This Was The Best Season Ever

The 2016 College Men's season calls for hyperbole.

Minnesota was flying high in the semifinals. Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
Minnesota’s run through Nationals was just one of many exciting story lines this season. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

It’s been more than two weeks since the sun set on Nationals and the 2016 college season, but I still can’t shake the euphoria over everything that went down in Raleigh. It was the culmination of an unbelievable men’s college season, a five month span that featured incredible games, thrilling rivalries, individual excellence, wild scandals, and zeitgeist-stirring moments that will live in ultimate lore for a long time to come.

2016 had it all and, in my mind, was the best men’s college season ever.

It’s easy to rush to judgement and call something that is still fresh “the best X ever.” Because of that impulse, there are people out there who think the 2016 Warriors are the best basketball team of all time (it’s the ’86 Celtics), that Lemonade is the best Beyoncé album (it’s 2013’s Beyoncé), and that this has been the craziest presidential primary ever (Williams Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech from the 1896 Democratic convention, in which he rhetorically and then literally invoked the crucifixion, is still the standard for batsh*t insanity and pageantry in American political history).

But in this case, I think reaching for hyperbole is the right move. This season was undeniable, combining entertainment and artistry with wild competition, and highlighting all of the progress the sport as a whole has made. 2016 was everything that we, the viewing audience, could have asked for.

What specifically made it so great? Let’s unpack the factors.

Great Rookies

It seems like we say it every year, but 2016 truly was “The Year of the Freshman.” Never before have we seen a rookie class that was so impactful, both in terms of freshmen taking big roles on top teams and talented rookies buoying mid-level teams across the country.

The ROTY Tannor Johnson was probably the most important — if not the outright best — player on UMass’s O-line. With the physicality of a player ten years his senior and a virtuoso’s feel for the game, Johnson played like almost no other rookie we’ve ever seen. Watching him play, it would have been impossible to tell he was a freshman without being told ahead of time — and even then it was hard to believe.

Even beyond Johnson, there were a host of freshman studs that in any other year could have been a worthy ROTY winner.

Xander Cuizon-Tice and Will Lohre from Oregon showed talent and experience beyond their years, establishing a cutting partnership that will form the bedrock of Ego’s O-line for seasons to come. That has to be a terrifying thought for the rest of the Northwest, and the rest of the division. I mean, just watch Tice roof Harvard’s David Reshef to keep Ego’s season alive in prequarters. Good luck to all the teams that have to deal with that for the next three years.

The champs from Minnesota had key freshmen on both side of the disc, with Sam Kaminsky starting and starring as an O-line handler and Cole Wallin tearing it up on D. Wallin was arguably Minnesota’s best defender before dislocating his elbow on a heroic bid against UMass in pre-Qs.

The list goes on and on, showing the depth of 2016’s stellar class. Elijah Long was a rock in the UNC backfield all year; Nick Hirning was the driving force for Stanford’s D-line; Joe Fruend was a grown-ass man for Virginia Tech… I could keep going but I think the point has been made; 2016’s freshman class was absolutely stellar.

Increased Emphasis On Early/Mid-Season Tournaments

The flood of great rookies washed over the country and left fertile soil from which teams could grow quickly, with many squads able to focus more on actually performing at early and mid-season tournaments, when in years past the only emphasis was on development. It is admittedly a pretty simple concept, but one that had a profound impact on the season: teams that have rosters capable of practicing complex pull plays and intricate defensive schemes in January and February are going to play more entertaining games than teams that still need practice swinging the disc off of the sideline.

We saw the results of this accelerated learning curve, with some amazing games from the year’s early offerings and teams that looked like they were already in top form by February. Minnesota rolled through Warm Up, which is usually a kiss of death — the team that has won Warm Up the past three years has failed to make it past the quarterfinals at Nationals — but Grey Duck were in high gear from Day One this season.

The best example of the quality of early season play this year came just a few hours from the spot where the season would end, as Charlotte played host to a QCTU final between UMass and UNC-Wilmington that was one of the best regular season games ever, and easily the best game ever played in February.

This may seem like more recency bias, but I was at that game, and I can tell you that it wasn’t like any early season game I’ve ever seen. Everyone watching could feel it in the air — both of those teams wanted it. It wasn’t necessarily just about winning the tournament and adding to the trophy case, the two teams were reacting to and thriving off the competitiveness of their opponent. It was something special to see in February, and if this becomes the new normal, the college season is going to become appointment viewing all season long.

Mid-Major Teams Closing The Gap

Another factor that led to the great tournaments we saw this season was the increased competition from the middle of the pack. In past years, there were maybe three or four teams that were seriously challenging to snag a strength bid from the predicted favorites. This season, there were over a dozen teams that all had genuine shots at pulling down a strength bid. This led to better games throughout the season, as the increased competition for bids forced top teams to take the regular season more seriously.

