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VPA Set to Add Ultimate Frisbee for 2015

Friday, August 22, 2014
Montpelier — Ultimate Frisbee in Vermont is getting the ultimate reception: official recognition from the state’s governing body for high school athletics.

The field sport that uses the trademarked disc for a ball and employs elements of football, soccer and basketball in its play will be an exhibition sport for the next two years, starting next spring, Vermont Principals Association associate executive director Bob Johnson announced during Thursday’s annual media day at the VPA’s Montpelier office. At least 13 schools have said they’ll take part in the endeavor, which could be elevated to full state sanctioning as early as 2017 if ultimate can meet a number of mandates.

“It’s absolutely amazing how many kids are involved,” Johnson told the gathering of about two dozen media members. “Down here in Montpelier, they’ll tell you they have somewhere between 50 and 60 kids that play ultimate. … Some of these nontraditional sports that we’ve seen in the past few years have just completely grown in popularity.”

Vermont is the first state in the country to support ultimate in this manner, according to Montpelier High coach Anne Watson, one of the forces behind VPA sanctioning. Watson estimated the first spring league could encompass between 16 and 20 schools.

The Sharon Academy joined the movement two years ago, when it dropped its lacrosse programs in favor of club-level ultimate. The Phoenix have played the sport through the Vermont Youth Ultimate League, a 9-year-old grassroots organization that counts former TSA coach Theo Fetter on its board of directors.

Speaking at his school office on Thursday, Sharon athletic director Blake Fabrikant said he hadn’t been part of any formal presentations on ultimate, but had been monitoring developments. There’s excitement among the Phoenix’s ultimate aficionados about sanctioning, he said, but there will also be issues to resolve if the sport is to become one of the VPA’s spring offerings.

“It’s more a legitimacy issue,” Fabrikant said. “I think they already feel like it’s well-governed and well-maintained. I think it’s just more like removing that club label from the team and giving it a more legitimate title. People hear ‘club’ and immediately think, ‘not as serious.’ ”

An ultimate field mirrors the dimensions of a football gridiron, with a 100-yard playing surface bracketed by 20-yard end zones. Seven-player teams seek to move the disc to the end zone; players may pivot but not run with the disc between making a catch and delivering a pass.

Johnson said a group representing ultimate made its first serious pitch to the VPA’s activities standards committee in February. He called it “probably the best presentation that I’ve ever seen on an exhibition sport.”

“They brought in about 15 students from various schools in Vermont — Montpelier, Fairfax, CVU, schools down south; they brought them in from all over,” Johnson said. “They also brought in seven or eight coaches and sat there and explained to us what ultimate was. It was just an excellent presentation.”

Ultimate also has carved out a niche as an antiestablishment team game. Some contests are played to a certain score rather than with timed periods. Many levels of the game are played without referees, with the competitors policing themselves.

Johnson said an ultimate committee will begin meetings this fall to plan for the sport’s future. The group, made up of coaches and athletic directors from ultimate-playing schools, will be in charge of writing the sport’s rules if the game is to achieve full VPA sanctioning.

“They came to us and said, ‘We need to have some sort of body under which we come under, an umbrella type of body,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘We need a body that will establish formal rules and regulations because we’re growing so much. Plus, we have all these high school kids that are participating.’

“When they come under the VPA’s umbrella, with any sport, what happens is you’ve agreed to abide by our rules. That means you’re going to have rules, number one, which a lot of people look at ultimate and say, ‘Really?’ ”

Fetter, a student at Vermont Law School in South Royalton at the time, founded TSA’s ultimate team in 2012 when the school determined it didn’t have the numbers to support lacrosse anymore. When Fetter left for full-time work last year, two more VLS students — Kate Hambley and Kevin Hanzel — took over the coaching duties.

According to its website, the VYUL supported a 16-team open league (boys and/or co-ed) and a four-school girls alliance last spring. Sharon ranked fifth in the open league; Montpelier beat BFA-Fairfax for the state title. TSA graduate Andy Ruddell was chosen for the all-state second team and made a VYUL co-ed all-star squad, called GMX, that competes in USA Ultimate-sanctioned events through the summer. USA Ultimate is the sport’s national-level governing body.

“I think it’s really awesome that they’re acknowledging a sport like that,” Ruddell, of Tunbridge, said in a phone interview. “It’s definitely not the same level of competition that some of the varsity sports have, but it’s cool to be recognized and supported. It’s a great sport, and it’s really nice to have support for that.”

TSA sponsors a competition-level ultimate team and a practice squad, which requires less of a workout and game commitment. Fabrikant likes that system but holds reservations about VPA sanctioning.

“Just personally, I feel that some of the kids that play here play because it’s an inclusive culture,” he said. “I think that once you get to that varsity level, you have to start making practices that are 1½, two hours a day, five days a week, it sort of changes the dynamic.

“People play ultimate because it’s relaxed. That’s sort of the appeal. I’m in favor of whatever the kids want to do.”

Ultimate’s biggest challenge will ultimately be getting out the word.

“One of the main things is Frisbee is viewed as a laid-back sport, and it definitely is,” Ruddell said. “To get to that varsity level, there will need to be more separation between Frisbee for fun and Frisbee as a competitive sport. It’s so early in its establishment right now that people don’t know much about it. That is a huge obstacle.”

Watson, the Montpelier coach, said organizers also have to figure out the role USA Ultimate will have. While praising the group for its support, Watson said there are things she believes a state association can do for less money.

“I would much prefer to not have to chase kids down to pay a (USAU) membership for something we could do equally well and significantly cheaper,” she said. “It’s already a cheap sport. It requires almost no equipment; you get a field, some cones, a disc and you can play. I would like to keep it that way.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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