The Top 10 College Open Storylines In 2014

Pittsburgh celebrates winning the 2013 USA Ultimate College Championships.
Photo by CBMT Creative.

With the Club Championships now in the rear view mirror, the ultimate world will begin to turn its attention back to the college game. While it’s still very early (we’re still weeks away from the premier fall tournaments), there is plenty to talk about. Here are ten of the top stories we’ll be following this season.

How Will Pitt Perform In The Post-Thorne/Degirolamo Era?

Pittsburgh, the two-time defending National Champions, enters 2014 with a brand new challenge: learn how to win without two of the college division’s most dominant playmakers, Alex Thorne and Tyler Degirolamo. At this year’s College Championships, Degirolamo was simply unstoppable and was the obvious MVP of not only the finals but the entire tournament. It’s never easy to graduate a great player — it’s a lot harder to lose arguably the best in the game.

It might be a stretch to call this a rebuilding year for Pittsburgh, but they will certainly have to learn how to win without the most dominant deep cutter/thrower tandem in recent memory. They also graduate two-year captain Zach Kaufman and starters Isaac Saul and Ethan Beardsley. They lose five of their seven offensive line starters, some of the heaviest turnover in the division.

They will look to some rising stars, including Marcus Ranii-Dropcho, Pat Earles, Max Thorne, and Trent Dillon, to fill into bigger roles. We’ve already seen some of the new Pitt look as they played together as Oakland during the Club season. Ranii-Dropcho, playing on offense, was dominant both behind the disc and downfield as Dillon led the defense.

Much of the rookie class won’t be familiar to most people, but Jonah Wisch is one of the big pickups in the college division. Wisch, who broke out playing with the Philadelphia Spinners, was one of just two players at this year’s Youth Club Championships to record at least 10 goals and 10 assists. The other? John Stubbs, a Chain Lightning rookie following in his brother’s footsteps at Harvard. (More on him later).

Despite having a deep roster, there’s no question that Pitt just won’t be as talented as they were the past two years. But they have a system and significant Championship experience. Will that be enough to carry them back to the finals of the College Championships?

Could This Finally Be Oregon’s Year?

For two straight years, Oregon has come into the College Championships with the #1 overall seed. Both times they’ve watched Pitt take home gold.

Oregon has only one Open Division title, which came in 1992. Is this their best chance at getting back on top of the podium?

Let’s start with the positives: the team returns 2013 Callahan winner Dylan Freechild, who can single-handedly take over games. Gabe Fruchter, one of the team’s most valuable players at the College Championships, is back as well. The team has played deep into Nationals and has lost in big games, often a prerequisite for winning them.

But there are some big question marks for Ego as well. Big playmaker Aaron Honn, perhaps the most important piece behind Freechild on last year’s team, is studying abroad for the entirety of the season. They graduate Topher Davis and Camden Allison-Hall. Their 2013 team may have been the one with the best shot at winning it all.

But don’t underestimate Freechild’s ability to take this team deep into the tournament. They may have to rejigger their offense, which frequently featured Honn and Allison-Hall downfield, but that could mean an even more central role for Freechild, which could be a blessing in disguise.

Is Central Florida Now Mentally Ready To Win The Title?

One of the big preseason favorites is Central Florida, who is set to return the vast majority of their top talent. After an inconsistent 2013 regular season, they scraped past Dartmouth in the College Championship quarterfinals, blew past Carleton in the semifinals in one of the best played games of the tournament, and then had a huge letdown against Pitt in the Championship game.

While Pitt may have had the edge on talent, the Dogs of War simply didn’t bring anything close to their best game into that final. Coach Andrew Roca even insinuated that perhaps the team peaked in the semifinals the day before.

But now they’ve been there. They’ll have a fresh goal — to win the title — and the personnel to do it. Although they graduate the 6’5″ Michael Hickson, they bring back Mike Ogren, John Best, Mischa Freystaetter, and Jeremy Langdon. That’s a lot of firepower. Ogren is widely considered one of the biggest NexGen snubs from last year — he is likely to continue anchoring the defensive unit for UCF.

