The game of Ultimate Frisbee was invented in the parking lot of Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, in 1968. This was during the height of 1960s counterculture.

Surfing, skateboarding, and Frisbee were sports outside the mainstream as young people wished to look and act differently than their parents before them.

Rebecca Hallaren Ultimate Disc League

Rebecca Hallaren receives the disc during a recent game.

The newly mass-produced Frisbee was an easy object to be tossed between people with no equipment or extravagant rules. It also took a short time to gain enough skill to have fun with a Frisbee.

In 1957, Wham-O, a toy manufacturer, acquired the rights to what they renamed the Frisbee. Ten years later the game of Ultimate was making inroads on New Jersey college campuses. Wham-O is also known for creating and marketing many popular toys including the Hula Hoop, Slip N’ Slide, Silly String, the Superball and Hacky sack.

In Mercer County there is an Ultimate league where people have been playing the game since 1977. It is the oldest established Ultimate Disc league in the world. The field where they play is located on Quakerbridge Road, bisected by the border between Lawrence and West Windsor townships.

Three million people play Ultimate Frisbee in the United States. In 90 countries worldwide there are 5 million players. As the term Frisbee, is a registered trademark of the Wham-O toy company, the sport is called Ultimate Disc or just Ultimate.

The name Ultimate, is said to have been coined by the originators who referred to the game as the ultimate sports experience. The first collegiate Ultimate Disc match was played by Rutgers and Princeton in 1972. Ironically it was 103 years after the same two New Jersey schools competed in the very first American football game.

The Mercer County Ultimate Disc League plays its summer league on fields on Quakerbridge Road in Lawrence, New Jersey. The fields are part of Mercer County’s park system and are maintained by the Park Commission. There have been recent upgrades to the fields with the addition of bathroom facilities, picnic tables and a playground.

There is room for four fields on the property and plenty of parking.

The average age of the Ultimate players at the Mercer County league is 20 to 26, although there are some older and even some parents who play with their teen and young adult children.

Kevin Greener has been playing and interacting with the league since the 1980s. Greener, 58, from Pennington first saw the game in college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. He started playing after college upon his return to this area and is a board member, historian and keeper of lore in the league.

“In the 80s we had a lot of great players who came from the high schools,” he says. “They came from Hamilton West, Steinert, and Notre Dame. Many were soccer players who were keeping in shape with all the running needed in Ultimate. It was a niche sport that still had hippie 60s connotations. That stereotype is all in the past now as Ultimate is featured on ESPN’s top ten plays nearly every week.

“The feel of the original intent is still there. It is a game with no referees, even at the highest level it is a game of the honor system. It is self-governing on the field. We call fouls on ourselves. It is about community and camaraderie. There is a tenet of Ultimate called Spirit of the Game. It puts the responsibility for fair play on the players not on a referee. There are fouls and or course heat of the moment things happen, but there is a mutual respect and playing for the fun of playing.”

Greener, played on the Mudsharks, one of the original A league teams that is comprised of players who have much experience and skills. There are four divisions in the summer league. Mixed, men’s, women’s and the A league.

The mixed is the most popular and consists of both men and women. There are seven players per side on the field in Ultimate. There is a ratio of four to three or five to two, men to women on the field at all times. The field is a rectangular shape with end zones at each end. A regulation field is 70 yards by 40 yards, with end zones that are 25 yards deep.

It the mixed league, Ultimate is one of the few organized sports with an intentional mix of women and men playing together. If you are short a player of any either sex or cannot maintain the ratio, your team will play a person down.

In Ultimate the team with possession of the disc, tries to get the disc caught in the opponent’s end zone. The team moves it by tossing it from one to another player. The player with the disc cannot advance it by running with it. The player who catches the disc must stop and then pass the disc within 10 seconds, which may be counted off by a defender.

A point is scored when a catch is made in the end zone with both feet in bounds. After a point is scored a “pull” or kickoff to the team that did not score is made.

A point can only be made by making a catch in the opposing end zone. Two feet must land in bounds for the point to count. To win a game, a predetermined point total is met or a predefined time limit is reached with the leading team in points, winning the game.

There are substitutions made between points and the teams in the Mercer Ultimate league may carry up to 15 players, to provide subs and allow rest breaks.

In the Mercer County Ultimate Disc League there are standings kept and trophies earned. The trophies have past winners engraved on them, much like the Stanley Cup in hockey.

Otto Gomez, who is 26, is a vice president on the seven member league board, has been playing since 2014. He began at college on the Rutgers team. Gomez lives in Helmetta, New Jersey and works for a consulting firm. He says, “It was word of mouth that gets players into this league. This is a growing sport. There are leagues in New York and Philadelphia, so no matter where you live in New Jersey you should be able to play in a league.”

“We are a welcoming league, you don’t need experience and the fees are less than $100 dollars. With those fees we pay for field house time for our fall and winter leagues. We play in the field house in Robbinsville and at the Center Court facilities in Lawrence on Spruce Street.” says Gomez.

“This is a true recreational league. We know people all over the state and the country who like to play. This league is well known. We get recruits from direct marketing to colleges like Princeton, Rutgers, The College of New Jersey and Stevens Institute of Technology.”

“We also have a super popular Midnight Madness tournament each winter. We start at the indoor fields at midnight and play until dawn. So you can imagine how much these players love this game!” says Gomez.

Past president Andrew Misthos is also an ambassador of Ultimate Disc. Misthos, 30, who studied Mechanical Engineering and picked up Ultimate at Steven’s Institute in Hoboken, New Jersey has been playing since 2007. Misthos now lives in Hamilton and works for the US Navy as an aerospace engineer. He says, “Most people in the league are within a 30 to45 minute drive. We have matches three different nights a week so people can play on more than one team.

“The A league has some really longtime teams like the Mudsharks and Jughandle who have been together forever. There are teams full of college and even high school friends.

“I have been sidelined at times with injuries but I still do a lot of work for the league and the community. The love of the sport may be esoteric but it’s really fun and the players really love each other. They love the whole community.”

Misthos adds, “It is a privilege to play with these veteran players, some were there when the origins of Ultimate were just starting. There is a reverence there for the players and we see the traditions, fair play and love of the game handed down to the players of today.”

The 60s-era counterculture spirit of the game, the self-officiating, men and women playing together, non-contact, easy to learn, and keeping in shape are all reasons to play Ultimate Disc.

Yet, keeping the league together for 45 years is an accomplishment. With a dedicated board, a good relationship with the Mercer County Parks Department, loyal players and word of mouth, the league is in strong shape.

The terms Frisbee or disc is like Kleenex or tissue. It can be interspersed one or the other. In the Mercer County league, the disc used itself is the 175 gram Ultra Star by Discraft.

Mercer County Ultimate Disc League is steady and strong says board member Kevin Greener. “We are in very good shape coming out of the pandemic. Everyone is raring to play. We look to be here and strong in the future.”

“The flight of the disc is a beautiful thing,” says Greener, who also adds this quote from Frisbee Hall of Fame pioneer, historian, writer and psychiatrist, Dr. Stancil Johnson, “When a ball dreams, it dreams it’s a Frisbee.”

Mercer County Ultimate Disc League, MCUDL Fields, 4040 Quakerbridge Road. For more information, go to mercerultimate.org.

Thomas Kelly is a New Jersey based painter represented by several galleries. His narrative work has a signature style with its roots in expressionism.

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