Spirit of the Game 

Ultimate Frisbee has become one of Missoula’s most popular organized sports. Jason Wiener sprints into action—mostly singing and drinking—to find out why.

On the opening night of Missoula ultimate Frisbee spring league, it’s maybe 45 degrees and definitely drizzling, but spirits are high. Most competitors are wearing an informal uniform of longjohns with shorts and either a light or a dark shirt to differentiate one team from the other; almost everyone wears cleats. Before the matches, some teams discuss strategy. Others appear to be trading information about a weekend party. Others go around circles formed by their team, reconnecting with old friends and learning new teammates’ names. Everywhere, Frisbees fly.

Almost 200 people turned out for opening night, nearly triple the number who started the league six years ago. The crowd makes up 10 teams, the only thing limiting more being the lack of available playing fields. Each player paid $25 and signed up weeks ago for the privilege of participating in the 10-game season running through April and May. And another dozen who missed the registration deadline wound up on a waiting list or decided to wait till next year. Nevertheless, some of the latter, still hopeful of finding a team in need, have appeared hoping to become a walk-on.

Despite opening night’s inclement weather, the size of the crowd and its enthusiasm prove the sport has come into its own in Missoula. The decades-old game—think of a cross between soccer and football, sort of, only using a disc instead of a ball—began as a countercultural lark for some late-’60s high-school students. But since its inception, it’s grown into a sport with a national governing body, the Ultimate Players Association (UPA), blasting almost 25,000 registered players.

In Missoula, from pick-up games to competitive traveling teams, ultimate has become a community force, and the burgeoning spring league—equal parts party and play—is the public face of the sport. (Since Frisbee is a trademark of Wham-O!, which is not the exclusive supplier of competitive discs, the sport’s generally known as simply “ultimate.”)

I came to spring league’s opening night to figure out what the fuss was all about. Expecting to do this from my observer’s post on the sideline, I arrived in the clothes I wore to work—cargo pants, a sweater, long sleeves and a windbreaker with heavy boots. But when the captain of one team turned to the hopeful walk-ons standing next to me on the sideline and told them to join his team, and I realized everyone else was about to do something more than watch, I laced up my boots tight and tried to learn the ropes.

I never touched a disc on my first night. A couple of times I came close while covering someone who had the thing. I even got open once or twice with the chance to catch it. To be honest, though, I didn’t worry about not getting the disc; I worried more about what I would do if I got it.

I’m in some kind of shape (though “great” wouldn’t be a word you could substitute for “some”). I swim three times a week, most weeks, and travel around town by bicycle. But I’m in no kind of condition for sprinting, and I’ve never been very coordinated anyway. So when I’m winded, the last thing I’m thinking about is about how to make a disc fly, especially if I can’t keep up with or get away from the guy playing opposite me. Yet every time I came off the field, teammates congratulated me for my play.

When I asked what I did to merit the encouragement, the veterans on my team just answered “spring league” as if that was enough of an explanation. Eventually, it would be.

“A different game”

Missoula’s ultimate players have a number of competitive outlets, not all of them places where playing like a rookie will get you treated like a king.

In addition to the hundreds of spring leaguers playing this year, Missoula boasts a traveling team, the Mental Toss Flycoons. Though the team’s name—adapted from the lyrics of Frank Zappa’s vibraphone-enhanced opus “Montana”—has been associated with ultimate in Missoula since the 1980s, the Flycoons’ current incarnation only formed in 2004, after a Missoula-based team called Trigger Hippy with members from Bozeman, Idaho and northern California won the national championship in 2001 and then disbanded. (In between some locals tried to form an all-local squad under the name Missoula Ultimate Liberation Army. Despite T-shirts sporting the face of Patty Hearst, the effort ended with the revival of the Flycoons.)

The Flycoons make up the most competitive level of Missoula’s ultimate scene. Three years ago, they made it to the Northwest regional tournament where, according to Flycoon and spring league Commissioner John O’Connor, “We promptly got stomped.” The experience made team members more serious about preparing for the championship season and, in 2005, the Flycoons missed a trip to nationals by just a single point. Redoubling their efforts in 2006 earned them a trip to nationals where they finished 11th out of 16 teams. The result left the team with “the feeling we have some unfinished business,” says O’Connor, which they aim to take care of at this year’s national championships in late October.

First, however, there’s six months of practice and tournaments. The largest component of practice is local pick-up games, played Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at River Bowl, the athletic field just west of the Madison Street bridge on the south bank of the Clark Fork River. Despite not being explicitly competitive, pick-up players tend to be less tolerant of ineptitude than spring leaguers; the pace of the games is quicker and skilled regulars predominate.

