Ultimate match, 1990

Field Guide to Ultimate Frisbee

By Thomas Rozwadowski

“Our team is a family,” says Syzygy team captain Karen Ehrhardt ’20. “We bake pies. We hang out on the Bald Spot. We dye our hair before matches. We have a bond that extends beyond the game.”

It was love at first sight.

Karen Ehrhardt ’20, then playing for another Midwestern liberal arts college, had just experienced a heartbreaking loss at an Ultimate tournament in Iowa. She took a brief walk to clear her head when she saw Carleton’s Division I women’s team playing on an adjacent field.

“Not only were they good, but they were really supporting each other,” Ehrhardt says. “I said to myself, ‘That is the team I want to play for.’ ”

The North Carolina native transferred to Carleton her sophomore year. She’s now a team captain for one of the best women’s Ultimate teams in the country—Syzygy.

No other school Carleton’s size can boast such a pervasive and winning Ultimate culture at the Division I and Division III levels. The proof is in the pedigree: Syzygy planted the flag by making it to nationals in 1988 and eventually winning the school’s first title in 2000. Eclipse, Carleton’s DIII women’s team, won in 2011, 2016, and 2017. Gods of Plastic added DIII championships on the men’s side in 2010 and 2012. Meanwhile, CUT has become a DI juggernaut that captured titles in 2001, 2009, 2011, and 2017. Since 2006, six schools besides Carleton have earned top men’s DI honors— and all of them are state institutions with enrollments above 25,000.

“People who know about Ultimate are aware of Carleton’s reputation,” Ehrhardt says. “I grew up around the sport and I really value what it means to be part of an invested Ultimate community.”

While students are just as likely to throw discs casually on the Bald Spot or in front of residence halls, Carleton has cultivated a competitive Ultimate culture similar to “any varsity or serious club sport that draws the best athletes,” says Phil Bowen ’96, a former CUT player and current CUT coach. The seeds were planted through increasingly intense intramural games in the late ’70s and the ’80s. Needing a strategic breakthrough to compete with top teams in national tournament play, Al Duerr ’88 of CUT and Betty Byrne ’88 and Pam Kraus ’88 of Syzygy began to emphasize athleticism (recruiting high school varsity players from several sports), specialization (particularly on defense), and winter conditioning through indoor practices for their respective squads. According to The Carleton Ultimate Book, a self-published history of CUT by Wade James Bove ’92, that emphasis on team building created a loftier, more serious standard for Ultimate play from the early ’90s on.

Winning multiple championships has created a national profile and a natural talent pipeline to the college. Bowen hears Carleton’s name repeatedly at youth camps and tournaments. Carleton players-turned-coaches also help spread the word.

“I hadn’t played Ultimate before coming to Carleton and I was pretty intimidated,” says Rachel Gallagher ’18, who played for Eclipse. “I wasn’t sure the community would welcome new players. Then I met some players who encouraged me to give it a try. They were so kind and enthusiastic that I kept coming back. I think Eclipse has been so successful these past few years because of our camaraderie. Even if I felt tired or frustrated, I worked hard for my teammates because I knew they’d do the same for me.”

Ultimate is likely to continue to grow nationally and locally. According to governing body USA Ultimate, about 18,000 student-athletes and more than 800 teams compete at the collegiate level. Bowen is proud that Carleton has put Minnesota on the Ultimate map. There’s something endearing about a small liberal arts college in rural Northfield that competes with (and beats) DI powerhouses like the University of Florida, the University of North Carolina, and Stanford.

“Ultimate feels like a natural extension of Carleton,” says Bowen. “It fits right in with our culture of embracing the counterculture. Ultimate was just starting to get competitive back when I was here, yet all the promotional materials mentioned it. Ultimate seemed like ‘the thing’ that everyone was doing on campus.” 

 

SyzygySyzygy Photo: Alex Fraser with Ultiphotos

“We’ve had soccer players make the transition to Ultimate really well. The athleticism is similar,” says Karen Ehrhardt ’20. “While Ultimate can seem kind of intense, it really is community driven. We’re open to new people joining and teaching people to throw. You don’t even need to know the rules.”

 

Carleton UltimateCarleton Ultimate

“As a player, I was amazed when alumni showed up at our tournaments. Knowing that we had such a large group of supporters made me play harder,” says Emily Muirhead McAdam ’08, who played for Syzygy. “Now, as an alumna, I see that support system in action. We support the teams financially, encourage young players to apply to Carleton, and follow the players on social media. Sometimes Twitter can’t update the live scores fast enough for those of us who aren’t able to be on the sidelines!”

 

CUTCUT Photo: Kevin Leclaire with Ultiphotos

“The players are getting taller and faster. That’s obvious,” says CUT coach Phil Bowen ’96. “But I think creativity is an underrated skill. Innovation is important. Creative players can anticipate or figure out throws that others wouldn’t think about trying. That’s how we progress the sport.”

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