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Adjusting, improving: Buffalo Hunters look to rebound from early struggles

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Disregard the Buffalo Hunters’ 0-4 record for a second. The expansion side has survived a road-heavy start to the American Ultimate Disc League’s inaugural season—and despite the win-less record—draws its first home contest against Rhode Island, a beatable opponent, at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Orchard Park Sports Complex.

“In the first game against Rhode Island, we were up a number of times but kept letting them back in,” Donnellan said of the 20-19 nail-biting road loss two weeks ago. “We also suffered an injury to a key player before [Rhode Island] scored the final point.”

For a fledgling organization guided by owner Lee Semrau and head coach Sean Donnellan, four road games in Philadelphia, Detroit, Rhode Island and Connecticut have put the Hunters behind the eight-ball financially. Since team revenue is generated through home contests—season tickets run for only $30, while single game tickets are $6—the Hunters had to pay out of pocket for jerseys, discs, field space for practice, gasoline and more.

“It’s pretty scary,” Semrau said of his first time as a professional owner, a dream that turned to reality when he saw an ad for the Hunters’ position on Craigslist. “I’m not really a local businessman or entrepreneur, but [buying the team] was very inexpensive.” Semrau works two jobs, one for NFTA’s Metro Bus and another as a courier.

Still, the Hunters conserved money and traveled smartly. “It reminded me of old baseball movies,” the player/coach Donnellan said. “The team travels in three or four vans, then finds somewhere to stay after the game. In Connecticut, for instance, I stayed with my aunt and uncle who were willing to house a few players for the night. It was more enjoyable than staying in a hotel.” 

Rough start

On the field, scheduling conflicts with college ultimate’s sectional and regional tournaments prevented the Hunters’ 10 college players from playing in the team’s first two games. Only 14 players traveled with Donnellan and Semrau for the season’s first two games, a number that, given the pace of AUDL game-play, wasn’t sustainable.

“The [AUDL] game is simply too hectic for 14 players,” Semrau said. “We were gassed by the beginning by the fourth quarter in the first two games. For a group of players accustomed to playing six or seven games in a day [at the college level], they’ve said that this is the most intense game they’ve ever played.”

Broken up into 12-minute quarters, the 7-vs.-7 action is particularly taxing because of field size and league rules that affect the speed of game-play. While it’s smaller than a FIFA regulation soccer field (110’ x 70’)—the AUDL field dimensions are 80’ long by 53.5’ wide—the increased width, at least compared to college play, has been a significant challenge for the Hunters, admits Donnellan. Plus, there are only 40-60 seconds between a point scored and the next pull (a throw-off that mimics the NFL’s kickoff), forcing both teams to sprint into position, determine a lineup and formulate a strategy for that offensive or defensive series. It’s frantic.

“The game is spread out and really favors the offense,” Donnellan said. “We’ve seen a lot of high-scoring games. 58 points [in a game] isn’t unheard of.”

“The AUDL is a timed game, much different than college ultimate, which awards the team that can reach a certain number of points quickest. It’s usually first to 13 or 15, win by two [in college],” Donnellan added. 

Credit the American Ultimate Disc League and president/founder Josh Moore for creating an entertaining brand of ultimate, a necessity considering the sport’s still relative obscurity in many cities with teams.

Hunter’s Hope

How did the Hunters earn their nickname? Semrau, inspired by the story of Hunter Kelly, had already donated regularly to the cause before buying the team. When he approached Hunter’s Hope Foundation about naming his Buffalo ultimate team after the charitable organization, they obliged—Jill Kelly was particularly supportive of the endeavor.

Semrau, his son and law, Donnellan and team videographer Will Phillips all attended Hunter’s Day for Kids at the Ralph Wilson Fieldhouse in February, and Donnellan in particular was struck by Jill Kelly’s story.

“I love what the organization is about, and I’m moved by having this team named after her son,” he said.

Semrau hopes to have Jim Kelly throw out the first disc at a Hunters home game this summer. Ten percent of the revenue from every game will benefit Hunter’s Hope Foundation, while the team will also choose one home game to donate 50%.

Field Location:

Because the Hunters had difficulty coming to terms with UB’s Walter Kunz Stadium as a reliable home field, Semrau finally decided just three weeks ago to move to the Orchard Park Sports Complex. The late decision certainly hurt publicity and awareness, but the team’s leaders sound pleased with the final result.

“It’s a really nice high school facility,” Donnellan remarked. “We practiced a few times there [before we decided it would be our home field,] and Orchard Park has hosted the Western New York Flash in the past, so the high school is still looking to identify with the community.”

The Hunters’ website asks fans to park in the Orchard Park High School lot, 4040 Baker Road and walk to the nearby fields. The small parking space next to the complex has been reserved for wheelchair and handicapped parking only.

Youth Ultimate

The Hunters have larger community goals than simply competing in the 16-game season. Donnellan, former head coach of the All-Rochester Ultimate Club Team, has set a goal of establishing an eight-team high school league in Buffalo by next spring to balance Rochester’s 20 high school teams. While there are small pockets of pick-up ultimate activity in the Queen City, absolutely none of it is organized.

Donnellan spent Tuesday and Wednesday of last week at Orchard Park High School, teaching the sport to the Quakers’ physical education classes. The students all receive free admission to Sunday’s game, and there’s a clinic from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. where the Hunters will teach the basics to any fan interested in learning. 

Prevailing optimism

While you could dwell on the 0-4 record and the home field squabble, there’s plenty of optimism in the Hunters organization.

“I didn’t think a pro ultimate league would happen for another 25 years,” Donnellan admitted, grateful that there’s an opportunity to play and coach beyond college at a high level.

“I’m awestruck by the players’ athleticism,” Semrau added. “There’s so much dedication despite [earning] next to nothing; they risk their body on the artificial turf.”

For more information, head to the Buffalo Hunters’ site—especially for Phillips’ highlight clips—and club’s Facebook page.

(Header photo courtesy of Will Phillips, the Hunters’ videographer).

TAGGED: american ultimate disc league, audl, hunter's hope foundation, hunters, lee semrau, orchard park sports complex, sean donnellan, ultimate frisbee buffalo, will phillips

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