Charlotte Latin sophomore Tucker Cordell didn't know what Ultimate was before he and his friend Dan McFalls started playing as eighth-graders. He knew it involved Frisbees but thought it was more like disc golf.
He was wrong, but he and McFalls still fell in love with the sport.
"It is definitely really unique," said Cordell, 16. "It offered everything that other sports do, like intense play, exercise, but it was just a little different."
Ultimate (also known as Ultimate Frisbee) may not be a well-known sport, but Latin has had a team since 1988 and other schools in the area are starting to pick up the sport.
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"High school ultimate is a lot bigger," said Latin coach Ed Fox, 49. "It's probably the biggest it's ever been."
Ultimate is played on a football field with anywhere from three to seven players. Players are not allowed to run with the Frisbee but must pass it to a teammate. Teams score points by catching the disc in the end zone, like football.
In addition to Latin, Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Catholic, Ardrey Kell, Randolph Middle, Fletcher School and Countrywide Montessori have teams, said Fox.
Fox, a Charlotte Latin alumnus, started Latin's team when he came back to teach earth science and geology in 1988. Fox hadn't heard of the sport until he started college at Sewanee: The University of the South. He played there, then joined a club in Chattanooga after college. He played again in graduate school at Southern Mississippi and joined a club team when he moved back to Charlotte.
Fox is a two-time member of the U.S. Ultimate Frisbee team in 1992 and 1994. He still plays with the Charlotte Area Ultimate Association.
"When I came back here to teach ... I had some students who were willing to try it out and they sort of kept on," said Fox.
Participation has fluctuated since he started the club, said Fox, but he usually has 30 kids come out each year. The team plays year-round, so there are usually only 10-15 students playing on the team at a time.
The team, which was once ranked as high as seventh in the nation by USA Ultimate, is open to boys and girls from any grade level and includes several fifth-graders and two girls this year. The team has never had enough girls interested to form a separate team.
Fox said the sport has lasted at the school because it's flexible.
"We don't draw a lot of athletes from the other programs, so the people that play out here, for the most part, wouldn't play anything else," said Fox. "We take fields where we can get it."
In the fall, the team practices on the softball field, during the winter on a field behind the middle school and in the spring it takes half the stadium football field. Fox also said it's a cheap sport for a school to have.
"If you're going to start, what do you need? Cones and a disc," he said. "You don't need special equipment."
While the sport is not complicated, Cordell said it took a while to master the skills and throws.
"I really hadn't learned to throw at all so that first year was really just learning," he said. Cordell said learning a forehand throw was the hardest part. "It looks easy now. Thinking about it, I don't see how I ever couldn't, but it's definitely one of the biggest challenges."
Fox likes the sport because it's good exercise.
"People don't ever see ultimate played so they don't really know how much running is involved," he said.
Charlotte Latin hosted the 20th annual 3-on-3 Ultimate Tournament Nov. 19 with 35 teams competing in four divisions. Fox said the tournament is popular in the state and has even had teams from as far away as Ohio play. Latin also hosts a 5-on-5 tournament in the spring.
Fox said he's glad to see that the sport is growing in south Charlotte high schools, but he looks forward to a day when there is a league and a regular schedule.
The team tries to play a game each week, but it doesn't always happen. Ultimate's lack of exposure is a big part of why more people don't play, he said.
"A big problem for Ultimate, in terms of respect, is nobody grows up watching it on TV or that kind of thing, so it's tough to bring people in because they don't understand," said Fox.
Cordell said he plans on continuing to play when he goes to college. According to Fox, he'll have an advantage over the competition.
"What happens is guys that played soccer, football and lacrosse in high school end up playing Ultimate in college because they don't want to play other sports," he said. "They miss out on not playing in high school. They show up to college unprepared."