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In the end zone, arms thrown together toward the sky, rising, colliding, then falling—it’s anyone’s guess who will come down with the prize.
Whether it be a scored point as intended or an upsetting interception, these players aim to tear away at the notion that any outcome is predetermined. “It’s a crapshoot,” says player Keenan Laurence. “You see a pile-up coming—and then some dude just decides I’m gonna get that frisbee and jumps over the entire pile.”
The Oakland Spiders are an energetic, professional ultimate frisbee team whose home turfs—the football fields at Oakland Tech and Fremont High—see them heading off against challengers from all across the country.
At a game this past Saturday, General Manager Jackson Stearns roamed the sideline at Oakland Tech wielding a microphone like a determined hype man, while DJMIKE spun classics on a turntable between Stearns and the stands. Stearns paced alongside the field, spitting a mix of wry commentary, heartfelt motivation for the team, and broad-stroke coaching, admittedly careful not to spill too much strategy over the loudspeakers.
“Five! One!” shouted Stearns, before the crowd shouted back, “Oakland!”
The Spiders are playing only their second season in Oakland, but the team has been around a bit longer. It was founded in 2014 under the ownership of Andrew Zil in San Jose, where the Spiders won back-to-back championships in their first two years. In 2019, Zil sold the team to the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) and David McClure, an angel investor in Silicon Valley. While the team itself is not yet a profit-turning venture, it is part of a league that’s growing; the AUDL added three new expansion teams for the 2022 season: the Portland Nitro, Salt Lake Shred, and Colorado Summit.
Stearns said turnout at Spiders games in Oakland has grown in the club’s second year and that the team is now averaging 600 fans per game, about 50% more than last season. Fans can also stream live and archived games on AUDL TV for a monthly fee.
“We’ve kind of tapped into three main buckets,” said Stearns. “FlameThrowers fans, current youth, ultimate players, and friends and family connected to the team through our players.” The San Francisco FlameThrowers were another professional ultimate frisbee team, founded the same year as the Spiders, which has since folded.
The Spiders faced off Saturday at home against the newly formed and undefeated Colorado Summit, which was on its final stop of a West Coast road trip. The Spiders meanwhile were coming off a Friday game against the Salt Lake Shred, the team’s first match of the season in Utah.
While Spiders players do make off with a modest stipend and travel expenses when on the road, they clearly aren’t in it for the money. The Spiders’ main aim is to deliver on their values of “community, grit, and joy,” something their team captain, Keenan Laurence, makes a point to state.
Laurence spoke to The Oaklandside over the phone on Sunday night, after spending his day running to medical appointments after sustaining an injury at the close of the first quarter of the previous night’s game, when he got tangled up in the endzone with fellow Spider, Max Williams.
Ultimate frisbee isn’t a contact sport to the same degree as American football or soccer, although the game does share many of the same mechanics. Two teams of seven players each compete to move the frisbee down the field and into the end zone. You can’t run with the frisbee, and once you catch it you have seven seconds to throw it. While many ultimate frisbee leagues rely on the players to be their own referees, the American Ultimate Disc League uses designated officials.
Unlike other professional sports though, ultimate frisbee uses the “integrity rule.” Meaning that if a foul occurs, such as pass interference, but the referee misses the call, players are expected to take it upon themselves to acknowledge the error and follow through with the consequences, such as turning over the frisbee.
Each touchdown is worth one point and games are often high-scoring; it’s typical for both teams to score over 20 points in a single game, similar to an American football score. Games are 48 minutes long, divided into 12-minute quarters.
The fast pace of ultimate frisbee often serves as a hook for those new to the sport, said Laurence, not to mention the sense of community that the live games foster. “The entertainment, especially at halftime and during the game, is oriented towards kids, which is awesome,” he said.
“But there’s also some truly, truly amazing, breathtaking athletic plays that you don’t really get in any other sport. It’s just the way that the frisbee flies, the amount of time that it hangs in the air really opens itself up as the highlight-making machine.”
At 22 years old, Laurence is the youngest team captain in the AUDL, a position he has held since his rookie season three years ago.
When COVID hit, Laurence’s promising rise through the professional ultimate frisbee league was put on indefinite hold, with no clear sense of when he or how he might get back to his passion. So he took the opportunity to pull anchor and wander the states and Canada, winding up in the Colorado mountains where he got by working odd jobs and occasional sales positions.
Then one day he got a call from Stearns, the Spiders’ general manager, occasional player, and all-around fixer. At the time, the Delta variant was raging and Foothill College, the Spiders’ home in Los Altos, was closed to outside organizations. But the team had made some inroads in Oakland and relocation there seemed possible. “We just were like, fuck it. Let’s run it in Oakland. Let’s make it happen,” said Laurence. By March, he was back on the field throwing the disc, only this time it was 50 miles north in Oakland.
While the move to Oakland was based on necessity, there’s an excitement in the opportunities it has opened up for work off the field. “I think the biggest positive for me is just the energy of the people of Oakland, and the ability to do outreach and do youth programs,” said Chris Lung, a Spider since 2016. Lung, who works by day at a semiconductor lab at UC Berkeley, helped run the open tryouts leading up to the 2022 season.
The Spiders regularly participate in everything from running ultimate frisbee demos during P.E. at schools to showing up and supporting fundraisers for local high school teams or even organizations like the Bay Area Disc Association or Ultimate Impact, nonprofits focused on increasing access to the sport.
Stearns described his general manager role as a “Jackie Moon thing,” a reference to the 2009 Will Ferrell comedy Semi-Pro, in which Moon is not only the owner of a basketball team, but also its manager, spokesperson, and power forward. Like Moon, Stearns wears many hats, all of them emblazoned with “SPIDERS.”
Stearns spoke to The Oaklandside before the game Saturday over speaker-phone while navigating through the streets of Temescal on his way to Oakland Tech, his car full of black and yellow Spiders merch and game-day equipment. He shows up early and stays late for every home game, working to make sure all the parts are moving.
At one point during the pre-game buzz, Stearns ran over to DJMIKE to tell him to skip a song he felt skirted the line of “family-friendly” a little too close. While there were plenty of ultimate frisbee heads and flocks of early-twentysomethings occupying the bleachers, there were also a significant number of families with kids, ranging from swaddled infants resting in the shade of an umbrella, to groups of three or four children running circles around their designated chaperones.
A man named Vlad in blue and yellow tube socks played catch with his son in the “kid zone,” the child mimicking the athletes just yards away, throwing himself towards the frisbee, hugging its presumed path. Vlad, who is originally from Ukraine, has been in Oakland since 1989 and said it was his son’s second Spiders game.
Saturday’s game started off with a tense, point-for-point, back-and-forth between the Spiders and the Summit, which ultimately saw the Summit pull ahead by a handful of points by the end of the first half.
Despite the mid-game slump, the energy in the stands bubbled as families released their kiddos to stride down the bleachers and take the field for halftime. There, Spiders stood evenly spaced as the kids formed single-file lines, each one eager for their chance to run downfield and catch a frisbee thrown by the real deals, while DJMIKE continued to spin Bay and California classics.
The Spiders may be having a difficult season on paper, currently saddled with an 0-5 record, but with the enthusiasm of the fans alone as a gauge, you’d never guess it.
The Spiders’ next home game is Friday, June 17, at Fremont High. Follow the links to purchase tickets and view the 2022 home schedule.