Ultimate frisbee fills niche in Homer

Even though school fall sports practices don’t start until August, Monday and Thursday nights are already buzzing at the Homer High School turf field. At the beginning of June, the city’s Community Recreation Program kicked off its first summer of organized ultimate frisbee, and participation continues to grow as the summer wears on.

Twice a week, players of all ages and skill levels show up, throw on neon orange and green vests, also called “pennies,” and play two hours of this fast-paced sport.

Ultimate frisbee (often referred to as “frisbee” or “ultimate” for short) is known for a casual, welcoming environment paired with some serious athleticism. The game structure is most closely aligned with that of soccer or football. Each team fields seven players at a time, with the goal of moving the frisbee, or “disc,” into the opposite end zone to score points. The disc can only be moved by throwing and catching; no running with the frisbee is allowed. The game is won when one team scores a certain number of points or when a time cap is reached.

There are also aspects of ultimate that set it apart from other sports. It is self-refereed with players calling their own fouls and negotiating disagreements on the field. It also has a long history of mixed-gender play, which the Homer summer pick-up embraces. This is part of what makes frisbee an inclusive space, something that the primary organizer, Sunny Mall, particularly appreciates.

“This is the cool thing about frisbee,” she said. “It’s one of those sports that is accessible to people at any time in their life.”

Mall started playing about 10 years ago in Anchorage, finding an athletic community that was both fun and active. When she moved to Homer, she was eager to play here as well, participating in the inaugural indoor winter league at the South Peninsula Athletic & Recreation Center, or SPARC. Bailey Lowney, SPARC’s former director and a frisbee player herself, knew there was already community interest in frisbee and saw the new indoor facility as a perfect place for frisbee during the cold winter months. Frisbee at SPARC developed a dedicated core of players, many of whom are also participating in summer pick-up.

It was the success of the winter league that really gave the final push to formalize summer frisbee, although it’s an idea that’s been brewing for a few years.

“There’s always been informal ultimate frisbee activity in town,” said Mike Illg, director of Community Recreation for the city.

He credited Mall with the success of transitioning to more organized summer play.

“We’re very fortunate that she’s sharing a passion,” Illg said. “When we have volunteers willing to step up — that’s what Community Rec is.”

While summer frisbee is officially a program of Community Recreation, it is Mall and a few other volunteers really running the show, collecting concussion waivers, washing sweaty pennies, and sending out mass reminder texts every Monday and Thursday morning. For her part, Sunny gives credit to people like Loretta Brown and Pat Miller who started organizing informal pickup games through Facebook around 2013. Now they are regular faces on Monday and Thursday nights.

When Mall began to organize the summer league, she said “honestly, I didn’t expect people to show up.” But show up they have. On any given evening between 15 and 30 people arrive, sporting an eclectic mix of running shoes, cleats and bare feet. Experience levels range from total newbies just learning to throw a forehand to 20-year veterans, and maybe a few who didn’t know the difference between ultimate frisbee and frisbee golf until they arrived.

There are also those with a more complex frisbee history, like Matt Stineff, who played ultimate in college and then competitively in Southeast Asia before a 15-year hiatus. Now, with summer pick-up rolling at full speed he is back on the field.

In addition to ultimate itself, summer pick-up also is an important time to meet new people and build relationships. While the game is in play, participants hang out and chat on the sidelines. More experienced players teach newcomers the rules or share strategy. This seems to fit right with Mall’s goal for the league: to build community through something she describes as both “positive and fun.”

Indeed, it is part of what makes players like Livia Polushkin return to the high school night after night. She was pushed to try it out by her sister, and finally conceded a few weeks ago. Now, she said, she “feels so included in the sport.” It’s the comradery that keeps her coming back.

Anyone who wants to join in need only show up at the Homer High School turf between 7 and 9 p.m. Monday and Thursday. There is a small fee for those who expect to play regularly throughout the summer. Grab a penny, take a swig of water and you’re ready to go.

Those who want more information can give Mall a call at 907- 299-3140.

Mira Klein is a freelance writer living in Homer. You can contact her at mira.r.klein@gmail.com.