Everything you need to know from around the country heading into the spring season.
January 26, 2017 by Daniel Prentice, Katie Raynolds and Keith Raynor in Preview with 0 comments
The 2017 season has just begun, and the hyperboles are already forming. We’ve never seen a stronger field than in 2017. There have never been individual powerhouses like some of the women playing today. We’ve never witnessed stronger, smarter programs.
You get the idea.
January is well under way, but the cavalcade of headlining tournaments is about to begin. As the winter frost thaws off fields everywhere (fingers crossed), we hope you’ll use this 2017 primer to enjoy the best season of college women’s ultimate yet.
Stories to Watch
Stanford Reestablishing the Dynasty
#1 Stanford Superfly begins the 2017 season with nearly the same ingredients that won them the National title last year. They’re returning stars like Monisha White, Hallie Dunham, Courtney Gegg, and Shayla Harris. They know their roles, and they know their system. Even their practice players are other team’s former stars.
Stanford has been a dynasty team before. They have one of the most legendary records in the history of women’s collegiate ultimate: 8 national titles, including 7 earned in 11 years and two 3-year streaks. Superfly’s 2017 roster is well aware of their legacy, and they’re ready to add their own footnote to the team’s history.
Superfly’s first test of the season may be their biggest when they face #2 Whitman at Santa Barbara Invite this weekend. Last year’s loss in the final at SBI seems inconsequential in light of how Stanford ended the season, but with Whitman in attendance, SBI could become an early season battleground.
Whitman’s Title Trajectory
The #2 Whitman Sweets are taking pages from Stanford’s playbook. For the past 4 years they’ve placed progressively higher at nationals. In 2014, they tied for 17th place. The next year they tied for 5th, and last year they competed in the final, where they lost 10-12. Now there’s nowhere to go but the very top.
The Sweets still have a lot of high-impact players like Claire Revere, Alex Hardesty, Nina Finley, and Margo Heffron. It’s arguably the best group of handlers in the country with the divison’s best midfield weapon. And this spring, they’ll welcome a few more Seattle stars: Gwen Ambler and Rohre Titcomb are slated to coach Whitman this Spring.
Basically, everything you read about last year’s Whitman team is true again in 2017, except that now they have a taste of what’s it like to get very close and another year of experience. While Ari Lozano, Elissa Picozzi, Marlena Sloss, and Brenna Bailey are not back, additions like Team USA U20’s Chloe Caruthers-Liske will help make it easier to handle that transition. This year’s team may be a little more skill-heavy and a little less fleet of foot, but their extra knowledge of how to handle big games and new coaches should allow them to adjust effectively.
The Whitman Sweets have always been a captain-driven team, so it’s unlikely that their new coaching staff will throw out the Sweets’ playbook. But Ambler and Titcomb’s elite experience is legendary, and that’s just what Whitman needs to reach — and win — the final this year.
The Big Three Make Dartmouth Dangerous
#3 Dartmouth didn’t blow out every team at Florida Winter Classic, to the disappointment of the Ultiworld hype machine and Verzuh fangirls everywhere. The team did what many elite teams do at early season tournaments: they opened their lines and gave the middle of their roster valuable minutes against worthy competitors. The “Big Three” — Angela Zhu, Jaclyn Verzuh, and Julianna Werffeli — made jaw-dropping plays on command, and Princess Layout still won handily.
The world is lucky to get to watch Jaclyn Verzuh play this sport. She changes the shape of the field whenever she’s on regardless of whether she touches the disc. She passes and cuts with the grace and humility of a veteran, then she jumps, bids, and runs with all the strength and speed of someone in their athletic prime. And yet she’s still only 19.
Joined by recent Club champions Angela Zhu and Julianna Werffeli, these “Big Three” will simply outplay most of the teams they face. Their chemistry and power will make Dartmouth one of the most entertaining teams to watch this season. Get your popcorn ready.
Western Washington Looking to Rise
#6 WWU Chaos had an exceptional weekend at Bellingham Invite: they went undefeated on Saturday with wins over Oregon, Victoria, and Washington, and on Sunday they had a one point loss to UBC in the tournament final.
