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.

Public money for private property owners? Yes!

By Sarah Marshall

This Monday, the Town Council will hold a public forum on the Community Preservation Act Committee’s (CPAC’s) grant recommendations for the next fiscal year. Later in the evening, the Council is scheduled to vote on most of the recommendations.

Almost all are likely to be approved, in my estimation, but two of CPAC’s recommendations have triggered concern among Councilors, specifically grants for repairs to the Alice Maud Hills House and the Conkey-Stevens House. At the heart of the concern is whether public money should be awarded to private property owners, either non-profits (such as the Woman’s Club, owners of the Hills House) or homeowners (Salem Place Condominium Association, owners of the Conkey-Stevens House). As chair of CPAC, I enthusiastically support both projects – indeed, all the project recommended to Council. (Note that this blog post is my own opinion, not approved by CPAC.)

Alice Maud Hills House

Both properties are listed in the National Historic Register and are within local historic districts. The Alice Maud Hills house, at 35 Triangle St. but facing Main Street, is a neighbor (more or less) to the Emily Dickinson Homestead and the Evergreens. The Conkey-Stevens House, at 664 Main St., is a one-of-a-kind Second Empire structure in East Amherst. Both buildings require exterior work that exceeds the financial capacities of their owners.

It is helpful to understand the Community Preservation program before saying more about these two particular projects – but if you are already familiar with the CPA, you can jump ahead.

Conkey-Stevens House

Where do the CPAC funds come from? Amherst citizens repeatedly voted to tax themselves – three times since 2001 – in order to participate in the program enabled by the state’s Community Preservation Act. Property owners pay a surcharge, or tax on the property tax, of 3% (the first $100,000 of assessed value is exempt). That is, for every $100 assessed in property taxes, an extra $3 goes into our Community Preservation Fund. The Commonwealth contributes additional dollars yearly to the participating cities and towns; the precise amount varies, year to year, but the state matched 39% of the Town’s FY2021 collection to the fund for FY2022.

Why did voters agree to raise their own taxes? Because voters support the goals of the program, which are to fund projects addressing affordable housing, historic preservation, acquisition of open space, and development and improvement of recreational amenities.

Hickory Ridge

Over the past 20 years, approximately $18 million in CPA money has been invested in numerous Amherst projects. Examples include:

  • In the Community (i.e., affordable) Housing category, the purchase of land on Belchertown Road, funding for the Valley CDC project at 123 Northampton Rd. (“East Gables”), conversion of market-rate rental units at Rolling Green Apartments to affordable units, and grants to Amherst Community Connections’ transitional housing initiatives;
  • In the Open Space category, funds for the redesign of the northern part of the Town Common, contributions to the purchase (completed just last week) of the Hickory Ridge Golf Course, purchase of land (now under conservation) such as the Szala and Keets-Haskins properties, and funds for improvements to trail networks;
  • In the Historic Preservation category, preservation efforts at Town Hall, funding for the Special Projects facility in the Jones Library expansion and renovation project, funds for building envelope repairs and/or foundation repairs at the Munson and North Amherst libraries, restoration of the Tiffany window at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Amherst, restoration of the Civil War tablets, and exterior repairs to the Goodwin Memorial AME Zion church;
  • And in the Recreation category, funds for the playgrounds (sometimes matched with grant funding) at Kendrick Park, the playground and spray park at Groff Park, and repairs to basketball courts and pools at Town recreation areas.

Who decides what grants to award? CPAC is responsible for soliciting, reviewing, and recommending grant applications. In the past, CPAC’s annual report was submitted to Town Meeting, but now it goes to Town Council for discussion, public comment, and a vote. Those bodies have sole power to authorize town spending. The enabling statute allows Town Council to reject a recommendation or reduce the size of a grant, but Council may not increase a grant or award funds to projects not recommended by CPAC.

