With just two games under his belt, Portland High senior Ben Horrisberger isn’t bragging that he’s a pro athlete.
“Not really, I don’t tell people,” he said.
That’s partly because the well-spoken teen knows his sport often flies – floats might be a better description – under the radar.
Horrisberger, 18, is a rookie defensive specialist on the Boston Glory, one of 25 teams in the professional American Ultimate Disc League. He is the youngest of about 40 men listed on the team’s roster, and is one of just four high schoolers playing in the league this season. The AUDL, formed in 2012, has teams based in many of the largest metro areas across North America.
Ultimate is a 7-on-7 field game played with a flying disc – a Frisbee in popular parlance. The object of the game is to pass the disc from player to player until reaching the opposing end zone. Players are not allowed to run after they catch the disc. The game has gained popularity in the past 20 years at the high school, collegiate and club sport levels.
Horrisberger started playing the sport at 12, typically against older players. He played soccer and was a Nordic skier at Portland High and is an avid rock climber. His speed sets him apart on the Ultimate field.
“Ben is an amazing, amazing player,” said teammate Noah Backer, 28, of Cape Elizabeth. “He’s an athletic specimen that’s hard to come by. He’s smart, athletic, seems to feel no pressure and he’s a great kid, too. … There are very, very few 18-year-olds that make the impression he has in club or pro.”
The Glory opened their season April 30 with a 25-24 win on their home field, Hormel Stadium in Medford, Massachusetts, and then went 0-2 on a trip to Canada last weekend, losing at Ottawa, 21-19, on Friday night and at Montreal, 21-17, on Saturday afternoon.
Horrisberger logged considerable action in the first two games. He did not play in the Montreal game because of a shoulder injury, but Glory coach Sam Rosenthal expects him back in the lineup against New York Empire on Saturday.
In his first pro game, Horrisberger was a starter on the defensive line, the 7-player group that takes the field when the opposing team receives the “pull” – Ultimate’s term for a kickoff.
He was on the field for 16 defensive possessions, the sixth most on the team, and played a total of 18 minutes. Backer, who starred at the University of Michigan, had 19 defensive possessions and 20 minutes played. Cole Moore of Cumberland, a University of Maine student and the third player from Maine on the Glory roster, saw limited time in the opener. Moore played more in the two games in Canada, also on the defensive line.
“I had no idea I would be getting that much playing time,” Horrisberger said of the season opener. “It was really something to have my name called out quite a few times in front of such a big crowd. I mean 600 people, that would be nothing at other pro sports but it felt like a lot to me.”
When the starters were introduced, “it was kind of a rush to run out of the tunnel under the bleachers and everyone was like ‘Bos-ton. Bos-ton,’ and all those people are there for you to see you play. The pressure is on to put on a good show.”
“They announced the starters and there he is, Ben Horrisberger. And they said his name right,” said Horrisberger’s mother, Erin Brennan, who was in attendance along with his dad, Michael Horrisberger.
At Ottawa, Horrisberger led the team with 16 defensive possessions and scored his first professional goal. He also made a Twitter-worthy highlight defensive play, knocking down a long fourth-quarter throw with a diving, one-handed deflection.
— Cole Davis-Brand (@_CDB22) May 7, 2022
Rosenthal said the 5-foot-8, 135-pound Horrisberger is one of the smallest players on the team, but his speed and ability to stick to opposing receivers – called “cutters” – in close quarters is already pro caliber.
“He’s just uncommonly fast, even for this level of athlete,” Rosenthal said. “He’s still learning angles and defensive team concepts. He’s eager to learn though. You pretty much just put him on a guy who is going to run and wish the guy on the other team good luck.”
STILL PLAYS IN HIGH SCHOOL LEAGUE
Defensive line players do get involved in the offense if they cause a turnover in the free-flowing game that, at the pro level, is played on an 80-yard field with 20-yard end zones over four 12-minute quarters. Horrisberger said his throws are “for sure the weakest part of my game” and what he focuses on while playing with friends and with Forest City (a combination of Portland, Deering and Casco Bay students) in the local Maine Ultimate high school league, which this year has 24 boys and 13 girls teams.
“What’s nice about still playing for my high school team, I can throw a lot and I can throw very risky throws that I would never throw in these bigger leagues,” Horrisberger said.
