Ask any Pitt fan when the last time the Panthers won a national title, and you'll likely hear the same answer: the 1976 football team, led by Tony Dorsett.
The real answer to that question would be the Pitt cheerleading team, which won three straight All-Girl Division I Cheerleading National Championships from 1992 through 1994.
Either way, the answer was years ago.
Photos courtesy of William Brotman/pittultimate.org
At left, Ethan Beardsley snags a Frisbee with one hand while leaping into the air during an Ultimate Frisbee match with the University of Pittsburgh, which recently won the USA Ultimate Division I College Open Championship.
That is, until last week.
On May 28, Pitt's Ultimate Frisbee club team, nicknamed En Sabah Nur after the Marvel Comics character Apocalypse, defeated the University of Wisconsin in Boulder, Colo., 15-10, to win its first national championship.
Yes, Pitt has an Ultimate Frisbee team - and 2009 Warren Area High School graduate Ethan Beardsley plays on it.
A key member of En Sabah Nur, which began playing back in 1998, Beardsley first learned about the team while attending an activities fair at the beginning of his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh.
"One of the kids on the team came up to me and just said, 'You're pretty tall. Are you athletic?' I told him I played sports in high school and he told me I should consider playing," said Beardsley, who played as both a goalie and midfielder for Warren's high school soccer team. He also ran distance events in track. "I wasn't doing any other sports or anything, so I went and tried out. I didn't really know what to expect. A lot of these kids that were playing had been in high school leagues."
At Pitt, the team holds tryouts, so Beardsley was entering a foreign and competitive environment. Tryouts include traveling to a tournament with the team in order to get everyone game experience. Then the team is narrowed down to its final roster, consisting of both an "A"' team and a "B" team. Beardsley went straight to the A team - an impressive feat considering his only prior experience with the sport was playing a few times for fun at the Warren State Hospital grounds.
It wasn't long before Beardsley's new teammates gave him a nickname: Birdman.
"Freshman year (at Pitt), I played a lot of offensive points, and a couple kids on the team saw me go up for a frisbee one time and they called me Birdman. It just stuck," Beardsley said. "I answer to it now."
Ultimate teams play seven players at a time; three handlers, who throw the Frisbee, and three receivers, or cutters, who catch it. Beardsley's height and length made him a clear-cut choice for a cutter right from the start.
"As a cutter, once you catch the Frisbee you're allowed to throw if you see somebody open, but usually you just want to get it back to one of the handlers. We also incorporate 'lines,' kind of like in hockey, although it's not on-the-fly subbing. When we have the Frisbee, we have our offensive line on, but after we score we put our seven defenders on. So I guess you could say there are really 14 starters."
Despite being a club team, the Panthers Ultimate Frisbee team is every bit as committed as any other collegiate team. They train and play year-round, typically practicing twice a week and once on the weekend, which is probably the perfect amount for Beardsley, who already has his hands full by majoring in chemical engineering.
"My major definitely keeps me busy and Frisbee is a good activity to get me away from school," he said. "This year we put a little more work in than usual. After the team is finalized, we go to a fall tournament, which in the past has been at places like North Carolina. In the winter, we usually just condition. We get some time in an indoor facility where we can throw and things like that. The beginning of March is when the season really starts."
The spring season begins with three tournaments before moving on to the College Series, which is run by the USA Ultimate organization, the governing body that controls all college, high school, and youth-level Ultimate Frisbee competitions.
"The College Series starts with sectionals, and our section is western Pennsylvania, so we play teams like Penn State, Edinboro, IUP, and Carnegie Mellon. If you do well enough at sectionals then you qualify for regionals, where we'd play colleges from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. And from there you can qualify for nationals. Twenty total teams make the national tournament, with every region having an automatic bid, plus a few at-large bids."
Pittsburgh started its postseason run by winning both sectionals and regionals before traveling to Boulder, Colo., for the national tournament, which begins by putting the 20 teams in four pools consisting of five teams each. The first two days of the tournament are the pool play games, where every team plays each team in its pool one time. The top three teams in each pool advance to the next round, with the winner of each being rewarded by receiving a bye and heading straight to the quarter-finals. The Panthers went 3-1 in their pool, losing their only contest to the University of Michigan.
"When we lost to Michigan, we already had our pool wrapped up, so it didn't really matter. We already knew we were going to the quarter-finals," he said.
After cruising to an easy win over Minnesota in the quarters, En Sabah Nur faced their biggest challenge of the weekend in Carleton College, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota who happened to be the defending national champion and an Ultimate Frisbee powerhouse.
The match against Carleton didn't start off as planned, as Pitt fell behind 8-3. The Panthers rallied by going on a 9-2 run and ended up winning 14-12. Beardsley, who primarily played on the defensive line in the postseason, said that match was by far the most nerve-wracking moment of the weekend.
"We were freaking out a little bit (when we fell behind) in the semi's," he said. "A lot of us said afterward that we were more emotionally excited when we won that game than when we won the finals. Winning that one was a big deal because Pitt had never even made the finals before."
Pitt and Beardsley made it clear they weren't satisfied with just making the finals, jumping out to an early lead against Wisconsin and never looking back.
"We started the finals by going up 4-0, so it was a completely different game than the semi's," he said. "A lot of people at school see us practicing on our common lawns and they sometimes have articles in the student paper about us, so to win nationals for the first time ever is very exciting. We all got medals and trophies and one of the sponsors donated $5,000 to us for winning, which our program can use for travel and things like that."
Beardsley said the intensity of playing in nationals was even greater than what he experienced while playing in the playoffs in high school. "Ultimate is a game where you interact with the other team a lot and so it can get very personal," he said. "When there are fouls, they're discussed between the two players before a ruling is made by the official and things can get heated."
Beardsley will be a senior at Pitt next year and believes the team will be positioned to do it over again.
"We're only losing three players, so we have almost everybody returning, and we should be just as good," he said.
Indeed, for Birdman and the rest of En Sabah Nur there will only be one goal for next season.