Have you ever played a game of ultimate where none of your team is on the same page? It can be frustrating trying to advance the disc when each player has their own plan and assumes the rest of the team knows what that plan is. For the longest time I didn't know there was a better way and assumed higher level players must have to memorize dozens of complicated plays.
I started the Ultimate Frisbee club at my high school a little over four years ago. Despite our lack of experience, the club was very popular so we assumed we must have known what we were doing. It wasn’t until joining my college’s team that I realized how little I actually knew about the strategy of ultimate and the importance of having offensive formations.
I wish that I had taught my high school club how to run an organized offense which is why I wrote this guide. If you’ve recently discovered ultimate or have never used an organized offense, then I can guarantee you that you and your team will benefit from reading this guide on the vertical stack. It’s the most basic form of offense in ultimate and usually the first formation that competitive players will learn. If you’re ready to take your game to the next level, then read on!
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Step 1: Learn the Positions
There are only two different positions in the vertical stack so make sure you know the difference and which one you’re better suited for. It’s also important to know which position you will be playing before you go on the field.
There are usually five cutters on the field when running a vertical stack. New players usually start out as cutters and work their way up to handling. If you’ve never used the vertical stack before, then this is a great place to start. As the name suggests, cutters will be doing a lot of cuts towards the disc and towards the end zone.
Qualities of a good cutter:
- Good at catching
- Smart cuts
There are usually two handlers on the field when running a vertical stack. More experienced players tend to handle. Handlers are responsible for most of the long passes and often don’t have to move around as much as cutters.
Qualities of a good handler:
- Long, accurate throws
- Good under pressure
- Good at communicating with teammates
Step 2: Learn the Formation
The figure above shows the basic formation of the vertical stack with the force being "home". We know that the force is home because the marker is defending the "away" side of the field. The vertical stack can also work if the force is away but the offense will not set up any differently. Additionally, take note that the white circles represent the offense, the blue triangles represent the defense and the circle with the red outline shows the player with the disc.
If you look at the figure above again, you'll notice that there are five men on the white team standing in a line. That line is called the "stack" and is where the name of this offense comes from. The cutter that is closest to the disc is said to be the "front" of the stack and the cutter that is farthest from the disc is said to be the "back" of the stack.
Ideally the stack should be set so that it is centered between the sidelines but it is more important that the stack is near the disc. The stack should be set so the front is about 15 feet away from the handler but it can vary if a team prefers it. Cutters within the stack should be 1-2 arms lengths away from each other.
Referring to the figure again, the two men on the white team that are not in the stack are the handlers. The player with the disc will not usually have a choice as to where they are positioned and must play the disc where it lands. The handler that does not have the disc is called the "dump" and should position themselves slightly behind the disc and about 15 feet to either side. The figure shows the dump on the open side of the field (the side that the mark is not defending) but the dump can also be on the break side of the field (the side that the mark is defending).
Man-to-man defense is usually used against a vertical stack. First, the marker must decide what the force will be by positioning themselves appropriately. The defensive player that is guarding the other handler must simply put himself between the two handlers. The rest of the defense must set up according to the mark. For example, the force is home in the figure as explained previously. Since the marker should be able to block all throws on the away side of the field, the five men that are defending the stack should stand on the "home side" of the player they are guarding. The important thing to remember is that when defending the stack, you must stand on the "open" side of your man.
Step 3: Learn the Movements
This section is going to explain the movement from the perspective of the cutter that is in the back of the stack. The steps below outline the basic movements but there will be times that you need to improvise. Improvising is acceptable when necessary but always return back to these steps.
- Fake a short run towards the end zone or the disc.
- Cut in the direction you didn't originally run.
- Look to the handler that has the disc.
- Catch the disc if the handler decides to pass to you (if the handler does not make a pass, skip to step 7).
- Wait for one of the handlers to move up field and get open.
- Pass the disc to a handler.
- Reenter the stack as the front of the stack.
- Move with the stack until you are at the front of the stack again.
Here's a few tips to remember:
- Cuts should always be diagonal. Ex: If you want to cut towards the disc you should first fake diagonally towards the corner of the end zone and then cut straight back towards the disc.
- The stack should always be slowly moving downfield.
- If you don't receive a pass after a cut, it's important to clear out quickly so that the next cutter can use that space.
- If you receive a pass from the handler, then it's usually smart to pass it back to a handler but sometimes it's better to pass to a cutter. If there is a cutter that looks open and the pass will gain significant yardage you should consider the pass if you're confident.
- If you receive a pass from the handler, your pass back to them may lose yards. It's always better to lose a few yards than to make a bad pass or "stall".
The handler with the disc will never be moving but must decide when to pass the disc. If the handler with the disc completes a pass to a cutter, then both handlers will attempt to get open so the cutter can pass the disc back to them.
If the stall count gets too high (around 7 or 8) the handler with the disc should look to his dump (often called “engaging” the dump). When the dump is engaged the dump must make a cut to the disc in an attempt to reset the stall count. If successful, the handler who previously had the disc is now the dump and the stack continues.
Here's a few tips to remember:
- You don't have to pass to the first cutter.
- Don't ignore the break side. Sometimes it's possible to "break mark" which means making a pass to a player on the break side. This is easier to do with a height advantage.
The most important thing the defense can do is to stay with their man. The mark has the additional responsibility of trying to block the disc without opening up the break side. It's best to choose a man before the pull and stick with that man until the next point is scored. If your team is starting the point on offense and there is a turnover, simply cover whoever was playing defense on you before the turnover happened.
Step 4: Starting and Ending the Vertical Stack
One of the cutters must start the stack and this should always be done before the disc is in play. If you want to start the stack you can easily do so by raising one hand and yelling something like "stack on me" (it's not as important what you say because most players will understand the hand signal). If you signal the start of the stack, then you will be in the front of the stack and the other cutters will line up down the field behind you. The first cut should start as soon as the disc in in play.
NOTE: If you are starting the stack you should keep field positioning in mind; it's your responsibility to make sure that the stack is positioned an appropriate distance from the disc.
As the stack moves down the field there will come a point where the stack is too close to the end zone to be effective (it is usually the handlers' job to decide if this point has been reached). If somebody yells "collapse" this means that it is time to break formation and end the stack. After that, all of the cutters should begin cutting to any open space in the end zone. The cutters should not stop moving and should make as many cuts as they need to in order to stay open. This can be exhausting but won't usually last more than a few seconds.
NOTE: Some teams develop specific "end zone plays" for when the stack collapses. If you're interested in what some of these plays look like, then look up "end zone ISO" for a popular one.
Step 5: Practice!
If you’ve understood everything in this guide, then you should be able to be part of a vertical stack in your next ultimate game. If find yourself at a pickup game with experienced players, chances are that almost all of them will know the vertical stack that you just learned. Some players and teams may do certain aspects of the vertical stack slightly different but the concept will be the same.
Make sure to practice the vertical stack beforehand if you plan on using it in any competitive games. It can sometimes be difficult to get fourteen people together to practice this if you’re not part of a formal team but most of this can be practiced with only two or three people if you break it down. It’s important to practice making cuts and moving with the stack for being a good cutter. It’s important to practice your passing, especially with defenders present, if you want to be a good handler. Don’t forget to practice playing defense in these situations as well.
Hopefully you now understand the vertical stack well enough to teach it to someone else. This is just the beginning of what it looks like to have an organized offense for your Ultimate team and I hope this has sparked your interest in learning some more offensive and defensive strategies (and yes, there is also a “horizontal stack” for those of you wondering). If you learned something from this guide, please pass it on so we can help make sure that ultimate continues to be one of the fastest growing sports in America!