Players in the American Ultimate Disc League are paid on a per-game basis. Rosenthal, Horrisberger and Backer were hesitant to peg an exact amount because some players are paid more than others. Rosenthal said players on the Glory earn roughly $75-$125 per game. The team has a 12-game regular-season. Making the all-star team, getting to the playoffs (the Glory missed out last year in its inaugural season) and winning a championship can earn pay incentives.
But all expenses are taken care of by the team, including food, travel costs, and housing on road trips.
“We get our jerseys. I’m getting free clothes, sweatshirt, pants, hat, as well as the travel,” Horrisberger said.
That’s a big difference from the club team structure run by USA Ultimate. The level of play is quite similar between elite clubs and the AUDL, Backer said, but the cost burden is fully on the players. Horrisberger experienced that last summer when he played for the Boston DiG in national tournaments in Colorado and California.
“That was all on myself and my family,” Horrisberger said.
While player salaries are tiny, in other ways the AUDL operates similarly to other professional leagues. It has a Game of the Week contract with Fox Sports 2 each Saturday with a live and tape-delayed broadcast. Boston Glory gets its TV time this Saturday when it hosts the New York Empire. The league has an agreement with DraftKings to allow wagering on games in states with legalized gambling. A litany of statistics are kept, in large part so fans can form their own fantasy Ultimate leagues.
The AUDL also uses referees to call fouls and infractions. That’s drawn ample criticism from Ultimate purists. USA Ultimate emphasizes its “Spirit of the Game” code where players call and enforce rules. Club games are also played on a shorter field and conclude when one team reaches a designated number of scores, usually 15.
HEADING TO THE UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
Earlier this year, Horrisberger was one of 20 players selected from about 200 tryout camp invitees to represent USA Ultimate at the under-20 World Junior Ultimate Championship in Poland this summer. Ten of the 20 World Junior players are in the AUDL, including Horrisberger’s teammate Declan Kervick of Burlington, Vermont, a freshman at the University of Vermont.
The world games are in doubt because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“They told us not to make any plans yet, which is unfortunate. It’s looking like maybe it won’t happen,” Horrisberger said. “I hope we get to go because it’s been kind of like my big goal to make the team and try to win gold for USA because I think everybody who plays a sport kind of idolizes playing for their country.”
This fall, he’ll enroll at the University of Oregon in Eugene and play for its Ultimate club, an established team that is among the best in the Northwest.
Horrisberger still recalls the first time he played Ultimate, as a 12-year-old in 2016.
His sibling, six years older, was playing for the Casco Bay co-ed team one night at Deering High’s Memorial Field. Ben tagged along and met Alex Pozzy, the team’s coach and founder of the Portland Ultimate League in 1993.
“It was under the lights and I just kind of showed up and (Pozzy) gave me a shirt and put me on the field and it was just really fun,” Horrisberger said.
Pozzy delights in retelling the story.
“I’ve been telling it since that day,” said Pozzy, 54. “I coached the Portland middle school team and every year we would run a Friday under the lights with about 150 kids from four or five schools.
“We’re out in a driving rain. Someone came up and said, ‘This is my brother Ben and he’s one of the best soccer players in New England for his age group. Can he play?’” Pozzy continued. “I said, ‘You’re on the team and this is an athlete’s game. Let’s see what you’ve got.’ And immediately he was phenomenal.”
As a seventh-grader, Horrisberger played in a few games for the Forest City high school team. As an eighth-grader he was a full-fledged player.
A year later he was playing for the Portland Red Tide, a midlevel New England adult club team originally formed in 1988.
“When I started playing with them, the next youngest person was like 25,” Horrisberger said. “But really what it did was it got me super involved in the adult scene for the Portland Frisbee community. … They took me under their wing.”
From his Red Tide connections, he got a tryout with the Boston DiG and made the 2021 team as a practice player. Within a few weeks, he was on the field as a regular. Several Boston DiG teammates, including Backer, touted Horrisberger’s skill set to Rosenthal, the Glory coach.
“Where he’s at right now and looking at his hunger to learn, in a couple of years he’ll be a true superstar,” Rosenthal said. “We have a great up-and-coming crop here in Boston and he’s going to be a part of it.”