Club Sports: Ultimate team sets sights on national title

By Jasper Wilson

The Pitt men’s club Ultimate Frisbee team entered the national tournament as a No. 1 seed last… The Pitt men’s club Ultimate Frisbee team entered the national tournament as a No. 1 seed last season. But instead of winning a championship, Pitt suffered a quarterfinal upset loss to the University of Colorado (Boulder) and ended the year disappointed.

Enter Nick Kaczmarek.

The first-year head coach — who played Ultimate for five years at Pitt from 2005-2010 — is now trying to impart his knowledge of the game and love for the program to the next generation of Pitt Ultimate players with the hope of guiding the team to a national title.

“Being a player on this team and knowing where this team has come from hopefully allows me to find ways to motivate the current team in ways they couldn’t motivate themselves,” Kaczmarek said.

Kaczmarek was quick to separate his role from the team’s success, describing his job as more of an aide to the players. He said he helps them find the best way to contribute to the team.

“It’s a sport that’s always been very player-driven … It’s a big part of the growth of Pitt. The players are the team,” he said. “In our sport in particular, everyone is their own captain, their own leader. It’s such a player-driven, player-fueled sport. That’s why the team has been so great.”

Club sports teams compete with teams from other universities, but their athletes aren’t on athletic scholarships, and the teams aren’t governed by the NCAA.

In Ultimate, seven players from each team are on the field at one time. The game is continuous and played on a field similar in layout to football with two end zones. After scores, teams throw off — similar to a football kickoff — to begin play.

Unlike football, intentional contact is not permitted. Passing is the only way the disc can travel. There are no referees, which means that players govern matches themselves. Observers act as mediators between players of opposing teams.

Recent Dominance

Pitt’s A team, En Sabah Nur, has established itself as a juggernaut in Ultimate over the past decade, qualifying for nationals for seven consecutive years and finishing as high as third place two years ago.

The team has torn through its spring schedule this season, winning two of the three tournaments it has entered. Pitt placed second in the Stanford Invite to No. 2 Oregon.

While En Sabah Nur competes throughout the year, the fall semester functions more as a preseason. The spring semester then builds directly toward each stage of the playoffs: sectionals, regionals and nationals.

En Sabah Nur already took the first step toward earning another chance at a national title by winning sectionals to automatically qualify for regionals. Pitt defeated Penn State 15-8 in the championship.

Regionals will take place April 28 and 29 in State College, PA, and the winning team automatically qualifies for the national tournament.

At-large bids or “strength bids” are also given out to successful teams that don’t earn an automatic bid to nationals. Fifth-year senior Julian Hausman said he expects Pitt’s region, the Ohio Valley, to receive one strength bid.

After falling to Colorado (Boulder) 12-7 last year, Pitt ended the season tied for fifth out of the 20 schools that qualified for the national tournament. This season, junior Zach Kauffman said the Pitt men’s Ultimate team knows they are the best in the country.

The rankings back up his claim. The team — with a 17-3 overall record — is ranked No. 1 among all college Ultimate programs by USA Ultimate, the governing body for Ultimate.

Hausman said that the success has benefited recruiting.

“Each year that we perform well, it gets easier to attract recruits,” Hausman said. “They know how good we are.”

A couple of weeks ago a potential player came on a visit to campus from Oakland, Calif. — a development that baffles Kaczmarek given the program’s roots.

“[Coming from] when nationals wasn’t even an afterthought, [Ultimate] was just to have fun and hang out with your friends,” he said. “It blows my mind.”

While success has brought respect, it’s also raised expectations.

Pitt’s Ultimate club team, started in 1998, intitially faced a lack of respect from the Ultimate community because the team was unproven, Kaczmarek said, and that disrespect helped motivate the team. But the disrespect has faded with the team’s success, leaving the program to look internally for a new source of motivation.

Kaczmarek said En Sabah Nur hasn’t made that transition easily.

“In some ways I think the team may have lost that chip on the shoulder. It’s hard to keep it there,” Kaczmarek said. “We don’t have that natural chip on the shoulder of no one respecting us anymore.”

Newfound Commitment

Given the setup and scale of collegiate Ultimate events, players often have to shuffle their schedules around practices and competitions, much like varsity athletes. Senior captain Colin Conner acknowledged shortcomings in the team’s approach to the sport last season.

“We definitely before tried to just rely on our talent rather than put the work in,” Conner said.

The issue came down to time management, Kauffman said.

“We realized we were doing enough work where we were putting in a lot of our time, but we’re not doing enough work where we were at the level to win,“ he said.

This semester, the team has traveled to California, Florida and North Carolina for events. The competitions, usually lasting two to three days, are hard to plan around. That’s especially true when the team has to fly to California for a weekend tournament, Hausman said.

The team has practiced three times a week for about three years. This year, track workouts and lifting sessions supplement practices and the team consulted trainers about their workout plans. Kaczmarek described the team’s training approach as just as close to a varsity sport as possible. The time-consuming efforts are a result of the team’s early exit in the national tournament last season.

Even though team member Trent Dillon is only a freshman, he said he senses a change in the team’s approach from last year.

“There’s a palpable shift in where the team is headed,” Dillon said. “Last year at this time they were kind of laying off of the work and starting to take things easy.”

Hausman said that he was disappointed to leave the tournament in the quarterfinals when he wanted to take home the championship.

“That’s what really kind of pushed me to come back for this year,” he said.

Anything less than an appearance in the national championship game this year will be viewed as a failure by the players.

“This is the best Pitt team that we’ve ever been. We didn’t perform when it came time to [last year],” Hausman said. “It’s really important to us that that doesn’t happen again.”

The team will look to take full advantage of the month-long break between regionals and nationals. Unlike most schools, Pitt’s semester ends of at the end of April, giving the team time off to prepare.

“[Nationals is] the only thing that’s on our mind,” Conner said. “There’s really no other option for us this year.”