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posted: 8/3/2013 8:00 AM

Suburbs figure big in Ultimate Disc League championship

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  • Video: American Ultimate Disc League

  • Jonathan "Goose" Helton of Naperville plays for the Windy City Wildfire, which is up for the American Ultimate Disc League championship today. Helton was the league MVP in 2012.

      Jonathan "Goose" Helton of Naperville plays for the Windy City Wildfire, which is up for the American Ultimate Disc League championship today. Helton was the league MVP in 2012.
    Photo by Alex Fraser /UltiPhotos.com

  • Jonathan "Goose" Helton, a 2012 league MVP, has helped the Windy City Wildfire to a spot in the American Ultimate Disc League playoffs this weekend.

      Jonathan "Goose" Helton, a 2012 league MVP, has helped the Windy City Wildfire to a spot in the American Ultimate Disc League playoffs this weekend.
    courtesy of Windy City Wildfire/Nick Lindeke

 
By Matt Sasso
msasso@dailyherald.com

While Chicago hosts the second American Ultimate Disc League championships this weekend, there are plenty of suburban connections in the mix.

Not only are the Windy City Wildfire competing at Lane Tech Stadium for a shot at the title, but several of their players call the Chicago suburbs home.

The reigning league MVP, Jonathan "Goose" Helton, lives in Naperville and has been a part of the area's club and professional ultimate Frisbee circuit for a decade. Goose played for the Indianapolis AlleyCats last season, but switch to Chicago when the AUDL added a team here.

"I wanted to help make the closest team to me successful," said Helton, who works as a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch when he's not flashing his catching, throwing and defensive skills against AUDL opponents.

Travel affects players' decisions, and most teams feature a lot of homegrown talent before filling out their rosters with national recruits. The Wildfire's Kevin Kelly, from Deerfield, says players like the ease of travel and the fan support that comes with playing for their local team.

"It's been great playing for the Wildfire," Kelly said. "My friends all come out, friends from ultimate, and some who don't know the sport and want to see a game."

Unlike club leagues, the AUDL makes it much easier for spectators to enjoy an ultimate Frisbee showdown. The pro level is the only level to include referees, so the game stays moving and the flow is not interrupted as much.

In club, amateur and college levels, the players police themselves, so it is harder for a fan to watch through all the interruptions. But the self-policing helps introduce the "spirit of the game," as ultimate players call it. Young players learn the respect and camaraderie that ultimate teams look for.

"It's extremely important that refs don't go to a lower level than the pro league," Lake Zurich native and Wildfire athlete Jimmy Robin said. "Policing themselves embeds the good nature and spirit of the game."

However, the league is not just about respect and positive competition. There is money on the line and intense competition. Brodie Smith, Wildfire star and one of ultimate's most recognizable athletes, says the referees play an important role in the AUDL.

"Think about going to your gym and having a pickup basketball game," Smith said. "Then, put $10,000 on the line. It's going to be the worst game ever (without refs)."

Up to $15,000 is on the line for the winners of the championship weekend, so the referees will be key to making impartial calls and keeping the game moving in front of the thousands of fans expected.

The Wildfire believe they will have a slight home-field advantage playing in their own stadium.

"I think the weekend is going to be nuts. I expect a lot of people there," Robin said.

"Wherever you go, the ultimate community is very open and supportive of each other," Kelly said. "But Lane Tech has some swirly winds, so we have an advantage because of our experience with it."

Of course, playing locally also gives players an opportunity to keep their careers and have other jobs. Most ultimate athletes have a full-time job, a club team and a pro league team. Somehow, they are able to do it all.

Kelly says the league is built and organized in such a way that players do not have to choose between a career and competing at the highest level of ultimate Frisbee. That does not mean juggling is easy, especially for Robin, who also coaches a Lake Zurich High School club team.

"There's not any free time. It's hard to find time to relax," Robin said. "Especially when my kids are practicing every day, and they look forward to me coming out, so I can't let them down."

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