Priory has an Ultimate team. And it’s a state champion.
The Priory Rebels defeated defending champion De Smet 13-10. The Spartans had won last 11 state titles, including a 2018 victory in the finals over the Rebels.
Ultimate is a non-contact team sport played with a flying disc or frisbee. Ultimate was developed in 1968 by a group of students at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Priory coach Tim Malecek served as the assistant coach last year and became the head coach starting this year.
“I’m excited for Priory because it’s generated some enthusiasm among the student body,” Malecek said. “I’m excited for the team, and especially the seniors. I couldn’t have done this without their commitment through the past few years, even before I arrived at Priory. I’m happy that I could help deliver something that I know they wanted to win.
“The game itself was a whirlwind. We had both sidelines crowded with fans and parents from Priory and De Smet as well as all the other players from the teams whose games were already finished.”
Priory’s first team started play in 2006. The Rebels have a varsity team.
“I would like to have a JV team and there’s a possibility that we might have one in the future, but because we’re a small school, it’s been difficult to recruit enough players,” Malecek said. “This year, we had 27 total players. That’s more than almost all other ultimate teams in the area, but I wanted to give freshman and sophomores an opportunity to learn the game.
“They didn’t get much playing time this year, but as they grow into the game and the older players graduate, they will have the talent needed.”
Last spring, Priory reached the state finals but lost 13-6 to De Smet. The Rebels graduated many seniors from that team.
Malecek was optimistic about his team this season.
“We had a strong group of juniors who were returning (from last season) as well as some talented underclassmen,” Malecek said. “I expected us to be able to reach the state finals again, but I had some doubts about our ability to match up with De Smet in the finals.
“As the season progressed, however, we had some standout new players notably senior Kevin Flores and freshman Drew Steinhubl, who made some major contributions to improve our team.”
There are really only two positions in Ultimate – handlers and cutters. Handlers are the ones who stay back near the disc and are used to recycle possession. There are usually three of them on the field at a time. They are generally the ones with the best throws and catches. There are usually four cutters on the field at a time. They are usually 10 to 20 yards upfield from the handlers and their job is to make sprints to get open for the handlers to throw to them. Generally, they are taller or more athletic.
The Rebels had 11 seniors this season. Three of them were new to the sport. There also were four juniors, six sophomores and six freshmen.
Priory plays on a field that is almost exactly the size of soccer field cut in half longwise.
“We are blessed to play on the varsity soccer field and the adjacent practice field here at Priory since they are not in use for soccer in the spring,” Malecek said. “I can say without a doubt that we have the nicest ultimate field in the area.”
Many schools play the sport. There are currently 24 total teams in the area for boys and girls. There are 18 boys teams. Those numbers also include any JV teams.
The teams are all in the same league — St. Louis Ultimate Juniors or SLUJ. However, teams are tiered within the league to create more equal competition during the regular season. There were three different tiers — Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3.
This season, De Smet, Ladue, Chaminade, and Priory were Tier 1 teams. All of these teams played each other and then some Tier 2 teams. Tier 2 teams played mostly Tier 2 teams and a couple games against a Tier 1 opponent or a Tier 3 opponent.
Priory finished the regular season 7-1. The loss was the final game of the regular season against De Smet by a 13-10 margin.
“We had some games in the regular season where the players weren’t as focused or intense as I would have liked them to be, but they picked it up for the state tournament,” Malecek said.
There were 16 teams in the state championship tournament. Most ultimate tournaments take place over the weekends to allow teams to travel to events. Because of this, teams will play as many as seven or eight games in one weekend.
So, unlike other sports, the state championship was played entirely in one weekend. It requires a lot of endurance for all of the players.
Priory was seeded No. 1 going into the state tournament. There were three teams — Priory, De Smet, and Ladue — that finished the season 7-1. Priory was seeded one followed by De Smet and Ladue.
Ultimate tournaments are typically pool play on Saturday. The benefit of earning the No. 1 seed going into the tournament is that a team is able to play teams that are seeded below.
“We were able to win our pool on Saturday without too much challenge,” Malecek said. “Luckily, this also meant that our top players were well rested for Sunday.”
On the second day, the tournament moved to a single elimination bracket. Because Priory finished first in our pool, the Rebels had a bye to start the bracket.
In the first elimination game, Priory played De Smet JV. The Rebels scored a 13-4 victory.
“Even though they are technically a JV team, they are a solid team in the region,” Malecek said. “They ended up finishing the tournament in sixth place. They were a very organized and well coached team, but we were able to capitalize on the drops and turnovers that typically occur with young players.”
In the second game , Priory played Vianney. The Rebels won 13-9.
“I have to give them a lot of credit. They had some phenomenal athletes with some fantastic throws that really challenged our defense,” Malecek said. “We hadn’t played them in the regular season, but they were clearly a deserving team to play in the semifinals. We were neck and neck through halftime but we pulled away towards the end.”
