BY ANDREW GARDA
Another year, another Ultimate season in the books for the Montclair Geese — a team composed of and run by Montclair High School students — with a fifth-place rank in New Jersey.
Once known as Ultimate Frisbee — but no longer officially, since Mattel owns the trademark to the term “Frisbee” — Ultimate has gained interest as an alternative to contact sports for many teens. That led to the formation of the MHS students’ Ultimate team several years ago.
At first, members wanted to connect the team to the MHS athletic department, but in the past two years have split off on their own.
“We have no affiliation with the high school in any way right now,” co-coach Max Waitz said. “We completely broke away from high school for liability reasons. As a student coach team, we have no adults at our practices or anything, so it’s a liability for high school for us to be associated with them.”
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As they were not getting funding from the school — like many club sports, Ultimate members mostly funded equipment and entry fees by raising money themselves — the separation didn’t impact them all that much.
What did cause some hiccups for the team, as it did for everyone in the country, was COVID-19. Normally, Ultimate teams would play some tournaments in the fall, but in 2020, that didn’t happen.
“We weren’t able to have any tournaments or games in the fall,” Charles Budetti, another co-coach for the Geese, said. “[And] not just our team. I talked to players on other teams and they were saying that motivation was waning coming into the beginning of the spring season. But once all the teams started getting back into tournaments [this spring], people really found the motivation for Frisbee again.”
“We were just really grateful [we] were playing the season,” Waitz added.
As with other teams at the high school level, the Geese also needed to contend with the lost season of 2020. Not only had the team lost the chance for wins and championships, but their younger players had lost a year of experience.
So this year, when Waitz, Budetti and other veterans began to put practices together, it wasn’t just incoming freshmen who had to learn the game and how to function as a team. Sophomores who never stepped onto the field last spring were in the same situation.
Budetti said that made the way those younger athletes competed even more impressive.
“As the season progressed, our freshmen and sophomores who hadn’t had time to participate in a previous season, their confidence increased,” he said. “And they were really able to put themselves out there in ways that we didn’t teach them. They gained a certain level of player autonomy, where they could go on the field, know what to do and figure out stuff as they went without us having to micromanage at all. And so just basically as the season progressed, going up towards state, she just got stronger and stronger.”
Waitz said he was especially proud of the freshmen, who often found themselves up against seniors.
“My proudest moments were seeing our freshmen players scoring points against [teams like Columbia],” Waitz said. “Of course, we never were able to beat Columbia. But some of our freshmen are like, like two or three feet shorter than these guys, and they’re outrunning them. They have the confidence.”
Waitz and Budetti credit that tenacity to a middle school program that’s associated with the Geese, but also pointed out that not all the new players start in middle school. However the kids who did were key to getting players completely new to the sport up to speed.
“A lot of the kids that come in through the middle school program act as like miniature coaches for those lesser-skilled players or people who’ve come in with very little familiarity to [Ultimate],” Budetti said. “So it’s really helpful for them to be here.”
Since almost any kid has thrown a disc before, anyone can have an impact once they know the basics, which makes having other players who can guide them a big deal.
“There are kids [who] can step onto the pitch and make an impact even in their freshman year,” Budetti said. “But they can also make an impact on their fellow teammates, putting themselves in either a future leadership role or a current one, because they show their teammates that, ‘Hey, if, if you have a question for me, I can answer it.”
While the Ultimate season is done, the Geese are already looking toward next year and the next crop of kids coming up through the middle school program. For both Budetti and Waitz, Ultimate is an opportunity not just to socialize and compete, but learn responsibility and leadership.
Many teams have adult coaches, but Montclair does not. That means students have to step up, like the freshman this year, and take ownership of the program.
“It’s a sort of culture. It’s built around that, and it’s really a great community that we have,” Waitz said.