Stanford ultimate Frisbee continues to rise to the occasion

Originally Published: July 12, 2007
By Brendan Murphy | ESPN.com

This week, ESPN.com is featuring a few of the best non-NCAA-sanctioned programs in the country.

When Superfly -- Stanford's women's ultimate Frisbee team -- takes the field, it does so wearing brand-sponsored, players association-approved uniforms. The team's threads, it should be noted, are not tie-dyed.

Megan Andrews
Andrew DavisMegan Andrews helped Stanford win its third consecutive title last season.

Win by win, title by title, Superfly has been smashing the competition in collegiate ultimate for the past decade. And along the way to an incredible seven championships in 11 years -- the team's victory at the Ultimate Players Association College Championships in May was its third straight -- these dynamos of the disc have attempted to squash their sport's stereotypes.

"People often ask, 'Do dogs play?'" said Alicia Dantzker, a recently graduated co-captain on the 2007 squad. "'Do we all play stoned? Do we all wear tie-dyed shirts?'

"I don't know what to say about the stereotypes other than they do exist, but they don't have a lot to do with what ultimate is at this point."

In other words, Frisbees that were formerly flung as part of impromptu games in the parking lots of Phish concerts have flown into a rarely traversed realm of the competitive cosmos. According to the Ultimate Players Association, about 10,000 students actively participate in the sport at the collegiate level and more than 100,000 Americans play the game overall.

How serious is it? At Stanford, ultimate is sunrise sprints serious.

"It is really sort of inspiring and hard," Dantzker said. "It's a good way to focus and get excited about the sport. When you get up at 7 o'clock and sprint for an hour and a half, after doing that you feel pretty intense."

And those 7 a.m. sprints are only part of the team's offseason regimen.

From the beginning of the school year until the ultimate season begins in February, the members of Superfly act as their own strength coaches, lifting weights at Stanford's recreation center several times during the week; recruiting coordinators, channeling their enthusiasm to sell a new batch of freshman talent on joining an unfamiliar sport; and fundraisers, volunteering to work for the university and writing letters to donors who might contribute to the team's operating budget of more than $30,000.

Top non-NCAA programs

ESPN.com is profiling a few of the top non-NCAA sanctioned sports teams you might not have heard of. Catch up on some of the stories you may have missed:

Monday: Cal rugby
Tuesday: Texas Wesleyan table tennis
Wednesday: Dartmouth figure skating
Thursday: Stanford ultimate Frisbee
Friday: Trinity squash

Collegiate ultimate is played between two seven-player lineups on a field that is 40 yards by 70 yards. The playing space and scoring (a point is tallied when a team reaches one of the end zones) seem to be most akin to America's game, football. The precision and patience that the sport requires, however, are more reminiscent of the world's game -- soccer.

Although ultimate has shed its Shakedown Street roots, it still has some has freethinking aspects that distinguish it from other sports. The sport's fundamental concept is known as the spirit of the game. That creed simply states that each player is responsible for maintaining her integrity as a player while competing. Because of this concept, there are no low blows or dirty plays on the ultimate Frisbee field. Each game takes place without the presence of an official referee; the players are responsible for calling their own fouls.

"It is definitely competitive," said Superfly coach Robin Knowler. "Those same competitive feelings definitely exist. We play to win, and we don't like to lose. That all still applies, but you don't play to win at the expense of your opponent or at the expense of cheating."

The rules and the sport aren't all that well-known among the general sports-fan population. In fact, they aren't even known by some of the players when they begin practicing with the team.

Knowler joined the ultimate program in 1997 after she decided to leave Stanford's varsity swim team (she had made the team as a walk-on). Leaving the sport she grew up competing in and moving to dry land wasn't easy, Knowler said. But after five years of fun, forehands and triumph -- the team won three championships and went undefeated during 1997-99 -- Knowler certainly has no regrets.

These days, when the coach isn't working on arts and crafts with her kindergarten class, she teaches college athletes how to become ultimate players.

"I spend a lot of time focused on the team and watching game tape -- when I can get it," she said. "Not to mention focusing on all the individual players on the team, as well."

Knowler became the team's coach in 2001 -- her eligibility had expired the previous year. She said her story is the norm for Superfly. In fact, almost all of the team's freshman flingers come from a competitive background in something other than ultimate.

Chade Severin
Andrew DavisStanford's mix of dedication and athleticism has propelled it to the top of collegiate ultimate.

"Basically, we take soccer players and turn them into ultimate players," Knowler said jokingly. "They come to Stanford having been good at something, but not good enough to play on the varsity sports. So they come to Stanford and find ultimate as a way to keep playing sports and keep being competitive."

That learn-as-you-go approach has been instrumental to Superfly's continued success.

Each year, the team's top players are seniors, while the younger players learn the nuances of the sport playing in more limited roles with Superfly or by logging minutes with the Noodle Incident, Stanford's B team.

"It's exciting because you take people that have never played before who you get in the fall, and then the older players help teach them," Knowler said. "You watch them go from knowing nothing to being national champions, it's pretty fun."

Like any dynasty, Superfly has had to overcome predictable problems (a high turnover rate from year to year) and surprising snags (player injuries). What makes a good team a champion is how it responds to those challenging circumstances.

The 2007 season was especially harrowing for Stanford's standouts; the team trailed in six of seven games at the women's championships in Columbus, Ohio. Even in those bleak moments, Knowler said, the team never panicked.

"Even when we are down, we can take a timeout, look at each other and know we can win," she said. "We just hold our heads high and pull out of anything."

Superfly is not built around one or two superstars who shoot through the air to snag the disc. Instead, the squad is populated by players in the mold of Ron Harper or Robert Horry -- role players who can step up when their time comes. On any given day, any player can will this team to victory.

Dantzker's time to shine came in the biggest game of her collegiate career. After injuring her ankle early in this year's tournament, a hobbled Dantzker made several tough catches in whirling Ohio winds -- scoring five goals and assisting on three others -- to lead Superfly to a championship game victory over the Burning Skirts of the University of California Santa Barbara.

Dantzker, who joined the team as a sophomore, said she improved as a player each season. More significantly, she said that with each game her love of the sport grew. She admits that part of the reason she decided to pursue a graduate degree at Stanford was to continue playing for Superfly.

"It has been the best part of being at Stanford," Dantzker said. "It is a great, supportive community of people. I got to join a team having never played the sport before, and I won nationals. It was great to pick up a sport."

The fall of 2007 will undoubtedly be different from the five that preceded it for Dantzker, who earned a master's of psychology in June. She'll probably have to look for a job.

For the time being, she is focused on the present.

"My plans so far are to [continue to] play ultimate," Dantzker said. "I know the team I am playing with and the tournaments I am going to, but that is as much as I know thus far."

Brendan Murphy is an assistant editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Brendan.R.Murphy@espn3.com.

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