Montclair High’s Donovan Mierlak sends a throw downfi eld during a recent Ultimate Frisbee tournament. The Mounties are 6-1 this season, tying No. 1-ranked Westfi eld as the only other one-loss team.
COURTESY MHS ULTIMATE FRISBEE

by Andrew Garda

garda@montclairlocal.news

For a long time, the rule at Montclair High School’s Athletic Department was “if you can find enough kids, we can help you start a sport.” That’s as true under new Athletic Director PJ Scarpello, as it was under former AD Jeff Gannon.

It’s the attitude which has given the school everything from very competitive bowling and golf teams to a state champion crew squad.

There are limits for some activities, due to New Jersey school system rules and regulations, but within those rules, the Mountie family has always done its best to give the kids what they want.

Now it’s bearing new fruit as well, as the school boasts a competitive Ultimate Frisbee team.

Senior captain andmanager Manuel Divino has been with the team since he was a freshman.

“So we’ve been playing Frisbee for about four years, but haven’t played competitive until two years ago,” Divino said during a practice for the newly launched middle-school program. “Jeff Gannon was still the head of athletics at Montclair and what he said was, ‘if you guys want to play, I can’t do much to help you because the state won’t let me. But if you need busing, snacks, a little bit of support and advertising, I can help.’ And that sort of got us going to tournaments.”

Scarpello has basically the same deal with the team now that he’s come on board. Which leaves the team with some help, but largely on their own, which they have been enthusiastic about managing.

“Because New Jersey won’t allow Frisbee to be a varsity sport at a school, a school can’t fund you directly. So we did a lot more on our own, which makes it surprising because we’ve branched out,” he said.

Branching out has involved taking part in competitive tournaments, helping to start and support the middle-school program, fundraising and coaching.

“In terms of coaching and stuff, we are totally student run,” Divino explains. “We have kids go and watch YouTube videos, and then teach us whatever they learn the next day. We do have a booster club run by parents but that’s about as much help as we get.”

One thing Divino and his team have discovered is just how welcoming the Frisbee community is.

Mounties team captain and senior manager Manuel Divino defends an opposing handler at one of Montclair’s recent matches. As manager, Divino arranges for the Mounties’ appearances in tournaments, helps set up practices and also assists coaches for the middle school program.
COURTESY MHS ULTIMATE FRISBEE

“So last year we had a senior — I’m now that senior — ask local coaches and people who run tournaments if we could be in the tournaments,” Divino said. “We were expecting no answers, or we expected people to say ‘No, you need a coach, you need the school to sign off.’ It was completely different. Everyone around the state was like ‘Please play. If you want to play we’ll fit you in.’”

The result was that MHS played in three tournaments last year and will be playing in four for 2018. One of those took place  during the weekend of May 6. at Watchung Hills High School. That one, called MAYhem, saw the Mounties win all four games they played in.

“Montclair was put into Pool B, which is essentially Division 2 out of the three divisions we have in New Jersey,” Divino said. “We beat each team by at least nine, which is pretty good. We shut out one team 13-0, beat another 13-1, then the two others 13-3, and 13-4.”

Divino said the dominant performance was, in part, to prove a point.

“That was to prove that Montclair is not Division 2. We should be Division 1,” Divino said. “They put us there because we’re a second-year team, no one knows us. It made total sense.”

But it still gave the team a little extra to play for.

The Mounties continued to build their reputation over the past weekend as they attended another tournament and now boast a 6-1 season record. Divino said only one other school has a 6-1 record, and that’s top ranked Westfield High School.

The MHS Ultimate squad is made up of about 20 kids, mostly high schoolers, though occasionally a middle schooler will be brought up for a weekend. A much smaller group who have been researching and playing for a while, like Devino, lead practice as player-coaches. Devino also acts as the manager, organizing schedules, communication with tournaments and state officials from the governing body, USA Ultimate, while the parent-booster club helps with fundraising and transportation when the school can’t help.

For all the challenges the team faces, their success is something for the Mounties to be proud of. The middle-school program, which plays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Mondays at Anderson Park and Fridays at Brookdale Park, is barely two months old, but shows the enthusiasm.

Nationally, the U.S. Olympic Committee has recognized USAU, while the International Olympic Committee is reportedly considering adding the sport in some form for the 2024 or 2028 Olympics.

Divino said that Ultimate, which attracts many multi-sport athletes due to the combination of football, basketball, lacrosse and soccer, is a naturally attractive sport and one he thinks could be a massive draw for Montclair kids of all ages in the near future.

Given the concerns about youth sports injuries, especially concussions, and the lack of contact but high level of athleticism which ultimate Frisbee requires, by the time Divino returns from college for a visit, he might just find a much larger program than he left behind.

Which, more than anything else, is something he hopes will be the case.