Pleiades have not lost since February 9, 2020
February 9, 2024 by Alex Rubin in Profile with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2024 college season is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author(s). Find out how Spin can get you, and your team, looking your best this season.
We’re coming up on the four year anniversary of UNC Pleiades’ last loss. While sports anniversaries are typically measured in chunks of five or ten years, four years seems appropriate as the typical length of time a student uses to complete a bachelor’s degree. Sure, many of UNC’s players have pursued further degrees or lengthened their undergraduate time on campus to stay for five or even six years, but if the UNC winning streak were a college student, it would be eligible to graduate this spring. Let that sink in. A whole class of players can go their entire playing career without losing so much as a single game.
The raw numbers are staggering. Pleiades have won 133 straight games spanning over 1,457 straight days. They allowed an average of 4.3 points per game during that span. In a game that doesn’t count as part of the streak since it happened outside of sanctioned play, Pleiades beat the Philadelphia Surge, a professional team. Since the streak started, Pleiades have allowed zero goals fifteen times and ten or more goals on just eight occasions. “It’s amazing,” 2023 captain Alex Barnett said after beating Colorado to win the 2023 title. “I’ve never played Frisbee like that ever, anywhere else. It’s magic.”
Here at Ultiworld, we’ve written about the streak before, but always in the context of championships won or seasons to preview. In other words, there’s always been something else in the story. We’ve never simply marveled at the fact UNC is about to go four entire calendar years without losing a game of ultimate.1
This level of dominance in any sport would be impressive, but there are a lot of things conspiring against the success of college ultimate teams. Many players are just learning how to play the sport, and most every single college student has competing priorities, be they academic or social.
Aside from all of those distractions, there are on-field challenges. College teams play brutal tournament schedules, with up to eight games in a 30 hour span. That much wear and tear on athletes is not great for their bodies, and the mental side of starting and stopping an activity so frequently and often without much break in between can become its own challenge as well. College teams are brand new every year; rarely will a team bring back its entire leadership core. Rarely will a team bring back even ten among their fourteen starting players. Compared to semi-pro or club teams that often bring back most of their key contributors, college teams start from scratch each season with no promises of continuity.
All of this is to say there is a ton of chaos in the college season. A good team is forgiven for losing to a bad one at 8 a.m. the day after flying across multiple time zones, or during their fourth capped round in a row on turf, or because the game turned into a one-direction wind affair and the tournament director already paid for fields and hotels and whatnot so nobody would dare cancel even though it’s 40 degrees and raining sideways. To have none of that happen for four years is absurd. It’s more likely some of those things did in fact happen and Pleiades just dealt with it and kept winning, which makes their streak that much more impressive.
So how do they do it? They make the hard work fun. “One of the most special parts of Pleiades culture is that pursuit of excellence,” Barnett said. “We really focus on the process. And the process is fun! Writing scouting docs…FUN! Practicing opponents’ zones…FUN! We had a line of people doing that who called themselves the ‘annoy O-line line’ right before [2023 D-I] Nationals and their whole thing was to get in our face and to push us around, and make us ticked off. And they had a great time. It’s all these little things that we do that make us so good, that we really take pride in, and we have a lot of fun doing. It’s fun to work this hard. It really is, especially when it’s for something so meaningful.”
And despite the repetitive results, they approach every game with an intensity and a focus that helps them succeed. “I think people say that a lot, ‘Isn’t it boring?,’” Ella Juengst said during that same press conference. “But every year it’s a new team, every year it’s a new journey, and every year we get to fight through all those battles…We’re all very competitive people — it never gets old winning, we love that — but I think anyone on this team would say that the process of all those practices, grinding four nights a week, doesn’t get old, because that’s the best part.”
We’re witnessing history every time UNC takes the field. Sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle of regular consumption of ultimate, but Pleiades aren’t the same as previous dominant teams. The mid-2010s Oregon teams lost games. The mid-2000s Stanford teams lost games. The Jack Verzuh/Claire Trop Dartmouth teams lost games. All of those teams won multiple championships and were considered standard-bearers in their day. And none were as unbeatable as UNC Pleiades have become since 2020.
Pleiades’ streak will continue, perhaps well into next season. “We are so lucky,” Barnett said last season, speaking about the future, “We have this pool of really athletic, bought-in, really great people. I love getting to spend time seeing them grow and I know they’re going to do great things in the future.” With strong coaching, culture, and recruiting, UNC has what it takes to turn their dynasty into a…I don’t know what’s bigger than a dynasty. It’s something truly historic.
Once the streak inevitably ends and some distance has passed, we can look back on the totality of dominance from UNC and simply marvel. Until then, there’s little to do but acknowledge the milestones along the way. Given their continued dominance already this season, there is definitely more to come for a juggernaut that’s twice as likely to bagel an opponent as it is to let them score double digits. The celestial powers that give the team their namesake, Pleiades, are slowly drifting apart. In about 250 million years they’ll be closer to distant cousins than seven sisters. I’ll go out on a limb and say UNC Pleiades’ winning streak will end before then, but given their current trajectory even that is no sure thing.
Except in a scrimmage against to their alumni back on November 12, 2023, but we can ignore that. ↩