The voice crackled over the walkie-talkie held in Tournament Director David Caruba's hand. "Anything else we need, Dave? What about the cones?" spoke UPA Juniors Director Mo Moscoe.
"Yes, that would be great it you could get the cones. There's a soccer tournament coming for the fields at 6:30," responded Caruba.
"OK, I'm on Cone Patrol," came back the reply.
David put the walkie-talkie down, glanced back at the ten kids from St. Paul packed into the jumbo-sized Ford Econoline and careened around the corner.
We were on the way to the Seton Hall dorm rooms with half of the Minnesota Raging Safari team, discussing the first Nationals tournament to be held for the Juniors division, a.k.a. High School, and what it meant for the kids involved.
"They get to hang out, play disc, and meet people from around the country. What's not to like?"
Indeed. What's not to like?
1998 Juniors Nationals wouldn't have happened without David Caruba. A passionate, energetic and determined individual, Caruba took it upon himself to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the founding of Ultimate (when he was but 3 years old) with the first-ever Nationals at the place where it all beganColumbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Caruba has spent much of his life working with high schoolers and found Ultimate the ideal vehicle to support kids that needed it most.
"I saw Ultimate as a way of reaching kids that fall through the cracks of mainstream sports," Caruba explained to me.
For Caruba, Ultimate provides a community for troubled kids. They can be individualistic and yet at the same time feel the sense of belonging. Plus the system of officiating allows them to call their own fouls.
I think many of us stuck with Ultimate for much the same reasons.
Almost single-handily Caruba made sure High School Nationals was going to happen. He began organizing a year ago; acquiring UPA sanctioning, recruiting high school teams from around the country, and handling all the administrative difficulties that go with running tournaments.
It almost fell apart. The field site he reserved 10 months ago was taken over at the last minute by soccer moms connected with City Hall. With no option but to cancel the tournament or somehow get the fields, Caruba filed a lawsuit against the City. Just before the court date the lawyers worked out the arrangement and the fields were rightfully returned to Ultimate.
The tournament must go on!
Eighteen teams came from nine different states: Washington, North Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado and Minnesota. It seemed as if each represented a different aspect of our game.
Half of the Bronx Science women's team wore tennis shoes on the field whereas the women's team from Seattle had two choices of matching uniforms. The co-ed Minnesota group kept alive the Midwest tradition of men playing in skirts, while a few players from Denver's Amish Squid Farmers played barefoot.
Amherst brought their Varsity squad to the tournament while Chicago's Wheaton High came without having ever played competitive Ultimate. They didn't have forehand throws, and in a remarkable coincidence featured shirts that looked strikingly similar to the tees worn by the original Columbia High Schoolers.
While the New York Borough teams Brooklyn Tech, Horace Mann, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant came to the tournament in cars or by train, most teams spent money on plane tickets to be able to compete, like the two teams from Washington state.
Since 1982, Mary and Jeff Jorgenson have been building an Ultimate Mecca in Seattle. Originally competing in disc sports as world-class freestylers, the Jorgensons founded the Seattle Adult Spring League, and later, a league for junior high and high school kids. They discovered more success in implementing Ultimate programs in Junior High rather than High Schools, which typically have more sports programs than they can handle.
Piggybacking the insurance rates on the Adult League, they were able to convince many Junior Highs to pick up co-ed Ultimate. The programs worked and eventually led to the most promising news in USA juniors. This year, the Seattle School District officially picked up the sport of Ultimate as a program for all of its junior high schools.
The Jorgensons shied away from the remarkable achievement. Mary, the leader behind the success, provided the resources to start the teams as well as persistent prodding of school administrators. But for the programs to last and for them to be successful, Jeff credits those that play, "The kids are doing it for themselves."
Other stars of the high school division were also present. Notable leader of the Amherst program and much of Boston's high school league, Tiina Booth, helped organize the tournament with Caruba and could be seen patrolling the sideline of the Amherst men's team. And Chris Lehmann, who recently founded NYCUL, an after-school Ultimate program for New York schools, was also present getting tips on how to maintain Ultimate's viability on the juniors level.
Still, the biggest draw might have been the media-friendly Kenny Dobyns. Dobyns was asked to speak on Saturday Night for the youngsters and proved to be quite a treat. He spoke passionately about the sport he has cherished for twenty years.
