SSG Community lifts Polk County Ultimate athlete to professional ranks
The Sunshine State Games community is known for bringing out the best in its athletes. While the sport of Ultimate is one of the more recent additions to Florida’s Olympic-style Sports Festival, its community assisted in launching the professional career of Winter Haven’s Larz Hanselman.
At the inaugural Sunshine State Games Beach Ultimate Tournament, held in late-September on Clearwater Beach, Hanselman returned to play with a Lakeland-area team to further enhance the sense of community eight years after it got him started.
A group of Lakeland area high school-aged kids often gathered at a field next to a church and played what they considered a pretty good game of Ultimate. This collection of youngsters caught the eye of a former Ultimate player and current Sunshine State Games Table Tennis Director Brad Woodington.
“We had a pickup team of mostly high school kids,” recalls Larz Hanselman. “A guy stopped us and said there were tournaments where we could play.”
Brad Woodington’s chance meeting with what would become the LUFA team (Lakeland Ultimate Frisbee Association), would lead to continued participation in the Sunshine State Games and a spot on the Jacksonville Cannons Professional Ultimate team roster for Hanselman.
“They called themselves a bunch of band geeks,” Woodington said. “They had been coming out once a week and there were juniors and seniors, like Larz, boys and girls and even a couple as young as ninth grade. “
Woodington’s background includes participation and coaching in a variety of sports and couldn’t resist the opportunity to provide assistance to the group gathered in the field next to the church where he was married, two blocks from his Lakeland home.
“Ultimate is a lot like soccer, with a lot of running and being kids they had the wheels,” he says. “They were lacking in disc skills. That’s how I was able to help them. Before long, more kids came out. Moms and Dads were coming out and it became a full-blown shindig.”
Under Woodington’s direction, Larz and the LUFA team made their Sunshine State Games debut in 2007. In one of their first games, it was obvious to the Ultimate Sport Director, Kristin Deffler, experience was a bit lacking compared to other teams with college-aged and adult players.
“When it came time for my team to play LUFA, we quickly realized these kids were green,” said Deffler, a player/coach for Pompeii’s Children at the time. “We knew we could beat them quickly but, instead, asked them if they wanted to play a teaching game.”
Deffler and her experienced bunch of Ultimate players had a normal game but stopped play every time a teaching moment came up. They offered technical pointers about how they were defending and how to improve.
“The kids were super receptive and my team always enjoyed helping new players,” she recalled. “So it was a good match.”
While the wins didn’t amount to much in 2007 for LUFA, the team earned the “Most Ultimate Award,” for their Spirit of the Game and respect for the game and its players, the foundation of the sport of Ultimate.
Hanselman played with LUFA while attending Lakeland Senior High School and continued with the game while attending Florida State on its Men’s Ultimate Frisbee team that competes against the best collegiate teams in the country.
As he progressed through the SSG ranks, Deffler kept in touch with Hanselman and the members of LUFA. Their game improved and Hanselman joined in the fun sliding across the tarp covered in dish soap and water in the Ultimate Layout competition that concludes the weekend of activities. She even invited him to join her team for a tournament.
“When he arrived at the fields and started playing, I quickly saw that he was going to be an ultimate stud,” she said. “He has a lot of natural talent. Best of all, he’s humble. Larz encompasses everything that attracted me to Ultimate. He’s a competitive and talented athlete, fun, funny, and a genuinely nice human being. “
After three years at Florida State, he returned to the Lakeland area and the working world. He had a background as a mechanic and started, “turning wrenches.”
Catching up with Deffler the night before a SSG Ultimate Tournament he was not happy because he was unable to compete. He confided in her he realized life was short and that he needed to find a way to do more of what he loved.
Like many athletes that get their start in the Sunshine State Games, he continued to follow the path that is a starting point for many talented Florida amateur athletes. He had improved to the level where he could play professionally on Florida’s first entry in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), the Jacksonville Cannons.
He attended a two-day combine in Jacksonville early in 2015 to see how he stood up to the best Ultimate players in the country.
“It was just like you see with the NFL combine for players in the draft,” Hanselman said. “They check your measurables like vertical jump, broad jump and running times in the 40. Then we were put through some in-game situations.”
He earned one of the 28 spots on the Cannons roster and practices began in February. A 14-game regular season began in March and ran through August. After a 1-4 start, the team came together to win nine of their last 10 games to qualify for the post-season.
The Cannons suffered a heart-breaking one-point, double overtime, first-round playoff loss to the Raleigh Skyhawks.
“It was a painful ending to the season,” he said.
The Cannons roster features a majority of players from Florida as well as Georgia. The team practiced together in Jacksonville prior to their season opener, but once the season started players went their separate ways until games.
“We were in constant communication during the week and got game films we would all watch and broke down,” Hanselman said. “For home games in Jacksonville we would get together three or four hours before gametime and put our plan together.”
In a professional league of a sport not in the mainstream, Hanselman and the Cannons were not afforded the luxuries of their counterparts playing in the 70,000 seat stadium on the St. John’s River.
To make up for the lack of resources available, the team went back to the foundation of the sport of Ultimate, the values that earned Larz and the rest of the LUFA team, the Most Ultimate Award.
“It’s easy to get caught up in competition,” Deffler says of those Ultimate values. “Some may lose sight of team goals and friendships and walk over people on the quest for success, but not Larz. Despite being a “pro” athlete that many club teams would love to have on their roster, Larz is the same sweet guy I met back when he was in high school and didn’t have much of a clue about ultimate.“
To win nine of their last 10 games, the Cannons relied on those values and heading into the post-season the preview on the AUDL website read, “Jacksonville’s true success has been their team-wide commitment. Tons of credit goes to the Cannons’ lineup and their ability to make plays downfield.”
“It was a great experience because everyone was geared for success,” Hanselman said. “We all wanted to be there playing and knew what we had to do.”
The American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) has been in existence for three years but 2015 was the first year of the South Division that included the Jacksonville Cannons, Raleigh Flyers, Atlanta Hustle, Nashville Nightwatch and Charlotte Express.
Hanselman is back in the Lakeland area working as an auto body technician and hope to own his own auto body business one day. He plans on returning to the league for the 2016 season.
Even at the professional level, the Sunshine State Games community is still watching over Hanselman’s success. The Cannons owner, William Kilgannon has history playing ultimate, from his days at Bentley University in greater Boston, to his current participation in the Jacksonville Ultimate League. He was also a member of a traveling coed team that won SSG gold medals, JacksOnJill.
After advancing through the ranks to the post-season of a professional league, it all goes back to the open field next to the church.
“Brad Woodington is the person who put me on the path to become a professional ultimate player,” Hanselman says.
Woodington and Kristin Deffler are members of the Sunshine State Games community who annually devote their time and effort to amateur sports in the state of Florida.