Arizona Sidewinders bring ultimate frisbee, community to the Valley

(Video by Jaxson Webster/Cronkite News)

MESA – There are no shortages of snake-related team names in Arizona. There are the Diamondbacks, the Rattlers and … the Sidewinders?

The Arizona Sidewinders are the first professional Ultimate team in Arizona and one of eight professional women’s and non-binary Ultimate teams across the West Coast. Part of the Western Ultimate League, Arizona is joined by teams from Washington (Seattle), Oregon (Portland), Utah, Colorado and California (San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego).

Ultimate – a sport originally known as ultimate frisbee – is more popular on the East Coast. The Premier Ultimate League was founded in 2019, and Sidewinders founder Helen Eifert wanted to bring a professional league west.

“I met a bunch of women in the state playing Ultimate at pickups and leagues and things like that,” Eifert said. “They were all really, really good and they weren’t playing together and I really wanted to get all the women to play together on one team.”

Eifert sent out a survey, gathered a bunch of players and, after polling other teams from around the West Coast, the WUL was created. In their first season, the Sidewinders finished third overall in the league. This season they are 3-4 with one game remaining on their schedule Saturday in San Francisco. A win against the Falcons would lock the Sidewinders into a playoff spot.

“It’s super fun. We hop on a plane in our kits and show up and play a game. It’s a really great community so we typically hang out with the other team afterwards and fly home the next day,” Eifert said of playing in the WUL, which intermixes traditional home games with events that last the weekend.

Delayed by COVID-19, the WUL began play in 2022. The Sidewinders hosted the league’s opening weekend at Mountain View High School, where Lindsey Doyle, one of the players, also coaches pole vaulting and facilitated a good deal for use of the field. The Sidewinders also coach an Ultimate team at the high school.

“The first game was electric, it was amazing to see a product that took three years in the making finally come together,” Eifert said. “It was right here in March we had the opening weekend for the entire league. We saw the Utah Wild and had a huge win.”

But how is Ultimate played?

A mix between football and handball, Ultimate is a fast-moving, non-contact sport in which competitors fling a flying disc frisbee. It features seven on seven, 12-minute quarters and the games start with a pull, a version of a kickoff. One team starts by throwing the frisbee to the other. After the receiving team gets the frisbee, they try to move down the field, but the person with the frisbee can not move. They have 10 seconds to pass it to another member of the team or else it’s a stall.

The receiving or offensive team tries to hold, which means they score on that possession. The defensive team tries to break, either knocking the frisbee down or intercepting it to gain possession, then scoring to complete the break. Goals are scored by essentially scoring a touchdown, though they are only worth one point. The frisbee floats in the air longer than a football, creating long gaps of gasps and diving plays.

Ultimate is also self-officiated, although there are observers who settle arguments and keep the game moving.

The Sidewinders are led by the strong play of Chip Chang, who has 21 assists, and Megan Maxfield, who has 15 goals. Eifert has nine blocks, and Carley Garrett has 13 goals, six assists, and eight blocks.

Garrett is one of the players on the Sidewinders who isn’t even from Arizona. Her job in Austin, Texas allows her the flexibility to be a professional Ultimate player and work remotely during her time in Arizona.

“I actually live in Austin and then for practices and games I fly out, I stay with people. Whoever will take me for the 10 days that I’m here,” Garrett said.

The WUL season is only eight games, beginning in March and wrapping up with a championship weekend in June. This year’s title game will be held in Seattle. Arizona doesn’t have any home games remaining, but all of their games are streamed on the Western Ultimate League YouTube channel.

The Sidewinder’s mission is to grow the sport, create leadership and bolster volunteer opportunities throughout Valley communities. Those who had the vision to build a new sport and a new league remain hopeful that the game of Ultimate continues to draw athletes and fans in the future.

“It’s a huge opportunity (for fans) to come support a growing sport that does a lot for growing the sport as a whole in the world and providing a platform for women and nonbinary athletes across the country,” said Sidewinder Kaetlynn Daoust.

Jaxson Webster JAK-sin WEB-ster (he/him)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Jaxson Webster expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Webster, who is assigned to Cronkite Sports this semester, has also worked with Arizona State University Athletics and the Arizona Coyotes.