The Madison West High School ultimate teams are good. They consistently compete for state titles and have been for a long time.
“We win state championships every year,” said senior Andrew Ericson, a captain of the boys team. “We’re consistently great.”
Coach Peter Graffy said the West boys have won the last eight state titles. The girls team is even better.
“We not only win state, we go to nationals,” said West girls ultimate coach Alex Mundy. “Nationals started last year and we were invited and we were invited back this year. In that respect, while the boys have an incredibly talented team, the girls, in terms of their rankings, supersede the boys.”
But you wouldn’t know that from checking out the school’s trophy case.
“I remember putting our 2017 state trophy in there,” said Graffy. “But we were walking past the trophy case this winter and we’re like, ‘Where did our trophies go?’ We asked the athletic director where they went and he said, ‘We took them out because you’re not sponsored by WIAA.’”
Mundy confirmed that the girls' trophies were removed as well. Graffy dispatched members of the team on a scavenger hunt to find them and two players tracked them down in an assistant principal’s office.
Where are they now?
“I actually have them sitting in my living room,” Graffy said. “Just hanging out.”
Madison is an ultimate hotbed. Many local high schools have teams that compete in a USA Ultimate sponsored league. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s men’s team is ranked in the top ten nationally and the women’s team is one of the top teams in the region. And the Madison Radicals, a top team in the burgeoning American Ultimate Disc League, consistently draw hundreds of fans to their games at Breese Stevens Field.
Graffy, who plays for the Radicals, said about 150 kids play ultimate at West, which fields two teams of each gender. But the sport doesn’t fit neatly into a large public high school’s extracurricular ecosystem, as the West controversy proves.
Because ultimate isn’t sanctioned by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, it’s not considered a varsity sport and therefore isn’t under the umbrella of the athletic department. The West teams have resisted registering as official school clubs because their unique competition schedules conflict with district policies.
“School-based clubs follow all of our district policies around fundraising, transportation, travel, overnight stays, facility usage,” said Jeremy Schlitz, the Madison Metropolitan School District athletic director. “Because ultimate is governed by a different entity, often their trips don’t match a similar approach. You’ve got homestays and overnights and Sunday activities, those sorts of things.
"Because it’s a little bit different, I believe West elected to stay outside of the school oversight because they felt it was a little more flexible. I know Memorial and East have ultimate teams that are school-sponsored clubs and are expected to follow all those district policies.”
Graffy confirmed that a district policy mandating that clubs must use approved carriers for transportation would be prohibitively expensive for his players. The teams travel to two out-of-state tournaments and reimburse parents for driving instead of contracting with a yellow bus company.
“The ones that go sponsored are like Rocket Club, where they’re going to be attending one thing per season and they can front that money to charter buses and get hotel rooms,” he said. “For us, it would end up costing about $1,000 per kid to do that.”
Those bureaucratic distinctions have influenced the way some school administrators treat the teams. As outside groups, the teams are forced to reserve and pay for gym space like community members and are subject to getting kicked out on short notice by the varsity sports. Resolving that issue has been complicated by inconsistency in West administration.
West principal Karen Boran is in her first year and the school has had several athletic directors over the past few years. Torrance Hill, who took over the post just last summer, resigned this week.
“How we’ve been treated has depended on who’s in charge,” Mundy said. “The flip-flop and inconsistency is what we’ve struggled with. What we want are equitable and consistent policies that support our athletes.”
The removal of trophies, along with cancellation of reserved gym times, pushed players, coaches and parents to speak out about the teams’ treatment by West administration at Monday’s Madison School Board meeting.
Abby Peterson, captain of the West girls’ team, was one of the speakers. She acknowledged that trophies and gym time aren’t as important as the school safety issues discussed by several other speakers.
“I understand there are huge issues going on, but something that’s really positive is ultimate frisbee,” Peterson said. “We want to keep it positive and one way we can do that is to display our trophies.”
SPIRIT OF THE GAME
Peterson, who played competitive volleyball for eight years before taking up ultimate to work on agility and speed in the spring, stressed the sport’s dedication to spirited play and self-officiating as unique and deserving of respect from educators.
“You basically have to work out problems on the field by yourself,” she said. “I’m really competitive, so slowing down and learning the rules and talking about it really drew me towards it more.”
Ericson, a converted baseball player, agreed that the sportsmanship displayed by the athletes sets ultimate apart from other sports he’s played.
“After all these tournaments and games, we get in a big spirit circle,” he said. “Instead of being all bitter at the end of a game like you would after a soccer game, you bring it in and get super positive. I always try to be a good sport and ultimate is the only sport where everyone else tries to do the same thing.”
At the school board meeting, Graffy proposed that he and Mundy be designated as unpaid MMSD employees and be invited to participate in coaches’ meetings at the school.
“Right now, Peter and I are just kind of strangers to West,” Mundy said. “We have to do background checks through USAU, but the school doesn’t really know who we are.”
Schlitz said he’s interested in working with the teams to review district policy on all athletic organizations that don’t fit neatly into the traditional athletic department.
“They’ve engaged with us well and regularly. We have more meetings scheduled in the near future,” he said. “Right now it takes time to make sure we gather all perspectives and it’s not just for ultimate. It’s for any of our clubs. You talk about rugby or table tennis club or equestrian club. A lot of times, those are groups of students who share a high school, but they’re not necessarily school sponsored clubs.”
Policy and distinctions aside, the West players want to be recognized at school like athletes in the mainstream sports are.
“I think the goal of every student athlete is for other people and students to see our success,” Ericson said. “I don’t know why other clubs — science olympiad, forensics, mountain biking club — can have their trophies up and ultimate can’t have ours.”
Meanwhile, both teams are revving up for their spring seasons. They compete in a local league and are planning trips to weekend tournaments.
“We have a tournament in Madison and two in Illinois,” Peterson said. “Our state tournament is our big tournament of the year. We push our hardest at state. That’s Memorial Day weekend. We just want to focus on giving our all and regardless of what the outcome is, working as a team.”