At first glance, there's not much that differentiates the guys who play for the Wisconsin Hodags, the most dominant men's college ultimate team in the country over the last decade, from the other college kids playing pickup Frisbee at the University Bay Fields on a typical weekday afternoon.
What first sticks out is that their disc rarely hits the ground. And unlike the stoners who fling their Frisbees in high, aimless arcs in the general vicinity of one another at James Madison Park, the Hodags' passes are flat, accurate bullets flying just a few feet off the ground. The receivers catch the disc pancake style, with two hands, generating a sharp clapping sound. It's like watching a major league baseball team take infield practice. "Sharp" is the adjective that comes to mind.
As they scrimmage, there's some direction from the sidelines, but it's mixed in with laughter and light trash talk. The players decide to end practice on a high note after the offense scores a methodical goal.
They huddle up. Arms are linked and captains spend a few minutes talking about dedication, friendship and winning. The quick post-practice meeting is punctuated by a shout of "Ho! Dag! Love!" and the players disperse.
"We're hyper-competitive, but in a joyful way," says junior Jake Smart, one of the captains. "Somebody came by with some free burritos earlier,and we had to see who could eat theirs the fastest. We just take completely mundane things and turn them into competitions."
Since 2001, the Hodags have made the quarterfinals round of the national tournament each year, playing in finals five times and winning three championships - in 2003, 2007 and 2008. Currently ranked eighth in the country with a 24-6 record, the Hodags are gunning for a fourth title at this weekend's USA Ultimate College Championships - known by the players as "nationals" - at Reddan Soccer Park in Verona (May 28-31).
Their success has been aided by a training program that begins in the fall and ramps up to as many as four practices a week. Weight-lifting and conditioning sessions are held during the winter months, when Frisbees are rarely thrown. The team's website (hodags.org) features video of the Hodags running stairs at Van Hise Hall, the tallest building on campus.
"We take it very seriously," says Matt Young, another captain, who graduated from medical school this month. "We work very hard. But we're a tight group. I'm out here spending time with my friends, which makes it much easier and more like a stress reliever from the business of school and life."
Unlike the varsity teams and even most of the sports clubs on campus, the Hodags almost never compete in front of a home crowd. All of their tournaments are played in warmer climates during the winter months. Worse, they play a game unknown to most, joked about by many. One player asked that I not mention his name because his parents would be angry if they found out he was spending time playing Frisbee instead of studying. So what inspires the dedication?
"We definitely structure tryouts and the first half of the year to highlight the more social aspects of the team," says Hector Valdivia, a player from the 2003 championship squad who is now the coach. "They come to tryouts and they don't know they're about to make friends for life. They just know they're having fun. By the time they realize what they've gotten themselves into, they're hooked."
They also benefit from playing in Madison, where ultimate has become more than just an obscure pastime for graduates of small liberal arts colleges. On a recent Saturday afternoon, ultimate games featuring varying degrees of skill were taking place at Vilas, Wingra, Olbrich and James Madison parks, West High, University Bay and the UW intramural fields.
According to Madison School & Community Recreation, 6,400 Madisonians are signed up for their well-advertised slow-pitch softball leagues. Over 2,500 people will compete on coed summer league ultimate teams via the Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association - with no organized marketing.
My thesis: No other city in the country, and possibly the world, is as in love with ultimate as Madison.
Why is it that a football or a baseball is considered a more serious sports implement than the Frisbee? As a recreational projectile, the flying disc is in many ways preferable. It's much easier to take on trips. It's flat and you don't need to keep a special pump around in order to ensure that it's in working order.
But it's the Frisbee that's satirized, dismissed as too whimsical to be used in real sport. Need to draw a caricature of a couple aimless hippies? They're going to be tossing a Fris', not shooting lay-ups or teeing up golf balls. Even the verb "toss," which seems to always accompany the flying disc, is less serious than "throw."
Disc sport athletes themselves have only helped perpetuate the stereotypes. Even ultimate, the most competitive and athletic of the disc games, features teams whose names openly celebrate sloth, recreational chemicals or The Simpsons. Or all three.
Nudity has not been uncommon.
The anti-establishment vibe isn't just a stereotype, it's a big part of the sport's roots. Hollywood producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, The Matrix) is credited with helping invent ultimate at his New Jersey high school in 1968. In a 2006 interview with Sports Illustrated, Silver credited the counterculture vibe of the Vietnam era with inspiring the game's tenets, chief among them the absence of referees.