That set up the rematch from the 2018 final against De Smet.
The Rebels were excited to be playing De Smet for the title, Malecek said.
“There’s definitely a bit of a rivalry between the two schools, especially since we met in the finals last year,” Malecek said. “Quite frankly, everyone in the area is excited to play against De Smet. They’ve earned that respect for having a great program year after year. They’re kinda like the Alabama or Clemson in college football.
“One of the unique things about Ultimate is that most of the veteran players know each other from playing with one another in the summer. They all talk about the big matchups well ahead of time. They’re excited to challenge each other.”
De Smet has to experience a tough semifinal game before playing Priory.
“We were extremely fortunate that their semifinal matchup was against Ladue. That game was very competitive,” Malecek said. “Ladue was winning by a few points before De Smet was able to come back and win (13-12) on the last point of the game. That meant that De Smet’s top players were fatigued and had to play us immediately afterwards.”
Malecek stressed several things to his team before the match.
“We talked about sticking to our game plan. We knew that we would need to match their athleticism and play smart on offense,” Malecek said. “We walked through the types of defenses that we hoped to throw against them to catch them off-guard.”
De Smet took the lead at 2-0. After trading a couple points, the Rebels were able to rattle off five points in a row to take a lead at half. After half, De Smet kept it close, but could never narrow the gap and Priory went on to win 13-10.
“The assistant coach, Matt Hietter, and I have tried to instill the mantra of ‘Boring is scoring.’ In other words, if you make smart decisions and throws with the disc, you won’t turn it over, and you’ll end up scoring,” Malecek said. “I was really proud of how the guys played in the final. They kept their composure even after falling down 2-0. I have to credit my senior captains – Stephen Rashford, Matthew Capps, and Patrick LaVallee – for keeping the team focused and encouraged after the tough start. Once the momentum swung to our favor, we kept pushing to get those five points in a row in the first half.”
When it was over, there was a joyous reaction by the Rebels.
“They were ecstatic,” Malecek said. “They stormed the field after the winning score, which was a nice connection between our two senior captains – Rashford to LaVallee.”
To stop De Smet from winning its 12th state title is a big accomplishment.
“De Smet has a great program, and they deserve tons of credit,” Malecek said. “Pete Lenzini is their head coach, and he’s been there for over a decade now. With that continuity, he’s been able to slowly build the program up over the years and generate excitement at the school.
“They’ve been able to repeat their success so many years in a row because they commit to developing their players as freshmen and sophomores.”
Several Rebels stood out for Priory in the postseason, Malecek said.
LaVallee plays both cutter and handler.
“Patrick is one of the best Ultimate players in St. Louis,” Malecek said. “He is a gifted athlete who has been playing ultimate for years. We had an injury to one of our starting seniors, and it forced Patrick to play both handler and cutter depending on the point. Whenever we needed a big play, Patrick seemed to be there.”
Senior handler Carl Azrak handler and freshman cutter Drew Steinhubl also played well, Malecek said.
“Carl played every single point in the state final. He has great endurance and is extremely confident with the disc in his hands,” Malecek said. “He never got flustered under pressure and kept our offense flowing.
“Drew started playing Ultimate in February, and he was the only freshman to earn significant playing time during the state final.
It’s extremely rare for freshmen to pick up the game so quickly, but he’s a very athletic young man who has a good intuition for the game and great hands.”
Malecek said he and Hietter were happy with how the Rebels performed.
“We asked a lot of them this year. We practiced every day after school starting in February,” Malecek said. “During those first couple weeks, we had 27 guys running sprints and doing core exercises on one racquetball court. One early spring day, we were the only practicing outside in the rain and wind.
“When we got to the nice weather, the boys ran hills almost every day. The coaches pushed them a lot, but they were committed to improving. That’s a testament to the senior leadership on this team. They understood that it took hard work to get better. In particular, I want to mention our captain Matthew Capps who was inevitably the first one to get on the line ready to start the next sprint without ever complaining.”
The program loses 11 seniors due to graduation. Three regular starters will be back next year.
“We’re losing some major talent this year, but there are some guys who should be ready to fill in the holes,” Malecek said. “The underclassmen are really committed to the program and improving their own games. As a long term goal, we’re looking at ways to get our underclassmen more experience so they’re ready to step up just like the JV programs at other schools. But, we’re limited by our number of players and coaches.
“I think that we’re a top contender next year again, but I’m sure there will be more targets on our back. The competition in the league continues to improve from top to bottom.”
Malecek added a shout out to Heitter.
“Matt volunteers with us, and he’s out there every day,” Malecek said. “He’s actually been with the program for about a decade now and is probably the key to their continuity. The other coaches have come and gone in the past few years, but Matt has always been a willing and generous volunteer.”