With tons of experience and the highest ceiling in the Division, Central Florida’s ability to win a title is undeniable. And with strong guidance from Hickson (joining as an assistant coach) and Roca, who should help them get over their mental mistakes from last season, they should be on everyone’s short list to win the 2014 College Championships.

Is North Carolina Set For The Semis And Beyond?

UNC had just two losses at last year’s Nationals: one to Central Florida, one to Pittsburgh. That’s a very good sign for Darkside.

Although the team will lose Tristan Green, its Callahan nominee, and Marshall Ward, the two top offensive line handlers, they retain much of their most important talent. Captain Christian Johnson (U-23 Open, Ring of Fire) returns to continue wreaking havoc downfield on offense. Johnathan Nethercutt (Ring of Fire), Charlie Schaffner, and Ben Snell (Truck Stop) are all back to lead the defense.

UNC Coach Mike DeNardis told Ultiworld earlier this year at the College Championships that the team is set for its peak season in 2014. A strong freshman class, highlighted by 2013 Atlantic Coast FOTY Aaron Warshauer, is set to contribute even more this season after playing a significant role in their rookie year. The team is also picking up six YCC players as incoming freshmen.

The team, graduating just three players, now has the experience to challenge for a title this year. They will have one of the toughest defensive lines in the country. Schaffner was far and away the block leader at Nationals this year and should continue to be a stopper downfield. Nethercutt is a gifted defender and consistently takes the toughest matchups.

If they can find solid handling for the O Line and let their outstanding cutters do a lot of the work, they will be in a great place to make a deep run in May.

Mickle And Morrissy Are Back; Will Colorado Rebound After Disappointing Prequarters Exit?

Jimmy Mickle just spent a weekend in Frisco, Texas, dominating for Johnny Bravo. When a player makes the Club game look small and slow, you can only imagine his impact on the college game.

Colorado Mamabird will be very happy to have Mickle back for a fifth year. The team also brings back Tim Morrissy (Johnny Bravo, NexGen) and Hidde Snieder (Johnny Bravo).

Last year, Mamabird seemed to live and die through Mickle. If teams limited his touches, the rest of the team wouldn’t be able to step up around him. Late in the season, coach Jim Schoettler moved Mickle over to the defensive line, which started to allow the offense to find themselves without the constant bailout Mickle option.

Too little, too late, however; Colorado ran into a red-hot UNC-Wilmington team in prequarters [VIDEO] and missed the Saturday bracket.

The new plan in Boulder: stack the D line. Mickle, Morrissy, Snieder, Denison Bechis, and Stanley Peterson — all teammates on Johnny Bravo — will play defense together.

That means the offense will be much less experienced. “The O line has not been decided yet,” the team told Ultiworld. “Preliminary results point towards younger players who move the disc and are not afraid to create space by going downfield.”

It’s an unusual approach, but perhaps one designed to reduce the Mickle-heavy attack from last year.

Regardless of where Mickle plays, he will be the frontrunner for the 2014 Callahan award.

The North Central Region Is Going To Be Very Good

It’s going to be a wild year in the North Central region.

Powerhouse programs Wisconsin and Carleton are both going through serious roster turnover. Wisconsin loses Callahan nominee Brian Hart, Andrew Meshnick, Tom Coolidge, Dayu Liu, and Kelsen Alexander, among others. That’s a lot of starters walking out the door.

NexGen star Colin Camp will return to the Hodags, but is recovering from an ACL tear at U23 Worlds in Toronto this season. He is targeting March’s Stanford Invite for a return to the field, but will miss a good portion of the team’s early season.

Carleton loses offensive line studs Simon Montague, Justin Norden, and Nick Stuart. Julian Childs-Walker is out as well. Justin Lim and Jonah Herscu are back in the fold and will have big roles on this year’s team. Jesse Bolton should return as a high impact sophomore after missing the end of last season on academic probation.

