Game on! The Amherst Invitational Ultimate tournament returns

By Nancy Gonter Weld

After a two-year hiatus, one of the nation’s oldest high school Ultimate tournaments will take place this coming weekend, May 7-8, with 26 teams competing at the MacDuffie School in Granby. And to kick it off, professional players from the women’s Premier Ultimate League teams Portland Rising and NY Gridlock will play, with Amherst girls also competing, on Friday at 7 p.m. at the ARHS field. The play all weekend should be outstanding!

Ultimate – the sport now played worldwide – has deep roots in Amherst. There is some debate about where it was first played. Some say it was in Amherst, but others say it was someone who went to college in Amherst and then played it in New Jersey. Amherst High School’s team was started around 1988. It expanded to two teams, then the middle school added a team. The girls’ team was started in about 1997.

The tournament, begun in 1992 by the legendary ARHS coach Tiina Booth, has been managed for the last 20-some years by Jim Pistrang. At the first Amherst Invitational Ultimate Frisbee tournament, teams from Bronx Science High School took first and second place. The next year, Amherst took second. In 1995, Amherst won the tournament. Girls were added to the tournament in 1997 and again Bronx Science won. In 1998, the Amherst girls won, the first of 10 in a row.

In this 29th year of the tournament, the Amherst Regional High School boys and girls both have big legacies to live up to. The girls’ team has won 18 times out of the 23 tournaments that had a girls’ division. The boys have won 15 out of 28 tournaments played. Both teams won in 2019.

Then came Covid and two years without a tournament. In 2020, the teams did not play at all. Last year, a minimal amount of competitive play occurred under altered rules to reduce Covid spread.

Dan Kaplan, the new coach of the girls’ varsity, calls this a rebuilding year. At Amherst Regional High School, a “rebuilding year” is one in which the team is ranked 9th in the country.

So when Kaplan, an experienced coach and player, looks at his team, he sees spirited, competitive young women with a lot of integrity but not as much experience as many of the past Amherst girls’ teams that played in the Amherst Invitational.

“We have a young team and some of them haven’t played competitively together in two years. It’s a big deal for them to have two years off,’’ Kaplan said. For the seniors on the team, their last Ultimate competition was on a junior varsity team.

Still, the pandemic gave them a different perspective on playing together.

“They are not only excited about playing together. They are supportive of each other,” he said. “They are very competitive, fierce competitors. They want to improve and they want to do well. They want to win. They want to be happy. They are really mature in terms of understanding how important it is to hold themselves as role models for other teams.”

Boys’ coach Joe Costello has a strong team. Three players from the team – junior Taylor Hanson, senior Geir Hartl, and senior Louis Douville-Beaudoin – tried out for the Under 20 Men’s team that will travel to Poland this summer to play teams from all over the world. Douville-Beaudoin was selected to play on the national team.

The boys’ team could have won a college tournament recently – the Northeast Classic in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — but opted not to play in the finals because they had already played eight games in a weekend and were dealing with some injuries. They beat teams from elite colleges such as Yale and Amherst College. The team is ranked 3rd in the country by Ultiworld, a website devoted to Ultimate Frisbee.

Photo by Phyllis Clapis

The 26 teams competing at the tournament on May 7-8 include all of the nationally ranked teams from Massachusetts. In past years, teams have come from around the country, but many programs are rebuilding.

Other top-ranked boys’ teams at the tournament from Massachusetts include Lexington High School at 14th and Four Rivers Charter School (Greenfield) ranked at 16th. On the girls’ side, the Four Rivers team is ranked at 7th.

Other local teams include Northfield Mount Hermon girls, Northampton High School boys and girls, Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School (Hadley), and Monument Mountain High School.

Amherst has two teams in the girls’ division, both its varsity and junior varsity. In the open division, there are four teams, varsity, junior varsity A, junior varsity B, and Amherst Middle School.

For the first time, the tournament is being played at MacDuffie School in Granby, mainly because of the condition of the fields at Amherst Regional and the heavy wear caused by playing so many games in one weekend.

Events start Friday at 7 p.m. with a demonstration game featuring professional women and non-binary players as well as players from the Amherst High girls’ team. This game will be played at the Amherst Regional High School field and will also feature ARHS alumnae who have gone on to play professional Ultimate. The public is welcome and there is no charge.

AI layout at the MacDuffie School

On Saturday and Sunday, games will begin at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. The finals on Sunday will start at 1 and 3 p.m. All games will take place at the MacDuffie School on Route 202 in Granby, a quick 10.5 miles from ARHS. Parking is on a grass lot off Route 202. The tournament is free of charge.

For those who aren’t familiar with the game, check out this short video now running on Amherst Media and this one made by player Ben Feeney. Points are scored by passing the disc down a football-sized field and into the other team’s end zone. It is not unusual to see a player leap into the air or dive to the ground to catch or block a disc. It is a hallmark of Ultimate that it is played without referees. Players themselves call the fouls and when there is disagreement, they work it out through discussion of the rules.

Come to the games, and/or follow the action on social media: 

amherstinvitational2022  on Instagram

@AmherstInvite22 on Twitter

Nancy Gonter Weld, who grew up in Amherst and graduated from ARHS in 1978, got involved with Ultimate Frisbee teams when her son Elliot (ARHS class of 2015) began to play the game at Hartsbrook School, approximately in 2008. Her daughter, Livvy Weld (class of 2016), began playing when she was at the Regional Middle School and was on the girls varsity team that won the tournament in 2015 and 2016. Livvy continued to play at Smith College, captaining the team for several years, until Covid put a hard cap on the team. Nancy’s children were coached by Dan Kaplan and Jim Pistrang, both of whom are still involved with the tournament.