Local Ultimate team trains for another title
An inexpensive sport void of referees and player salaries seems inconceivable if you consider that such a game actually has a governing body in the United States and claims nearly 16,000 members.
The sport is Ultimate, played with a Frisbee and described as a flying disc sport, and a local co-ed club team called Donner Party has brought world recognition to Tahoe-Truckee since it decided to join the Ultimate Players Association (UPA) Mixed Division in 2001.
In November of that year, the team placed ninth at the UPA Club National Championship held at the Sarasota Polo Club in Florida.
“We did all right in 2001, but we knew we had something,” said Donner Party captain Scott Conway. “For (the last) four years, I think the team got really serious and focused with practices and getting ready to compete.”
Conway, 28, moved to the Truckee area in 2000, just in time to witness the transformation of the team from a regionally competitive men’s squad to a co-ed national contender ” then to a world champion.
The ninth-place finish in 2001 earned Donner Party a bid to the 2002 World Games in Hawaii. After winning the 2002 UPA Club National Championship in Sarasota, the Donner Party took the world championship, prevailing victorious in a pool of nearly 40 club teams from the United States.
In Ultimate, the benefits of playing and winning come without a paycheck, but that is a source of pride, not frustration, among players.
“There’s no money (involved),” said Conway, a seven-year player who played Ultimate at Colorado State University. “That would ruin a lot of the fun. (For winning, we get) glory and a great party.”
Donner Party rode its 2002 success to another national championship in 2003, earning it a bid to this summer’s World Games in Turku, Finland, in August. The 2004 event will play under a different format than in 2002 (the world championships are held every two years). Donner Party will represent the United States and compete in a tournament consisting of teams that were No. 1 in their respective countries in 2003.
On the weekend of June 26, in pursuit of its third straight national championship and its second world championship, the Donner Party held its only official, full-squad practice sessions at River View Park in Truckee.
Because a few of the players are from out-of-state or out-of-town, the organization of such a practice is difficult. But Conway stressed that staying in shape is more important than playing together.
“After playing for four years,” he said, “you understand the offense and you’re more worried about burn-out than not being able to gel as a team.”
The local Donner Party players practice together frequently.
Tara Sechler, from Corvallis, Ore., is one of those out-of-state members who joined the Donner Party this season. Sechler joked about practicing with her new teammates for just a single weekend.
“I think as of this point of the weekend, I feel like I know everyone pretty well,” she laughed.
Sechler also brings seven years of Ultimate experience to Donner Party and was introduced to the sport at Oregon State University. She flew into Reno with her husband Andy Neill, also on the team, and didn’t mind spending the cash to visit the Tahoe area.
“Most Ultimate players don’t have a problem with laying down money to play,” Sechler said. “We pay to play, and we don’t get paid to play. It’s all free will.”
The UPA follows a sectional/regional/national/world format, which naturally leads to a lot of traveling ” which makes it even more amazing that players are willing to compete without financial compensation.
Starting with Northern California sectionals, the Donner Party will play about eight games, Conway said. If it wins the sectional tournament, it earns a bid to the Northwest Regional. The top three finishers there qualify for nationals, a four-day tournament averaging about three games a day.
Asked why he dedicates himself to the sport, the order of Conway’s response confirms the general attitude among players ” notice that, although Donner Party players admittedly love to win, success is not first on the list.
“The camaraderie. Good friends. Hanging out. Working together. Building something as a team and succeeding. The traveling ” I can go anywhere in the U.S., and I automatically have a set of friends who share something in common. It’s a recipe that’s hard to find.”
Another respectable attribute of Ultimate relates to its Spirit of the Game philosophy, the embodiment of playing fairly, responsibly and competitively, but also the unique self-officiated aspect of the game.
“There’s a lot of gray area,” Conway said, “but the idea is if you know you fouled somebody, then you say you fouled them. It keeps it fun and keeps it honest.”
Observers rather than referees can make active line calls and settle disputes on the field in larger tournaments. According to UPA’s official Web site, the primary difference between Observers and Referees is that Observers shall not make active foul and violation calls of a subjective nature, unless asked by the players to do so.
Jeff Fillinger, 37, is a Donner Party original, a 15-year Tahoe resident, and a 19-year Ultimate veteran; he competed in his first UPA Northwest Regional in 1986. It is no surprise he played a major role in the Donner Party’s inception in 1992.
By organizing a few practices through word of mouth and posting some fliers around town, Fillinger influenced the birth of a new recreational team in Tahoe.
But until 2000, Donner Party competed in the Men’s Division. It was circumstance that led to the transformation of the team.
“A bunch of these women were commuting to the Bay Area to play on really good women’s teams, and we’d practice up here,” said Fillinger, who played at Chico State and Chabot College. “One day we looked around at our talent, and a couple women bailed ship on their Bay Area team and committed to the Donner Party. That’s when the whole mixed thing started.”
And the role of the Donner Party women is essential to its success. In the 2002 World Games, the team occasionally played four women, even though UPA rules call for a minimum of three.
“We played a couple teams with really tall, strong, athletic men,” Fillinger said. “We played four women quite a few times, and it really frustrated them. I give the women on our team a lot of credit.”
For the small town of Truckee, the Donner Party’s feats are extraordinary.
“It’s just amazing that we pulled it together and are national champions,” Fillinger said. “We play teams from big cities that have hundreds of people to choose from.”
Fillinger also cites the social aspect of the game as his favorite, but he likes the simplicity of it, too.
“The fact that all you need is 175 grams of plastic and some cleats . . . and you need some grass,” he said. “You don’t even need cones.”
Fillinger is proud to be one of the team’s pioneers, and he hopes to coach a youth program in the near future.
Like Fillinger and Conway, Reno resident and five-year Donner Party player Tim Weil was around to witness the changing of the tides when the team became Mixed and finished ninth in the 2001 national championships.
“It changed some things,” Weil said. “It definitely became more serious, but there is still that laid-back aspect on this team. We have that confidence that we can pull it out, and we’ve been fortunate.”
Weil’s wife Heather also plays “when she’s not pregnant,” he smiles. Heather is currently pregnant with the couple’s second child.
In this way, Donner Party is proving familyhood and playing in your mid-30s doesn’t prevent championships.
“A lot of the people on our team are parents,” said Weil, a 12-year veteran who played for Florida State. “We’re going up against teams that range in age from 18 to 25, and I think our average is 32 or 33 years old. We always seem to hang with the younger teams.”
– Visit http://www.upa.org for more information about Ultimate.
– 2003 National Championship page: http://www.upa.org/club/2003_championships/championships.shtml
– 2002 National Championship page: http://www.upa.org/club/2002_championships/index.htm
– July 3 at North Tahoe Conference Center ” Selling snowcones, T-shirts and disks
– July 4 at downtown Truckee parade ” Selling snowcones, T-shirts, disks at
– July 15 at Zano’s ” Live music; 6-11 p.m.; call 581-3410 for advance tickets or buy at the door.