Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson teaches physics, engineering and math at the high school. She loves the Capital City’s small-town charm and idiosyncrasies.
During the past 15 years, Watson has made numerous contributions to the quirky community. Transforming Ultimate Frisbee from a fringe activity to the mainstream is near the top of that list.
“Every once in awhile some people will make a joke that it’s not a real sport, and I have no idea on what basis they say that,” Watson said. “Anyone who’s seen it, they recognize that it is an incredible amount of running. It takes skill and athleticism and strategy.”
Watson started coaching Ultimate for the Solons in 2005 when she was hired as a teacher. Since then, she’s witnessed a massive transformation, with MHS dropping hockey in 2007 and football in 2012. At the same time, turnout for Ultimate has grown consistently.
“A couple years ago, it was unclear if we would even have a lacrosse or baseball team,” Watson said. “We’re through that time now, but that was a question for awhile. Meanwhile, I’ve got 30 boys playing Ultimate.”
This year, Vermont became the first state in the nation to sanction Ultimate as a varsity sport. There are no referees, so players make their own calls just like during a tennis match. The absence of whistles doesn’t make games any less legitimate, and most doubters are quickly silenced when they see the action in person.
“A couple years ago there was a group of freshmen boys who said Ultimate is not a sport,” Watson said. “They said, ‘We could kick your butts at Ultimate.’ And our varsity boys said, ‘Wait, really?’ And those freshmen boys challenged our team to a scrimmage. They all showed up on a Sunday night, the freshmen took on our varsity team and they were soundly beaten. And I have not heard anyone suggest that Ultimate is not a sport since.”
The Solons had a club team 14 years ago, and a clash of styles between some of the athletes created a rift during practices and games, leading MHS to briefly abandon Ultimate.
“Some people wanted to not wear cleats and they didn’t want to do drills,” Watson said. “But then there were more people who did want to wear cleats and do drills. And I told them, ‘You have to decide what culture you want.’ And for a few years there was no Ultimate team at Montpelier. And then a couple kids who happened to be some great athletes came up to me and asked me to be their coach.
“Josh Crane was a basketball star. There was Carl Vitzthum, who was a football star. And Evan Hollar was a soccer player and was very fast. Aly Johnson-Kurts quit doing track at U-32 to play Ultimate for us, and for some people that was not a popular decision. But she was a rock star.”
The most experienced athletes set the tone for the Solons as a competitive team. But the co-ed squad was also filled with first-time participants who were happy to pitch in at any moment.
“We had people who had been playing a sport their whole lives, combined with people who had never played a sport,” Watson said. “And I thought that was a wonderful, beautiful thing.”
The Solons competed with one squad in 2010. They advanced to the championship with a co-ed squad competing against all-male teams, falling to Hanover, New Hampshire, in the title game.
“Even back in those first years, they were asking, ‘When will Ultimate be a varsity sport?’” Watson said. “Little did I know that it was this very long journey that we would have to go on to get there.”
The Solons progressed from one team that was co-ed to two teams. During tournaments, the top five girls would often compete with the boys in the open division. And there were so many girls on the “B” team that MHS sometimes fielded three teams.
“The girls might lose a game or two, but they said, ‘Well, if we had our five best girls, we would have won,’” Watson said. “So I wanted to legitimize our girls teams, and the year after that we formed a separate girls team.”
In 2013, Watson and a group of other coaches launched the Vermont Youth Ultimate League, which became the governing body for high school clubs. In order to boost participation and attain a higher profile, the VYUL board of directors eventually decided to seek sanctioning through the Vermont Principals’ Association to gain varsity status. The VPA made Ultimate the first exhibition sport in the country four years ago, and now Vermont is the only state with varsity Ultimate.
“The national organization is very interested in us and how things are going,” Watson said. “To go to tournaments it costs a lot of money, so the hope was that if we were a VPA-sanctioned sport, we would not have to have a pay-to-play rule. We’d have transportation and help with scheduling and other things. It’s nice to have that accessibility. If kids were a little poorer, they could still play. And that was a big step for us.”
Watson had some concerns that other schools might not arrange their funding in time to support Ultimate for the spring season, resulting in a possible shortage of teams. But the programs she was worried about are flourishing on the fields after receiving the help they needed.
“There are still some bugs to work out, but none of it is prohibitive and we’re going to keep evolving,” Watson said.
One particular change many coaches are adjusting to is making sure decisions go through the proper channels. Even though it’s a relatively close-knit Ultimate community in a small state, coaches can’t simply schedule games on the fly for a varsity sport.
“The coaches pretty much know each other, so it’s very easy for us to arrange a game, to talk about if they’re going to be late, do you have a JV team?” Watson said. “Now that normally that happens through the athletic director, and not through coaches. So that had been a cultural shift for us to make sure we’re going through the athletic director, even though we all know each other.”
The MHS boys won the 2014 state championship as a club team and finished runner-up in 2016 and 2017. Montpelier’s girls squad is the two-time defending state champion. This year, the MHS boys (3-0) are one of five undefeated programs in a 20-team division. The MHS girls (4-0) lead a pack of eight teams. The first official varsity state tournament will take place soon, with MHS set to host state championships on June 7. The validation has been long-awaited, and for some it’s still surreal.
“Most people I talk to are thrilled that it’s such a strong showing from Montpelier,” Watson said. “We have been a dominant force in youth Ultimate for years now. This past summer there was a spontaneous family pickup, and I didn’t have anything to do with organizing it. It’s exploding at the middle school level and we run Ultimate day camps through the Rec. Department. It seems like it’s happening.”