Chance Encounters with Bob Flaherty: Hurricanes on the rise

Amherst Regional High School freshmen, from left, Geoffrey Fitz-Gibbon, Alex Fitz-Gibbon, Jack Berube, Yatharth Rajakumar, Jude Martin-Weinbaum, Will Arndt and Ashwin Venkataraman all hope to make the school’s Ultimate frisbee team.

Amherst Regional High School freshmen, from left, Geoffrey Fitz-Gibbon, Alex Fitz-Gibbon, Jack Berube, Yatharth Rajakumar, Jude Martin-Weinbaum, Will Arndt and Ashwin Venkataraman all hope to make the school’s Ultimate frisbee team. BOB FLAHERTY

Published: 02-25-2024 2:09 PM

Modified: 02-26-2024 4:19 PM


AMHERST — At first it wasn’t clear what a line of seven teens were doing on the field behind Amherst Regional High School on a cold and sunny afternoon. There was a move, an apparent dance move, that one in a white T-shirt was demonstrating to the others, involving springing upward on left leg and reaching high with right hand. Precision choreography, everyone in sync.

A new boy band? Rehearsing for their first engagement? This could be good.

Hold on. Now they stay in formation during a series of lateral crossovers, crouched, as if defending against imaginary opponents. Hmm, process of elimination leads to ...

Ultimate, of course, or Ultimate Frisbee, a way of life in Amherst, though a frisbee has yet to appear.

“We were all on the middle school travel team last year,” said Alex Fitz-Gibbon, 14. “We’re training for the high school season so we can be in shape by the time we get there.” Out comes the frisbee, complete with middle school team logo. They are now mostly freshmen.

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Tryouts begin in mid-March, a huge deal in these parts. The ARHS team is nationally and internationally renowned.

“The varsity went out to Nationals last year in Salt Lake City,” said Yatharth Rajakumar, 15. “Two people made the national team from Amherst.”

Yes, but what was that dance move a minute ago?

“It’s plyometrics, basically,” laughed Rajakumar. “It’s for springiness and explosiveness. Lot of cutting in and out in Ultimate. This lengthens your tendons.”

The de facto coach in the white T-shirt turns out to be Jude Martin-Weinbaum, 14. “It’s just coz my brother is a senior on varsity. They listen, but I listen to them too,” he smiled.

The call

Many parents of teenagers would swear that the young are immune to the cold, and there’s some evidence here on a 30-degree day. Alex and Jude are both in T-shirts and the rest aren’t far behind.

Getting the dudes together was not unlike the scene from “The Mighty Ducks” where teammates skate through town summoning each other with duck calls. Except here it was a text-to-text operation, “with me screaming BRING A DISC, BRING WATER!” said Rajakumar.

Ashwin Venkataraman almost missed the clarion call. “You pull out your phone at work, you get swarmed by other people,” he explained. “I almost missed the text!”

Alex Fitz-Gibbon’s brother Geoffrey, the only sophomore in the group, pointed to his little bro: “He says he’s going out today. It’s a nice day, I thought I’d join him. It’s a month until tryouts. They lost 14 seniors off varsity — they had a big year — so I think there’ll be a migration. Some of these kids right here might have a shot at varsity.”

Many of these kids arrived at the sport from different directions.

“Everybody around me played it so I felt obliged to try out and get a better understanding of the game,” said Will Arndt. “It’s pretty convenient where we live, everything we need and a lot of fields to play it on.”

“I didn’t know it was a thing until I moved here from Los Angeles,” said the exuberant Rajakumar. “What’s that? Throw a frisbee and you score. What?”

Jack Berube discovered the sport during the pandemic. “My parents said, ‘wanna do Ultimate?’ Everyone was locked down. I’ll try it. At least I’ll get some exercise,” he said.

“Our middle school coach, Jim Pistrang, brings a lot of sixth graders in and you all play and the high school benefits from that,” said Alex Fitz-Gibbon.

The boys talked as one when the subject of coaches came up: “They’re amazing! They nurture you! By the time you get to the high school you’re automatically good!”

Most of these guys play other sports, but Rajakumar is the go-to guy for badminton and trains at a facility in Boston. “Badminton and Ultimate are so similar. When you’re lifting a birdie in a backhand shot, it’s the exact same as throwing an inside-out huck.”

He has yet to succumb to the lure of pickleball. “Absolutely not!” Rajakumar declared. “People don’t realize the benefits of badminton to society — it’s a lot faster and better for aerobic capacity.”

“You’re underrating pickleball,” said Venkataraman, “which does everything you just said.” But this is not an argumentative bunch.

One of the tenets of Ultimate is the “Spirit of the Game,” whereby competitors referee themselves, copping to fouls and such. Does it always work?

“There are some less polite teams, I won’t mention names,” said Martin-Weinbaum.

“Some people spike the disc when they score,” said Rajakumar. “You’re not being respectful and ruining a perfectly beautiful disc besides.”

Does the Spirit of the Game carry over into the hallways of learning? “It’s kind of ingrained in your mind to be nice to people, not something you consciously think about,” said Martin-Weinbaum.

“It’s so different when you play contact sports — wait, I can shove this person,” laughed Rajakumar, who’s built like a wide receiver, one you’d imagine going deep. “People think I’m a deep-deep but I’m actually a handler. There’s our deep-deep,” he said, admiring Venkataraman’s graceful grab in the end zone.

Legend

The columnist has played a game or two of Ultimate in his life but is pretty sure he has never inside-out hucked anything, limited as he is to the backhand he learned when flying discs were known as hippie golf balls.

The forehand is tricky for many of us. Mine looks like I’m flinging a clump of dirt.

“Both are valuable skills to have,” said Alex Fitz-Gibbon, “especially if a defender takes away one, you can go with the other.”

The columnist is reminded of the tenacious D he once played against his own wife during a Thanksgiving game, taking away both her backhand and forehand. So she opted for up-the-middle and — POW — gave her husband a black eye the envy of every badass in town.

When the legendary Tiina [sic] Booth’s name came up, all seven roared a reverent “YEAH!” for the Hall of Famer who pioneered youth Ultimate and coached the boys at Amherst Regional to three national championships before coaching at UMass.

When the columnist told the teens that he produced a radio doc on Booth and her players before any of them had even been born, his status, you could see, rose exponentially from the be-whiskered coot who stumbled upon their practice only moments before.

Realizing they only had 15 minutes left, a scrimmage was quickly pulled together. “OK,” said Rajakumar, “it’s gonna be me, Geoff and Jack against Ashiin, Alex and Will. OK get on your lines. Jude, sub in whenever you get your cleats on.” (Inside joke)

Moments later: “DIVE!” cried several players to Jude Martin-Weinbaum, who’s known for his prowess at laying out horizontally to make game-winning circus catches. “He can dive out of nowhere,” said Venkataraman.

Isn’t the ground a bit hard for such heroics? “It’s not too bad,” grinned Rajakumar with a test-stomp.

Alex Fitz-Gibbon finally admits that his hands are cold and tucks them inside his T-shirt like kids have been doing since cold weather was invented. He was still running well, though, and his defense was remarkably tight.

Bob Flaherty, a longtime author, radio personality and former Gazette writer and columnist, writes a monthly column called “Chance Encounters” in which he writes about our neighbors going about their daily lives.