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Friday September 30th

'Unstoppable, unshakable': UNC Pleiades wins first-ever national Ultimate Frisbee title

Pleiades, UNC women's club frisbee, poses with their trophy after a recent national victory. Photo courtesy of Brian Whittier.
Buy Photos Pleiades, UNC women's club frisbee, poses with their trophy after a recent national victory. Photo courtesy of Brian Whittier.

Around 7 a.m. on Dec. 17, two 16-passenger vans rolled up to the frosty Ultimate Frisbee fields in Norco, California. In one of the vans, sophomore Milena Jojic queued up the song “Champion” by Carrie Underwood.

“I am invincible, unbreakable, unstoppable, unshakeable,” chorused throughout the vehicle.

That time the song played, on the first day of the USA Ultimate College Championships, no one in the van sang along. But by the Pleiades’ final game at nationals, their reaction to it had transformed.

The Pleiades, UNC’s women’s club Ultimate Frisbee team, comprises 34 players, only 10 of whom played the sport prior to joining the team. The rest are just fast runners and high jumpers who likely stumbled upon the team’s booth at Fall Fest.

“The vast majority of players on this team had had no ultimate experience before they came onto the team,” Bridget Mizener, a 2020 UNC graduate, said. “That speaks to the coaches and the way that they develop the program.”

With the help of 2018 USA Ultimate Head Coach of the Year Jessi Jones — as well as Pleiades alumnae and UNC Darkside, the men's Ultimate Frisbee club team — rookies and veterans alike convene at Finley Fields four times a week to practice.

Leading up to national competition, the Pleiades posted a promising 16-1 record in the fall. Despite an abbreviated season and 2021 nationals set to happen in December rather than the spring, their hopes for a first title were high — but it wasn't always that way.

The team missed nationals in 2016, were knocked out in the semifinal round in 2019 and the competition was canceled in 2020.

“We haven't been able to have college nationals in so long,” senior Dawn Culton said. “Trying to motivate the team throughout the whole year and show them why they're working so hard is difficult to convey to people who haven't been there before.”

Although not a crowd favorite to begin with, the spirit captains queued "Champion" before every contest in California. The Pleiades remained true to the lyrics and pushed through pool play, topping Ohio, Western Washington, UC Davis and Georgia to earn a No. 2 seed in the college championship bracket.

In the quarterfinals and semis, UNC breezed past West Coast powerhouses University of California San Diego and University of California, Santa Barbara, both by eight-point margins. After the two victories, the team went against the 2012 national champions, the University of Washington Element.

“This is sort of a banner year,” Mizener said. “Watch out, Seattle. Watch out, California. North Carolina is coming for the throne.”

Stakes were higher than ever for the Pleiades as they caught a glimpse of the ESPNU reporters broadcasting the game from the press box.

After singing along to their hype song one last time, the team got its nose out early, scoring eight points before UW could buy its third. When the Element called a timeout to regain focus, the Pleiades did anything but.

“They started playing the song ‘Build Me Up Buttercup,’” graduate student Alex Barnett said. “And instead of giving us a hype speech, our coach just said to sit back and take it in. We all started singing the song and we were just soaking up the moment.”

The packed sideline anxiously inched towards the field as Culton passed the team’s 15th and final point. Then at the ref’s signal, the champions stormed onto the green into a cathartic dogpile.

The Pleiades program won its first national title just hours after Darkside won theirs. Together, the teams set another record — for the first time in 31 years, the same school won both the men’s and women’s championships.

After the players were adorned with hardware around their necks, the team loudspeaker was brought over to their giddy circle. And by then, "Champion" was music to their ears.

“Unbreakable, unstoppable, unshakable,” Mizener said. “Those were probably all the lyrics that we knew.”

@KaitlynSchmid1

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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