Philadelphia’s pro ultimate disc team soars to new heights

    Does the Phillies’ losing record have you ready to swear off Philadelphia sports forever? Maybe you should check out a new pro team in town — one that’s been on a hot streak since mid-April.

    The Spinners are in first place during this inaugural season of the American Ultimate Disc League.

    On a warm Sunday afternoon in West Philadelphia, the Spinners run out to meet the 300 to 400 fans gathered in a small section of Penn’s Franklin Field.

    The opposing team, the Connecticut Constitution, throws the disc, and play is under way.

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    Fans, who paid $14 per ticket, are seated sparsely in the center of one side of the bleachers. They’re dwarfed by the giant bowl of Franklin Field. Most are here because they play Frisbee themselves, or are related to someone who does. That’s how Brian Walsh found his way to the game.

    “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I haven’t played in a couple months but uh you know, I’ve been playing for a few years,” he says.

    So has Tucker Colton, a recent Penn Charter grad.

    “I play ultimate Frisbee with the team at my school, so they told me about it,” Colton said. “This is my first game and I’m liking what I’m seeing so far.”

    Down on the field, you can get a better sense of just how fast the game is. Team members resemble soccer players and, with an average body fat somewhere in the 3 percent range, they run like them too.

    “These guys can run the 200, they can run the 100 fast, they can run the 400, they run five miles. It’s just constant endurance and then working on power,” says Spinners coach Jeff Snader. At about 6 feet 4 and with a solid build, he appears an unlikely candidate for the sport.

    “I was in the Marine Corps from ’96 to 2000,” he says. “I was big into rugby then, got out and my brother said, ‘You should come play ultimate Frisbee,’ which kind of garners the normal response of like, you know, ‘What are you talking about?'”

    Ever since then, Snader says, he’s been immersed in it.

    ‘Greatest part-time job in the world’

    Now, let’s be clear; no one is making a living at this.

    “Guys have day jobs but they’re like, ‘Wow, this is the greatest part-time job in the world.’ So, right now, we are a great part-time job,” Snader says.

    Players get paid around $50 plus travel expenses for the season, and a small percentage of the team’s profits. But revenue from ads and ticket sales isn’t enough to pay players actual salaries.

    Team captain Trey Katzenbach, a pediatric ER doctor in New Jersey, only moonlights as an ultimate Frisbee player.

    “I started off playing more traditional sports — basketball, soccer. And I played basketball for JV for the University of Pennsylvania, loved it,” says Katzenbach. “Then once somebody got me into ultimate, I was in the middle of my residency program at Children’s Hospital.

    “I came out, saw it one time, and it took over my life. Because, essentially, it’s all the running of soccer, all the athleticism of basketball, but you get to do it outside,” he says. “There’s nothing better than that.”

    No hesitation on the passes

    For those who have played at the pickup level — including myself — you might notice a few differences in the pro game — other than talent. For one thing, the players pass. A lot. It’s rare to see a player hold the disc for more than two or three seconds. Passes are short and crisp, punctuated by the occasional long bomb, which rarely misses its target.

    For another thing, these guys “lay out” for the disc. Passes my friends and I would have given up on almost immediately, these guys dive for like major league outfielders. And, most of the time, they don’t come up empty-handed.

    Most of the players on the Spinners have local ties. The team held open tryouts in February, and many of the players came from local college clubs, as well as the region’s premiere amateur disc league, the Philadelphia Area Disc Alliance. So the Spinners’ success is thanks to the deep talent pool in the area, says Katzenbach.

    “I think that the teams that come from hotbeds, from bigger cities like Philadelphia, Connecticut draws a little bit from New York, are going to start off by just being able to pull better players,” he says. “Whereas a team like Buffalo doesn’t have a great base to pull from.

    “Next year, when we add some other teams, from New York, from Boston, from Pittsburgh, from Washington, D.C., I think those teams are going to start off kind of at the same level,” he says. “We’ll see how it kind of levels off after that.”

    On this day, the Spinners get the win, beating the Constitution 24 to 20 to hold on to first place.

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