This year’s Chaos is deep, talented, and full of energy. They have perhaps the best rookie class in the country with Ruby Cassidy (2016 WJUC National Team), Eleanor Heberlein (St. Paul), Riley Tauer (Eden Prairie), and Hue Tien (Cleveland High School). Junior Maddie Gilbert is coming into her own and already making a case for Breakout Player of the Year. She’s the perfect five-tool player to energize Western’s offensive flow, and it seems like she’s just getting warmed up. Her fellow Seattle youth ultimate descendants, Samiya Ismail, Jesse Thoreson, and Tiffany Phan, are ready to be stars for Chaos, and the team’s deep game looks strong.
Chaos didn’t have enough firepower at last year’s College Championships to make an impact and, despite fielding talented and highly ranked teams in the past, the program has never managed to get into the bracket or land a top ten finish. Their run at Bellingham Invite already shows they’re ready to rewrite their regional script and perhaps be a presence in Cincinnati.
Vert Stack’s Back, Alright
Sometime in the last ten years, the vert stack developed a bad reputation. Competitive teams saw it as an overly simplistic offense. Defenses picked up on the patterns and had strong defenses ready for them. The vert stack worked for pickup games or beginners, sure, but if you were a “serious team,” you ran a sophisticated horizontal stack to create more opportunities to attack.
Well, the vert stack is back. Several elite teams at 2016 Club Nationals ran primarily vert stack, including the champions Brute Squad and their final opponents Riot. The old-then-new-again offense favored each team’s personnel and their throws, and it set some defenses on their heels early.
Like clockwork, the vert stack is returning to the college division, too. UBC, Washington, and Western Washington all ran primarily vert stack at Bellingham Invite, and Dartmouth was running some vert stack during Florida Winter Classic.
It could be coincidence that several of these teams have crossover with the Club teams that ran vert. Riot’s Alyssa Weatherford coaches Western Washington, and all of Dartmouth’s Big Three played for Riot or Brute Squad. It’s also possible that the division is undergoing a bigger transition in 2017. Teams feel comfortable enough to explore what offenses work for their roster instead of sticking to the most common plays of the day.
North Carolina Could Rise Up
Ok, so this isn’t the first time #14 UNC has made their way into our season preview coverage touted as a potential team on the upswing. You’d be forgiven for being skeptical of a team that hasn’t qualified for Nationals in four years and hasn’t won a bid for their region in that time either, despite finishing in Ultiworld’s Top 25 in both 2014 and 2016. While North Carolina’s fall from national relevance began with Lisa Couper’s ACL injury in 2014, they had settled in as a second fiddle long before that. In eight of the last nine seasons, they lost in the Atlantic Coast final; three of the last four years, they’ve been the first team out in the AC.
You can see how they tempt every year, because they are so close to breaking back in. If there was ever a year to believe, why not the season they return a budding star and add another, both of whom played on the All Star Ultimate Tour this summer? Jenny Wei’s steadying veteran presence is the centerpiece of the team, particularly on defense, where she’s a voracious deep defender. Adding Lindsay Soo, one of the top D3 players in the country at Wake Forest, gives them another powerful cutter. Elisabeth Parker, Vany Nguyen, and the increasingly strong play of Bridget Johnson make them more than just a two woman show.
The Atlantic Coast is not exactly up for grabs. #11 Virginia stands strong on top of the region, casting a large and looming shadow. UNC may have what it takes to topple Hydra, but they would be better served generating a strength bid for the region with strong showings at QCTU, Commonwealth Cup, and Northwest Challenge.
The Sunset of the Oregon Fugue Era
#7 Oregon Fugue has been at the forefront of the college women’s division for nearly a decade. They’ve been to the semifinals every year since 2008, appearing in the finals five times and winning three National Championships. Many of the game’s brightest stars have laced up cleats for Fugue: Sherwood, Darch, Kaylor, Shofner. One of the game’s most respected minds, Lou Burruss, led them and instilled a now famous philosophy.
Perhaps only slightly less important than their sustained success was that they developed a signature style of play. They were distinctly Fugue. Nobody could do what they did as well as they did. Oregon blazed a new trail, did things their own way, and did it with so much swagger and flare that you couldn’t help but watch. They created new fans of women’s ultimate with their speed, fire, and highlights.
