Matt Esser surveyed the field as his team got ready for practice at the Germantown Supersite on a Wednesday night in early August, with a lot on his mind.
He’s the captain of the Philadelphia Phoenix, and the professional ultimate disc team is about to make its second playoff appearance ever, after nine seasons of play in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL).
The last time the Phoenix made the playoffs was 2013, where they lost in the first round to New York City’s Empire. This Saturday, they face off against the DC Breeze on Catholic University’s campus for a wildcard spot. Philly currently has a 6-6 record, placing them third in the AUDL East.
“I’m super excited,” Esser told Billy Penn. He’s the only one of the current squad who was on the Phoenix during the previous playoff run. “Ten years of playing ultimate at the highest level has now led to this peak that we’re going to have next week.”
Being a pro ultimate disc player isn’t a full-time gig for Esser. The 32-year-old is an eighth grade physics teacher at Conrad Weiser Middle School in Robesonia, a quiet Berks County town. Occasionally, his frisbee knowledge comes in handy in the classroom — like when he uses it to teach Newton’s laws of motion. Esser has also hosted ultimate clinics in 30 countries, from France to Kazakhstan, to promote the up-and-coming sport and teach teamwork.
Whether on the field or at the chalkboard, Esser said his students only have one rule: Respect. It’s the same one he preaches as the leader of the Phoenix.
“Everyone’s there to learn,” Esser said. “And when we get out here, everyone on this field is respecting each other.”
Admittedly, the Phoenix had a nail-biting start to the season before rallying to rise in the standings. After dropping their first three games by a combined margin of four points, the team went 6-3 in their final nine matchups to clinch the East Division’s last playoff spot.
“It’s become a very selfless year for everybody,” said 5-year Phoenix veteran Mike Campanella. “I feel like we try to push away the idea of this being a collection of talented individuals. This is actually one massive machine, and we’re all parts.”
That machine is orchestrated by Roger Chu, the team’s first-year head coach, who has implemented a new strategy for the Phoenix. It emphasizes tight defense, along with hucks, aka downfield throws.
“I think we can play really big,” Chu said, bragging that the Phoenix “have some of the scariest receivers on the East coast” and are developing stronger throwing skills.
Things began clicking for the team — are we ready to call them the “Hotbirds“? — when they embarked in May on a 600-mile journey to Canada for a set of grueling back-to-backs against the Montreal Royals and Ottawa Outlaws. AUDL teams typically play within their division once a week during the regular season, which runs from the end of April to July, but exceptions are made when teams travel across the border.
Phoenix players view this trip as the start of their turnaround. Coming in with a 0-3 record, they ended the doubleheader on the up-and-up, winning handily in Montreal and clinching a close victory after starting from behind in Ottawa.
“Many of us are saying ‘Hey, we found our groove. We found our culture,’” Campanella said. “It’s kind of hard not to when you’re crammed into a van and you’re all about three feet away from each other. … It was a great time for the team to solidify a bond, and it clearly showed on the field.”
Looking to watch the Phoenix take on the DC Breeze? The wildcard playoff game will be televised on Fox Sports 2. You can also go in person: the team is selling a roundtrip bus + game seat package for $75 per person. The players are hoping Philadelphians make the trip.
“The intensity of the crowd is the biggest memory. People fired up in the stands,” said Esser, the team captain. “When the pressure is on you, it makes a big difference. It makes it a lot more fun.”