How the Flightless Bird Squad Came to Be
“Floors, ceilings, windows, WALLS!” The Flightless Bird Squad chanted their signature cheer before playing the long-anticipated YULA Invite Tournament in Arlington this past weekend. They began strong, winning 11-6 against Montgomery Blair, before placing 13th in the overall tournament.
The current ultimate frisbee team has over 50 dedicated players that represent a variety of grade and skill levels. 20 of the players are girl-matching, making them one of the many emerging D.C. teams that have the ability to play all-girl games. While the team is incredibly diverse, they share a common goal to contribute to the team’s success. Jillian Sanders (‘26) said “I personally am very excited for the new spring season. I’m looking forward to all the tournaments and games that we’ll be able to play.”
The Walls ultimate team got its start in 2011. According to a student newspaper profile of the fledgling team, most of its initial players had little experience. Charlotte Purcell, one of the team’s first coaches, said, “While we practiced, things looked quite sporadic at first. … We muddled through it (as a team always has to in the first few weeks and months), and we started to look cohesive by some of our first in-season games.”
The coach said she was still connected with the squad over 10 years later. “I have been so happy to see the School Without Walls team thrive throughout the years,” she said.
The team has come a long way since 2011, winning the Virginia Mixed States tournament last November. The victory sparked excitement and anticipation within the team. “This season we can keep going with that energy,” Travis Tiller (‘24) said.
The team has both full-time and guest coaches. Many Penguins may be familiar with math teacher Gabriel Webster, the primary coach and organizer, but the team has plenty of other coaches as well, including David Shields, Dylan Deshler, Becca Arbacher and, most recently, guest coach Lisi Lohre.
Mr. Webster began on the squad in 2018. “I love seeing a different version of my students on the field,” he said. “I feel like I get a clearer picture of high school students when I see them in different contexts, and I learn so much about my students when I teach and coach them.
“It’s related to why I teach: I am in it to help students become their best selves, whether it’s their ability to solve problems in the context of math class or improve as an athlete, leader or teammate.”
Mr. Deshler played on the Flightless Bird Squad as a junior and senior in high school before becoming a coach. He said he saw his current role as “a good opportunity to give back to the team.” Many of the coaches have a wealth of experience at the highest levels of ultimate in the country, many of them playing for top clubs and professional leagues. Ms. Lohre and Ms. Arbacher play for DC Shadow, the District’s women’s professional team, and Mr. Shields plays for its men’s counterpart, DC Breeze.
The squad’s student leadership has its fair share of expertise as well. Captain Amaia Noursi (‘23) said that being a captain “means helping people realize their full frisbee potential. Being able to have fun, being able to learn a lot more, and helping teach.” The current 2023 senior captains include Noursi, Julius Cohen (‘23), Emmett Brosowsky (‘23) and Malachi Merriam (‘24).
Noursi said, “I’m the only female-matching captain of the frisbee team at Walls, I’ve thought to myself that I have the responsibility to be the voice of all the female matching players in our team and I hope I have been able to do that.”
Female-matching players “can play in a mixed sport and…can [still] excel as an individual,” she added.
Upperclassmen on the team have high hopes for future years. “I think that next year it’s going to be a lot different because all the seniors right now are kind of running the team,” Chris Seyfried (‘24) said. “But I think next year it’ll be fun to have a bigger part.”
Since its origin at Walls in 2011, DCIAA has never recognized ultimate frisbee as a sport. This means that no ultimate frisbee teams that play for D.C. Public Schools receive team funding and instead must find adequate funding themselves.
The team has taken a big shift to focus on fundraising this season. This is particularly important because they hope to participate in their first-ever away tournament in SWW history, in New Jersey over spring break. The whole team has been putting in work to organize bake sales, assemble meal boxes, and make plans to achieve this goal.
Mr. Webster said, “This is our first time ever traveling out of the DMV to play ultimate. This is also the first time we are entering our girls’ team into a tournament. … It’s going to be an exhausting and fun time.”
The squad hopes to encourage Penguins to support them as much as possible. “Come out to our games!” Mr. Webster said, “Our sport has a reputation for being more of a game than a sport, and I challenge anyone to come out and make that argument after seeing our players run around on the field.