After four years of hard work and study, John Mauntel is graduating this weekend from Missouri University of Science & Technology with degrees in civil and architectural engineering.
But he won’t be there to walk across the stage with classmates to collect his awards. He’ll be in College Station, Texas, representing Missouri S&T at the Ultimate Frisbee Nationals competition.
Mauntel’s parents, Gwen and Tim Mauntel, Washington, aren’t surprised and, honestly, say they don’t mind too much. They have become as big of fans of the sport as their sons — all three of whom play Ultimate, which they described as a cross between soccer, football and basketball.
However, rather than a ball, they are playing with a plastic flying disc.
It began five years ago when their oldest son, Kelly, a 2013 graduate of St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, was a freshman at Missouri S&T. He was invited to play in a pickup game his first week there, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“I fell in love with it,” said Kelly, who graduated from Missouri S&T last year. “I had been playing soccer, football, baseball up to that point, and I kind of dropped them all in favor of Ultimate.”
All three of the Mauntel brothers, which includes Ray, a freshman at Missouri S&T, say what they particularly love is the sport’s fast pace and community.
“It was different,” said Kelly. “It felt like soccer, but I just thought it was more fun, but the people were a big part of me sticking with it.”
What’s unique about Ultimate is that there are no referees. Rules of the games are self-enforced by the players.
“It’s called ‘the spirit of the game,’ ” said Kelly, noting that players self-monitor the play.
A player can call out “foul!” if he feels there has been an infraction, and then there will be a “verbal debate” about what occurred.
“There are official ‘observers’ at some games, which are basically referees, but nobody likes playing with them,” said Kelly. “They don’t step into the game, unless they need to, if two players can’t agree. Then they will ask for the observer’s opinion.
“But generally the decision is made by the two players involved in the play,” Kelly said. “Referees would make the sport feel more formal, and part of the appeal of Ultimate is that it’s informal, sort of a leisurely sport, but still very competitive.”
How the Game Works
Ultimate is played on a field very much like a football field, with end zones that are 25 feet deep and 40 yards wide. The field is 70 yards long.
Any football or soccer field (turf or grass) or any wide open space can be used to play Ultimate. Teams use orange cones to mark the end zones and boundaries.
Teams consist of seven players on the field, and play continues until one team reaches 15 points, which can be two hours or more. Half time is called once one of the teams reaches eight points.
The goal is to catch the disc in the end zone, like in football. But the game is a lot like basketball in that the player who has the disc can’t move and has just 10 seconds to play it. The other team’s player can even count out loud to 10 to enforce the time frame.
Movement of the play, however, looks a lot like soccer, with the team on the offense able to throw the disc in any direction — forward, backward or side to side, the Mauntels explained.
“Instead of kicking a ball, you are throwing a disc,” said Kelly, noting games are always played with a white disc, although that’s not really a rule. It’s just understood, said John.
If a player drops or misses a catch, that’s a turnover, and the other team receives the disc, with play automatically switching from offense to defense.
“There is no break in play,” said Ray. “Whichever team was the defense can pick up the disc and start running toward the end zone.”
People who doubt Ultimate’s athleticism probably haven’t ever watched a game, the Mauntels said. This is far more than just a beach game. It involves as much running as soccer, basketball and football, and requires a high level of endurance, because once a player is on the field, he has to remain on the field until a point has scored, which might be an hour.
“A point can last for one throw, a long throw that we call a huck, or it can last for 200 throws,” said Kelly.
There are two basic positions for Ultimate players — handlers, which are like quarterbacks, because they are responsible for doing the hard throws, and cutters, which are like wide receivers, because their job is to outrun people on the field. However, most players on the field can do both.
There are three handlers and four cutters on the field. John Mauntel is a handler, Ray is a cutter, and Kelly played both positions.
Ultimate is a noncontact sport, but players can still get hurt, the family said. There can be knee injuries from pivoting and even broken bones, from falling or tripping.
Players wear matching jerseys, although they can wear any kind of shorts (or leggings, if it’s really cold). Like soccer, they wear cleats on their feet, but shin guards aren’t necessary, since there is no kicking.
