First it took Maine colleges and universities by storm, then it quickly spread to the high school level. Now the flying-disc game originally called ultimate Frisbee is taking off at middle schools across the state.
The popularity of the freewheeling sport was obvious Sunday in Cumberland, where a dozen high school teams from Maine and New Hampshire and a half-dozen Maine middle school teams took over the Cumberland Fairgrounds for the Cumberland Ultimate Invitational tournament. An enthusiastic crowd of parents cheered on the sidelines as teams rushed up and down the fields in the rain.
“It is the best thing that has ever happened since sliced bread,” said Peggy Pisini, whose daughter, Kat, is captain of the Cumberland Ultimate high school team.
Invented in 1968, ultimate combines the skills of soccer and football with some lacrosse thrown in.
The teams are coed, play seven on each side and score points when the plastic disc is caught in the end zone, a 20-by-40-foot rectangle at each end of the field.
The sport’s hallmark is its lack of referees — the players officiate themselves. While most teams have coaches, it is up to the players to make the decisions on the field.
“They drive the train on the field, which is the beauty of it,” said Kevin Massey, the Cumberland Ultimate coach, tournament director and board member of Maine Ultimate, which organizes the sport on the middle school-through-college level.
Ultimate is played as a club sport, since it is not recognized by either the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which regulates college sports, nor the Maine Principals’ Association, which regulates interscholastic Maine high school sports.
But that’s OK with many ultimate fans. Those organizations might require the addition of referees and other rule changes that would take away what aficionados call ultimate’s unique “spirit of the game.”
“It’s all focused on sportsmanship,” Massey said.
Nationally, ultimate went pro two years ago with the formation of two leagues, the American Ultimate Disc League, which has a dozen teams, and the Major League Ultimate, which has eight teams.
More than 30 communities have formed high school teams since Maine Ultimate was founded seven years ago. Today more than 450 teenagers take part on teams from 26 communities in Maine. Portland is home to a thriving adult league, with more than 600 men and women, many of whom started playing ultimate in college.
On Saturday, Maine Ultimate hosted a 16-team adult invitational tournament at the fairgrounds, while Maine Ultimate’s all-girls high school team spent the weekend at a northeastern tournament in Devens, Mass.
This is the first year that ultimate is now available at the middle school level. There are 80 to 100 children on teams that have been formed in Falmouth, Cumberland, Cape Elizabeth and at the Merriconeag Waldorf School in Freeport.
Ultimate fans say one of the beauties of the sport is that it doesn’t take a lot of money to play, unlike equipment-intensive sports.
“All you need is a disc, some cones and a pair of cleats,” said Alex Pozzy, coach of the Falmouth Ultimate, which has 68 players and four teams.
Matt Bates, coach of the Cape Elizabeth middle school team, said 40 children signed up for its first season. “We are having a blast,” he said.
Grace Stoughton, 14, a Cape Elizabeth eighth-grader, agreed. She said she grew up watching her father play ultimate. She said ultimate also helps her build skills in her two other sports, lacrosse and soccer.
“It helps you know where to be in a field,” she said.
Teammate Eli Babcock, 14, who also plays hockey and tennis, said ultimate is good for people who want a change of pace.
“It is a good time and a lot more laid-back,” he said.
Maine is something of an ultimate powerhouse. Last year’s all-star high school team, called the Rising Tide, made up of players from the 26 communities, came in third at the national Ultimate Youth Club Championships in Blaine, Minn. This year, Maine will send its all-star middle school team, Neap Tide, to the nationals, as well, said Rich Young, Maine Ultimate’s president.
Young said ultimate players don’t seem to mind traveling to play their sport. Every Wednesday, the Islesboro Ultimate team makes a three-hour trip off island to play at the Cumberland Fairgrounds.
“That is one of the neat things,” Young said.
Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: