blackwood, many Wesleyan students seem to find the game irresistible. The team calls itself the Nietzsch Factor after a former player nicknamed “Nietzsch” who was a phenomenal scorer,” Blackwood said.
“We are an anomaly,” said Scott Michaud, a senior and co-captain of the team. “We’re this little tiny school, but people here just love this game. If we play up to our rank, we’ll go to the nationals in St. Louis this year.”
The college nationals will be a chance for the best of the nearly 400 college teams in the country to compete against one another. The spring season has just begun, and Wesleyan has won two games so far – over Yale and the University of Connecticut – and lost one to a non-college club. The Nietzsch Factor expects to play at least 60 games this year.
“The clubs are generally better than the college kids,” said Michaud, “but we do quite well all over. We’re known as the huge team from the little school that arrives with scores of players every time.”
Michaud said Ultimate Frisbee had its origins in the 1970s at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Since then, it has spread across the country, and more recently across the world. One reason for its rapid growth, players seem to agree, is that playing Ultimate Frisbee is quite different from playing other sports.
“There is no coach, no authority, no referee call all the fouls,” Michaud said. “The goal isn’t to get out there and rip the other guy’s head off. I have friends all over the country on different teams. It’s a different approach to competition.”
But Michael J. Farnham, national collegiate coordinator for the Ultimate Players Association, said the sport is better organized than many people think. He said the association has tried to draw more serious attention to the sport in recent years.
“Like most Ultimate teams, we’re not even an official team at the school, but a club,” Michaud said, “which means the universities don’t give us too much support for our transportation, our lodging, our equipment. People arrive here by hook or by crook and sleep on the floor in the lounges of the dorms.”
While Wesleyan students play on their own fields, Mooney and five other alumni of the university who are still addicted to Ultimate Frisbee will travel to Washington, DC, this weekend to play in the April Fools Fest, a tournament of 60 non-college clubs.
“I’m a die-hard – really on the extreme end of intensity,” Mooney said. “I’ll admit it – I basically moved to Boston after college because I knew I could play Ultimate there. When I stop, there’s a huge void. The game lets me do what I really need, which is to continually run around.”