Alongside the turnover in the big programs (that will no doubt still be very good thanks to outstanding coaching and programs), Minnesota returns a very strong crop of talent, including Josh Klane and Jason Tschida. They will be hungry to rebound after a devastating 2013 Regionals tournament left them out of Nationals after coming in ranked #1 in the Ultiworld Power Rankings. They do lose the talented NexGen alum Greg Arenson

Luther is not graduating a single player after a surprise return to Nationals this year. They were a handful of points away from a massive tournament, nearly upsetting both UNC and Ohio in pool play. The dominant Josh Johnson will continue to pace this team.

The other Iowa teams are also going to be having big years. Iowa State only graduated two players. They bring back Andrew Moore (Sub Zero) and Jamison Disalvo, who will be big contributors. 2013 breakout Northern Iowa got noticed last year for almost earning the North Central a 4th bid. They return 19 of their 23 players and have always had their sights set on 2014 as their year to break through. Iowa also returns almost all of their best talent and will look to build on their huge upset over Minnesota at Regionals this past season. Jake “Baby J” Kersten, who was dominant in the Series, is captaining for the third consecutive year at Iowa.

Terrible weather in 2013 really limited playing opportunities for the smaller North Central programs, which also limited exposure of how much the region is developing. Expect many bids and a serious battle at Regionals this season.

Northeast Ready For Breakout Year

Back in May, Dartmouth broke through into the quarterfinals at Nationals and gave a serious scare to Central Florida in that game. They hope to replicate that success as the other two Northeast powerhouses — Harvard and Tufts — reload for what should be an exciting 2014 campaign.

Dartmouth loses captain and superstar Ian Engler, who led the team at Nationals and made Ultiworld’s all-star first line. He’s a big loss, but the team returns the excellent Spencer Diamond, who has been developing into a leader and big-time playmaker. The team should also get big minutes from Andrew Pillsbury and Arthur Bledsoe. They also have steady coaching from Brook Martin, who has extensive experience at both the club and college levels. He was a big part of the team’s success last season.

Harvard has one of the splashiest rookie pickups in the Division in John Stubbs, the only high schooler selected to the U23 teams, out of Paideia High School. Stubbs got solid playing time for Chain Lightning at the Club Championships this weekend and will be an instant impact player for Red Line. Harvard does lose Piers MacNaughton, who was a big part of their Regionals victory and good run at Nationals in 2013. Mark Vandenberg returns and will be a huge contributor to the offense.

Tufts is hoping to rebound after a disappointing loss to Dartmouth at Regionals [VIDEO]. Although they lose their talented captain Robby Perkins-High, they have a lot of very strong returners, including Gene Buonaccorsi and Carter Thallon. Tufts’ strength has always been its system and fundamental approach that gets contributions from up and down the roster. With a strong rookie class, they’ll look to get back to Nationals this year.

Don’t sleep on ’00s powerhouse Brown, who graduate six players, but return their top playmaker and captain Charlie Kannel. After a disappointing 2013 Regionals performance, they’ll be looking to continue their growth back to relevance in New England.

South Central Ready For Three Bids?

Last year, Texas A&M was one of the big up-and-coming teams to watch, but they fell short after sending a thin roster to the Stanford Invite and struggling at Centex without star player Dalton Smith (Doublewide) on the field, missing time to play with Team USA at Japan’s Dream Cup.

But with 1st team All-Region player Matt Bennett coming back for his senior season and Smith returning for his junior year, Texas A&M should be a step above where they were last year.

Smith, particularly, has grown a great deal as a player. He had a prominent handling role alongside Kurt Gibson on the Doublewide defense for a number of points at the Club Championships and has clearly matured into a good decision maker.

Will they have the firepower to earn a third bid for the South Central and join the top echelon alongside Colorado and Texas? Considering how close they were last year, smart money says yes.

