From Pitt to Poland: Katie Schreiber’s ultimate journey

Pitt sophomore Katie Schreiber has earned a reputation for her "astounding" catches. Courtesy of Katie Schreiber

For sophomore business student Katie Schreiber, disc — not ball — is life.

“I’d do anything to play a game [of ultimate],” said Schreiber, who competes for Danger, Pitt’s women’s ultimate frisbee team.

Whether learning the sport as the only female on an all-male team, coming to Pitt on the strength of its ultimate culture or traveling across oceans to play games, Schreiber has shown the lengths she’ll go to for that one shot to layout for a disc.

Her joy for the game is hard to miss. Ben Banyas –– in his second straight year as Danger’s head coach and third overall — has seen it firsthand.

Banyas coached the team for the 2003-04 school year before coming back last summer, the same year Schreiber joined the team as a first-year student.

“She always has a smile on her face,” Banyas said.

But make no mistake — that enthusiasm comes from a start in ultimate that pushed and prodded her to become a better player.

As a high school first-year in Philadelphia, Schreiber participated in both basketball and track and field. The following summer a friend encouraged her to play ultimate.

“One of my guy friends was trying to get me to come out and play for a while,” Schreiber said. “He knew I was really competitive and that I’d be able to keep up.”

So Schreiber started playing on an all-male team that summer, which used the school’s name but was unaffiliated formally. While her friend was confident in Schreiber’s ability, she demanded a lot from herself.

“I had to train just to be on the same level as them,” Schreiber said of the team. “It made me a more aggressive player.”

When Schreiber started playing, she was scared of laying out for a disc — when a player dives after the frisbee to make a catch and preserve possession — because such a play carries risk for the player, but massive reward for the team. Now, it’s a thrill she can’t resist.

“After I tried [laying out] once, I loved it,” Schreiber said. “I gave up other sports for ultimate immediately.”

With her conversion to frisbee complete, Schreiber spent the rest of high school honing her skills. Come time to apply for college, her newfound passion was a deciding factor.

Still deciding between coming to Pitt or staying closer to home, she needed a push. When members of Pitt’s ultimate frisbee team showed up to an event for prospective students, her choice was made.

“I emailed them right away,” Schreiber said.

That email was how Haley Grajewski –– a junior marketing and human resources major and one of Danger’s 2016-17 captains –– was introduced to Schreiber. Schreiber’s message had the tone of an energetic incoming first-year yet to even step on campus, but she quickly showed Grajewski and the team that she wasn’t just offering the empty promises of youth.

“[Schreiber] volunteers for extra workouts, she throws to people outside practice,” Grajewski, said. “She has so much enthusiasm.”

As a cutter — the player whose job is to catch the disc — those early lessons from Schreiber’s beginnings in the sport made an immediate impression on her team.

Grajewski described Schreiber as “fearless.” Banyas called some of her catches “astounding.”

“I’ve been around the game a long time and her ability to make the plays is as good as anyone I’ve seen,” said Banyas, who began playing ultimate during his undergraduate days at Edinboro University in 1999. “[She has the] intensity [and] willingness to make very exciting diving plays.”

Despite the sometimes flashy play, Schreiber isn’t looking to build a highlight reel.

“Everybody’s top priority is how to help the team,” Banyas said, and Schreiber helps exemplify that.

This fits with the “spirit of the game” Schreiber mentions when she explains her love affair with ultimate.

That spirit focuses on creating a positive environment for players on both your team and the other team to share their mutual love for the sport. But Schreiber still saves a lot of affection for her teammates.

“My teammates motivate me to have energy and be a better teammate,” Schreiber said, also observing this attitude makes the team stronger. “They’re willing to pick you up if you drop a pass.”

This attitude matched by her performance attracted the notice of Schreiber’s Danger teammate and captain Carolyn Normile, who played on the U.S. National Team last year in London, winning silver at the World Under-23 Ultimate Championships. Normile suggested Schreiber apply for the Under-20 team, playing in Wroclaw, Poland, in August.

Schreiber, center, with disc, lays out for a disc during the USA U-20 team’s game against Japan in Wroclaw, Poland this August. Courtesy of Katie Schreiber

After applying, which she did with “15 minutes left,” Schreiber was asked to attend tryouts in Florida in January. At first, her parents were skeptical.

“Even if I made the team, I knew my mom and dad didn’t want me to play,” Schreiber said. “[They] let [me] tryout for the experience.”

The lack of expectations didn’t slow the cutter down and let her play naturally. As a result, Schreiber was asked to join the U-20 team in March — one of only 24 players in the country.

“[That] changed my mom’s mind,” Schreiber said. “[Then] she worked on my dad.”

Schreiber quickly brought all her vigor and verve to the national team, something U-20 team head coach DeAnna Ball was happy to see.

“She’s someone who goes out there and gives 100 percent,” Ball said. “She’ll lay out, get into traffic … she’s not afraid to go up in a crowd.”

Ball has been involved in ultimate since 1991 when she attended Purdue University. Her initiation to the sport was similar to Schreiber’s –– learning on an all-male team –– and she can see the experience in Schreiber’s play.

“It’s different, but not vastly different,” Ball said, with such time helping players harness an “aggressive side.”

The team joined for the first time in Seattle for a week of practice in June, then reconvened in Chicago for another week of practice in late July before flying to Poland July 30. Though they had little time to play together, the team smashed through pool play, going undefeated. Playing to 15 points, their smallest margin of victory was a four point win over Columbia.

“We were chugging away at all cylinders,” Ball said.

The team dominated in the first two rounds of the playoffs, beating Germany and the Netherlands by scores of 15-0 and 15-4, respectively. That set up a final showdown with Canada’s team, with a gold medal on the line. Early mistakes dug Team USA into an early hole, a position the team wasn’t used to.

According to Schreiber, some questionable foul calls by Team Canada also contributed.

“We’re self-officiated,” Ball said. “When the level of competition grows, it’s hard.”

Team USA brought the score to 14-14, but Canada scored the next point and won gold. Although disappointed, Schreiber was brought back by her teammates.

“It was a sad atmosphere for us but we still pushed ourselves to be positive,” Schreiber said.

“I had a blast, I loved that team so much.”

Schreiber also feels she gave it her all. While her playing time was kept to four to five points a game, Schreiber played in all 10 of the team’s games, scoring three goals.

With the tournament over, Schreiber is focusing on her sophomore season as part of Danger, where she is involved in recruiting, fundraising and community service and will be part of the team’s push for a third straight trip to nationals.

Though it comes from elation, Schreiber can’t help but be a little thrown by where diving for discs has brought her.

“I never thought [ultimate] would be such a big part of my life,” she said.

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