SEATTLE — Most of us, at some point in our lives, have tossed that plastic disc branded as a Frisbee back and forth among friends and family. However, the lion’s share of us have not played, nor perhaps even heard of, Ultimate Frisbee.
Jake Steen has. He plays Ultimate. And he loves it.
Steen, a recent graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle, spoke about being an athlete competing in this most singular and specialized sport.
When did you first become aware of Ultimate or Ultimate Frisbee? What was your initial involvement as a player?
“Growing up in Olympia, there is little to no Frisbee scene. Unlike most (of) my current UW teammates that are from the Seattle area, they have been playing Ultimate since elementary for their school team. Olympia had no school Ultimate program even at the high school age. Throwing a Frisbee around with my brother in my backyard and playing pickup games with my friends was all I knew. Although looking back at it, I don’t know if I can consider it Ultimate Frisbee as we had no idea what we were doing. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school when I went to one of my brother’s Ultimate Frisbee tournaments (He at the time was in college and played for the UW Sundodgers). That is when I got my first glimpse of what Ultimate really was and how it was played at a higher level. I fell in love and knew I wanted to be like my brother and pursue Ultimate for UW when I went to college. That year I joined an Olympia Parks and Rec Frisbee league so that I could (immerse) myself in the Ultimate community. Although that was good experience, I wouldn’t consider that high level Ultimate as it was more of an adult beginner league. It wasn’t until college at UW, I tried out for the team my freshman year and thankfully made the team. This was my first Ultimate team experience.”
For the uninitiated, how about a brief thumbnail sketch of how Ultimate is played?
“Ultimate Frisbee is a sport that is a little more under the radar, but it is certainly on the up and up and I love seeing it grow in popularity. Yet not many people know quite how it’s played and I get asked this question a lot: what sport is it like? What’s great about Ultimate is that it isn’t like any other sport. Ultimate is its own unique sport that isn’t played like others. Sure, it certainly has aspects like others but the game itself is its own thing. The game is played 7v7 and played on a football field, yet the end zones are 20 yards deep rather than 10 yards like football. The game starts by each team being on their respective goal line where one team “pulls” to the receiving team (like a kickoff in football). The goal of the offense is to advance the disc down the field and score in the end zone like football. Yet, when you have the disc, you are unable to move. You can pivot like in basketball but to advance it, your other teammates need to make cuts to get open so you can pass the disc to them. When a pass is caught in the end zone that team scores a point, and then like in football you would set up for the pull. As defense, you are trying to block passes and cause a turnover. This is a non-contact sport so no tackling or anything like that. If the person you are guarding catches a pass, then you set a ‘mark’. As a mark you cannot touch the offensive player but you are close enough and putting yourself in the way so that they do not have an easy throw. Kind of like how you would guard someone in basketball if they picked up their dribble. If you force a turnover, (occurring) if the disc hits the ground or goes out of bounds, the defense then takes possession and tries to score in the other end zone. Unlike football where if there is a turnover you can sub on your offensive players, in Ultimate there are no subs until after the point so that defensive line then has to become the offense.”
What position do you play? What are your typical responsibilities during a match?
“Position wise, there are mainly just two. (You have) a handler, which you can think of (as) being a quarterback in football because they tend to have better throws. And then you have cutters, which you can think about as being a receiver in football. Most teams will have three handlers and four cutters on the field at a time. I am on the O-line as a cutter, so my responsibilities are to make cuts down field getting open so my handlers can get me the disc. As someone who is 6-foot-3 and has a background in high jump, I have become a great deep threat and dominated the sky by baiting my defender shallow, then streaking deep to the end zone where my handler can huck it to me.”
Ultimate resembles American football in many ways. However, characteristics of other sports are included, as well. You’ve played football. Share with us the similarities and differences between conventional football and Ultimate.
