Sixteen-year-old Luis Caballero has always played several traditional sports. But now he plays basketball and runs cross country with an untraditional goal in mind: staying in shape for Ultimate Frisbee.

"Now that I've played Frisbee so much and at a competitive level, it's kind of like I just want to keep on playing it," said Caballero, who also plays at Como High School in St. Paul. "I'm still playing basketball and running. But if I had to choose, I would just go play Frisbee."

He's not alone -- he's hopped on to a growing trend nationwide that is also quickly gaining steam in Minnesota. This weekend, Caballero and his Ultimate team, the U-19 Minnesota Superior -- basically a collection of the state's best players -- will play in the USA Ultimate Youth Club Championships at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Besides the U-19 boys' teams, there will be divisions for girls' teams, co-ed teams and, new this year, a U-16 youth division.

Caballero's club, and others like it across the country, brings together both athletes from different sports and non-jocks who just want to play the highly athletic game that produces breathtaking highlight reels and is dubbed "unique" by those who love it.

"Really, it's a combination of kids where for some, it fits their schedule and they can get in shape for other sports, and players that just love it and this is their game," said Nate Wohl, one of the Superior coaches, who played his senior year at Edina High School and five years of Ultimate at University of Kansas. "I have never come across anyone that's participated in it and doesn't just get blown away by the quality of the game -- how fun it is, how active it is."


One of the allures, players say, is the ways Ultimate relates to other sports.

The passing movements and seamless transition between offense and defense is like soccer. Possession of the disc, with the cutting and pivoting necessary to avoid traveling, is similar to basketball. Scoring and defensive formations are similar to football.

But the combination of all those skills creates something that is peerless, said Wohl.

"It's very unique," he said. "The basics of the sport -- all of the different skills and traits and lessons it teaches -- all that stuff is very dynamic and incorporates every different kind of sport from soccer to football to basketball to cross country, you name it. All of those elements incorporate into the sport."

That draw has been enough for Ultimate to gain some momentum, especially at the high school level. The sport was implemented in Minnesota schools in 2003, the year before Wohl started playing. The start was meager, but in eight years, more than 40 school teams have cropped up in the state.

"It was pretty small then, and it's just grown exponentially every year after that," Wohl said. "The sport has really just taken off to tremendous levels over the past several years."


For Ben Jagt, a home-schooler in the Columbia Heights area, Ultimate Frisbee was just a fun game his church youth group played on occasion. Then one day, his youth pastor approached him and told him he had some skills and should think about pursuing the sport further.

Jagt did, auditioning for Irondale's squad in his junior year, and suddenly discovered a whole new world of competitive Frisbee.

"I didn't know about any of this," said Jagt, who graduated this spring and now plays for the Superior. "When I started playing in the summer league, I was like 'Wow.' There was actually a bunch of really, really good players."

Jagt was impressed not only with the skill of the athletes, but also their attitudes. Having played football previously through Columbia Heights High School, he was struck by the vastly different character traits that were valued in Frisbee.

"It's a lot more laid-back," he said. "The people are really fun and quirky. They're not like your typical jock-jerk guys. They're just very nice and very intelligent.

"If we lose, people aren't yelling or anything. It's just like 'Well, the next game we'll see how we do.' The coaches are like a different breed, almost, than regular athletic coaches."

Part of that atmosphere, Jagt said, comes from the fact that are less serious goals involved for Ultimate players than with other sports. Jagt pointed out that no one is "getting to the major leagues."

That doesn't mean, however, that there isn't opportunities for Ultimate players. Wohl said he was attracted to the fact, in college, that every team had a legitimate chance to win a national championship -- a rare feeling in the world of collegiate sports.

"And every single player has the opportunity to play on a college team," he said. "You don't have to be the best athlete, you don't have to be so gifted, you don't have to be recruited or have a scholarship to participate."

Additionally, Ultimate seems to breed athletes who are able to look at the game objectively. The sport is self-officiated, which forces the players to sort out any differences among themselves and routinely make calls that affect their team negatively.

"I think it puts the responsibility on the player to be honest and not to rely on someone else to make a call or try to sneak a call in," Wohl said. "It's a great sportsmanship-developing tool, where players are honest with each other in making sure games are played out fairly."


For now, even despite the strong growth in the state, teams can expect crowds at the championships to be small, but they won't be short on passion, Wohl said. USA Ultimate, the governing body that oversees basically every level of the sport from youth to club to collegiate to national teams, is pushing to get the college championships broadcast on TV to increase viewership and interest and have "fan and spectator guides" prepared for this weekend's events, to inform the casual observer of rules and strategies.

"At this point, most fans are parents or current or former players of the game ... sportsmanship and spirit are widely accepted and embraced by all fans and players watching the games," Wohl said. "Anyone involved with the sport shares the same passions of spreading its attractiveness, so anybody will be more than helpful to fans looking to get introduced to the sport for the very first time."

Amelia Rayno • 612-673-4115