After 11-Year Run, Hometown Ultimate Coach Hands Over Her Whistle

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After 11 years — and 22 seasons — of introducing hundreds of students to the sport of Ultimate Frisbee, Hometown Coach and founder Sarah McNamara has decided it is time to reclaim her Sundays.

Hometown Ultimate Coach Sarah McNamara receiving a gift from her players.

Hometown Ultimate Coach Sarah McNamara receiving a gift from her players.

This has not been an easy decision, but, “I will be handing the whistle over to a team of very competent people, who will work to ensure that the tradition of Sunday afternoon youth ultimate continues in Maplewood,” McNamara recently told parents in an email. Two current coaches, Lon and Ed Arnold-Berkovits, will take over to run Hometown for the next few fall seasons.

At a farewell party for McNamara on Sunday, the last day of the fall season, hundreds of players, alums, coaches and parents offered heartfelt tributes — in word and even song, to the tune of “Don’t You Forget About Me” — before presenting her with multiple bouquets of flowers, a card signed by program alums, and a gold pendant commemorating her years of work.

[See the teams’ good bye cheer to Sarah at this link: Ultimate Cheer]

A grateful Coach McNamara promised the players and coaches she would never forget about them. Meanwhile, she is looking forward to spending more time with her husband, Brian, and her children, and being able to enjoy outdoor activities (other than Ultimate) on weekends. She still plans to play the Sunday morning adult pick-up group she organizes, and to continue teaching Ultimate to South Orange – Maplewood schoolchildren through the Beyond the Bell program.

McNamara founded Hometown Ultimate, a recreational league open to boys and girls in grades 6-8, in 2005 when her older son wanted to play. Students of all experience levels are encouraged to join. (Learn more here.)

“Sarah, and the Hometown program she created…is largely responsible for introducing the current generation of MAPSO ultimate players to the sport,” said team parent Anne O’Malley. The program has grown tremendously over the years, with five intramural, co-ed teams that scrimmage each other weekly.

Columbia High School is home to three teams: Junior Varsity (JV), Boys Varsity and Sparkle. Many former Hometown’s players now play for CHS, either on the girls’ Sparkle Motion team or on the boys’ team (which is ranked 25th in the nation). McNamara’s son Harry, a CHS junior, is a standout player on the CHS varsity team, and she and Brian volunteer and fundraise to support that team, said O’Malley.

Older Hometown alumni have gone on to play for college teams, including McNamara’s older son Jake, who played Ultimate at Harvard.

“Sarah McNamara is an outstanding coach and leader of the Ultimate Frisbee program for the Recreation Department,” said Keith Knudsen, director of Recreation and Cultural Affairs in Maplewood. “She is one of the most professional and dedicated volunteers that I have worked with, and I am going to really miss her.”

Coach McNamara flanked by other Hometown coaches.

Coach McNamara flanked by other Hometown coaches.

“Maplewood and Columbia HS has a long tradition in ultimate,” said Jeremy Singer, former coach and team parent. “Thanks to Sarah’s tireless commitment she was able to extend the sport and spirit to Middle School kids. She leaves a great legacy, and an enormous crew of players.”

“She was a great ambassador to the sport and introduced it to so many kids who now can’t get enough of it,” said Tristan Yarter, a CHS freshman on the Varsity team (and O’Malley’s son). “She has truly done a great deed for the community and the sport.”

“Sarah has played a huge role in my success in ultimate and all of the life lessons I have learned through it,” said Sklyar Yarter, 12, a Maplewood Middle School 7th grader and Tristan’s sister. “Sarah has proved to be a caring and wise guide that has helped so many of us, allowed Maplewood youth to enter the world of frisbee, and taught us to love ultimate. She has…permanently changed the community for the better.”

“Ultimate is such a terrific sport, and Coach Sarah is the sort of coach you hope your kids get,” said team parent Alix Clyburn. “She sets high expectations for my kid and then gives lots of encouragement and support to make it happen.”

“As a coach of [Westfield Ultimate, which Maplewood sometimes plays against], it has been a privilege to watch Sarah coach and organize the Hometown program,” said Ryan Belline. “Our games will not be the same without her energy and spirit on the sidelines.”

Hometown Ultimate

Hometown Ultimate

Meanwhile, the popularity of Ultimate continues to grow throughout the world. It was  created in 1968 by Columbia High School students Joel Silver, Jonny Hines, and Buzzy Hellring. After CHS defeated Millburn High School 43-10 at the inaugural interscholastic game in 1970, the sport grew exponentially. Eight colleges attended the first tournament hosted by Yale in 1975.

Recently, the World Flying Disc Federation was recognized by the International Olympic committee, meaning that Ultimate, along with other disc sports, will be eligible for Olympic games starting in 2024.

“Ultimate at CHS was great,” recalled Marques Brownlee, a 2011 CHS graduate. “From the first day I started playing to the last tournament of my senior year, I thoroughly enjoyed it … I was drawn to ultimate because of its athletic nature.”

“People seem to underestimate how fun and exciting the sport is … it attracts an exceptionally high level of athlete,” said Luke Ryan, head statistician of Major League Ultimate and former captain of his university’s team and former CHS player. “However, it is also a phenomenally accessible game for people with no knowledge of the sport … [Ultimate] is extremely easy to pick up and fun to play.”

Asked what she most values about Hometown, McNamara ticked off the following: developing youth talent, having mixed-age teams that allow kids to make friends with people they wouldn’t necessarily meet off the field, and that the sport is co-ed — a rarity in team sports in this age range.

She mentioned that many grads have gone on to be very competitive high school and college players, such as head CHS JV coach, Chris Aguero, who started in Hometown, and all five CHS Varsity captains who also played for Hometown (Gabe Fearon, Russell Moy, Alex Rafkin, Anna Winters and Olivia Woodruff).

Seventeen members of the current CHS boys’ Varsity team are Hometown alumni. Many Hometown alumni have played for the NJ/PA youth club team Devyl (Delaware Valley Youth League) which competes at the National Youth Club Championship in Blaine, Minnesota each August. Hometown alumni have been on the rosters of every Devyl team (U19 and U16, both open and girls). Recently, Devyl U16 took 3rd at YCCs in 2013 and 2014 (2014 team was captained by Fearon) and 2nd in 2015 (captained by Harry McNamara).

On a personal level, Hometown has given McNamara the opportunity to work with “amazing and fantastic coaches” from the parent and non-parent volunteers who have made the sport’s growth into an intramural structure possible, to the CHS coaches –Aguero, Gabriella Cincotta (JV), and Ben Haim (Varsity) — who have worked with her to help players find the right transition to more competitive play.

She is also grateful to have worked with the great people in the Maplewood Recreation Department, in particular Knudsen and Chris Marmo.

Finally, it has enabled her to coach over a decade’s worth of middle school students and to get to know their families. “This town is full of wonderful kids and parents and it’s been my honor and pleasure to share my Sundays with them these past 11 years,” McNamara said.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, McNamara missed much of the fall season due to treatment. “Being able to return fully to Hometown in Spring of 2010 was a critical piece of my emotional and physical recovery, hugely helping me return to ‘normal,'” she said.

What does she wish for Hometown’s future?

“Longevity; a never ending supply of coaches and parents who are willing to make it happen. [And] more girls!”

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