For the Los Angeles Astras – Los Angeles County’s first professional women’s ultimate Frisbee team – stepping onto the field at Redondo Union High School for their first home game was surreal.
It was one of the first times women have played ultimate as professional athletes, a goal most have worked toward for years, if not decades.
“Finally seeing it all come together, seeing how excited my teammates were, was just a really cool experience for all of us,” said player Felicia Yang, who is also the commissioner / founder of the nonprofit Western Ultimate League and an owner of the Astras.
One of those teammates, Emily Ash, a Torrance resident and quality engineer at Mattel, said the fact that she’s finally a professional player is hard to comprehend.
“I go out and play every weekend, but to see and play (the game) on a professional level, just gives it this whole other meaning,” Ash said.
And it only made sense, after losing their first two games, that the Astras would win the only home game they’ll play this season, beating the Utah Wild 11-7. And it certainly helped to have about 100 people cheering on the team named after the Spanish word for star.
“Everyone has been eagerly awaiting more opportunities to support the women in our community, and they showed up huge,” Yang said. “Getting that win in front of them was electrifying.”
Ultimate is played on a football-sized field with seven players on each side, three “handlers” and four “cutters.” A game consists of four 12-minute quarters.
A team scores when a handler passes the disc to a cutter over the opposing team’s end zone.
There’s lots of running, but there’s no running with the disc. Once a player catches a pass, she plants a foot and can only pivot, sort of like in basketball.
Astra coach and owner Jessica Creamer, who has played ultimate for 20 years, equated the handlers and cutters with positions in football.
“The handlers are kind of like a set of quarterbacks where they’re the ones that are constantly getting the frisbee back and then moving it up to the cutters,” Creamer said.
For many players on the newly formed pro team, including Yang and Ash, the first time they touched a disc was in college.
However, according to Creamer, the sport is taking on a new life outside of university campuses.
“It [ultimate] has bloomed way beyond college, hippie days, ”Creamer said,“ and having a professional element is definitely part of that. ”
World Flying Disc Federation is even making a push for a version of the sport to be considered at the 2028 Olympics.
After college, if players want to keep competing, most join club teams. And for most, that was it, until the creation of professional ultimate leagues.
Adair Johnson, another Astra owner, said she hopes the professional league helps introduce ultimate to younger generations.
The Torrance resident and environmental scientist said she also hopes the league serves as inspiration.
“I think for all of us here, we all have people we look up to, especially women in sports, and most of those come from other sports,” Johnson said.
Like most, Yang, who now works as a materials engineer, first began playing ultimate in college at the University of Southern California 13 years ago. After graduating, she played and coached ultimate at every level, including recreational, college, club and pro.
Yang ultimately worked with the men’s professional league: American Ultimate Disc League, founded in 2010. There are currently 25 teams in the league, including one in Los Angeles.
Experience with the men’s league made an impact, Yang said.
“And the more I worked with them and the more I played, the more I felt like there was a huge lack of opportunity for women,” Yang said.
There is another women’s league, the Premier Ultimate League, which was founded in 2019 and headquartered in Georgia. Thus, many of the teams are based on the East Coast. PUL’s commissioner, Tim Kepner, said the goal was to eventually merge the two leagues.
Nonetheless, Yang wanted to create a league specifically for the West Coast.
So, she set out to create a showcase series as a proof of concept in 2019. Initially, they hosted just three games with teams in LA, San Diego and Seattle. Yang started talking with club players she knew and soon the news of a possible West Coast women’s league spread.
Those games had such traction that Yang built the WUL, a professional women’s ultimate league, in 2020, and the inaugural season was set to begin.
“We were all ready to go,” Yang said. “Then, COVID happened.”
The pandemic put a two-year hold on that inaugural season.
“And we never stopped planning, we never stopped doing work to make it happen,” Yang said.
Today, in addition to the LA Astras, the WUL consists of six other teams: Arizona, Oregon, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Utah.
To play on the Astras, players attended open tryouts in late January. More than 120 players showed up. Only 30 made the cut.
Ash was one of those 30.
“I just cried tears of joy,” she said upon learning she made the cut. “It’s a really, really big deal,” she added.
Long Beach resident Maggie O’Connor, who works as a firearms instructor for the Coast Guard, agreed. But beyond the excitement, it was the money that made all the difference for her.
When she played club ultimate, O’Connor said, she’d spend about $ 2,500 of her own money each season.
But now, as a professional player, finances are better, she said.
“As a team member, we get travel, we get lodging paid for, we get our uniforms paid for, and we get a little tiny paycheck as well,” O’Connor said.
To cover those costs, the team receives money from sponsors, as well as from ticket and merchandise sales.
The Los Angeles Astras come from all parts of Southern California, some as far as Santa Barbara.
The team has played three games and has three more away games left this season. The top four teams in the league will play during championship weekend in San Diego on May 13-15.
In addition to their big win at home last weekend, the athletes most remember that first game in March in Portland.
When the Astras took the field for the first time as a pro team, coach Creamer said she had to ground herself.
The astrobiologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – who knows a thing or two about other-worldliness – said she was just overwhelmed.
She had to coach herself to come down to Earth.
“I had to be like, ‘No. No, You’re here, be here, experience this and really appreciate how hard you’ve worked, ”Creamer told herself.
“It’s real now.”