Raleigh Flyers soar in new pro Ultimate Disc league as the sport angles for the mainstream | Other Sports | Indy Week
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Raleigh Flyers soar in new pro Ultimate Disc league as the sport angles for the mainstream 

The Raleigh Flyers, an Ultimate Disc team playing it's first pro season, face the Jacksonville Cannons.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

The Raleigh Flyers, an Ultimate Disc team playing it's first pro season, face the Jacksonville Cannons.

This really is your first time watching Ultimate, isn't it?" Devon Ericksen asks, looking at me askance. She and her teammates from the Triangle-based Phoenix Women's Ultimate club team are at Cardinal Gibbons High School on a sweltering Sunday afternoon to watch the Raleigh Flyers, a professional squad playing its inaugural season in the 25-team American Ultimate Disc League.

Her question—half sympathy, half rejoinder—typifies the culture of the sport often simply called Ultimate, which eagerly welcomes newcomers, but readily rebuffs anyone who marginalizes it as quirky or trivial. So when I wonder aloud why she travels from her hometown of Richmond, Virginia to Raleigh several times a month "just" to play Ultimate, her silence speaks volumes. But when I ask for a primer on the sport's terminology, she happily enrolls me as her pupil for the next 10 minutes.

The parlance of any sport is a litmus test that differentiates initiates from interlopers. In Ultimate, a throw is a "huck." The most experienced players, tasked with advancing their team down the field, are "handlers." Their receivers are "cutters." Diving or jumping to catch the disc is a "bid," and out-leaping an opponent means you "skied" them. When a defender intercepts or deflects a disc, it's a "D." The two most common offensive formations are a "Ho (Horizontal) Stack" and a "Vert (Vertical) Stack."

The Flyers—already one of the top teams in the AUDL—played their opening game in April at Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park. It drew an unexpectedly large crowd of about 1,000 spectators and was broadcast on ESPN3. Today, they're hosting the Nashville Nightwatch, one of the weakest teams in the league. Sunny, the Flyers' winged pink pig mascot, prances around searching for kids to entertain. Between points, a DJ's playlist urges the crowd to "Turn down for what!" He'll be admonished to turn down the watts after the first time-out.

"I played in the highest level of club and college nationals for 10 years, and at no point did I play for a crowd of over 500 people," says team co-owner Mike DeNardis, the Flyers' energetic head coach, and one of the most respected in the country. "So when you have these crowds for the pro games, no one has ever experienced that."

Ultimate is a growing sport angling for the mainstream, but this isn't your father's Wham-O Frisbee—technically, there's no Frisbee™ at all, but rather, a Discraft 175-gram Ultra-Star. Teammates throw it in an effort to advance downfield and cross the goal line, scoring a point. A player holding a disc isn't permitted to run, and has only seven seconds to release it. If a defender intercepts or knocks down a disc, it's a turnover. Defenders aren't allowed to make contact with players on offense.

Two teams of seven traverse the 120-yard long Cardinal Gibbons gridiron in constant motion, whether incremental or breakneck. Cutters dart to and fro, probing for openings between defenders. I never imagined there were so many ways to throw a Frisbee—the familiar backhand, the forehand flick and the overhead "hammer," with its parabolic flight path. Devotees admire a layout D or an extended strategic drive that results in a score. Fans erupt for a sudden 50-yard huck that hangs in the air, seemingly aimed at no one, until a cutter bolts past his opponent to snare the disc without breaking stride.

These two teams will face off at Cardinal Gibbons again on June 27 before the Flyers' regular season closes on July 11 with a home game against the Charlotte Express, a South Division rival. The Flyers must finish in the top two in their division to earn a spot in the AUDL playoffs; they are currently tied for No. 1 with a 9-3 record.

The Raleigh Flyers, an Ultimate Disc team playing it's first pro season, face the Jacksonville Cannons. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • The Raleigh Flyers, an Ultimate Disc team playing it's first pro season, face the Jacksonville Cannons.

The Flyers' name captures various aspects of the sport, from the soaring huck to the speed and leaping prowess of the players. The former attracted Justin Allen when he discovered Frisbee at high school band camp. "I very much appreciated the flight of the disc," he says. "The way a Frisbee can fly and you can manipulate it with pace, angles, spin and different touches you can put on it."

The 24-year-old Raleigh native is one of the Flyers' top players, and ranks among the AUDL's leaders in goals and assists. While attending Appalachian State, he jettisoned marching band for his new addiction. "I would sit in class all day and, instead of doing my homework, I would search online for Ultimate Frisbee videos," Allen admits. "That's how a lot of players get hooked."

Similarly, Jarrett Bowen, an AUDL statistical leader who sports a flat-billed trucker hat on and off the field, was introduced to competitive Ultimate in his freshman year at UNC-Wilmington.

"The guy I was supposed to live with said, 'Hey, I'm going to this Ultimate Frisbee thing I signed up for at orientation. Do you want to come with me?'," Bowen recalls. "So it's me in flip-flops, board shorts and a tank top, thinking I'm just going to throw the Frisbee around. I get there, and my introduction was a 45-minute chalk talk session on the whiteboard in a classroom."

The rangy Allen was part of the gold medal-winning USA team at the 2013 World U-23 Ultimate Championships in Toronto. The next year, he and three other players from North Carolina were recruited by the AUDL's New York Empire, and so, as a junior in college, he got to live in New York City for the summer, for free. Allen also began to play his way through the ranks of Raleigh's club Ultimate scene, eventually landing a roster spot with Ring of Fire, the premier amateur club team in the area.