Don’t start digging the grave just yet. Very few have had the guts to bet against Oregon over the years, and rightfully so. They are still considered a top ten team capable of winning elite events. They still have stars like Ella Hansen and Hayley Wahlroos. They still play their own watermarked game. Sarafina Angstadt-Leto, Morgan Caldwell, and Lillian Weaver will make sure Fugue can continue to compete with upper-echelon teams.
But does the approach of Fugue inspire the same fear, awe, and respect it once did? Is this the end of their era? This season will likely provide us those answers. Nothing lasts forever.
Another Year of Surprises
The rankings seemed so sure last year going into Nationals. Oregon reigned, and only powerhouses like UBC, Central Florida, or Stanford could contend.
How wrong we were, and how fun it was. The top end of the rankings seemed untouchable until they weren’t, and it’s a lesson we shouldn’t forget. It only takes a game at Nationals for contenders like #5 Texas Melee, #9 Pittsburgh Danger, and Virginia Hydra to crack the elite ceiling. Fall darlings like North Carolina, #13 Ohio State, and #12 USC provide real threats at elite events. Oh, and there’s still this year’s iterations of Oregon and #4 UBC.
The second level of teams in the rankings (#6 – #15) will shift a lot over the next few months, but the top 5 teams aren’t as safe as they used to be. Another year of clear rankings mobility and surprise late season performances may herald a truer level of parity than we have seen in the modern ultimate era. More importantly, it would be thrilling and fun to watch.
Virginia Hydra is the clear favorite in the Atlantic Coast again this year. UNC Pleiades and UNC-W Seaweed have struggled to challenge Virginia during their five year reign over the AC, and Hydra is coming off the best season in program history. The depth and structure of an experienced UVA squad makes them again the favorite.
However, Jenny Wei and UNC had a strong fall and have a lot of motivation, given their recent history of just missing out on a return to the College Championships. The addition of Lindsay Soo — who plays for the club team Phoenix, traveled with the All-Star Ultimate Tour last summer, and is now attending UNC for graduate school — means the Pleiades have two big, strong cutters to pair with Elisabeth Parker’s evolving handler skills.
It doesn’t look like there are any other major challengers in the region, but we’ve been wrong before. Wilmington, Maryland, Clemson, and others have demonstrated in the past they can net upsets, and NC State is a team some are looking at to take a big leap.
#10 Michigan Flywheel is poised to dominate in the Great Lakes again… if it weren’t for that pesky #25 Notre Dame team. Notre Dame was a point away from upsetting Michigan in the regional semifinal, and this season they’re doubling down by attending both Queen City Tune-Up and Northwest Challenge. Julia Butterfield and MK Anderson will bring back Womb’s power and speed this season.
Michigan Flywheel gets one more year of Hannah Henkin and Tracey Lo together, and they’ll make the most of it. Flywheel has a more talented bench of midfield contributors than they’ve had in recent years, with Leah Bar-On Simmons, Grace Denney, and Lizzy Benedetto leading the charge. Plus, they’ve added Vivian Chu, formerly of Illinois. Their goal again this season is to hold their seat on top of the region.
The Metro East region has sent a different team to Nationals for each of the past three years. Last year’s regional champion, the Ottawa Lady Geegees, seem like the early favorite again this season. They beat Cornell in the final at Fall Brawl in November, and they’re returning some of their most effective playmakers, like Camille Bedard and Corrine Giorgetti.
However, there’s never an easy road in the ME. Cornell has been consistently strong over the years. Princeton, with a healthy Jane Urheim, perhaps the region’s best player, will be threatening again after a down year while Urheim was sidelined. Or perhaps UConn, after two straight years of advancing deep on Sunday, can get over the hump in the much maligned region; they have a large contingent of hungry returners. Columbia, led by star Sophie Hulbert, could also be in contention to continue the streak of different teams winning the region and send them to their first-ever Nationals.
Make no mistake that Dartmouth is heavily favored to repeat at the champion of the New England region after narrowly navigating the division’s most thrilling Regionals in 2016. A quality group of challengers is attempting to unseat them, but would love to return to a multi-bid region and dodge the Dartmouth bullet.
