Are they a sports team? An intramural? If they travel all over the Midwest to compete in the name of Wheaton, does that make them a school sport? Since their inaugural season, in 2002, Wheaton’s men’s ultimate frisbee team’s relationship with the college has been ambiguous even to some players.
They’re not actually allowed to reserve practice spaces within college facilities, for example, but they have represented Wheaton at the regional and national level for two decades and had a history of athletic success. They play at the Division III level of USA Ultimate (USAU), the national governing body for ultimate, and between 2010 and 2015 made it to three national tournaments.
Last year, the club’s COVID-impacted fall schedule left them with a depleted roster, but in their first normal season since 2019, the Mastodons have their eye on picking up where they left off: dominating regionals and competing in nationals. The USAU governs more than 800 college teams of ultimate across the country and holds a championship tournament each spring since 1984. Current USAU top rankings frequently feature Brown University, University of North Carolina, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as other large state schools and Ivy Leagues. Pro ultimate also exists, with the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) governing the top pro ultimate league in the world.
Wheaton is one of hundreds of schools across the country with a club ultimate team, and the players take it seriously.
“Honestly, I’ve been waiting to get back to Wheaton to play with [the team] again,” said co-captain Thomas Kerschbaum, a junior. Last year, the team consisted of 20, and this year they’ll have at least 13 returning, plus any new members that show up to the first practices.
Typically, the Mastodons participate in two to three tournaments in the fall and compete in the USAU playoffs in the Spring. Since ultimate frisbee is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, USAU is the ultimate frisbee equivalent. From spring of 2020 until spring of 2021, however, the USAU canceled all official events due to COVID.
When competition resumed at the beginning of last school year, the USAU decided to hold a make-up playoff tournament in the fall and spring seasons. Despite additional playoffs in the fall (and therefore a longer season), the Mastodons were undefeated in conference play and placed third at Regionals in the Spring of 2022.
With their first post-COVID fall season just around the corner, the players appear positive and determined, knowing that a strong mindset will be key to their season.
Although the sport is not recognized by the NCAA, ultimate frisbee is popular among college students. Wheaton students often play casually at McCully Field or Joe Bean Stadium. The game is played similar to football: teams try to pass the disc into the opponent’s end zone. Once a player catches the disc, however, they cannot move, which means that teams must strategize the best routes to pass down the field. Play is continuous, and missing a player creates an instant turnover. There are seven players from each team on the field at a time. On the offensive are cutters, more inexperienced players who use speed to get themselves open for passes, and handlers, more experienced offensive players who know the different types of throws and strategies. Defenders try to intercept the cutters and handlers from the other team, and “clear” the disc to an offensive player when they intercept it.
“Spirit is the most important thing in the game,” said co-captain Cameron Geary, a senior. “That’s what we’re pushing for this fall. To get people out, get people excited, and to just have fun together and get better.”
The Mastodons are all Wheaton students. However, as a club sport, the college and the team are two distinct entities – the team plays as Wheaton College but not for it. The group’s scheduling, funding, administration, events and transportation are organized independently from the college. The team requires that their players are enrolled at Wheaton, but they recognize that they are unaffiliated with the college’s athletic department.
But they’re also not affiliated with the other club sports that are affiliated with the college.
“There is no relationship between athletics and frisbee,” said Club Sports Director Ellen Radandt-Stremler. She says since the teams often compete in weekend tournaments that span to Sundays, the college can’t recognize them even as a club sport.
There is also no official coach from the college, which means that captains play an especially important leadership role. This situation doesn’t seem to bother the Mastodons, however. Geary says he would prefer to keep the club captain-led simply because of “the organization and the quick scheduling required with Ultimate.”
By “the organization” Geary means both logistically and administratively. National competitions for collegiate ultimate frisbee happen exclusively through the USAU. Therefore, an official Wheaton College club would require the college to operate within a separate association from every other campus athletic activity—a system the Wheaton Mastodon captains are more familiar with—and to do so quickly: ultimate competitions operate on very short notice.
The fall season is still coming together, so the game schedule is yet uncertain.
“I think we’re still getting emails or new emails for tournaments that are coming up in a month,” Geary said. The captains feel that this kind of quick scheduling and turnaround is something that a few people can do more efficiently than an organization.
While paper and ink may not affiliate the Wheaton Mastodons with Wheaton College, the team has chosen to represent this school and student body in their league anyway.
“Our approach,” Kerschbaum said, “is that we want the team to be a campus ministry. We have a theme verse, 1 Cor. 12:12. Our goal is to love each other as athletes and honor God with our bodies.”
The captains have a lot of new players to integrate into their roster this year. The pandemic’s confusion and stress caused many players to drop the sport after 2020. Geary says only two of the nine freshmen who joined the team in 2019 came back to play in the fall.
The team is still recovering their numbers, but Geary is looking forward to training them up for a successful season.
“What that looks like for me is to continue on the trajectory of more community and more friendship,” he says. “Getting back to the true spirit of the sport.”