Published Date Written by Tom EastmanFRYEBURG — Chris and Emily Strahler got married in 2008 because they knew they had a lot in common now they have even more in common as they share the success of growing the popularity for the sport of Ultimate at Fryeburg Academy and a recent state championship. Ultimate is a sport played with a flying disc and two teams that try to reach an end zone, similar to American football.
Chris Strahler, 28, a physics teacher at Fryeburg and wife Emily, 26, who works in the admissions office at Fryeburg, started the ultimate team at the academy in 2009. Until that time they had been playing pick-up games with students, but Mike Hagenow, a junior at the time, encouraged them to start a team.
The Strahlers invested themselves in creating a successful club team at Fryeburg Academy so young athletes could enjoy the sport they both played in their college years. The couple both played ultimate in high school and later Chris played the sport at the University of Michigan and Emily at Wellesley.
"When Mike and I talked about starting a school team I couldn't help but be excited," said Chris Strahler, head coach at Fryeburg. "Mike was so into it that Emily and I jumped right in. We needed to dust off our skills a bit, but it was certainly something we felt could grow at the school, we just never knew how big."
In an attempt to draw attention and interest for the sport at Fryeburg, the Strahlers, along with support from Hagenow, spread the word around campus about the sport but had limited success. The first season, the new club team at Fryeburg practiced every day during the spring, but couldn't find a team in the area to play against. With only 14 players and baseball, softball, lacrosse, and a wide range of other sports competing for the most talented athletes, the ultimate team at times barely had enough players to scrimmage against each other.
In 2009, the Sporting Goods Manufacturer's Association called ultimate the fastest growing team sport in America. The spike in popularity was felt the following year at Fryeburg.
During the 2010 season, Chris and Emily worked harder at promoting the sport around campus, educating students about the game and seeking more opportunities for competition. That spring, the two coaches lined up Fryeburg
Academy to participate in the St. Johnsbury Invitational in St. Johnsbury, Vt. The opportunity provided the team with a way to judge their talent level and to gain experience, despite a difficult 15-1 loss to the the hosts, St. Johnsbury. That same year, the Raiders traveled to South Portland and Falmouth to play teams in southern Maine and also competed in the state tournament where they finished sixth.
The spring of 2011 brought a surge in the growth of the ultimate team at Fryeburg. With interest growing among the study body due to the efforts of the Strahlers over the past two years, the team grew to 42 players, so many players that the team had two squads, an A team and a B team.
At the same time, the sport was growing rapidly across the state. Fryeburg became one of 16 teams to compete in the Maine High School Ultimate League (MEHUL), formed in 2009. Teams include students from Fryeburg, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, North Yarmouth Academy, Merriconeag Waldorf School, Cumberland, Freeport, Casco Bay, Islesboro, South Portland, Forest City, AR Gould, Scarborough, Belfast, Yarmouth, Windham and Camden Hills.
Out of 12 teams in the state tournament in 2011, Fryburg Academy finished as the runner up, losing to defending champion Falmouth 15-8 in the finals.
"We had three of our best players missing from the team that day because of graduation ceremonies. While it was a tough defeat, I think that, in a way, it gave our younger players the opportunity to taste success and further fueled their passion to win the title," said Emily Strahler, assistant coach at Fryeburg Academy.
Fryeburg hosts state meet
After losing in 2011, head coach Chris Strahler dedicated his time and efforts in 2012 making sure the team would have a full roster for the state tournament. He worked with the other coaches in the league to find a date that would conflict with as few events as possible. When word spread that Cumberland Fairgrounds, the previous site of the state championships, was occupied on the chosen date, the Strahlers reached out to the Fryeburg community to help host the 2012 state championships.
Emily made a call to Don Thibodeau and asked to use Tib Field, a privately-owned airport with a grass and sod runway of over 2,900 feet, as the tournament site. It is one of the only places in Fryeburg with enough acreage to create the number of fields needed to host the event. Don, a graduate of Fryeburg Academy, was happy to give back to his school and community, and allowed the field to be used at no charge.
"Emily and I worked so hard with the team this year to get them into top form, but with no home games we had never been able to show the community what we are all about. I saw the chance to host the state tournament and I pushed very hard to make it happen," said Chris Strahler. "Since ultimate isn't sanctioned by the Maine Principals Association, we rely on several volunteers to make things happen and this is only one example of how the community supported us."
The state tournament was a 16-team championship bracket. Both Fryeburg Academy and Cape Elizabeth won their first three games to make it to the final. Playing in front of a home crowd of family, friends and many Fryeburg teachers and administrators, Fryeburg prevailed 15-12 to capture their first state championship.
"Our kids were so excited to win that game. They had worked so hard and I think the players and the parents knew the effort Emily and I went through to make sure we had a chance to win the tournament this year, so that made the feeling even more rewarding," said Strahler.
Looking to build
Next year, Chris and Emily Strahler have plans to continue to grow the team at Fryeburg, including efforts to have the sport gain varsity status within the athletic department. They also plan to create a girls team to give the female students of Fryeburg an opportunity to play with others of the same gender. If the team is created, Fryeburg would have the first program in the state to have a girls team and Strahler is hopeful it would spur the growth of ultimate for females across Maine.
Currently, the Maine High School Ultimate League is being sanctioned by USA Ultimate, formerly the Ultimate Players Association (UPA), based in Boulder, Colo. The UPA was founded in 1979 as a player-run, not-for-profit organization that serves as the governing body for the sport of Ultimate in the U.S. USA Ultimate sanctions youth, high school, college and club competition across the country, including sectional, regional and national championships each year. Visit usaultimate.com and maineultimate.com for more information.