Although Ultimate is a sport, Missouri S&T’s team, called Miner Threat, operates more like a club, with players buying their own jerseys and paying all of their own travel expenses, as well as paying dues of $50 a semester. The school does pay tournament fees.
Play in All Weather — Rain, Snow, High Wind
There are two seasons for Ultimate. The fall semester is typically less competitive. Teams are often co-ed, and tournaments have a fun element. For example, at a tournament held over Halloween weekend, the teams will each dress up in themed costumes.
Spring semester is competitive, with teams divided by gender and registration through USA Ultimate required.
“That’s when the games you win count toward you making it to nationals,” said John, noting that the progression is from conference to regionals to nationals.
Miner Threat plays in Division III in the South Central region. They typically go to four or five tournaments each semester and practice three days a week.
Practices include stretching, running and jogging for the first hour, followed by drills and then a scrimmage.
“Some teams do have a coach, but we have captains,” said Ray. “We run the team more as a democracy. The veterans teach everybody how to play.”
There is technique and skill involved in Ultimate, the Mauntels stressed. Just because you played with a flying disc as a child doesn’t mean you know how to throw a disc properly, especially under the variety of weather circumstances that they play in — rain, snow, even during a tornado watch with winds up to 35 mph.
“There is an art to playing Ultimate in the wind,” said Ray.
“The only thing that would cancel a tournament would be thunder and lightning or if the owners of the field don’t want it to get torn up because it’s too wet,” said Kelly.
Miner Threat once played in a tournament with 6 inches of snow on the ground.
Most tournaments that Miner Threat goes to have 16 teams at the most, although there are some tournaments that have as many as 30 or 40 teams. At the regional competition held in April, there were eight teams, and at nationals this weekend there will be 16.
Miner Threat was one of only two teams from the South Central region that was offered a bid to nationals.
There typically aren’t a lot of spectators for Ultimate games, the Mauntels said. But with two of their three sons playing together at any given point over the last several years, Gwen and Tim Mauntel have made a point of going to as many games as possible, even though that typically involves traveling out of state to a tournament.
The only time all three of the Mauntels’ sons have played together was last summer during the Show-Me Games in Columbia.
Ranked Seventh for DIII Teams
Miner Threat ended its spring season with a record of 16-7 that propelled it into conference and regional competitions, where it defeated some of its toughest competitors to win them a bid at nationals.
Heading into this weekend’s tournament, Miner Threat is ranked seventh out of all the DIII teams.
Since Miner Threat was organized, the best the team has ever finished was third place at nationals, which was in 2010, three years before Kelly joined the team.
The team made it to nationals last year, after having left the regional competition in first place.
“So we had high hopes, but we fell apart at nationals,” said Kelly. “We finished 11th out of 16, winning two games all weekend. It was a rough tournament.”
“This year we have higher hopes,” said John. “We know how serious the competition is now.”
Regardless of how the team plays, Ray is excited to experience it.
“I’ve heard that the atmosphere for nationals is amazing,” he said. “There is so much competition, and everybody is there because they love the sport, so it’s just fun.”
“You can feel the energy,” said Kelly.
High School, College, Club and Pro Teams
The Mauntels have found that while there are a lot of people who are familiar with Ultimate, there are still many people who are not. They mistake it for a version of disc golf, where players walk from play to play, compared to Ultimate where players run up and down the field for the entire game.
“Ultimate is more of a physical competition, not just finesse,” said Kelly.
Growing the game is something the family is interested in doing, but that has proven to be a challenge. They tried to get a club team started at Borgia High School when John and Ray were still students there, but students preferred to stick with sports like football, soccer or basketball that they had been playing since childhood.
“They didn’t have time to come out to learn the throws and practice,” said Ray.
There are several schools in St. Louis that do have teams, and the family is hopeful that down the road the sport may catch on here too.
In addition to college-level teams, Ultimate also has club teams and professional teams.
Kelly currently is looking for a club team that he can play for in St. Louis.