Dobyns related his early experiences with Ultimate, including sneaking out of Prep School for pickup games and playing in Central Park. He also revealed his strategy of success: discipline. And in keeping tradition with Ultimate's individuality he cited former New York leader Pat King, who, when asked what the greatest thing about Ultimate Frisbee was, responded: "That I play."
One might not expect the competition at such a tournament to be strong. Believe me, it was. I was privileged to witness some of the most exciting games of Ultimate to be played in a long time.
There were two intense and spirited games in particular.
The newly-founded Amherst women's team and their high-strung coach Isaac lost all three pool play games. But on Sunday, when it counted most, they came through. They faced the undefeated Seattle team in semifinals.
Seattle led by three early in a game to 15. But Amherst came back late to tie at 11's. After the "longest point in the history of Ultimate," according to one sideline wag, Amherst called time-out on the endzone and ran a break-mark play to perfection to take their first lead at 1211. They used the momentum to go up 1311 before Seattle came back with their own push to tie at 13's. Amherst responded with a score and Seattle countered with a huck for a score, 1414, cap at 16. The sidelines were intense as both teams men's counterparts provided cheering.
Amherst pulled and managed to trap Seattle in the deep corner. Several turnovers later, Amherst converted and stood one point away from a remarkable victory. Mary Jorgenson's Seattle team was demoralized and tired, and may have been used to making throws to guys that were no longer there (the Seattle league is co-ed and this was the first time the all-women team had played together.)
Seattle could not find an offensive groove. But their defense held for several possessions before Amherst stars Melissa Colbert and Sarah Hopkins hooked up. Amherst picked up a Seattle turnover near their endzone and looked to run a fast break. Colbert ended up with the disc and sent a pretty placement forehand to a covered Hopkins for the final score and Amherst victory.
The game of the tournament was the men's finals.
"We play with all heart and physical ability. We're all self-taught," explained one of the Brooklyn Tech players. Tech captured the heart and dropped the jaw of everyone in attendance.
Made up almost entirely of Asian-American students, the Tech squad typically plays only amongst themselves and has developed a most electrifying style. Featuring a sneaky switching defense and several players capable of spectacular layout grabs, they provided a thrilling game of Ultimate.
They faced the Amherst machine, benefactors of a religious training program. Amherst practices five days a week and keeps a bevy of coaches. They have a strictly defined offense and defense, a JV and Varsity squad, and a talent pool of close to 2000 students to draw from. They are used to providing victory, used to walking off the field with the final win, and generally do not value losing games under any circumstance. They are the Prep School for Ultimate players and they are the best.
None of that concerned Brooklyn Tech. They opened the game with four straight scores, using their defensive quickness to clog Amherst's tight O and their fearlessness to score quickly. Amherst fought back to tie at 7's after continued strong play by both teams. On the next possession, Tech playing leader Chris "Shinobi" Lim made a spectacular fake with his left hand and lofted a 40 yard forehand with his right hand for the goal. The crowd erupted in cheers. The emotion propelled Tech to a 108 half-time lead.
From both sides of the field a near-constant din of cheering for Tech lasted throughout the entire game. Tech provided the fireworks with amazing layouts and blocks on every possession. Chants of "Tech, Tech, Tech" came from the Minnesota, Colorado and Tennessee teams, from the Scarsdale, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant schools; almost everyone seemed to be trying to equal the heart that Tech put in with their own display of spirit.
What made the Brooklyn team so entertaining was their almost complete disregard for Ultimate maxims. They rarely substituted, preferring to keep players in for stretches of 56 points at a time (which unfortunately led to several stoppages of play as players cramped up frequently). They didn't seem to run any plays. What they did do was run hard and fast and dive for every disc.
In fact, they performed so awesome for so long that the crowd was holding their breath for the end of the game to come.
With Tech leading 1410 the cap was enacted. Mo Moscoe calmly announced the 2-point addition, game to 16. The sudden intrusion of rules seemed to confuse Tech. It might have dawned on them that there were beating the undisputed king of high school Ultimate by four points with only two more to go.
They lost confidence in their play and hoped only that Amherst would give them points. Instead, Amherst saw an opening and took it.
