A school project has resulted in a school championship.
Dmitri Zalnasky needed to do a senior project three years ago and decided to begin an ultimate frisbee team at Seneca Valley High School.
“I played in a winter casual league at Bethel Park and loved it,” Zalnasky said. “I knew there was a big league in Pittsburgh, but not a lot of teams up our way.
“I approached the school about what it would take to get ultimate frisbee accepted as a club sport. I had to draw up by-laws, jump through several hoops, but we got it done.”
The team actually came together in the spring of Zulnasky's junior year, but was not officially cleared as a club sport.
“We called ourselves the Cranberry Township Chiefs, just so we could organize and get a few games in,” Zulnasky said.
The team became part of the Pittsburgh High School Ultimate League (PHUL) last year and finished third in the 20-team circuit in its initial campaign.
This spring — with Zulnasky now graduated and a freshman on the “B” ultimate frisbee team at the University of Pittsburgh — the Raiders captured the league championship.
Dane O'Brien is SV's coach and learned about the position through happenstance.
“I was playing disc golf with a friend, Steve Mogielski, who plays on the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds (ultimate frisbee team),” O'Brien said. “Steve said he had been asked to coach the Seneca Valley team, but couldn't commit to it with his job situation.
“I had the time to do it, so I got in touch with the team and have been their coach since Day 1.”
Ultimate Frisbee is a 7-on-7 game that is non-stop action, played on a field 70 yards in length with end zones 20 yards deep. The field is 40-feet wide.
A team has possession until it either runs with the frisbee, commits a foul, or has a pass to a teammate broken up or intercepted. Then play turns the other way.
“You cannot play ultimate if you're out of shape,” O'Brien said. “There is so much running and movement involved. Games are played at a very fast pace.”
O'Brien added that the Raiders “have 12 kids committed to practice and playing regularly.” The roster is larger than that.
Seneca Valley finished 8-1 in the regular season this spring. The Raiders defeated two previously unbeaten teams in the playoffs — Bethel Park by a 15-6 count, Mars 11-7 — to claim the PHUL title.
Darius Zalnasky, Dmitri's younger brother, was a junior on this year's squad and a co-captain.
“We improved as a team so quickly because of the passion and dedication of our coach and players,” he said. “We play in the fall as well, but our coach (O'Brien) can't be with us then. He works a lot more hours then so he can have more time to coach us in the spring.”
SV's ultimate frisbee players come from other sports.
O'Brien said the bulk of his roster has either played basketball, soccer, football or run track before trying Ultimate.
“Players go through mainstream sports before finding us,” he said. “But Ultimate Frisbee ... The first time you're involved in a play, it sticks for life.”
Players recruit other players during the fall. They tell friends about the game and put up fliers to get the word out.
“People around school, they hear about us playing frisbee and didn't consider it a serious sport,” Darius Zalnasky said. “Now that we won the (PHUL) Division II championship, other kids may look at it differently.
“I'm not sure where I'll be going to college yet, but I plan on playing Ultimate there. If the school doesn't have a team, I'll start one.”
The PHUL is split into two divisions, with Division I housing the more experienced teams. Most of the players on SV's roster this season were first or second-year players.
The Raiders hope to move up to Division I next year.
The program's founder, Dmitri Zalnasky — plans to move up as well. He hopes to play for Pitt's “A” team during his sophomore year. The Panthers placed No. 2 in the country last season, won the national championship in 2012 and 2013, and have been to nationals 10 years in a row.
“Pitt has one of the best ultimate frisbee programs in the nation,” Dmitri said.
And Ultimate Frisbee is played by some of the best sportsmen in the country. The games do not have an official or referee on the field.
“The sport is self-officiated through the honor system,” Darius Zalnasky said. “It's part of the spirit of the game, very sportsmanlike.
“If there is a disagreement, play is stopped and the teams work it out. I love that part of the game.”
Seneca Valley's team is well-stocked for the future.
“We graduated two-thirds of last year's team and won it all this year,” O'Brien said. “We're not losing many to graduation this year and there's a nice influx of players on the way.
“This program is going to be around for a while.”