"There were a lot of different groups that were thriving in the school," Silver says in the interview. "We just felt that the game could cross over all the groups. I didn't do drugs. A lot of my friends did. But it wasn't like a 'Let's get stoned and play Frisbee' thing. It was just a way all of these groups could get together and play."
Descriptions of ultimate often suffer from trying to compare it to other sports. It's like basketball mixed with soccer and football, some will insist. But those other games are ancient compared to 40-year-old ultimate. Their strategies, rules and terminology spill over into the vernacular outside the sports.
The rules and strategies of ultimate, however, are much more word of mouth. There are traditions and standards, but also a desire to dispose of them. In college ultimate, there's still a lot of innovation going on, with new offensive and defensive schemes debuting all the time.
The sport is played by two seven-person teams on a 70-yard by 40-yard field with 25-yard-deep end zones. The object is to score a goal by completing a pass to a player in the end zone. One team begins play by "pulling" the disc to the other team (like a kickoff in football). The team receiving the pull is on offense and proceeds to pass the disc from player to player down the field.
If the disc is dropped or thrown out of bounds, it's a turnover and the defense gains possession. Running with the disc, or traveling, is not allowed, and neither is excessively physical play. It's the duty of the players themselves to call violations. Another player can object, and there are often discussions that sometimes lead to do-overs. As the sport has grown more competitive, top players are less likely to take an "it's cool, no big deal" approach to rules violations.
Observers are now part of the college game, stepping in to settle disputes between players who can't agree on a call. Many feel observers will eventually become referees in order to increase the pace of play and make it more fan-friendly.
To a casual spectator, play itself can look like barely controlled chaos, but offensive strategies are designed to keep players from cutting each other off or getting in the way. The idea is to have teammates breaking open in parts of the field where a high-percentage pass can be completed. The defense either marks players man-to-man or employs zone coverage.
Players who run the offense are called handlers and are typically the best disc throwers on the field. The handler's job is to deliver accurate passes to cutters down field, which they do with a full arsenal of throwing styles. Some cutters, known as mids, are quick and agile, making them more adept at getting open in crowds, while tall and speedy cutters are charged with going long and are sometimes called deeps. An effective strategy would find a player making mid cuts for most of the game only to break deep, catching his defender off guard late in the game.
When conditions are calm, the Hodags are known for running an impatient offense, with handlers throwing deep after just a couple of setup passes. That makes for some exciting plays, with cutters attempting to out-leap their defenders. And because a spinning disc can stay aloft longer than a ball, appearing to almost float near the end of its flight, the sport often features intense sprints followed by spectacular diving grabs.
Windy days call for more patience, when it might take as many as 50 passes to score. That's when zone defenses are often used to crowd the passing lanes, forcing handlers to be disciplined - which doesn't always fit with the sport's anti-establishment ethic.
My introduction to ultimate came through a kid I lived with in the dorms who played on the UW club before it adopted the Hodag moniker. He was from New York and had spent some time practicing with NYNY, the club that dominated ultimate in the '80s. He taught a few of us some trick throws.
He also convinced us to ride our bikes out to the University Bay fields to watch the college championships in 1991. Brad Wendt, president of the Madison Ultimate Frisbee Assocation (MUFA), recalls how that tournament may have been the start of Madison's love affair with ultimate.
"We played finals on what was the baseball field at the time," he says. "We pulled the bleachers into the infield, and the playing field was in the outfield. That was so close to the Lakeshore bike path that a lot of people stopped and watched."
That laid the groundwork for attracting the World Flying Disc Federation's club tournament, known as "worlds," in 1993. It brought 83 teams from 17 countries to University Bay for six days of ultimate and accompanying madness. NYNY was the favorite, wearing cutoff orange T-shirts with spray-painted jack-o-lantern faces. Their simple battle cry - "This is our fucking pumpkin patch!" - contrasted sharply with the songs and cheers produced by the international teams.
"The finals were at Warner Park," says Wendt. "That was back when the Muskies also played at Warner. They had a game the same day, and we outdrew them."
If Madison ultimate has had a guiding hand, it's been Wendt, whose nickname of Zeus comes as much from his thick hair and beard as his influence on the community.
Still a grand master professional disc golfer who has competed in freestyle and other disc games, Wendt has taken a break from ultimate to nurse a bum heel. But at one time or another, he's been involved in ultimate at every level in Madison.
"I just think it's such a neat sport," he says. "There's always been this appeal for good athletes who maybe stopped caring about varsity sports and wanted to be part of a different thing. A lot of progressive people in this town like to try new things and think about sports in different ways. A lot of people just love to watch Frisbees fly through the air."
