Sports

Ultimate thrill for Raleigh’s newest pro team

Raleigh Flyers Justin Allen, left, goes against the Nashville Nightwatch on Sunday, May 17, 2015. Allen leads the Flyers in assists.
Raleigh Flyers Justin Allen, left, goes against the Nashville Nightwatch on Sunday, May 17, 2015. Allen leads the Flyers in assists.

At 6-foot-2, 150 pounds, Justin Allen’s build doesn’t scream professional athlete.

The Raleigh Flyers’ star played ultimate Frisbee at Leesville Road High, continued his career at Appalachian State and now splits time between the Flyers, Raleigh’s newest professional team, and the club-level Ring of Fire. During the day, the 24-year-old works as an IT and clinical recruiter. But when he steps on the turf, which he’ll do again Saturday in a playoff game, defenders can’t slow him down.

It’s a Clark Kent to Superman transformation – no phone booth required – and he’s spent the season ravaging other teams’ defenses en route to becoming the first American Ultimate Disc League player to notch 50 goals and 50 assists this season.

There aren’t any Luke Kuechlys or Russell Westbrooks on this field. David Richardson, at 6-3, 280 pounds, and C.J. Colicchio, at 6-6, 205 pounds, might be the closest physical comparisons. Yet as the Flyers wind their way toward the end zone in a series of screens and quick tosses, these lanky teachers, Ph.D. students, engineers and recruiters show the same sort of mastery of their game.

Take a recent possession against the Charlotte Express: A Flyer grips the edge of the disc, winds up and flings it from above his head. The hammer throw floats downfield into the waiting hands of a wide-open player. He dumps the disc off to Allen, who quickly tosses it back. It’s Ultimate’s equivalent of a give-and-go, and Allen gets loose behind a defender to get into the end zone. His lunging shoestring grab results in another point for Raleigh, and the four-throw, 60-plus yard possession is complete.

The entire sequence took just over 20 seconds.

Unexpected athleticism

“The dynamic of the whole field is shifting all the time,” said Mike DeNardis, coach and co-owner of the professional team, “and then there will be a long play, a highlight level play happening at the end.”

The first-year AUDL team booked a spot to the playoffs, but to simply caption the event as a 26-23 win over the Charlotte Express would be to miss the unexpected athleticism.

4 12-minute quarters per game

7 players on field for each team

25 teams in the league

Think Odell Beckham Jr.’s viral fingertip grab was impressive? Then you haven’t seen a Flyers player lay out as a disc floats mere centimeters above the artificial grass.

Raleigh players toss the discs to their teammates in ways that make spectators wonder if card tricks are up next, and they climb above their opponents in a flash. For as much distance as a Flyer must cover to haul in a disc that’s hurtling in the opposite direction, dropped passes seem rare. Only well-timed swats from defenders slow down the Flyers’ second-ranked scoring offense.

This is no friendly game of Frisbee during gym class. AUDL games consist of four 12-minute quarters of fast-paced, high-scoring action, and there’s a massive incentive to win the league championship. A first-place finish at this year’s Final Four in San Jose would earn the Flyers $25,000 to split among the team.

Attendance is up

The regular season, in which Raleigh finished first in the South division with an 11-3 record, lacks the same glamour. For road trips to Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville and Jacksonville, Fla., the team piles into two 15-passenger vans. While travel expenses and equipment costs are covered by the team, Raleigh players are paid less than $100 per game.

At home games, though, the Flyers can pull in more than 1,000 fans with the help of giveaways from sponsors such as Whole Foods and Insomnia Cookies. Attendance is up across the league, and the Flyers have done well in their first year, according to DeNardis, who also coaches Ring of Fire and the national champion UNC club team. He bought the Flyers with Casey Degnan, who manages the business side, after the AUDL gained some stability from a player’s father’s investment. They’ve paired games with clinics, tailgates and amateur games in an attempt to draw more people out to see the Flyers.

Raleigh has a very rich, 25-plus year culture of Frisbee.

Justin Allen

“I knew it was just a matter of time before the sport came to the South,” said Allen, who foresees a time when a few players could make a living off the sport. “Raleigh has a very rich, 25-plus year culture of Frisbee.”

The Flyers – who have no Wikipedia page but are featured in the AUDL app – lack the rigid infrastructure of other major league teams but make up for it in quirky personality that seems to play to the basis of the sport. The game is free-flowing and seemingly full of audibles, and the prelude follows a similar path.

There’s no security, and the closest thing to a ticket taker is a teenager with a tally counter. Before the game, the PA announcer explains the rules to fans – imagine if Al Michaels spelled out how to get a first down before Sunday Night Football every week – and an “official disc flipper” treats a Frisbee like a coin at midfield. On her first attempt, she flips it too high and hits someone with the disc.

Once the game starts, suddenly, it becomes clear why 1,000-plus people blocked out a portion of their Saturday night.

A Flyers player flings the disc into the muggy air, and the high school turf transforms into a stage for unexpected plays.

They may not look like professional athletes, but they certainly play like it.

DiLalla: 919-829-4835

Want to go?

The Raleigh Flyers meet the Jacksonville Cannons in the first round of the AUDL playoffs.

Where: WakeMed Soccer Park

When: 7 p.m., Saturday

Tickets: http://raleigh-flyers.com/tickets/

The event also features a kids zone, disc golf doubles tournament, beer garden, barbecue and more.

Rules of the Game

Seven players for each team take the field, and teams are allotted 20 active players per game.

Games consist of four 12-minute quarters. The clock stops after each score, for timeouts, and on out-of-bounds plays and turnovers in the final 30 seconds per quarter.

Teams score a point by catching the disc in the end zone.

After each point, the scoring team throws off to the other team – called a “pull” and similar to a kickoff in football.

Possession can change after a travel (illegal movement of pivot foot), foul, dropped pass or intercepted throw. Yardage may be marked off for certain penalties.

Substitutions may be made on the fly, as in hockey.

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