Levi Jacobs was just looking for something to do.
Less than three years ago, Jacobs, now an 18-year-old senior but then beginning his sophomore year at Center Grove High School, felt he had too much time on his hands after school each day.
So after being encouraged by some friends, he tried out for the Ultimate (Frisbee) club team at the school. Since then, his interest and ability in the sport have progressed to the point where he is regarded among the nation’s best players, as evidenced by being recently selected to a youth national team that will compete internationally.
In late July, Jacobs will travel to Italy with the USA U19 Ultimate National Team to compete at the World Junior Ultimate Championships, the closest thing the sport has to an Olympics or World Cup for players his age.
However new the sport might be on the local and national radar, Jacobs’ rise to national prominence can still only be seen as remarkable. His high school club coach, Jake Phillips, said the explanation for such a quick and deep level of success begins with Jacobs’ drive, commitment and passion for the game.
“If you look at Levi, he’s not 6-5 tall, like a decent amount of the other guys going to Italy are,” Phillips said. “He’s not some huge natural athlete. He’s just someone who since his sophomore year of high school has been hungry to get better every single day. He’s consistently looked for opportunities to play on teams at the elite level.
“He’s always looking to push himself to the next level. He’s never been content with casual Ultimate. He lifts outside of school, he runs outside of practice, he plays for several teams so he can be working all year at getting as good as he can be.”
To better understand just what Jacobs has accomplished, it is helpful to understand the structure of the sport itself.
Ultimate began in the late 1960s and grew out of the counterculture movement. The term “Ultimate Frisbee” is technically incorrect as “Frisbee” is a specific brand name for a type of flying disc. The sport’s popularity has grown rapidly over 45 years, and its national governing organization claims more than 5 million people play recreationally in the U.S.
Ultimate exists at the high school, club, college, professional and international levels. Jacobs is part of, or about to become part of, all of these. His high school club team at Center Grove, named Holy Mackerel, has won three state championships. The team also will be one of the top seeds at a Midwestern regional event later this month.
Jacobs intends to play next year at IUPUI, where he will study criminal justice. He already plays for the state’s top club team, Indianapolis Brickyard, and was selected to play in the Youth Club Championships with Indiana Inferno, something of a state all-star team.
Having recently turned 18, Jacobs is now eligible to compete for the area’s lone professional Ultimate team, the Indianapolis Alleycats, who compete in the American Ultimate Disc League. He is the youngest player on the pro team’s roster, along with fellow Center Grove student Donovan Triplett.
“I just love the people in this game,” Jacobs said. “It’s my favorite thing about it. I can honestly say I’ve never met a rude person that I’ve played with or against.”
But he does remember the simpler circumstances that saw him start out in the game.
“After my freshman year I didn’t really have anything to do outside of school,” Jacobs said. “A couple of my friends said I should play, so I thought I’d give it a shot, and I ended up loving it. I was terrible when I started out. I never would have thought I’d have some of the opportunities I’m getting now.”
Ultimate is a seven-a-side game played on a field approximately 70 yards long (not including 20 yard-deep end zones) and 40 yards wide. Players attempt to advance the disc by completing passes to teammates (participants do not run with the disc), getting 10 seconds to attempt another pass once one is completed. An incomplete or intercepted pass results in possession changing hands. A score occurs when a pass is completed into the end zone. Teams typically play until one side scores 13 points (one point per score), although sometimes at higher levels a time limit is imposed.
These rules place a premium on fitness, quickness and field awareness, three qualities Phillips said Jacobs possesses in abundance.
“His field awareness is far above most high school players. In Ultimate, you can split up positions in the most simple ways as handlers (throwing specialists) and cutters (receivers),” Phillips said. “Handlers are like the point guards or quarterbacks, and his field awareness to make the highest percentage decision every single time, plus his ability to see the defense, is something that sets him apart.”
Phillips added that Jacobs often completes full matches without being substituted for a breather and has a penchant for the spectacular play, which in Ultimate often means a player making a diving catch.
“Whenever he’s cutting, he has the most impressive ability to lay out I’ve seen from anyone in high school. He’s even better than a lot of people who are older than he is. He just has no fear of sacrificing his body or to go for the diving catch. Whether it’s warmup drills or a championship game, he’s always going 100 percent to get the disc.”
Phillips is a club teammate of Jacobs at Indy Brickyard and helped him apply for the national team tryout process that ended with the 18-year-olds selection to the USA team. Jacobs said players growing familiar with one another is a vital element of success in the sport.
“When team members get together they develop chemistry,” he said. “You learn how other players play. That makes a bigger difference than people realize.”
Jacobs’ professional team, the Alleycats, plays its home games in downtown Indianapolis at Kuntz Stadium. Crowds thus far have topped out at 500-plus, but as participation in the sport continues to increase he expects the following to rise.
The commitment of playing on the pro team fits in with Jacobs’ approach.
“You are required to go to most of the practices,” he said. “You fill out a spreadsheet to say what games you are committed to. You have to fill out workout logs online. I work out nearly every day anyway, and I work on my throwing at least three times a week.
“The older players have accepted me. They joke with me about being the youngest, but I just joke right back with them. I knew most of them through my club team anyway.”