The U23 Open Tryouts Offered A Glimpse Of The Sport’s Bright Future

The country's best and brightest college aged stars meshed well at tryouts.

Team USA (Open) celebrates after winning gold at the U23 World Championships in Toronto.
Team USA (Open) celebrates after winning gold at the U23 World Championships in Toronto. Photo: CBMT Creative.

“You are the leaders of the next generation.”

This was the message that Mike Whitaker, a coach for Team USA’s Under-23 program, left hanging in the air early Saturday morning as he addressed the circled players at Austin Tindale Park in Kissimmee, Floirda.

This past weekend in Florida, and a week prior in California, the best young talent the sport has to offer assembled for a chance to represent Team USA next summer at the U23 World Championships in England. While the players came from across the county to compete for roster spots, there was a significance to the weekend that extended beyond who would or would not make the team, and Whitaker’s words summed it up. This weekend was more than just a tryout; it was a glimpse of the future of ultimate.

With the NexGen Tour bus making its final stop last summer, the U-23 teams now offer one of the only opportunities for the best and brightest college-aged players to compete together as a unit. The NexGen Tour was not only an entertaining product for fans of the game, it also acted as a signifier, putting the spotlight on a select few college stars and designating them as the future of the sport and the faces of their generation. Nick Lance, Dylan Freechild, Jimmy Mickle — we saw them play all summer and knew they were seminal figures before they were Callahan winners. College stars like Colin Camp, Jacob Janin, and Elliot Erickson were able to stand out from other elite players in their division because NexGen made them influential.

It is telling then, that Whitaker chose the phrase “next generation” for his speech on Saturday morning. The young men and women who came out for these tryouts are going to be the players driving the sport forward for years to come, and the coaches were aware of that when they designed the structure of the tryouts.

“We stress to the kids that they are going to be the leaders of their next generation, and they are going to see each other for the next ten years,” Joe Durst, an assistant coach for the Open team, said. It was clearly important to the coaches that these elite players got as much experience playing together as possible. This was partially for practical reasons pertaining to player selection, but also to give the players the opportunity to see how their games complement each other and what their potential could be playing with and against their ultra-talented peers for the next decade.

Open team head coach Bob Krier and his staff structured the tryouts so that players would be forced to temper their abilities in a way that allowed them to contribute to the highest caliber on-field product. While many tryouts seek to identify the particular skills or assets of a player possesses through individual skill drills such as a deep drill or a breakmark drill, this weekend was different. After doing some skill drills at the West Coast tryout, the coaches scrapped them for this weekend. They decided they didn’t need to see what skills the players had, because they knew that everyone had the raw talent and ability to compete at a high level.

“It’s a huge talent pool these days,” said Durst. “Everyone knows how to clear space, everyone has an off-hand throw, the upside down throws are no longer trick shots.”

Coaches wanted to see how players could put those skills to use, to see how they could use their attributes to achieve greatness with a team on the field. The team gets to spend a very short amount of time together, and the coaches needed to see which players could fit in immediately to whatever role the team required of them. Durst emphasized that because training camp was only a week, the coaches weren’t looking to put a season’s worth of system together. As a function of that, the majority of the weekend was spent on game-like simulations. This meant thing like full field scrimmages with a mindset twist of starting 14-14 playing to 17, or smaller games of 4-v-4 with players being thrown into new situations and forced to adapt to new roles on the fly.

David Hogan, one of the talent evaluators, elaborated on this strategy. “Something like the big man drill is very predictable, you know where the disc is coming from, you know what the throw is going to be,” he said. “We would prefer using the time to see how all these different players who we know are talented adapt to a different system.”

“We think we learn a lot more seeing how people adapt to different situations, adapt to something new, new style of play, new teammates they aren’t familiar with, seeing how they gel chemistry wise,” he continued. “That’s better than seeing these static skills which for the most part we will see in a better situation in games. We do a lot of mini, a lot of 4 vs. 4, that gives us the opportunity to see a high amount of touch, high amount of reps, a lot of throws, no ability to hide. It’s a lot more organic.”

There certainly was nowhere to hide for the players this weekend and their exposed position pushed them and their talents to exciting new levels. The quality of play was apparent from the start, but definitely picked up as the weekend went along. There was some slight hesitation in the morning session on Saturday, with players showing a lot of respect for their opponents’ abilities, and an occasional hesitancy in asserting themselves. The atmosphere quickly changed as the competitive and revealing nature of the tryout forced players to open their toolbox and leave it all out on the field. The jump in overall play from Saturday to Sunday was noticeable, with Pitt’s Trent Dillon kicking off Sunday morning’s scrimmage with a ridiculous chest high, back shoulder layout score that announced his presence and threw out a challenge to the rest of the players.

