Midtown: Sports

Raleigh Ring of Fire players find passion through sport, look forward to USA Ultimate U.S. Open

Brian Casey watched from the sideline Thursday as his Ring of Fire teammates competed in the first game of the season.

He has played ultimate, perhaps better known as Ultimate Frisbee, for 10 years, but sat out with an injury as his team opened its season in front of about 200 spectators at WakeMed Soccer Park.

“To the general public it’s not a very well-known sport,” he said. “It’s kind a sport that hasn’t really been around or popular for a long time, but I think anybody that has the ability to watch a game and see the athleticism and the commitment that people bring to it will soon dash that idea.”

The Ring players, many of whom work office jobs during the day and play ultimate at night, put in “every bit as much effort into what we do as college-level, professional-level athletes,” he said.

“It has a lot of the endurance of soccer,” Casey said. “It’s kind of a noncontact sport in the way that basketball is a noncontact sport. It’s a physical game.”

Ring of Fire lost the match 16-14 loss to NexGen, a college all-star team of sorts, but the Raleigh team has consistently ranked among the top clubs in the nation, finishing third at nationals last year. The club has had the same goal since its 1989 founding: win a national championship.

“When you win nationals in North America, you’re considered to be the best in the world at that time by most,” said Taylor Pope, who has played with Ring for 11 years.

While several Ring players live in other states such as Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, Pope moved from New York to play for the team.

“I moved to Raleigh to try out for this team in 2003 and then built my life around that,” he said. “I went to grad school and got my doctorate of physical therapy at UNC. A lot of guys build their lives around this sport.”

Ring has established itself over the years, Pope said.

It draws players from other states because it is one of the best teams competing at the elite level in the region.

“We’re not getting paid to do this,” he said. “We’re out here working extremely hard. We’re spending a lot of money to play the sport that we love, and we do it because this is an opportunity to compete at the highest level.”

Their jerseys are sponsored by apparel company Five Ultimate, but travel and other costs come out of the players’ pockets.

Ring will have a chance to showcase itself again this week on a national stage, but also in its own backyard.

The USA Ultimate U.S. Open Championships and Convention will be held Thursday through Sunday in Raleigh.

“There’s already a very passionate ultimate community that exists in the Raleigh, Durham, Triangle community,” said Andy Lee, director of marketing and communications for USA Ultimate.

The U.S. Open is the first of three events that comprise the inaugural ultimate triple crown.

The top four teams from nationals last year, including Ring of Fire, will compete along with three international teams and another U.S. team in the men’s division.

Eight women’s teams, including the local team Phoenix, will compete in the women’s division and eight others will compete in mixed play.

Ring of Fire will play a team from Colombia at 5:30 p.m. Friday at WRAL Soccer Center in a showcase event followed by a match between the U.S. national team and Colombia national team at 7:30 p.m.

In addition to the competition and convention, young players will be able to participate in an instructional clinic at 10 a.m. Friday.

Entrance into the stadium for events and games is free, but parking costs $5 per day.