Boston is home to some of the great perennial contenders in sports. The Patriots, Bruins, and Red Sox have a shot to win every year (even if the Red Sox are threatening to slip from that list). Until the 1990s, the Celtics were a team to be feared. And now, there’s Brute Squad, the city’s semi-professional women’s ultimate frisbee team.
In a tournament in Devens this weekend, Boston’s Brute Squad will play other teams from New England, New York and Canada. And they bring with them something the other teams can only dream about: with a 22-4 record, the Brute Squad is the number one women’s team in the country.
Ultimate (as those in the know call it) has come a long way from the game you played in college, tossing a frisbee with one hand while sipping a beer with the other. These days, the game is a mix of soccer and football, with some of rugby’s chaos thrown in to mix things up.
The offense marches towards an end zone, like in football, but the frisbee can be thrown in any direction. Players run like crazy across the field, but whoever catches the frisbee can’t move until she makes a pass. Any incomplete pass is a turnover. The defense, meanwhile, is trying to block, knock down and intercept passes. The game ends when a team reaches a pre-set number of points, similar to volleyball or tennis. It’s a fast-moving game with few rules.
The Olympics have officially recognized the game as a sport, a precursor to bringing Ultimate to the games themselves (baseball has a similar designation). Brute Squad is part of USA Ultimate, playing teams from across the country in search of its first championship in the team’s 13-year history.
Being the best doesn’t happen without dedication. Sometimes, Ultimate means ignoring your doctor’s advice.
“I broke my hand playing. I played with a claw for like a month,’’ said Brute Squad’s Angela Zhu. “I went to the doctor and she was like ‘You absolutely cannot play. You’re lucky your bones are still set.’ I put a sock on it and a brace on it and played [the next weekend].’’
Hailing from Amherst, Zhu, 18, has played Ultimate on club, school, and national teams since she was 12 years old.
“Amherst is super-famous for Ultimate,’’ said Zhu.
While that fame may still be limited to frisbee-chucking circles, it’s an apt description. Sara Jacobi, an eight-year Brute Squad veteran, called Amherst “a mecca for ultimate frisbee.’’ The town plays host to a national tournament and the National Ultimate Training Camp for kids and teenagers. And Amherst High School’s varsity program has already produced three national and four eastern championships since 1998.
Traditionally, other areas of the country don’t have as deep a commitment to the sport, so players largely come to the game after playing other sports. But that’s slowly starting to change.
“We all came into it from other sports,’’ said Brute Squad member Courtney Kiesow. “I was lucky enough that my high school had a team. I was recruited by my economics teacher.’’
Originally from Madison, WI, Kiesow came to the Boston area to study medicine. She’s a graduate student at the MGH School of Nursing.
“[Ultimate] is not as cutthroat as soccer, where people start playing at three years old. Even our friends’ parents like to play,’’ she said. “It’s a sport people can pick up and doesn’t cost a ton in equipment.’’
Still, semi-professional is not professional. Nobody’s getting paid to be in ultimate tournaments every weekend. In fact, the players fund the trips themselves — a not insignificant hit to their wallets.
“This season, just traveling was $1,500,’’ said Jacobi. “That’s flying alone. Then you have hotels, you have to get food, get rental cars.’’
Jacobi estimated the players spend about $3,000 per year to play at the national level. After eight years, that means she’s spent about $24,000 on the game.
Dropping the equivalent of a car loan to play a game you love means sometimes skipping out on vacations and other expenses.
“We all have to budget it in. We definitely choose to do this over other things,’’ said Jacobi. “Everyone on the team is on the same page. We know this is a sacrifice all of us make. It’s a big commitment.’’
For Zhu, who played with the gold medal-winning US National Under-19 team in Italy, that budget includes international travel.
“A disgusting amount,’’ Zhu laughed when asked about her out-of-pocket expenses. “A shameful amount.’’
It’s serious cash for what its players see as a serious sport, but it’s the game’s quirky rules and club roots that keep the players coming back.
The team’s name, for example, was inspired by the beloved 80’s movie “The Princess Bride.’’ And one of the biggest quirks is the officiating. Ultimate has no referees, so players decide who’s out of bounds, who’s committed a foul and any other rule infractions.
It’s a tradition most players treasure, saying it leads to better team-building and sportsmanship in the league.
“You’ll have some snippy games, but it builds team,’’ said Zhu.
“It is as much about an individual commitment as it is about building the sport,’’ said Jacobi.
The games at Devens are a regional tournament. The top two teams will qualify for October’s national tournament in Texas. The Brute Squad are expected to make it through, though they’ll face stiff competition from the ninth-ranked New York Bent and sixteenth-ranked Toronto Capitals.
Should it make it to nationals, it’ll be familiar territory for the club, which placed second in 2009 and made the semi-finals in 2010 and 2011 — giving Brute Squad the fitting almost-champion history of fellow local sports teams like the pre-2004 Red Sox, the New England Revolution and late-Brady era Patriots.
“We’ve come so close in past seasons,’’ said Jacobi. “This year, we’ve beaten every team we’ve had to. We’ve always had the talent, but this year we’ve been able to put it all together.’’