A team huddle during Surge training. The players have bonded and are friends as well as teammates. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

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Unbeknownst to most Philadelphians who don’t regularly throw around a plastic disc, the city now has a women’s professional ultimate team. 

Officially formed in April, the Philadelphia Surge is competing in its first-ever Premier Ultimate League (PUL) season. And they’re not just showing up — the team completed the first half of the season undefeated, and considered a strong contender to make the championship in D.C. this June.

Off the field, the team and its support is striving to be a model for inclusivity, channeling Philly’s close-knit disc community, the league’s founding policies, and the ideals of the sport itself.

‘A big deal to finally have this platform’

The city and the region already had all the ingredients to start a successful women’s ultimate team. The Philadelphia Area Disc Alliance (PADA), a grassroots non-profit, has been offering outreach, coaching, and competition for youth and adult levels since 1985, with leagues across Philadelphia, Delaware, South Jersey, and Chester County.

Recreational teams like the mixed Philadelphia Amp and the gender-agnostic Philadelphia Flight and Zephyr were competing at club level. The Amp had won national championships as recently as 2018 and 2019.

“From basically the grass roots, starting kids in middle school or high school teams, all the way through now to competitive pro teams, there’s opportunities for everybody.” said Jordan Rhyne, a player on the professional Philadelphia Phoenix men’s team. “The community shows up … and stays engaged.”

During a training drill, Surge players Rachel Bova and Zoe Lewis test their skills. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

The Phoenix have been around since 2013, playing in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL). 

Though the AUDL was open to both men and women, there were still issues concerning equal representation and a male dominance of the sport at the professional level. This  led to a boycott going into 2018, calling for “equal representation at the highest, most visible levels of our sport.”

The boycott contributed to the creation of the PUL in 2019. 

A women’s league mainly serving the eastern and central U.S., it’s open to any female, nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, intersex, or transgender person. The PUL started with eight teams and has now expanded to 12, including Philly neighbors the New York Gridlock and the DC Shadow. 

For ultimate enthusiasts like Andrea DeSabato, the Surge’s general manager and a player on the current roster, the PUL was the perfect platform to compete at the highest level, even if it meant the hassle of frequent interstate travel to practice and play.

“It was such a big deal to finally have this platform for women,” DeSabato said.

Surge training gear. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

There was a significant number of Philadelphians playing for those cities over the years, and an interest to start a Philadelphia team bubbling up. But in 2019, DeSabato’s first application was turned down.

Ahead of the 2023 season, she was urged to check back in by Emma Soiles, the new coach of Temple University Women’s B team. They discovered that the Revolution — the league’s only international team, based in Medellín, Colombia — was exiting the league. Philly could be considered as a replacement, if they got an application in by that weekend. 

DeSabato and her group managed to get everything in order to apply in time, making a quick decision to put down “Philadelphia Phorce” as the team name, and the league’s board voted them in. 

Fortunately, they were able to change the name afterwards, and the Surge was born.

Along with Soiles as a cofounder, and the financial backing of Phoenix player Rhyne and now-current Surge player Nikki “Tucker” Ross, DeSabato went through the process of building out the team from the ground up, learning all the logistics of building and running a professional team as they went along. Her day job as a consultant at a startup growth tech firm helped — as did her passion. 

As someone who has played in the PUL for three seasons, and has been a part of the ultimate scene in Philly for over a decade, she was the obvious choice for general manager.

“Dre IS Philly ultimate,” Ross said, using DeSabato’s nickname, adding that she feels good about the return on her investment in the team.

The local ultimate community seems pumped, Soiles said, including the college players at Temple, who were able to attend the home opener.

“Giving the City of Philadelphia the Surge gives people something to aim for,” Soiles said. “I think it brings more competitiveness to the city. I think it’s been a benefit to everyone.”

‘Actually representing this town’

The compensation in professional ultimate is far from blockbuster. The Surge’s roster has grocery store workers, dentists, scientists and even university students taking time away from their full-time jobs and commitments to attend practice and games for a couple hundred bucks, with travel expenses and equipment covered by the team.

Player Lindsay McKenna is the team’s media manager. Player Raha Mozafarri’s practice, Fishtown Dentistry, is one of the jersey sponsors.

“I’m very fortunate to have that opportunity, and it’s for a sport I’ve been playing for pretty much half of my life now,” Mozafarri, who previously played for New York and D.C., said. “To get to be a player and a sponsor just makes me really happy to be able to support the community.”

Surge cofounder and player Soiles, who is trans, appreciates the example the league and sport set when it comes to inclusivity.

“Ultimate has always been about the spirit of the game and respecting your opponents and having a lot of respect for sport in general,” she said. “When the PUL was founded, they wrote inclusivity into their ideals and part of their rules. We are committed to being welcoming to all people, regardless of race, religion, sexuality, gender orientation.”

Player and co-owner Emma Soiles connects with fans after a Surge game. (Courtesy Philadelphia Surge)

The Surge practice twice a week around the city, but mainly at Fairmount Park’s Edgely Field, next to a cricket pitch with its own practice often happening. 

There, it’s drills and scrimmages between the team and members of the practice squad till dark.

Remi and Lemon, dog sisters that belong to Ross and a team captain Natalie Bova, respectively, are regular spectators. Lemon is the better “sideline dog,” Ross admitted about her friend’s pup. “She just chills on the sideline.”

Scrimmage teams are split between “Surge,” a team in light jerseys, and “Durge,” a more defense-focused team in dark colors. 

All the worries about travel logistics, field booking, and merchandise sales seem to melt away for DeSabato, Ross, McKenna, as they cheer, joke, and play a sport they love. 

McKenna, a five-season league veteran, was thankful to finally have a team in her home city. “It’s making me feel like I’m actually representing this town, and it brings a little bit more passion to the sport.”

Remi, one of the team dogs, watches the Surge huddle during training. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

Surging towards a championship weekend

The Surge started off well, defeating the Gridlock 17-13 in the April home opener, the first of six regular season games. The event drew upwards of 800 spectators, with food trucks and kids activities surrounding the main event.

“We made it an actual event that is like, ‘you’re not just coming to watch a frisbee game,’” said DeSabato.“It’s actually like, ‘Look what we did and look what we built.’”

Since then, it’s been nothing but winning, with a 17-7 victory over the Portland Rising, and a 9-4 win against the Raleigh Radiance, leaving Philly with a perfect record.

“I think we keep going into games, maybe feeling like we’re the underdogs a little bit. Feeling like we need to have a lot of focus and execution to win those games. And it’s been going really well.” said head coach Bobby Roos.

The next big test comes in Washington, D.C., facing the also-undefeated Shadow at Catholic University’s Carini Field at 4 p.m. It can be watched on the PUL’s YouTube channel

After that, its two final home games, against Portland Rising on Saturday, May 20 at 4 p.m., and Austin Torch on Sunday, June 4 at 1 p.m. Tickets for the home games can be bought at the Surge’s website.

If all continues to go well, the Surge will be one of the four teams that make the Championship Weekend on June 17 and 18.