#19 Tufts and #22 Vermont look like the region’s best chances for earning additional bids. Vermont’s veteran squad got their season underway at Florida Winter Classic and could build on an excellent 2016. Tufts has a nice blend of returners, such as Laura Fradin and Rachel Kramer, and new talent, like Hannah Wells and Claire Dunn, that could lead Ewo back to their first Nationals since 2014. Northeastern’s dynamic combo of Arielle Nelson and Sam Gray could be enough to propel the Valkyries into notoriety.
The playing field has evened in the Great White North. Wisconsin Bella Donna graduated their program’s stalwarts (Anna Hrovat-Staedter and Lorraine Guerin) while #21 Carleton picked up some much-needed young talent (Seattle’s Maya Powell, Emma Goidel, and Emma Gautier). These teams know each other well, having played each other in the past two North Central regional finals. While both teams will travel around the country to face stronger competition, count on seeing them again in the final come April.
Minnesota lost a whopping 15 players this year, but their roster is deep enough to keep them in the North Central conversation. This isn’t their year to qualify, but they could make the road tougher, accompanied by the usual suspects in Iowa State and Iowa’s fierce deep game.
The strong keep getting stronger. The Northwest region is nearly guaranteed five bids again between Whitman’s dominance, Western Washington’s rising star, and the evergreen talent of #16 University of Washington, #7 Oregon, and #4 UBC.
Whitman is well-positioned for another banner year, especially with their new coaching staff: Gwen Ambler and Rohre Titcomb. Western Washington has done their best to make noise early by beating Washington and Oregon at Bellingham Invite, getting great contributions from a strong freshmen class.
There are more questions, however, about the region’s stalwarts. A lot of talent left UBC, Oregon, and Washington, and seeing how they put together the remaining pieces will be intriguing. All three, however, still have to be considered some of the best teams in the country, returning some very strong players and having proved themselves as true programs. The region packs four top ten teams and a number of the best players in college. Basically, there’s no sign of weakness from the empire.
Pittsburgh Danger is returning a strong cast of athletes from their 2016 nationals team, and players like Carolyn Normile and Linda Morse are ready to dominate together this year. Pitt is likely to carry the Ohio Valley auto bid, putting pressure on Ohio State to earn the region another spot in Cincinnati.
Ohio State has all the necessary programmatic elements for success, but every year their raw firepower diminishes. Sadie Jezierski, Stevie Miller, and Alaine Wetli will keep Fever in the Top 25, but their status after a strong fall and solid but unspectacular Florida Winter Classic puts them on the bubble for a strength bid. Upstart Case Western is the region’s next top squad, but Cincinnati did put up a solid showing at Florida Winter Classic to their their name into the hat.
At the top of the region, Texas and #8 Colorado Kali are ready to renew their awesome rivalry. Both teams are looking at quarters — or even semis — at Nationals, but take great pride in winning the South Central. Last year’s series went 2-1 in favor of Colorado, who won both the regional final and the team’s prequarters tussle. Both teams are heavy on returners, including the top end of their roster, and look like the clear best two teams in the region again this season.
However, #24 Colorado College, #23 Kansas, and Colorado State have a long history of spoiling the plans of the bigger programs and won’t easily settle into a bystander role in the always-heated SC. Colorado College has a nice core of returners in the backfield and Kansas looked solid at Florida Winter Classic behind Clare Frantz and Kelsey Akin.
A year after UCF completely ran over the Southeast, the Sirens leave a vacuum of power at the top of the region. Virtually all of their contributors from a year ago are gone and the team is very much in a rebuilding period. The team looks like it might struggle to even qualify for Regionals, let alone push for another Nationals berth.
In their absence, it appears that #17 Georgia Tech is poised to emerge as the regional favorite. Surprise second place finishers a season ago, head coach Maddy Frey’s program has steadily improved over the years and now looks set for at least a season on top, if not more. The veteran leaders of the team, Ashley Brown, Taylor Hartmann, and Julia Ting are now being supported by star young players like Ollie Peterson. Georgia Tech has a rare opportunity to be the most talented — and simultaneously most experienced — team in the Southeast, but what really makes Tech dangerous is their ability to play their own game better than anyone else in the region.
Tech will not be without regional rivals though, adding a bit of intrigue to the Southeast that was absent a season ago. #20 Florida announced themselves as Tech’s biggest challengers with an impressive FWC performance. FUEL is replete with top end athletes, especially with the return of Tori Taylor for a 5th year, and Kelsea LeBeau and Lucy Berman are strong distributors. If their second place finish in Apopka is any indication, then perhaps the Southeast won’t be the one bid region many expected it to be. Georgia, Kennesaw State, and Florida State all have the potential to cause a stir at Regionals, but aren’t quite at the level to be regular season top 25 teams.