Now, mid-majors trying to make Nationals for the first time are like newly hatched turtles making a mad dash towards the ocean; only a handful will survive and most will get ruthlessly picked off by predators from higher rungs of the food chain1. However, a few teams were able to make it off the beach and into the calming waters of Nationals. Most notable was the squad from Cal Poly SLO, who hung around the Top 20 all year and then were able to pull off the big upset over Stanford at Regionals. Of course, at Nationals they got swallowed whole by Jeff Babbitt and UMass2, but SLO’s season was emblematic of the way that exciting outsider teams were able to shake up the established order and add some unexpected drama to the season.

One more thing that is too important for a footnote: BYU’s rise and fall was a perfect piece of drama and controversy that bridged the normally boring gap between the end of Easterns and Regionals. By earning an entirely legitimate strength bid, BYU put a gun to USAU’s head and forced a decision on whether or not USAU would accommodate the team’s “and on the 7th day… ” school-mandated ban on competing in Sunday competition. While USAU ultimately decided to stick to the rulebook and disqualify BYU, the controversy created some truly bizarre moments, most notably the 48 hour period when it seemed like USAU could get sued over their decision, which was wild. BYU handled the whole situation with grace, and the controversy this year may lead USAU to re-evaluate their policy in the off-season.

To cap it all off, BYU’s disqualification took a bid away from the Northwest and sent it to the Southeast, which was claimed by Auburn. Auburn would then go on to upset Pitt and Minnesota at Nationals and throw their pool into disarray, which would have never happened if BYU had not been DQ’d. Madness.

May Madness

Nationals this year was what you dream about when you picture high-caliber ultimate combined with shocking upsets, rousing comebacks, and standout individual performances. It was a refrain heard all year, but the field at Nationals was WIDE open going into championship weekend, and the insanity cum bath salts results back that up.

You can review all the wonderfully messy details in our roundup, but it suffices to say that 2016 was the craziest Nationals of the modern era. As recently as 2013, no team that had failed to win their pool had advanced to semis, while this year every single pool winner went down in quarters. The final was contested between two teams that finished third in their respective pool. John Stubbs came within a few points of actually ascending into the heavens as an immortal star child. Madness.

While the number one overall seed doesn’t always win Nationals, usually a team distinguishes themselves at the tournament and rolls through the competition in convincing fashion, leaving little doubt of the inevitable outcome by the final rounds. But this year’s champions Minnesota were gracious enough to drop two games in pool play, including a head scratcher to Auburn.  This made their run through the bracket all the more suspenseful, because while they were playing some incredible ultimate, their injuries and previous losses really conveyed the feeling that anything could happen.

The best team all season, UMass, was brought down by a Minnesota team that was having a Kevin Ware moment and started rolling only sevens.3

Wisconsin, the team that probably played the best overall ultimate at the tournament, went down in the quarterfinals in theatrical fashion; the rain had the dramatic timing of Chekhov, appearing in the beginning of the game and then returning for a third act twist that sunk the Hodags on one of the craziest final points of any game all season.

It was all a prelude for the wild semifinals that bore on late into Sunday night and early Monday morning, defying both the impending weather and more generally the concept of hyperbole. Stubbs, Vandenberg, and the rest of Harvard went toe-to-toe with the Darkside bench mob and hundreds of rabid Carolina fans while Minnesota’s “next duck up” inspired players overcame their string of injuries and Pitt’s legendary graduating class. Wrap all of that up with a raucous crowd that only got stronger as the night turned into morning and set it against a vivacious stormy sky that added the perfect magical backdrop to an unbelievable night, and the perfect culmination to an unbelievable season.

Quick Hits – Stray Factors That Made The Year Great

  • Lots of rain, but little wind! On the Men’s side at least, no tournaments were made irrelevant by windy conditions. While it rained incredibly hard at points during Stanford, Easterns, and Nationals, it never got significantly windy at any major tournament. Rain might not be ideal to play in (certainly not to broadcast in) but it generally doesn’t impact the actual game too much, and does more from a dramatic standpoint than anything else.4
  • Tons of film! Ultiworld filmed a bunch of games this season5, and in general there was a glut of footage available, from Jinx Cam to Periscope. We had access to a sheer number of games this season that would have boggled the mind of an ultimate fan just a few years ago.
  • Pride comes before the fall. But really, the most important thing that happened this season was Charlie and Keith losing the Nationals pick em’ contest. It led to the creation of this picture, which will outlast everything else from 2016, ultimate or otherwise.

Deep Look Observers

 


  1. Can someone please make a GIF of Dalton Smith’s head on a gull swooping down and snatching up baby turtle Jay Froude? STF fans out there, you’ve never failed me before. 

  2. Who in this extended analogy are one of those biblical sea monsters that make you go insane if you stare directly at it. 

  3. Check out the highlight video from that game. If nothing else, it’s probably the hardest a bunch of dudes from Minnesota wearing bike caps is ever going to look. 

  4. Unless you’re Wisconsin, of course. 

  5. Check out all the footage — from both divisions — in our college package at Ultiworld’s video store

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld and also a lawyer who lives in Washington DC. He hopes that his BA in History will prove to be valuable at some point. You can find him on twitter at @patstegs.

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