Russell Lanier is an “ultimate” aficionado, one of thousands of fans at a national college championship of the fast-moving disc-throwing sport in Raleigh.
A player and coach of a youth team, Lanier’s favorite part of the game, commonly known as ultimate, is not the constant running, not the graceful arcs of the Frisbee, not the diving or leaping catches.
It’s the absence of referees.
Ultimate players self-officiate. Players make their own foul or line calls. When there is a dispute, players resolve the matter themselves.
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“This is an incredible learning experience for the boardroom or workplace,” Lanier said. “Players learn to control their emotions in high-stress situations, respect their opponents and play honorably.”
Forty teams from across the country, half of which are men and half women, are playing a four-day tournament at WRAL Soccer Center in North Raleigh.
The absence of referees means parents and fans don’t have a convenient target to berate.
The sport cultivates a free-spirited and goofy atmosphere. The women’s team from Colorado College is known as Lysistrata’s Tools, named after the ancient Greek woman who ended a war by persuading women to abstain from sex until the men stopped fighting.
More modern politics has entered the tournament. Organizers issued a statement opposing House Bill 2, the North Carolina law that has drawn national attention for its rules on restroom use by transgender people.
Washington’s governor barred nonessential travel to North Carolina to express opposition to HB2, and Western Washington University forbade its women’s team from spending state funds to come to the tournament. But the team raised money for the trip in 10 days and bought new jerseys without a university logo and bearing a symbol for bathrooms open to men, women and transgender people. To save money, the members are sleeping on a gym floor at Carolina Friends School in Durham.
Coach Alyssa Weatherford said her team volunteered several hours Friday entering data and canvassing for TurnOUT! NC, a campaign dedicated to fighting HB2.
The sport of ultimate is about 40 years old. Tournament organizers say it has grown rapidly over the past two decades, especially in the Triangle. The game is played on a field 70 yards long and 40 yards wide, with 20-yard end zones. Players cannot run with the disc. A team moves the disc downfield by passing. A point is scored when a player catches the disc in the end zone.
To ease the competitive edge, this weekend’s tournament staffed each game with observers, who helped mediate disputed calls.
Saturday witnessed a nailbiter of a match between the University of North Carolina and Case Western Reserve University from Cleveland, Ohio.
The UNC team is the defending national champion and named the Darkside, not because of Pink Floyd or Star Wars, but because only half the lights on the practice field worked in the early days of the club.
The Case Western team calls itself the Fighting Gobies, named after an invasive bottom-dwelling fish plaguing Lake Erie.
The atmosphere was competitive and extremely goofy. The Darkside has a Noodle Squad – players on the sidelines run up and down with foam swimming pool noodles. During timeouts, the Fighting Gobies formed a tight line on the field with their arms raised high, while two players played badminton over the wall of teammates.
The Fighting Gobies honored Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River with a call and response chant celebrating the river’s history of catching on fire: “Burn the river!” “Burn the town!” “Burn the river!” “Burn it down!” Another cheer entailed a refrain of “We have queso!”
The game was hard fought and close, with a single goal separating the teams for most of the match. As the time wound down, the competition tightened. Observers were called in several times to mediate disputed fouls.
The first team to 16 points would win the match. The Darkside was down 15-14 and tied it up. A minute later, senior JD Hastings uncoiled a 60-yard pass. Sophomore Matt Gouchoe-Hanas sprinted into the end zone and made a leaping catch.
He immediately turned to the Fighting Goby on his heels and they shook hands.