On Wednesdays during April and May, pick-up at the River Bowl is suspended in favor of spring league games, played on Missoula Parks and Recreation fields at Playfair Park. During spring league games, former members of Trigger Hippy and current members of the Flycoons share the pitch with rookies and rank amateurs. With a focus on recreation rather than competition, spring league tends to be something different from other ultimate.

“There’s this competitive ultimate out there and when you participate in that, it’s actually quite a lot of training and practice and stuff like that,” says Flycoon and spring leaguer John MacLean, known on the field as Fast Johnny. “It’s just like any other sport and so playing spring league is completely different. It’s basically a different game.”

On opening night, those differences are apparent. For starters, the five-minute warning for the start of matches comes 15 minutes late. Commissioner O’Connor, know as Johnny O., or just J.O., gives a pep talk to the team I’ve joined while I empty my pockets. It’s about having fun, he says. Don’t get upset if you blow your coverage or drop the disc. If we lose, we still get to drink free beer like everyone else.

Some strategy talk ensues, something about normally playing a zone but not this week, and then how we’re playing man-to-man (or woman-to-woman, this being a thoroughly co-ed sport), which I also don’t really understand. The basic rules are clear enough though: Ultimate is played by teams of seven on a field 40 yards wide and 120 yards long with 25-yard-deep end zones at either end; if someone catches the disc in the end zone, their team scores a point; the person with the disc can’t move from the spot where she caught it nor can she hold it for more than 10 seconds; if the disc hits the ground, it changes hands. And one thing becomes abundantly clear: it involves a lot of running.

After my team’s first point, I rotate in. Defense suits me better than offense because I don’t have much idea about how to get open and would prefer to have the attention somewhere else anyway, something that seems most likely if I’m not handling the item everyone is focused on getting. Regardless, I’m hardly an asset going in either direction. I sub myself out. My teammate Skyla Sisco—a former Lady Griz basketball standout and WNBA player, and current Flycoon—is looking for a stick to draw a diagram in the dirt. I give her my notepad and she diagrams out the force defense we’re playing, which makes the concept clearer to me and the other rookies looking on. It boils down to always trying to make your opponent throw the disc forehand.

The match is exciting, full of bobbled catches and spectacular dives, long runs mixed with lightning-quick give-and-gos. I’m glad I’m not just a spectator, and my teammates seem glad of it too even though that means mostly tolerating my performance. I got beat for several points, maybe more than my team lost by, and it wasn’t just because I was confused either. I saw my guy running away from me and there was nothing I could do about it.

“I play to win”

Spring league might tailor its demands to a mellower set, but it still serves the needs of even the most competitive in the ultimate community.

“It’s really good to have a spring league,” says Fast Johnny, “because it gets new people playing ultimate and it gets the community aware of ultimate and it shows people that it’s a good thing, that it’s a lot of fun and so it helps the sport grow.”

J.O. points out that the competitive level relies on the recreational scene. “The more open you are and the more exposure the sport gets,” he says, “the better it will be for the growth of Missoula ultimate because if we can get one guy…who comes out to play barefooted with beads around his neck and then a year later he’s finding himself playing in the national championship—if we can get one of those a year we can keep the competitive team alive.”

He’s not just making that example up. Ken Billington, a UM student who traveled to nationals with the Flycoons last year, was first exposed to ultimate in 2005.

But at the end of opening day, when the competitors move off the field as a complimentary keg of beer is being tapped and the names of the best spirit winners are being called out, there is enough space, at least, for socializing. In the crowd are university students and their teachers, lawyers and freelance photographers, nonprofit administrators and real estate agents; a few players stand watch over baby carriages, including one woman who rushed off the field at halftime, explaining her daughter is “announcing to everyone that she has a poopy diaper.” All the while, familiar shapes and faces emerge from the deepening shadows.

“I didn’t know you played ultimate,” a few say to me.

I didn’t know I did either.

But I know I’ll be back next week, if my team and the league allow it. The thought gives me a little extra incentive to go out and run around the park or stop and throw the disc when I see a group of people doing so. Furthermore, it gives me a reason to look forward to Wednesday afternoons, when I’ll get in a good game, improve my play from the previous week, see some familiar faces and get to know some new people too.

Maybe when spring league is done, if I’ve improved enough or am just feeling ornery, I’ll drop in at River Bowl and play some summertime pick-up. Or maybe I’ll just wait for next spring to roll around to get my fix.

Either way, the next thing I need to do is get some cleats. I haven’t had a pair since playing intramural football in college, but someone else in spring league has already promised to hook me up.
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