“I did mention a bit before the similarities between the two sports, but to reiterate, the game starts off (with) a pull (one team hucks it down to the other team) like a kickoff in football. We (play) on a football field, but instead of 10-yard end zones and 100 yards of field of play, it’s 20-yard end zones and 80 yards of field of play. (These are the dimensions for the AUDL [American Ultimate Disc League] but college and club are a bit different). You can think of handlers as quarterbacks, as they tend to be around the disc, where the cutters are more downfield making cuts. Each goal is worth 1 point, and for college and club level you tend to play to 13 or 15, whereas AUDL it is 12-minute quarters, so score(s) tend to be in the low 20’s.”
Most of us are not aware of the professional American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL). You compete with the Seattle franchise, the Cascades. Describe this unique experience.
“Running out of a tunnel through smoke onto the field where you have cheering fans is something that you dream of as a child. Having fans chant for your team and an announcer call your name still gives me chills. Although Seattle did not have the best season this year as we lost many close hard caught battles, the experience and memories I made with this team are unmatched. I am surrounded by players that have been around Ultimate longer than I have been alive so I am trying to be like a sponge, trying to absorb all the techniques and strategies I can from them. My favorite part about playing for the Seattle Cascades is that I get to call Mark Burton my teammate. For the last four years he has coached me at UW and he has been one of my favorite coaches. (Now) I get the cleat up beside him and be teammates with him. You know the other team is in trouble when Mark has the disc and sees me making my deep cut for the end zone ‘cause you can almost guarantee that will result in a goal, like when Russell Wilson sees Tyler Lockett beat his man deep.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of Ultimate is that there are no game officials or referees. Players make their own calls, which are largely abided by. But, as with any spirited athletic competition, not always. How often does protestation occur? How are these impasses generally resolved?
“Ultimate is very unique in the fact that it doesn’t have any refs. Instead, they have observers. In all AUDL games they will be present, yet it is still on the players to make calls. Something Ultimate really tries to embody is ‘spirit of the game.’ When a player calls a foul, play pauses and the two players talk about it to resolve it. The defender can either agree with the foul and the disc stays with the fouled player or they can contest it and plea their side. If they cannot agree, then they may turn to the observer (and) the observer can have the final say. Yet they are only there if you and the other player cannot come to a resolution. In college and club, observers (are) not at every game. This is where ‘spirit of the game’ really comes into play as everyone is accountable to make sure the game does not get chippy and out of hand. If say a foul is called and is contested, (and) neither player will agree, then the disc is sent back, and the play is a redo. For a college tournament, (day one) pool play usually never has observers, but for semis and the championship game they will most likely always be there. Without having refs each player is held at a higher standard than other sports. (You) are still as competitive but it is on you to be honest and fair to keep the game working.
You also play for the University of Washington’s Ultimate team. Is this a club or an intercollegiate sport? Talk about being a member of this “Pack of Dawgs.”.
“The Ultimate Frisbee program is a club sport at the college level as it is not recognized by the NCAA. (Yet with) the trajectory of the sport, I could see it being an NCAA sport in the near future. The UW Sundodgers were the first high level Ultimate team I played on and will always hold a special place in my heart. Everyone who has been on a sports team (values) the relationships you build with teammates as the season is a roller-coaster of emotions. From the suffering through raining (and) cold Seattle winter night practices, seeing the team chemistry build to competing at Nationals, we go through it all with one common goal: to go win Nationals. This year is a super funky (season) because of COVID. I have graduated from UW, but because I had eligibility last year (as) the season was canceled due to COVID, I am able to play in this fall series. They are making up last year’s season and squeezing in two seasons in one year. At first, I was extremely disappointed my (senior) year season was canceled, but now that I was given this opportunity, I will not take it for granted. I have one more season to compete with some of my best friends to bring home that trophy, (an) accomplishment UW (Men’s Team) has never done before. Before COVID struck, UW was second in the nation (and) by returning almost everyone to a program-best team, we are hungry and eager for the season to start back up again.”
How long do you plan to participate in Ultimate, Jake?
“I am a very competitive man. I have played sports my entire life to the (point) where they are part of my identity. I know my body will not be able to compete at a high level forever, but I am in the prime of my life, and I know if I stopped now, I would regret it later on in life. I plan to keep on competing after the college scene with the Seattle Cascades and also in the club scene.”
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