Two Atascadero teens will get their chance to play ultimate disc on the world stage this weekend.
Leah Farris, 17, and Josiah Mort, 18, will be among 45 young adults representing the United States at the World Junior Ultimate Championships in Lecco, Italy, organized by the World Flying Disc Federation. The competition, which starts Sunday and runs through July 26, pits American players under age 19 against their international peers.
When Farris started playing ultimate, “I had no idea there were world championships that I might go to some day,” she said. “I just thought it’d be a fun little sport.”
Farris and Mort belong to Atascadero’s Mud Pit Gladiators, a high school team started by head coach Sean Sommerville more than two years ago.
Although two-thirds of the 35 or so team members attend Atascadero High School, the team also features several homeschoolers. Practices, which are held Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons during the school year, are also open to local junior high and elementary school students.
Sommerville, Ultimate USA’s state youth coordinator, said the sport attracts both seasoned athletes eager for an extra challenge and less experienced players looking for a place to belong.
“It’s a fringe sport, so it (attracts) the kids who don’t feel like they fit in everywhere else,” explained the 2006 Atascadero High graduate, who played ultimate while studying kinesiology at Long Beach State before getting his degree there in 2010. He has served as the assistant coach of Atascadero High’s cross-country program since 2012; he’s currently working on getting his teaching credentials.
According to Summerville, one of ultimate’s appeals is its approachability.
“There’s (almost) nothing required to get started. You just need a Frisbee and an open space,” he said.
That said, the sport is more complicated than simply throwing a plastic disc around.
Unlike disc golf, which requires players to lob flying discs at targets along a course, ultimate is a fast-paced game similar to football in which players complete passes to advance the disc up a 70 to 80-yard-long field into a 20-yard end zone.
Each team features seven players divided into two categories: cutters, who excel at fast, short plays, and handlers, who specialize in long, controlled throws. (Both Farris and Mort are cutters.)
Plays are governed by what is known as “spirit of the game.”
“Even at the highest levels the players are making their own calls,” Sommerville said, which instills athletes with a sense of responsibility and ownership. “They’re held accountable for what they’re doing.” As a result, Mort said, the atmosphere on the field tends to be amiable.
“It’s almost like you’re friends with everyone on the field even if you’re playing against them,” he said.
Mort started playing ultimate for fun about four years ago before joining the Mud Pit Gladiators.
“I was simply excited to play a team sport,” said the athlete, who couldn’t play football or other sports because he was homeschooled.
Farris, a homeschooler who plans to attend Cuesta College, also picked up ultimate as a casual pastime. Now, the part-time volleyball player said, it’s her main sport.
In March, Farris, Mort and teammate Caleb Ferguson were among 180 athletes who attended tryouts in Atlanta and Seattle to compete for a total of 45 spots on the U-19 boys and girls national teams. Although Farris and Mort made the final rosters, Ferguson, 18, did not. Mort was the only male player from California to make the national team.
After attending a weeklong training camp, held July 13 through 19 in New York, the teens are headed directly to Italy. Sommerville is also attending the championships, although as a volunteer.
“To see the best high school teams in the entire world playing together, that’s going to be exciting for me,” he said. “(People) think it’s a bunch of people running around a field and throwing a Frisbee around but there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s a lot of extreme athleticism that takes place.”