Pitt men’s Ultimate ready for another championship run

[Editor’s note: Pitt lost in the quarterfinals to University of North Carolina-Wilmington, 14-13. Read about it here.] 

While En Sabah Nur is within reach of a national championship trifecta, the men’s Ultimate team isn’t anticipating a potential three-peat run.

“From the outside, we are back-to-back defending champions,” coach Nick Kaczmarek said.  “But we look at this as just a different team in a different season that began working in September in hopes of securing a national championship.”

The Panthers finished the regular season ranked fourth in the nation at 20-7 and believe they can complete the run Memorial Day weekend in Mason, Ohio, the site of the 2014 Division-I College Championships, which runs from May 26 to May 29.

But each national championship team, Kaczmarek said, differs from one another.

The 2012 squad defeated Wisconsin 15-10 in the championship and found victory because of its “pure hunger.” The team included a majority of older players who were really eager to win a championship, the program’s first. The 2013 team, which beat University of Central Florida 15-8 in the final, had “true grit,” a product of the team’s mixture of veterans ready to lead and young stars ready to take over. 

This year’s team has found success because of its “commitment to improvement,” Kaczmarek said. The Panthers fought through a tough stretch in the middle of the season, when they couldn’t secure a finals victory in three straight tournaments. But Kaczmarek said he’s noticed how this team’s learning curve is superior to that of  past years.

“Our rate of growth has been phenomenal,” he said. “Guys are playing well in roles that they have never played before.”

Now, the team has gotten hot at the right time. Since the regular season ended, the team is 14-0 and has not allowed an opposing team to score double-digits. 

Out of 20 qualifying teams, Pitt is seeded second in the national tournament. After taking the trophy last year, the team graduated nine seniors, which included half of the championship team’s starting lineup.

“We lost a ton of athleticism, experience and size,” Watson said. “This year’s team is smaller and considerably younger.”

This team only has four seniors on its roster, and 14 of its 26 members are either freshmen or sophomores. Additionally, none of the sophomores are more than six feet tall, so most of the team’s contributing players do not necessarily have a size advantage, something that can manifest itself in gameplay through a larger target on offense, vertical jumping ability or wingspan.

With many open spots to fill after last year’s seniors graduated, remaining team members worked hard to earn more playing time and found different ways to contribute to the team.

“[There have been] a bunch of opportunities to step up,” Watson said. “A lot of our sophomores have really stepped up to fill those holes.”

One sophomore, Connor Kazmierczak, has filled the holes and solidified the Panther’s defense this season. Watson praised Kazmierczak for his work ethic and improvement throughout the season after not being able to crack the starting lineup last year.

Kazmierczak, at 5-foot-8-inches tall and 150 pounds, is a rather small defender, but his speed and coverage ability helps him shut down the opposition’s faster, primary cutters. 

Watson and Kazmierczak also described how defense has been the staple of the Panthers’ long string of success. The team has reached the national competition each of the last 10 years. Regaining the team’s defensive prowess was essential to reaching the tournament again.

“Our defense has been great this year,” Kazmierczak said. “A lot of players had to step into new roles, and the defense has gotten better with every tournament we’ve gone to.”

Kazmierczak is not the only sophomore who has stepped up. Coach Kaczmarek also commended the efforts of Dan O’Connor, Jay Boyle, Kevin Tang and the rest of the players not in the 7-person starting lineup. 

Now, after months of competition, Kaczmarek said he feels like he has seven players on the bench who have the talent to be starters. 

“I wasn’t expecting this depth at the beginning of the season. This is unbelievable,” Kaczmarek said. “So many players can come off [the bench] at any given time.”

Pitt Ultimate hopes that its depth, defense and commitment to improvement pushes it to its third national title in as many years. Although the squad is on a successful postseason run, the team members remind themselves to take a step back and continue the approach the team has had all season.

“Getting to nationals was our goal at the beginning of the season, and this run is what we had to do to get here,” Kazmierczak said. “We are still going to take it one game at a time and play our game.”