WASHINGTON — As baseball nears its pennant race and football gears up to kick off another season, one of D.C.’s fledgling professional sports teams hosts a playoff game for the second straight year, in search of a championship and another milestone in the sport’s continued growth.
The D.C. Breeze, one of 24 teams in the American Ultimate Disc League, will host the Montreal Royal at Gallaudet University Friday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the playoffs. After compiling a second straight 10-4 regular season campaign, the Breeze are hoping to advance to the AUDL Final Four for the first time.
A good playoff result would mirror what the local youth league accomplished this past weekend at the USA Ultimate Youth Club Championships. The Washington Area Frisbee Club saw its U17 boys team Capitol Heights finish third in a 20-team field, while the U20 girls team D.C. Rogue knocked off each of the top two seeds before falling in the final.
It was the first year that Dave Ohls, also coach at Wilson High School, had brought a U17 boys team, so his expectations were tempered. Coming in as the #9 seed, he thought the team might be able to finish somewhere between fifth and eighth.
“Even to expect that was, I think, more than probably anyone outside the program expected from us,” he told WTOP.
Jenny Fey, who coached the U20 girls, has been involved in the local Ultimate scene since its infancy and has played on the D.C. Scandal women’s club team for years. For Fey — who started playing in 2001, when there was a single team in Arlington of about 25, including a few girls — the results were something of a revelation.
“I have seen the numbers rise steadily, but I sort of just realized that D.C. has become one of the hotbeds of youth Ultimate in the country and that gives me a little rush of joy and a lot of pride,” she said.
That infusion of D.C. pride is felt more heavily on the Breeze as well this year. After finding success on the backs of talent imported from around the wider region, the team rebuilt after personnel losses in the offseason by forging a relationship with Truckstop, the local men’s club team. More than 20 of the Breeze players also play for Truckstop, meaning not only do they have a great rapport with one another on the field, they’re also all local.
“We don’t have any superstars,” said Don Grage, Breeze co-owner. “We have a combination of veteran and young talent that are all D.C.-area based that are all phenomenal and all contributing.”
It all points to good things for Grage, who is thrilled to see the next wave of talent coming up in the area. He already has a number of college or post-college players on the roster playing key roles for this year’s club.
“I’m super, super excited about it,” he said. “In some ways, it’s not surprising, because the progression around here ever since I got involved at the end of 2013, it’s all just an arrow pointing up.”
But Ultimate is still fighting for a spot alongside other varsity sports at the high school level. Wilson has had some sort of Ultimate team off and on since the late ’70s, but it was re-founded in earnest five years ago. Now, the club team has 25-30 boys and 10-15 girls, an impressive growth since its humble beginnings.
“We’ve built that up from basically two guys who wanted to play Frisbee and there wasn’t a Frisbee team, so they started one and got a couple of their friends to play,” said Ohls.
While Ohls has won three straight D.C. titles, that’s not his goal. He’s hoping to spread the word outside of the hotbeds of Northwest D.C., Northern Virginia and Montgomery County.
“The other area that we’re really trying hard on is getting it spread into more communities,” he said. “The background of Frisbee is a relatively affluent socioeconomic background … But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Ultimate has one of the lowest cost barriers of any sport, requiring nothing more than a Frisbee, a pair of shoes and a field. The amateur level is self-officiated, so there isn’t even a cost for referees.
While there are roughly 25 high school club teams in the area, there are fewer than 10 in D.C. and only two in the DCPS system — at Wilson and School Without Walls. Ohls hopes that as Ultimate picks up more along the middle school level, it will become an official DCPS varsity sport in the next five or six years.
“It’s a sport that’s right on the verge of becoming a major sport at lots and lots of area schools,” he said.
Fey agrees that the strength of the high school programs and beyond will hinge on what happens in middle schools and says it’s crucial to have more coaches who know the game get involved.
“I think the middle school programs, which have already really exploded in the area, are going to be key in the future,” she said.
That’s especially true for girls, as the participation numbers lag behind the boys a bit at the high school level. It’s a challenge Fey is all too familiar with.
“I think we are getting closer, certainly, but we have a lot of work to do,” said Fey. “The second class status of girls’ and women’s sports creates an endless cycle of reduced respect and lower numbers of participants.”
Expanding the girls team at Wilson is one of the main focuses for Ohls this year as well. If the sport keeps growing at the rate it has the last five years, who knows — there may be a professional women’s team hosting a playoff game in Washington five years from now.