The Flyers' first-year success is attributable to a deep indigenous talent pool. Ultimate Frisbee in the Triangle dates back to the 1970s, with intramural teams sprouting up at Duke, N.C. State and UNC. Darkside, the UNC team formed in 1993, won its first College Men's Championship last month. And Ring of Fire, active since 1989, is one of the oldest and most competitive amateur club teams in the country. DeNardis is head coach of both, as well as the Flyers, and approximately half the Flyers' roster also plays for Ring of Fire. But for all of Ring of Fire's esteem and the Flyers' new promise, Raleigh's trophy case still lacks a national championship win.

"There are Ring of Fire players who have put in practices six months a year, 10 hours a weekend, and [spent] thousands of dollars, for 20 years, who didn't get to win a championship," Allen says. "To win one for those guys would be crazy, whether as Raleigh Flyers or Ring of Fire."

Last fall, the Flyers' three principal investors—Casey Degnan, Sean Degnan and DeNardis—purchased franchise rights for the new team from the AUDL. The 34-year-old Casey, a former Ultimate standout in Chicago, works as a day trader. His brother, Sean, owns the Raleigh restaurant Buku. DeNardis, once a VP for Bear Stearns, brokers energy derivatives. And Troy Revell, the Flyers' general manager and an ex-AUDL player, is a local wine sommelier. But at the Nightwatch game, Sean lugs water coolers. Revell nervously paces the sideline. Casey, who attended Cardinal Gibbons, oversees family members as they run everything from ticketing and parking to the merchandise tent.

The emergence of pro Ultimate is something of an insurgence. USA Ultimate is the governing body of amateur club, college and youth Ultimate. According to its 2013 annual report, its membership grew from 24,633 in 2006 to 47,137 in 2013. The AUDL, which began in 2012, separated itself from the strictures of USA Ultimate's governance to become the first pro league. (Another, Major League Ultimate, splintered off to begin play in 2013.)

Amateur club Ultimate is tournament-based, with timing and scoring rules that can be confounding to outsiders. But Pro Ultimate has a traditional sports season and is geared toward single games comprising four 12-minute quarters. Pro fields are larger, using football-field lines to provide a sense of size and scale for fans. And unlike in amateur play, which has long held a "spirit of the game" approach that places the onus on players to call fouls on themselves, pro Ultimate uses referees.

The pro setup appeals to Bowen's sporting sensibilities. "Coming from a football and baseball background, I have a one-game mentality," Bowen says. "I really enjoy the preparation for a single opponent and then executing a game plan for one game. The chance to play under the lights, in front of a crowd, highlight videos, stat-keeping ... it just has an official feel."

To brand the Flyers and the rest of the AUDL as "professional" stretches the term. Players are paid a pittance—Casey says the Flyers' players make between $50 and $100 per game. The biggest benefit is the lack of out-of-pocket expenses, a far cry from amateur club competition. Bowen estimates that he's spent between $2,000 and $4,000 on plane tickets, rental cars, tournament fees and other expenses over his last two years playing for Ring of Fire. But with the Flyers, the team pays for everything, including travel, equipment and meal money for away games.

"It's very minor league baseball-like," Bowen explains. "It's not glamorous by any means."

When pigs fly! Sunny, the Raleigh Flyers winged mascot, greets players - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • When pigs fly! Sunny, the Raleigh Flyers winged mascot, greets players

Ultimate incorporates elements of other sports, most obviously football, soccer and track. The mechanics of a disc throw emulate a forehand swing in tennis.

"I see flashes of baseball in reading the flight of the disc, like tracking a baseball in centerfield," Bowen adds. "Then basketball, with the backdoor cuts and give-and-goes around the goal line."

Still, the sport occupies a unique niche. "Ultimate Frisbee attracts a different sort of crowd," Allen says. "People who might not excel at ball sports, or people who may not have gotten into sports as a kid but, now that they're 17 or 18, want to discover a new sport and get to know people who are accepting and willing to help."

The Phoenix team didn't come simply to cheer the Flyers, who pull away from Nashville in the second half for a 33-22 win. Jessi Jones, Phoenix's captain and a 2013 U-23 Women's national team gold medalist, has been added the Flyers' roster for the game, touted as the first woman to appear in pro Ultimate. She plays during a handful of points, and the crowd lets out a collective shriek when she nearly snares a short toss for a score.

Below the pro level, the history of college and amateur club Ultimate is notably gender-inclusive. There are men's, women's and coed competitions at all age levels. Thirty percent of USA Ultimate members are female, a stalwart segment that pro Ultimate cannot ignore, must less ostracize.

"That makes Ultimate a unique and special sport," DeNardis says. "It's not only about the specifics of the game or team. The whole [Ultimate] community has a bigger sense of duty to themes like gender equity."

But while pro Ultimate is officially coed, it's functionally all-male. There are calls from some quarters for a female pro Ultimate league, an idea that many view as premature while the nascent AUDL is still finding its footing.

"We're a pro league and understand that, generally, it's going to be a male-dominated league," DeNardis says. "But there's a high likelihood there are women who can play professionally, and some of them might not want to play because they don't think it's a possibility." It's a healthy debate for a growing sport—one that, paradoxically, is both inviting and insular.

"There is a culture here," Allen says. "And once you find it after you've already been hooked on the sport, you get hooked even more."

You just have to know how to speak the language.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Disc drive."

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