Groff Park playground

Who serves on CPAC? The law directs several boards and commissions to delegate representatives to CPAC. Thus, CPAC members come from the Amherst Housing Authority, the Historical Commission, the Conservation Commission, the Recreation Commission, and the Planning Board. The Town Manager also recruits candidates for three at-large seats.

But back to the Hills House and Conkey-Stevens House. Both applications were strongly supported by the Amherst Historical Commission. CPAC and the commission spoke publicly about the clear eligibility of privately owned properties for CPA money, emphasizing that the “public benefit” to the taxpayer, as far as the law is concerned, need only be the view of the exterior from the street or sidewalk. The commission urged Councilors to consider Amherst’s many historic structures as an outdoor museum through which citizens roam. They noted that private property owners are usually not eligible for grants to preserve their historic properties, and that the Community Preservation Act deliberately includes them.

North Amherst Community Farm’s farmhouse

No precedent would be set by approving an award to the Alice Maud Hills House. CPA grants have been made to private not-for-profit entities in Amherst numerous times. Churches, the Jewish Community of Amherst, the farmhouse owned by the North Amherst Community Farm – even the Hills House’s Carriage House – have received grants.

What may be novel in Amherst is granting taxpayer dollars to a private homeowner. The Council is concerned about a possible flood of applications, and wonders whether private owners should be held completely responsible for maintenance of their historic structures. On behalf of CPAC, I noted that all program applicants compete for funding, that many projects are not approved, and that private owners are welcome in the program. Personally, I believe that since these private owners are providing a benefit to the rest of us, and ownership of historic properties is both inherently expensive and subject to many constraints, the public should be willing to help pick up the tab occasionally.

One concern raised by Councilors is how to secure the taxpayers’ contribution to the property, should the property be sold or demolished, for example. This a reasonable concern and one that should be readily resolved by language in the agreements between the Town and applicants. As mentioned above, grants that benefit properties not owned by the Town have been made on numerous occasions already.

North Common

Readers may want to know about the other grants CPAC recommends for FY23. We recommend new grants totaling approximately $1.833 million, as well as debt payments of about $490,000 for projects voted in earlier years, and $25,000 for administrative expenses. We also recommend reserving about $533,000 for future CPA uses.

In brief, CPAC is recommending that funds be granted to:

  • the Town to assist in the purchase or rehabilitation of a property to be used for transitional housing,
  • the Town to fund a part-time housing projects coordinator,
  • the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust to enable it to fund projects as they arise – perhaps, soon, at the East Street School site and the Belchertown Road property acquired a year ago – and for a part-time consultant,
  • the Town to conduct repairs at one of its affordable housing sites, the John C. Nutting building,
  • the Amherst Historical Society so that it can conduct an engineering and structural assessment of the Museum,
  • the Town for continued repairs to the West Cemetery,
  • the District One Neighborhood Association, with the assistance of the Conservation Department, to begin work on a history trail along part of the Mill River,
  • Crocker Farm School for design work on upgrades to or replacement of a playground,
  • the Town to improve the irrigation system at the Plum Brook playing fields,
  • the Town for some trail work at the Hickory Ridge property,
  • the Town for general repairs and improvements to its trail network,
  • and to Amherst Pickleball Supporters, with the assistance of the Recreation Department, to build two or more pickleball courts.

I look forward to seeing these projects come to fruition!

Public Forum: Monday, March 21, 6:30-7:00 p.m. Zoom link:

Ski town?

By Sanjay Arwade

Amherst is a ski town – specifically, a cross-country ski town. Need convincing?

  • The Amherst Nordic Ski Association ( has more than 200 members from throughout Amherst and surrounding towns,
  • A trail network is groomed, courtesy of Amherst Recreation, at Cherry Hill golf course when snow permits, 
  • The world-class network of trails in the area provides hundreds of kilometers of skiing opportunities,
  • Elementary school students at Fort River learn to ski with their dedicated PE teacher Kaileigh Keizer-Lawrence, and 
  • ARMS and ARHS have a thriving and competitive racing program led by Carl Cignoni and Nat Woodruff.
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

I’ve always loved winter, and remember the one snow day we had from school in Manhattan during my childhood.  Sledding and ice skating in Central Park are pretty special experiences, but skiing meant getting in the car (or on a bus), and heading to the Catskills or other more mountainous spots.  It’s not something my family was able to do very often, and when we did, it was to ski downhill. 