While it may lack a true title contender like it had in 2016, the Southeast has much better depth and should provide a greater variety of regional storylines this year.
The Southwest region sent four teams to the College Championships in 2016, and they came home with a national title. Don’t expect dramatic changes this year: Stanford is still one of the five best teams in the country and any other movement in the Southwest simply shuffles the rankings below Superfly.
#12 USC proved early in the season that they won’t settle for third in the region this year. Their blowout upset over #14 UCLA at KFall made a strong early season, and they’ll have another chance at Santa Barbara Invite to establish the upper hand over their crosstown rival through Julia Johnson and Alyssa Perez’s handling power.
UCLA and #18 California both lost divisional stars — Kristen Pojunis and Callahan winner Marisa Rafter, respectively — but their programs and depth keep them in the conversation; they won’t have to worry about earning bids, just winning them. Blu star Han Chen is one of the frontrunners for Player of the Year, and she, Maria Kazantsev, and Camille Wilson anchor UCLA on both sides of the disc. Cal has one of the division’s most thrilling cutters in Jackelyne Nguyen and has a strong young handler in sophomore Anna Wysen.
Players to Watch
Claire Revere (Whitman) – Revere’s elite ultimate resume is well-established, and she’s not even out of college yet. Revere has the experience and the raw highlight-reel talent downfield to lead Whitman back to the final in 2017. She’s got a vicious first step and dynamite footwork to create separation and is a skillful thrower that can turn the tide of a game with her complete skillset.
Han Chen (UCLA) – There are few players in the division who have the combination of athleticism, physical presence, and skill that Han Chen has. The runner-up for Player of the Year last season, Chen will be one of the scariest forces to shut down this season. She owns the deep space of every field she defends, and she can place pinpoint throws to her ready receivers.
Jenny Wei (North Carolina) – Wei has been a well-kept secret in the college game for a few years now; with North Carolina stuck on the fringes of the national conversation during her time there, she hasn’t had that big stage to show off her elite level of play. That changed last summer with the All-Star Tour and her coming out party with club team Phoenix. Wei’s athleticism, throws, and seemingly eternal smile make her one of the most entertaining players in the college game, and with UNC now poised to make a real run at Nationals, Wei could finally show that at the college game’s biggest stage as well.
Sadie Jezierski (Ohio State) – The first Fever player most will probably think of is Stevie Miller. But those who have watched Ohio State closely over the past couple of years know that they are far from a one-woman team. Jezierski, in fact, might actually be the best player on the roster and, at the very least, is the most fun to watch. Jezierski possesses a rare explosiveness that sees her dominate all over the field. She is also a strong thrower, and never afraid to rip a vicious forehand downfield. Thanks to two stints on the All-Star Tour, Miller brings the name recognition to this year’s Fever team, but Jezierski should join her in that regard this season.
Angela Zhu (Dartmouth) – Zhu was the runner-up Defensive Player of the Year last year… in the Club division. Where her team won the title, again. After winning the Offensive Player of the Year in college in 2016. At the college level, Zhu handles with confidence and flair, and her defensive intensity rounds out Dartmouth’s elite pedigree this season. Plus, her ability to pick apart zones will punish teams that attempt to use junk defenses to combat her team’s highly touted stars.
Carolyn Normile (Pittsburgh) – Normile works hard on the field for Pittsburgh, and her speed and talent with the disc make her a nightmare to cover. Every year her command of the field and of Danger’s play builds and builds, and this is her final chance to take Danger deep at Nationals. Versatility and effort signify her game and now, thanks to Normile, extend throughout Pitt’s roster.
Jaclyn Verzuh (Dartmouth) – There might be better, more polished ultimate players in the women’s college game right now, but there is definitely no one as purely, athletically overwhelming as Verzuh. She’s one of the biggest names and talents at the club level and it doesn’t seem fair that she’s currently competing against college players. At just 19, she still has plenty of time to refine the details of her game, which should be a terrifying thought for her opponents, because she’s already at a level to dominate the division. As the biggest part — literally — of Dartmouth’s Big Three and healthy for the regular season, Verzuh is ready to set fire to the division this season.
