Club Sports: Pitt wins first Ultimate Frisbee national championship

By Pat McAteer

When Nick Kaczmarek began his tenure as coach of Pitt’s Ultimate Frisbee team earlier this… When Nick Kaczmarek began his tenure as coach of Pitt’s Ultimate Frisbee team earlier this year, he knew he would be inheriting a talented and experienced group of student-athletes.

After watching the club sports team finish fifth in the nation last season, Kaczmarek also knew the players had the mettle to win the national championship.

They just needed to recognize it themselves.

“[From] before I started to coach until now, the greatest development we’ve made is this attitude and integrity and just holding ourselves accountable,” Kaczmarek said.

The team’s progress culminated in Pitt winning its first USA Ultimate Division I College Open Championship in Boulder, Colo., on Monday after a 15-10 victory over Wisconsin in the final.

Although it entered the tournament with the No. 2 seed, Pitt Ultimate, nicknamed En Sabah Nur, faced a difficult path to the title.

After defeating California-Davis, Luther and Texas, Pitt lost to Michigan in the final game of the preliminary round-robin stage of the tournament. But En Sabah Nur, whose name derives from the Marvel Comics character Apocalypse, still clinched Pool B with a 3-1 record.

Pitt rebounded from the loss to defeat Minnesota easily in the quarterfinals, setting up a semifinal showdown with traditional power and defending national champion Carleton College.

Despite falling behind 8-3 early in the matchup, Pitt roared back to win the contest by a score of 14-12.

Senior Colin Conner, one of the team’s captains, said the game was the most memorable of his career.

“Once we went down 8-3, we just kept telling everyone to not give up,” Conner said. “I think that’s definitely the biggest memory I’ve had [as an Ultimate player].”

In the championship game, Pitt sought to avoid the dramatics of the previous game by scoring early and often. Led by senior Alex Thorne, the Panthers quickly opened a 4-0 lead and kept their foot on the gas the rest of the way.

After registering several points and assists for the Panthers throughout the contest, Thorne clinched the title with a 15th and final point thanks to a scoring pass to his younger brother, freshman Max Thorne.

Going into the championship game, Conner said members of En Sabah Nur felt that they had the upper hand on Wisconsin because of Pitt’s superior preparation throughout the season.

“We just knew that we were in better condition than them,” Conner said. “When we started out the game on a 4-0 run, there was just no doubt.”

Shortly after last year’s loss in the national quarterfinals, Conner said the team members dedicated themselves to improving conditioning. He said this included attending 10 a.m. practices on weekends, as well as running and working out independently.

In addition, Conner said the team’s success over the past few years has drawn experienced and talented high school prospects from across Pennsylvania to Pitt.

For returning players, the future of En Sabah Nur is a bright one. Next year, the club retains 18 players, including captain Zach Kauffman. Kauffman said the goal for next year’s team is very simple and familiar for the returning players.

“The goal is to win nationals,” he said. “We’re planning on going back-to-back; it’s what we’re striving for.”

Kauffman said winning the national championship provided a great deal of knowledge and experience that he plans to pass on to incoming freshmen and new players.

As a program, winning the national championship is a testament to how much En Sabah Nur has grown since its beginnings. According to its website, the team was founded in the spring of 1998 when a group of students living on the third floor of Sutherland West began playing Ultimate behind the Cost Center.

After gaining a following on campus, the group participated in its first tournament in April 1998.

Kaczmarek said the growth from a fledgling group of freshmen to a national power can be attributed to the efforts of the players on the team not only this year, but also throughout their time as teammates on En Sabah Nur.

And he doesn’t think winning a national championship should deter the program from working even harder to accomplish its goals for next season.

“We’ve got to have the humility to prepare and the confidence to compete,” Kaczmarek said.