Conor Kline was looking for a spring sport in his junior year at Edina. A lifelong basketball player who also had played football for a while, he found himself torn between track and tennis.
Then a friend invited him to captain’s practice for ultimate, a fast-rising sport across Minnesota —and the country — involving seven players on a side passing a disc downfield in hopes of scoring in the end zone.
He didn’t exactly light it up his first time out.
“I was really bad,” Kline said. “Couldn’t throw for the life of me. But it was a good time and a lot of my friends played. I just got out there and ran around.”
Turns out he would very quickly fall in love with the sport. Kline was on the JV team for one week before getting promote to the varsity squad by coach Nate Wohl. He dedicated himself to the game. This past spring, he played his second season with the Hornets and is in his second season with the Minnesota Superior U19 open club team, which is comprised of the top players in the state.
Kline was voted to be captain unanimously to both teams this year. He’s a prime example of how ultimate has blossomed recently.
“What he’s done in one year shows how much this sport can grow and how exciting it is and how addicting the game can be,” said Wohl, who also coaches the Minnesota Superior U19 open team. “He just got hooked on it.”
Crayton Smith has been addicted for years. He started playing at his church in fourth grade and hasn’t stopped. Ultimate has everything he wants in a sport — some physical play, competitiveness, momentum swings, camaraderie. It also makes exercising enjoyable, particularly the running aspect.
“It gives running a purpose is what I always say,” said Smith, who played for Lakeville North and now plays on the Superior U19 open team with his brother. “I hate running in general. This gives it a purpose and gives me a reason.”
Luis Caballero has been playing for several years and it shows. The Como Park product developed his skills in the park, and he’s brought them to the Superior. He’s one of the shorter guys on the team, but his athleticism and skills are part of what makes the sport exciting to watch.
Locally, the sport is capitalizing on its momentum and youth initiatives to increase membership, awareness and opportunities.
Building momentum, drawing athletes from other sports
Ultimate has been one of the fastest growing sports in the country, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Kids are joining the sport at faster rates than adults, which bodes well for its future.
In May, USA Ultimate, the national governing body, surpassed 10,000 youth members. That number doesn’t account for kids who play the sport at the middle-school levels or just for fun in less-organized environments.
Abby Hagel has been involved as a player, coach and now board member at Minnesota Youth Ultimate, the state’s governing body. She wants to provide kids the opportunities she didn’t have growing up.
“It’s a sport I wish I had gotten to play growing up,” said Hagel, who coaches the University of Minnesota women’s team and plays in a coed league during the summer. “I think it does tremendous things for youth development.”
Last fall Hagel, a big proponent of ultimate at the youth levels, helped organized the Twin Cities’ first middle-school league. About 60 to 70 kids registered and played for seven weeks.
Wohl, who started playing nearly 10 years ago, said, “What you’re seeing now is that the sport is actually pulling players from other sports — baseball, soccer, track and lacrosse and others. It’s now competing heavily with other sports to get those top high school athletes to participate. That’s where you’re seeing the dimensions of the sport change.”
Wohl said Minnesota has the largest high school league in the nation and that nearly every school in the metro has a team. Ultimate, a spring sport at schools, is not sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League and there is no real push to make that happen as of now.
Youth sports philosophy built around respecting the game
The culture of ultimate helps distinguish it from other sports. For one, ultimate is self-officiated. There are no referees. It forces kids to work out issues among themselves.
“They kind of learn to be their own advocates, so they develop a lot of efficacy,” Hagel said. “There’s more self-esteem here than in other sports because so much of what they do is dependent upon their own integrity and their opponents’ integrity. Now we’re getting kids at ages 11 and 12 (middle school program) to learn all this and that’s pretty amazing to me.”
Coaches are also advised to practice non-interference when at all possible.
“A lot of youth sports is just kids appealing to higher authorities, and they tell them what the answer is, more or less,” Hagel said. “One of the fundamental tenets of ultimate is called the Spirit of the Game — play as hard as you can, respect yourself, respect the game and respect your opponents.”
These philosophies have created a unique, special culture, Kline said.
“Just the community of the people in the sport is unbelievable,” Kline said.
While much of the focus is on the youth levels, that doesn’t mean adults are only on the sidelines. There are plenty of opportunities to play after high school. Wohl played for five years at Kansas University before moving back to Minnesota. Kline is heading to the University of Massachusetts this fall to suit up for one of the better college programs in the country.
Club teams are plentiful and often all-inclusive.
“In the adult leagues, you have grown-ups coming out that have never played before,” Hagel said. “There’s a place for them, too. That’s also part of the ethos of this sport. It’s welcoming to everybody.”
And Kline can testify to the skill level at all ages.
“I’ve played with guys who are 50 years old, and they’re running around making me look silly,” Kline said. “It’s more about skill and less about age.”
Minnesota team’s upset proves it’s “the real deal’’
While ultimate is growing throughout the country, Minnesota is establishing itself as a power. The traditional strongholds have been Seattle and New England. Last summer Minnesota made a statement: Minnesota Superior won the USA Ultimate Youth Club Championships national title in the U19 open division.
The team, which never trailed throughout the entire tournament, upset a powerhouse team from Seattle in the semifinals.
“That was a huge shock,” Kline said. “We were definitely the underdogs the entire tournament. That was a lot of fun to prove to everyone that we were the real deal.”
Minnesota Superior will try to defend its title next weekend in the USA Ultimate Youth Club Championships at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
Superior will have teams in all four divisions — open, coed, girls and U16 — all of which feature the state’s top players. There will be 43 teams from 19 cities across the country participating, the largest amount to date.
Players such as Smith are continuing to try and do their part to grow the sport, so Minnesota can continue to establish itself as an ultimate hotbed.
“Every year before the season we try and grab people,” Smith said. “Once you get someone to try it, that’s all you need to do. A $10 disc is all you need. Once they’re in, they’re hooked.”