Hannah Henkin (Michigan) – On the field, Henkin epitomizes smoothness. Whether its her effortless break throws, or her apparent inability to ever be flustered by the moment, Henkin exudes a virtuosic blend of calmness and expertise. Henkin also brings an overtly exciting athleticism to the game, too. While her demeanor and exquisite throwing prowess may take a cognoscente to fully appreciate, her layouts are more than enough to excite even the most lay of fans. Henkin and Michigan are poised for a big year and if they live up to that potential, then she will provide all ultimate fans plenty to enjoy.
Ella Hansen (Oregon) – Ella Hansen steps into the fabled role of “star Fugue player” this year as the program bids farewell to the latest generation of legends. Hansen was already getting attention last year for her monster pulls and her defense, but she’ll have a lot more on her plate this season as a core handler for Oregon. She was stellar for Portland Schwa this club season and is poised to be a huge playmaker.
Andrea Esparza (Texas) – Andrea Esparza’s return for a 5th year with Melee was enough to boost the Texas team a few spots in the rankings during the pre-season. Esparza is a crafty, athletic defender who makes herself part of plays no matter who has possession. Moreover, she’s consistent on the field, and Melee will be relying on her a lot this season to carry their defensive line.
Courtney Gegg (Stanford) – It didn’t take long for Gegg to became one of the best goal scorers in the division, a towering offensive cutting centerpiece. Few players have someone to manage her in the deep space, and in her third year, her throwing abilities have developed enough to punish teams for backing her. Superior athleticism and effort are hallmarks of her game.
Keep Your Eye On
- Linda Morse (Pittsburgh)
- Julianna Werffeli (Dartmouth)
- Keila Strick (Virginia)
- Jackelyne Nguyen (UC Berkeley)
- Hallie Dunham (Stanford)
- Leah Bar-On Simmons (Michigan)
- Jane Urheim (Princeton)
- Camille Wilson (UCLA)
- Elisabeth Parker (UNC)
- Anneke Vermaak (Wisconsin)
- Taylor Hartman (Georgia Tech)
- Caitlin Go (Stanford)
- Maddie Gilbert (Western Washington)
- Sophie Johansen (Washington)
- Julia Schmaltz (Texas)
Tournaments of Note
Section will be updated as new information becomes available
Florida Winter Classic
January 14-15, 2017
Results: 1. Dartmouth 2. Florida 3. Ohio State 4. Vermont
Santa Barbara Invite
January 27-29, 2017
Santa Barbara, CA
Teams to Watch: Stanford, Whitman, Southern California, UCLA, UC Berkeley
Queen City Tune Up
February 4-5, 2017
Teams to Watch: Pittsburgh, Michigan, Virginia, Ohio State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Tufts, Florida, Carleton, Notre Dame
President’s Day Invite
February 18-20, 2017
San Diego, CA
Teams to Watch: Stanford, Texas, Western Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Southern California, UCLA, Washington, UC Berkeley, Carleton, Colorado College
February 25-26, 2017
Teams to Watch: Pittsburgh, Virginia, North Carolina
March 4-5, 2017
Teams to Watch: Stanford, Whitman, Dartmouth, UBC, Texas, Western Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Michigan, Southern California, Ohio State, UCLA, Washington, UC Berkeley, Colorado College
Women’s College Centex
March 18-19, 2017
Teams to Watch: Texas, Ohio State, Tufts, Florida, Kansas, Colorado College
March 24-26, 2017
Seattle & Burlington, WA
Teams to Watch: Stanford, Whitman, Dartmouth, UBC, Western Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Michigan, Virginia, Southern California, North Carolina, UCLA, Washington, UC Berkeley, Georgia Tech, Carleton, Vermont
Our prognosticators had a lot of similarities for the first 18 or so spots. There seems to be a final bid or two floating around between the Northwest, South Central, Southwest, North Central, and New England regions. With the Atlantic Coast getting 2s across the board, it looks like there’s faith North Carolina, or another team, can help make the region two bid once more.
|Atlantic Coast||Great Lakes||Metro East||New England||North Central||Northwest||Ohio Valley||South Central||Southeast||Southwest|