Will Driscoll, who will be on the shortlist for Callahan this year, is back for a fifth year at Texas and will single-handedly keep them near the top of the Region. He will be assisted by fellow 1st team All Region player Mitchell Bennett, also back for his fifth year. Texas will again be dangerous. Driscoll was dominant downfield this season for Doublewide, but suffered an unfortunate injury in the prequarters that kept him out for the rest of the weekend. He will have plenty of time to get back to 100% for the college season.

We’ve already talked about Colorado, but just to recap: they lose hardly anyone and are going to have the scariest defensive unit in the country, anchored by Mickle, Morrissy, Snieder, Bechis, and Peterson.

The regional final between Colorado and Texas should be a lot of fun.

It’s Still The Wild West

Here are four teams: Stanford, UC Davis, Arizona, and Arizona State. Pick two.

For whatever reason, the deep Southwest region can only ever seem to get two bids to the College Championships and end up having to grind through a brutal Regionals just to make it to the show.

Last year, most everybody had their eyes set on Arizona and Stanford to get through, but it was a surprising performance from UC Davis, assisted by an easy path through the bracket, that sent them back to Nationals with a 12-9 victory over Arizona in the finals.

They would go on, thanks to an outstanding performance from 2013 NexGen alum Eli Kerns, to defeat Wisconsin on their home turf in the quarterfinals before falling to Oregon in quarters. They were no fluke.

Arizona, using their acclaimed “diamond zone,” won just two games at Nationals, one against Pitt — they were resting their starters after having already clinched the pool — and one against Georgia in the consolation bracket. They tied for 13th.

Coming into this season, anything seems possible. Kerns and Nathan White — both 1st team All-Region — are back at Davis in their senior seasons and should have the Dogs ready to fight for another spot at Nationals.

Arizona graduates top cutter Sean Ham (1st team All Region) along with a number of other offensive line players, but brings back Callahan nominee Brice Dixon (Southwest POTY) and the vast majority of their defensive line. They will have some retooling to do for their offense — they’ll look to Sam Ouimet, a strong thrower, and Ben Lacy to anchor their offensive attack.

Stanford will have some irreplaceable losses this season, as Callahan nominee Ben Funk and U23 Mixed player Tyler Boyd-Meredith leave the team. They do return Cody Mills and Kellen Asercion — both 2nd team All Region — this year. Mills will captain along side Andrew Bleich and Bryan Cheng. Jordan Jeffery, a Stanford alum and second year player on Revolver, will be join Dan Silverstein as a coach. Stanford feels good about this season’s prospects, telling Ultiworld, “This is our year. We are a big, relentless, faceless army.”

Arizona State may be one of the rising teams to watch this season. After beating Arizona at Conferences for the first time ever in 2013, they hope to build on last season’s success as they look towards Nationals. Travis Dunn, their star handler, returns for his fifth season and will captain the team. Many of their returners have club experience playing with Sprawl, Arizona’s top men’s team.

The question for the Southwest will be how well they are able to play during the regular season, and whether they can bring home more than just a pair of bids.

The End Of The NexGen Era

With the recent news that the NexGen Tour will not return in 2014, this marks the final season of the NexGen-dominated college scene. Thanks to the efforts of Kevin Minderhout, some college players have become outright celebrities in the ultimate scene after traveling around the country on a bus to play the top club teams (and usually beat them).

Household names like Jimmy Mickle, Will Driscoll, and Dylan Freechild are in their final seasons. Many NexGen alums have already graduated.

While there will still be a couple of NexGenners playing in 2015, this really marks the final season for the best player marketing tool to grace the sport. While there always have been stars (and no doubt there will continue to be stars in the future), NexGen made it easier to follow and learn about the best college talent over the past three seasons.

While the professional leagues may eventually fill that void, they simply haven’t captured the zeitgeist — at least among players — the way that the NexGen Tour did.

What stories are you watching for in the upcoming college season? Let us know in the comments.

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