After school on a Thursday afternoon, a group of students from Norwell High gathered to play one of America's fastest-growing sports. But they didn't see it that way.
"I'm just here to block passes and score touchdowns," said 15-year-old sophomore Shayne Pyle.
Though it might sound like Pyle is referring to a football game, he's talking about Ultimate - a sport that most people seem to know exists but few know much about.
A fast-paced game played with a plastic disc, Ultimate combines elements and strategy of several field and court sports.
But don't call it a "Frisbee." While the sport is often called "Ultimate Frisbee," Frisbee is a registered trademark of the Wham-O Co. Players generally refer to the object they use to play as a "disc."
The Norwell students, who were exposed to Ultimate last summer, have started their own team, which they have named Norwell Slaughterhouse, and hope to get approval to compete against other area high schools in the spring.
The sport has taken off at a time when participation in most other team sports is declining. Nationally, participation in Ultimate at the high school level has tripled in the past three years, from 1,489 players in 2003 to 4,617 last year. At the college level, participation has grown 37 percent in three years, from 8,972 in 2003 to 12,374 last year, according to statistics from the sport's American regulatory body, the Ultimate Players Association.
Ultimate in the South Shore area has followed the national trend. With two teams starting up this fall, at Silver Lake Regional High School and Norwell High, the number of Ultimate teams in the region has grown by 22 percent in the last year.
Already established high school teams include Abington, Braintree, Milton High, Milton Academy, Pembroke, and Weymouth, and pickup leagues exist in Brockton, Plymouth, Quincy, Raynham, and Weymouth. The region also hosts three college-level teams - at Bridgewater State College, Stonehill College in Easton, and Wheaton College in Norton. These teams compete in high school and college leagues sanctioned by the Ultimate Players Association and the Boston Ultimate Disc Alliance. They are not recognized by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
The field-based competition has aspects reminiscent of other major sports. Teams of seven score in end zones like in football, must pass the disc from a standstill, and move it down the field in motion that loosely flows like the game play of soccer. The team that earns a given number of points first wins.
"It's kind of like football . . . with the defense of basketball," said Matt Waters, 21, senior captain at Bridgewater State College. "It's a fast-paced game that's just as athletic as any other sport there is."
There is one striking difference, however, between Ultimate and any other sport: Game play is self-officiating, even at its highest levels. This means that players make their own penalty calls, and consequences are worked out among the players on the field. This phenomenon, known as "Spirit of the Game," is viewed by many Ultimate players as a higher level of sportsmanship because players are expected to refrain from cheating to get an edge over their opponents.
When Ultimate players are asked why they love their sport, they will offer about 50 reasons. Most seem to agree on three:
1. Athletic fulfillment: "People tend to fall in love with Ultimate as soon as they play it," said Kyle Magner, 21, captain of Boston College's team.
"It's very fast-paced and offers a lot of variety to its players. You are quickly switching between offense and defense, and you can play a number of different positions and types of offenses and defenses."
2. Ease of play: Ultimate is decidedly low maintenance - no need for nets, pads, or hoops.
"When you set up games, you need nothing but a big open space and something to use for sideline markers" - and, of course, the disc, said Christopher Norris, captain of the team at Milton High.
3. "Spirit of the Game." Because players on the field call all of their own fouls, Ultimate players say they like having total control of their game.
"You have no real need for refs," Norris said. "There's something that's really appealing about not having refs, so you can govern your own game.
"Some people at school have a funny perception of it," he said. "But people who actually have seen it in action have a much different perception than people who haven't."
For the Norwell High students, starting a new team is not without challenges. Norwell's coach, David Linehan, said that because no one is really familiar with the sport, they have to spend a lot of time going over the rules and basic strategy.
"Everybody understands the rules of, say, basketball, but these are completely new," he said. When only a few people know how to play, Linehan said, practice can be frustrating and will often deter the more experienced players from participating.
The team also has hit an unexpected administrative challenge. While the boys had received approval from an assistant principal to play pickup games, according to Linehan, the School Committee ruled in June that all school sports must be fully funded by the school and that no new sports teams could form until further notice.
"Right now, we're having a hard time financing the sports that already exist, so, at this point, we don't see expanding the number of sports," said Peg O'Connor, chairwoman of the Norwell School Committee. O'Connor added that if there is an existing sport that is lagging in interest, Ultimate could be funded in its place.
But Linehan and the Norwell High squad are hopeful.
"The challenge for any new program is to navigate the turf that is town and school politics," Linehan said. "That will take as much skill and patience as playing in a game."