I didn’t discover cross-country (xc) until faced, as a grad student at Cornell, with the prospect of making it through five years of long winters in Ithaca, N.Y.  Ithaca is home to a strong xc ski community that welcomed this beginner with open arms and turned me into a life-long enthusiast.  I can tell you that as a kid on 60th Street I had never imagined I would be spending evenings skiing along a 3-foot-wide trail through the woods, in the dark, with headlamp batteries failing.  But there I was, there’s been no looking back, and I now look forward to the coming of winter every year.

Of course, people have been sliding around on snow in the Northeast for generations — for fun, for transportation, and to make outdoor work in the winter easier.  Amherst was no different and the history of skiing in Amherst is long and varied.  Running, hiking, or skiing around Earle’s Trails on the Holyoke Range, one comes across the old lift line of the Tinker Hill ski area, once operated by Amherst College. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, a few local high schoolers would take their wooden (or early generation fiberglass) xc skis to high school races and represent Amherst High.  Al Hudson, in the 1970s, ran youth programs for kids at the Common School and through the Pelham Recreation Department, mostly skiing on the reliably snowy trails of Cadwell Memorial Forest. 

Credit Phyllis Clapis

The current era of xc skiing in Amherst began a little over a decade ago, when Nat Woodruff, a science and technology teacher at the high school, founded the Amherst Hurricane Nordic ski team with student Paul Quackenbush and his parents.  Along with Barb Bilz, the director of recreation in Amherst, they won grant money to buy grooming equipment to be used at Cherry Hill.  Since then, John Coelho, the Cherry Hill superintendent, has taken to the task of grooming with gusto, and when we get more than 6 inches or so of snow, Cherry Hill is home to, as far as we know, the only municipally groomed ski trails in the state.  In good conditions Cherry Hill is a fantastic place to ski, with grooming for classic and skate skiing, a great mix of climbs, descents and flats, and access to the ungroomed trails on conservation and private land along the northbound section of the Robert Frost Trail.  

Our winters, as we all know, have been getting warmer and less snowy, and, since, well, skiers ski, we’ve become adept at finding the snow.  Small differences in altitude can make a big difference in the amounts of snowfall locally. In particular, Shutesbury (Brushy Mountain and the Paul Jones Forest) and Pelham (Cadwell Memorial Forest) often make out pretty well when storms fizzle in Amherst.  Those places, along with Mt. Toby, the Pocumtuck Ridge in Deerfield, and parts of the Holyoke Range can be great skiing, delivering that magical feeling of gliding through the forest in a season when it sometimes feels easier to just stay inside.  

Credit Sanjay Arwade

For newcomers to cross country, getting gear and instruction can be a little bit of a challenge in Amherst.  Valley Bike and Ski Works sells good-quality equipment at fair prices with top-notch service.  Berkshire Outfitters and the West Hill Shop, a bit farther away, have even larger selections, and both Notchview Reservation in Windsor and Northfield Mountain operate commercial ski centers with grooming, rentals, and lessons.  Amherst Nordic hopes to be able to offer clinics and equipment rental or loan sometime in the future.

If you’ve been in love with cross-country for years, are just finding your way in the sport, or haven’t even started yet, check out and find your place in a welcoming, enthusiastic and outdoors-oriented ski community, right here in your town.  You can join in for group ski touring outings, participate in racing, and volunteer some time to help plan, with Rey Harp and Amherst Recreation, for an even bigger and better future for skiing in Amherst and at Cherry Hill. 

Photo by Thomas Dils on Unsplash