In the town of Delmar, New York, a suburb of Albany, the Scarsdale Hellfish competed in the 2019 New York High School Ultimate Championship. Ultimate is a fast-paced sport in which a disc is thrown down a field until it is caught in an opponent’s end zone.
Ultimate is a noncontact transition sport in which passes can be made to advance the disc. The thrower can’t run to move the disc and has 10 seconds to release before a stall is called by the marker and the disc is turned over to the defense. Any type of incomplete pass results in a turnover.
Ultimate is a sport with many idiosyncrasies, the largest being the aptly named “Spirit of the Game” clause, which is a set of fair play and sportsmanship guidelines that help the sport retain the relaxed quality it was founded upon. There are no referees in Ultimate — the players judge fouls themselves. According to the Official Rules of Ultimate, the Spirit of the Game “relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play.”
This adherence to having fun while playing hard is what draws many high school students to the Scarsdale Hellfish.
“The play is hard, but there’s also a real emphasis on having fun … It was a great stress reliever,” senior captain Alec Greenwald said.
Greenwald, as the student captain, had an incredible amount of responsibility. “This is a student-run team,” he said. “We’re a club, not varsity. The coach is more of a supervisor … It’s the captain who runs the practice … We’re responsible for signing up for tournaments, for collecting money, for making hotel reservations. In terms of logistics, you need to be a leader … You need to teach people the spirit of the game.”
Being student-run, the Hellfish have “struggled with not being taken legitimately,” rising captain Sam Friedman said.
“But when people come watch practices, they see that Ultimate is a 100% legit sport,” he said. “I’ve had people joke with me all through high school about Ultimate, but then they eventually come to a practice, and they see that we take things seriously.”
Despite the Scarsdale Hellfish’s underground status, they performed above the radar in the recent state tournament May 25-26.
The Hellfish came in ninth overall, but would have advanced into the top eight had it not been for a tiebreaker rule. The tournament lasts two days. The first day is round robin style and a team’s performance dictates its placement in the second day’s elimination round. Teams are separated into six-team round-robin pools, the top two teams of which get to move on to the “top eight” bracket. The Hellfish were put into one of the hardest pools of the tournament, against both Bronx Science and Poly Prep.
“So, we beat Bronx Science, which was really crazy for us,” Greenwald said. “Poly Prep beat us, and Bronx Science beat them. So, by the end of Day One, we were all tied for first.”
In the case of a tie, wins are calculated by point differential. The Hellfish beat Bronx Science by one point, which was not enough. By an extremely narrow margin, they were excluded from the top eight bracket. Ninth place, which was the place the Hellfish achieved, was the highest they could have possibly achieved on Day Two, despite an incredible 7-1 record.
“We tried really hard,” Greenwald said of the second day. “We just kind of wanted revenge for being excluded from the top eight bracket. We ended up crushing the competition.”
According to Greenwald, even ninth place was a stellar achievement. “There are schools at the top that receive tons of funding,” he said. “It’s like a college team playing against an NFL team, there’s that much of a difference.”
Ultimate-ly the sport is no laughing matter. “A lot of people in [Ultimate] would say our team plays with heart,” Friedman says. “No one is forced to play, but we still practice every day, Monday through Friday, and every other weekend. I think this year’s team functioned really well … It was one of our most successful years ever.”
Among the top seasons for the Hellfish over the years are state championships in 2002 and 2006 and top five finishes in 2009, 2013 and 2014.
At Scarsdale, Ultimate has and will continue to grow and is looking to get beyond club status at the school. Right now, the sport is at a crossroads. The main question is, if Ultimate gets varsity treatment, will it be able to keep the spirit of the game?
According to Friedman, “It’s one of the grounding principles of Ultimate.”