Out of the group that organized worlds, MUFA was formed.
"As we went along, we found that we needed to become more official, so we incorporated as MUFA," says Wendt. "We dabbled with a bunch of names, but Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association was pretty natural, and it sounded like Moo-Fa. So here we are in Wisconsin, paying honor to our dairy heritage. We all agreed that if we made any money, none of us would take any."
Some of the revenue from worlds helped build the disc golf course at Heistand Park on the east side. Madison West grad John "Huggy" Huggett proposed tapping into the energy surrounding worlds to start a coed summer league, similar to one in Boston he had played in. About 200 players joined the first year. By 1999, MUFA summer league had two divisions, advanced and beginner. A third was added in 2002 to accommodate intermediate players, and fall and spring leagues followed soon after. Matt Merrill and Sue DeCicco are MUFA's league directors today, presiding over five summer league divisions.
"It's infectious," says Merrill. "Once someone plays, they love it and then invite their friends. The teams grow until they get too big, then they subdivide and need to recruit more new people to round it out."
Changes come largely from the players themselves. They offer feedback on MUFA's website (mufa.org), which has an active message board. DeCicco says she often hears from Madison expats who search in vain for a group like MUFA in other parts of the country.
"People here will complain about having to drive 15 minutes out to the west side for a game," she says. "But I know people in other cities who have to drive over an hour. And then nobody shows up to play."
Approaching nationals, the Hodags have been sharpening their focus on teams like Colorado Mamabird, Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur and Michigan magnUM, which they'll face during pool play on Friday and Saturday before the tournament shifts to a single-elimination bracket. But they're also interested in putting on a show for the hometown fans.
"At other national tournaments we've played in, there haven't really been that many spectators," says John Bergen, a senior from Madison West. "It's starting to hit us that sidelines are going to be full of people we know, people we've played with. Not just fans, but a lot of fans. People who have taught me a lot about the game since I was in high school, and it's going to be big showing them how far I've come."
The Ultimate Players Association recognizes over 650 college teams, of which the 40 best - 20 "open" and 20 women's - will compete in Madison over the weekend. The games will be much more intense, aggressive and physical than what's seen at Olbrich Park on most summer nights.
"We all play summer league," says Hodag coach Valdivia. "So the MUFA community has seen these guys play. But they've never seen all of them play on a team together. I think more than anything, they're going to be impressed."
What to watch for at college nationals
- Georgia Bosscher is easily identified for both her dreadlocks and fearless play on the field. She leads Bella Donna, UW-Madison's women's team. She won the Callahan Award in 2009 as the top women's college ultimate player. I profiled her in 2005 when she was one of the leaders of the Madison West High boys' team, along with the Hodags' John Bergen. While Bella has never won a national title, it is consistently ranked among the top teams and is seeded second at nationals.
- If ultimate is big in Madison, it's a religion at Carleton, the Minnesota liberal arts college. Both of Carleton's teams are archrivals of their Wisconsin counterparts and are in Madison this weekend to compete. The men's team, known as CUT, won it all in 2009. For the first time in recent memory, the Hodags didn't face them at regionals last month. Meanwhile, Bella Donna beat Syzygy, the Carleton women's team, in the regional championship game.
- It's tradition in college ultimate for clubs to adopt neither the colors nor the nicknames of their schools' varsity teams. Watch for teams like Oregon Ego, Minnesota Grey Duck, the Middlebury Pranksters and Kansas Horrorzontal.
- The finals take place at Otto Breitenbach Stadium, behind Middleton High School, on Monday with the men at 11 am and the women at 1 pm. Breitenbach's field is covered with artificial FieldTurf, the product used at Camp Randall Stadium. It will be interesting to see how the athletes, who play on grass fields in various states of muddiness all spring, will adjust.
- The Hodags play on both Friday and Saturday at 10:45 am and 3:15 pm. Bella Donna play at 8:30 am and 1 pm on Friday, 10:45 am and 3:15 pm. on Saturday. All games, except finals, are at Reddan Soccer Park, 6874 Cross Country Rd., Verona.
- On Sunday evening at 7:30, a co-ed, or "mixed," all-star alumni game at Reddan will pit graduates of Central Region colleges, which includes Wisconsin, against "the world." Expect some spectacular playing. And heckling.
- The tournament features pool play on Friday and Saturday with the top three teams in each pool advancing to single-elimination on Saturday evening through Sunday. Teams that don't advance out of their pools will continue to play in consolation brackets throughout Sunday.