Tech had put a box-in-1 defense on Amherst's 6'4'' co-captain Josh Nugent that successfully stymied Amherst's offensive flow. But Nugent's persistence started to pay off as he and Amherst were able to make the necessary adjustments late in the game.
Amherst turned up their play while Tech suddenly seemed to forget how to run an offense. They began relying entirely on Shinobi's deep hucks, but this time there was no one to catch them.
While Tech floundered, Amherst patiently put points on the board. They scored four in a row, capped by a big huck from Nugent, to tie the game at 14. Amherst scored again after a controversial sideline call (the finals were played with "passive" observers, empowered to make calls only when called upon by players) for the first lead of the game at 1514.
Amherst was fired up. It was Live by the sword, die by the sword for Brooklyn Tech as star player Shinobi could not find targets for his throws. A final turnover by Tech gave Amherst the opportunity to win. They moved downfield patiently, keenly aware of Tech's shifting defense, and worked the disc into the endzone for the 1614 victory.
The Amherst team plowed onto the field as several Tech players collapsed from exhaustion and disappointment. Amherst had made an amazing comeback, but the heart and soul still resided with Brooklyn.
An Amherst sweep looked possible, as the women's team matched up with their newly-found friends on the Stuyvesant Sticky Fingers squad. Like Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant featured a team comprised of mostly Asian-American students and shifting defenses.
Stuy had narrowly defeated Amherst on Saturday by a score of 1211. It was clearly going to be a good game.
Amherst may have used up a lot of strength in their long game over Seattle. The Northeast versus Northwest rivalry seems to run in the juniors division as well, as one of the Amherst players confided in me that Stuy, Bronx and Amherst had sort of bonded together in opposition to Seattle. They didn't have the same intensity against Stuy that they had in the Seattle match.
Stuyvesant doesn't call themselves Sticky Fingers without reason. I watched them nearly defeat several Club teams this past Fall. They are quick and they catch a lot of discs.
Stuy had defeated cross-borough rivals Bronx Science in a quick match, and rested while Amherst fought Seattle.
Led by captains June Bae and Chrissy Kourhioti and finals MVP Nancy, they were able to defeat Amherst. It was close throughout with Stuy clinging to a 2-goal lead when the cap was called at 119 Stuy. They were finally able to close out the tired Amherst squad 139.
"The Amherst women are great!" spoke the Stuy girls in unison after the Nationals Finals victory. It is clear that the two teams found a lot in common with each other. In fact, after all the games were over, the cones were taken down, and teams were lining up for rides from Caruba's shuttle service, the teams were exchanging traditional cheers.
"1,2,3 Sky for me!"
"1,2,3 Layout for me!"
And they did!
Finally, it should be brought up that this tournament, like many around the nation, revealed many of the issues facing Ultimate as it continues to grow.
Dobyns was asked his opinion of referees in the sport, to which he came out in favor of line calls and up-and-down calls. Passive observers were used for the Men's finals, and were an integral part of making the game run smoothly. Can and should we take the next step?
Although the tournament was over all extremely well-spirited, there were notable exceptions. A dispute between the Seattle and Stuyvesant women was settled amicably, but not before 10 minutes of argument time elapsed. One particular hothead on the Amherst men's team was taken out by his coach after showing the disc to a Tech player and almost starting a fight. What happens with teams on the club circuit, when an authoritative coach is not present to lay down the law?
One of the biggest issues in Ultimate is funding. Our player supported non-profit government, the UPA, has little money to support tournaments or fund leagues. The UPA has done little in promoting Juniors Ultimate when the division clearly needs administrative support if it is to make its way into high school and junior high programs across the country.
We as players, from the juniors division to A-level club teams, need to address these issues if continued growth is to occur.
At the heart of Ultimate lies a fierce individuality. Every team, every league and every advancement that occurs in Ultimate happens because of one individual. It is up to us to make things happen. But we need to insure that enough forward-thinking individuals do not get stymied by lack of support from the administrative level.
There was also a rumor that several High Schools had parents that took their kids out of the Ultimate program after reading the Wall Street Journal article. I did my best to get to the facts of the case, but the facts were not there. It was one big rumor, probably caused when one Corporate dad happened to read the article and immediately scolded the sport of Ultimate.
I had a great time at High School Nationals. Everyone involved had a great time. I'm looking forward to next year!
Special thanks to David Caruba and the CHS crowd for making this tournament happen.