Dillon said that he was thrilled with the level of competition the tryout was bringing out, and that getting thrown into the spotlight gave him and his teammates some great opportunities to see their game taken to the next level.

“It’s a lot of fun to get to play with so many really talented players that I have competed against and with over the years,” he told Ultiworld. “I’ve gotten to play with Jon Nethercutt a lot which I really like because I’ve played against him so much, that playing with him is a lot of fun. Really, it’s hard to overstate how well everyone is playing.”

That same sentiment was repeated time and time again, as players could feel themselves and the other players responding to the challenges the coaches put at their feet.

The tryout came to a crescendo on the end of Sunday with full field 7 on 7 scrimmage that was an amazing combination of intensity and camaraderie. With only a few points left to show the coaches, their peers, and themselves what heights they were capable of on an ultimate field, the players put forth the best performance of the weekend. The game, and day, was bookended by another Dillon layout, as he went streaking after an Elliot Erickson forehand into space, going to a full stretch feet off the ground, somehow corralling the disc for the winning score. It was a fitting end to the weekend, and a perfect encapsulation of what U23s can offer. Erickson and Dillon, rivals on the college field just weeks ago in the finals of CCC, combining to produce a moment of exhilaration that demonstrates the bright future ahead for team USA and the sport.

Some assorted thoughts on the players at the tryout this weekend:

– In addition to Dillon, all the Pitt players performed extremely well throughout the weekend. Max Thorne and Marcus Ranii-Dropcho were nearly unguardable in the final third, and Jonah Wisch stood out as not only one of the younger players there, but also as one of the most versatile. The tryout was geared towards seeing how talented players could perform in intense conditions, and the Pitt players demonstrated the quality of their program.

– The flipside of Pitt’s system benefiting its players this weekend was the challenge players from D-III teams or smaller D-I programs faced. Several struggled to showcase their talents in this particular environment. They were all clearly talented and made some great plays, but lacked the polish and confidence in the heat of the moment that players from top level Division I programs were able to display. The coaches really wanted to see who could play well with other elite players, and it turns out that having already done so is good practice.

– One of the small school players who stood out was Lehigh’s Nick Mathison. Second runner up for Ultiworld DIII Player of the Year in 2014, Mathison’s size and speed were evident from the beginning, but it was his intelligence and instincts for space that found him on the receiving end of numerous goals. Mathison said that adjusting to elite defenses was the biggest difference he faced coming to this level of competition from the DIII game, not skill set.

“It’s more the intensity of the defense,” said Mathison. “Everyone is just going hard, looking for that next layout D, looking for that stopping of the upline and they’re not giving up anything, they’re not letting anything go easy.”

His play this weekend suggests he was able to make the adjustments necessary to take what the defense was giving him and exploit it as much as possible. Whether or not he ultimately makes the team, he showed there is legitimate top talent in Division III.

– With all due respect to Mathison’s assessment, there were some skills showcased this weekend in Kissimmee that just aren’t on display in DIII. Noticeably, the throwing ability of Jon Nethercutt and Xavier Maxstadt was remarkable. From full field standing break hucks to audacious OIO throws past unsuspecting defenders, both of the Carolina handlers completed passes over the weekend that not only left me wondering how they could have made such a difficult throw, but how they even could have even considered attempting it.

Of course, in the format of the tryout this weekend both struggled at times to conform their games to what the coaches wanted to see. They found it a little harder to be effective while subsuming their skills into a team effort. Both operate as high volume gunslinging center handlers on their respective college teams, and it will be interesting to see how the coaches weigh their occasional profligacy with the disc against their ability to make throws that few other people at their age are capable of.

– One of the three former NexGen players who tried out for the team, Chris Kocher had a performance this weekend that really deserves a mention. He has been a bit under the radar playing for a lower level college team, and his addition to the DC Breeze this spring was overshadowed by the splashier acquisitions of Alex Thorne, Tyler Degirolamo, and Brett Matzuka. But he was among the best players at the tryout. Notably, he had a layout catch D on an upline throw that was almost a perfect replica of Will Neff’s huge play from Regionals in 2012. His defense all weekend was a constant presence, and his smart, capable offensive play fit in perfectly with what the coaches were looking for.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller

    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld, co-host of the Sin The Fields podcast, and also a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.

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