The jerseys worn by Madison co-ed ultimate team NOISE bear a diagram of how the team got its name. One stick figure is standing still while another appears to be falling backward over a third, who is on all fours.
“We were playing in a tournament at Badger State Games like eight years ago and people kept table-topping each other,” said assistant coach Josh Davidson, indicating the practical joke depicted in the diagram. “People just started yelling, ‘No One Is Safe... Ever!’”
It’s the type of whimsical inside joke that has led to the naming of many ultimate teams in Madison’s wildly popular summer league. The difference is that NOISE has established itself as one of the best teams in the country. Along with Madison’s men’s and women’s teams — Madison Club and Heist — the co-ed NOISE qualified to play at the USA Ultimate National Championships in Rockford, Illinois, starting Thursday.
For the second year, Madison joins an exclusive list of much larger cities — Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — sending teams in all three divisions to compete for national titles.
“In other communities there’s a tradeoff: How many players are playing at a high level and how many teams can you field off of that?” said NOISE coach Nick Heckman.
For those familiar with ultimate only through playing in recreational leagues or from seeing the hometown Madison Radicals, a professional team competing in the American Ultimate Disc League, the USA Ultimate championship is the biggest stage in the sport for club teams. Clubs are typically organized by the players themselves. Throughout the summer, they compete in tournaments around the country before participating in a series of qualifiers to make the 16-team field at nationals.
During club games, players are in charge of administering the rules themselves and, instead of referees, observers get involved if there are disputes. Teams compete in multiple games per day, often numbering as many as eight in a tournament weekend.
Mixed is the newest USA Ultimate division, dating to 1998. The division’s only unique rule demands that of each team’s seven players on the field, three or four must be women. The team receiving the disc each point determines the number.
“Offense can decide whether there are three or four women on the field (per team),” Heckman said. “This will happen a lot at higher level tournaments where you’ll see a team go with four women. We sometimes do that, too, for strategic reasons. When we think we have good matchups, it’s a good way to play.”
Competitive mixed teams feature women at all positions on the field: handling the disc, making shorter mid-field cuts or sprinting deep. Teams play zone defense or “person-to-person” defense, sometimes with women marking men on defense and vice versa. Stacy Waldrup, communications manager for USA Ultimate, said she’s not aware of any other team sport that features a mixed division at its highest levels.
NOISE’s Mike Swain, who has has played for the Radicals for four years, formerly played on Madison's men’s club team for several years before a baby came along. That prompted him to look for a team that demanded less time.
“This is a lower commitment level, yet still high-level ultimate,” said Swain, a team captain. “I could have played with a different men’s team, but NOISE was extremely welcoming. I never really thought about playing mixed, but they reached out to me.”
Playing at that high level with both men and women on the field means constantly adapting to speed, size and strength, not to mention different personalities.
“There’s just the whole concept of throwing to different body types, so a throw deep to a woman is going to look different than a throw deep to a man,” said Brittany Bergen, another captain. “There’s definitely a different dynamic. Men tend to get a little heated quicker than the women do. It’s okay, though. We’re all competitive.”
Swain, who works as a fraud investigator for the state, said Bergen’s description fits him at times.
“I don’t yell a lot, but I’m very matter of fact and to the point,” he said. “I really want the message to come across, not that I’m saying it rudely, but I don’t want to compromise the message. Some of these guys, they know what they want to say, but they know how to frame it with a positive message.”
A year ago, NOISE players were excited to just be part of the nationals tournament field, and ended up finishing 15th out of 16 teams. Entering the 2016 tournament seeded 10th, their goals are to do significantly better.
“We’re seeded in the middle of the pack, so we’re hoping to either stay there or break seed and show people hey, this is no fluke. We’re here for a reason,” Bergen said.
To qualify, NOISE finished second at the regional playoff tournament to Drag’n Thrust, a powerhouse from Minneapolis that has won the last three national championships. NOISE players agree that Drag’n Thrust is their biggest rival, but also that they’re gaining on the champs.
“We gave them a run for their money at regionals,” said Bergen. “But we’re definitely looking forward to seeing them again at nationals.”
The USA Ultimate tournament takes place at the Mercy Sportscore 2 complex in Rockford Thursday through Sunday. You can learn more about the tournament and follow the progress of NOISE, as well as the other Madison teams, at usaultimate.org.