Photo by Kevin Leclaire – Ultiphotos.com
A 21-year-old professional athlete with two years of veteran experience, something rarely heard outside of the sport of baseball.
Zach Norrbom began his professional ultimate career in 2013 for the D.C. Breeze. When he was on the field it was primarily on the offensive side of the disc. He saw touches with top guys on the roster of Daniel Selwyn and his current teammate Joe DiPaula. After the games ended on the weekend, Norrbom would return home and have to make sure that he finished his homework before the school week started.
In 2013, Norrbom was still in high school at H.B. Woodlawn Secondary School.
Three years later he is now a junior in college still playing professional ultimate, now as a member of the Washington D.C. Current. This makes Norrbom one of the few athletes able to play professionally and collegiately at the same time.
“Since the creation of the leagues it was my dream to play,” Norrbom said. “Being a pro legitimizes the work I have put in over the years. Since entering college I have been trying my hardest to improve my college team, and playing pro proves to me that I’ve still been getting better even though I have had less time to focus on myself as a player.”
Two weekends ago Norrbom stepped on the ultimate field for the Current who were facing the New York Rumble. Conditions were clear with winds slightly gusting, not the ideal conditions for an ultimate player. Coming onto the field, the jovial Norrbom had his game face on; his checks streaked with eye black.
“Zach has as always been fun, but mature for his age. He has always been really enthusiastic and ready to learn,” Norrbom’s high school and professional coach Will Smolinski said. “Zach sees the field in a very unique way, and he plays best when he is having fun – that hasn’t changed. He has figured that out, but more importantly he has figured out that when he is challenged he has to find a way to make it fun.”
The last time he faced this team, Norrbom had one of his best games in his professional career. In only 11 points played, he recorded three goals, two assists, while going nearly perfect (25/26) on his throws. In relatable sports terms, he played just under a half of soccer completing all but one pass.
The dual college-professional athlete is rarely seen, and particularly not seen in traditional sports due to the NCAA. The association stresses the value of amateurism preventing anyone from playing professionally before and during his or her time at the college level.
Ultimate however, is not regulated by the NCAA. Instead, the national governing body for the sport is USA Ultimate, which is also the organization that regulates the intricate club series and international teams.
Due to the new concept of professional ultimate leagues, there is no system in place that would prevent someone from playing both college and professional at the same time.
In this Saturday matchup, Norrbom saw himself starting as a handler on the Current’s offensive line; a position he has been in for the entire season. He broke out of the gates with a strong start; the first two goals of the game resulted with his name being rung throughout the stadium by the public address announcer. Norrbom was well on his way to having another breakout performance and helped the Current build a four point advantage through the first three quarters.
“On the field I would describe Zach as fiery. He gets very intense very quickly, which used to work against him to a degree, but over the past few years it has developed into a more focused intensity rather than getting in the way of his playing,” professional and college teammate Kyle Khalifa said. “Off the field he’s much less intense. His diet consists mostly of candy and waffles, which seems to only make him a better player somehow.”
During the week, Norrbom is a junior at the University of Mary Washington. For the past three years he has played for their team ‘Mother of George.’ This season, Norrbom has helped carry the team to a berth at the regional championship and is on the verge to competing for a spot at Division III Nationals.
“I have different roles on each team, but I’ve been adjusting well to the Current. The biggest difference is the type of player I match up against. In pro almost every defender is taller than me, but in college I usually have a shorter defender because most teams want somebody quick to guard me,” Norrbom said. “The physical demands are pretty much the same, the running for pro are just condensed into a much shorter period of time.”
College ultimate still runs under a tournament based format, where teams will often play six to ten games on a weekend. The professional game, while longer, is limited to a maximum of two games in a weekend. There is never more than one game in a day.
Against the Rumble, Norrbom played 23 points out of the game’s 40. A typical college game is over in less than 25 points. One each point he was on the line receiving the pull, never stepping on the field for a defensive point.
The score would tighten as the game went on and more pressure was put on Norrbom and the rest of the offensive line. Every time he stepped on the field it became more important for them to score.
Norrbom is used to the pressure; in college his team is heavily reliant on his skills both on and off of the field.
Mary Washington competes at the Division III level of college ultimate so getting students to commit to playing a non-NCAA sport has proven difficult. However, the 21-year-old playing as a professional athlete has definitely brought some light on the program.
“His success in club and [Major League Ultimate], as well as his work ethic, has definitely helped inspire players on the UMW team to strive to become better players and put forth way more effort than players have previously,” Khalifa said. “When Zach joined the team as a freshman, he immediately found himself in an important role. We started inviting him to captains meetings, and since then he has helped shape the team into what it is today.”
This year the team has been named Mary Washington’s Sport Club of the Year.
The Rumble continued to mount a comeback and scored five points when Norrbom’s line received the disc. Meaning that the Current turned over possession five times, all leading to scores for New York.
As the game came to a close, Norrbom looked down at his cleats in defeat. His final stat line: two goals, one assist, a block, and completed 18 of his 19 throws. By any means it was not a bad day on the field, but not enough to help his team thwart New York’s comeback attempt.
However it did not take long for Norrbom to shake off the loss. Moments after the game he was back to his enthusiastic self, chatting with his college teammates who attended the game.
He was already preparing for the next weekend of ultimate. Regionals with his Mary Washington team.