Which player would you most want leading your team at Nationals this weekend?
May 22, 2018 by Katie Raynolds, Daniel Prentice, Graham Gerhart and Steve Sullivan in Opinion with 0 comments
College ultimate is filled with stars. Some play in high profile environments, get reps for elite club teams, or play in international competition. Others compete with deep squads that don’t always make them the headliner for their team. Still others ply their trade for off-the-radar programs that dim their limelight. But our coverage team tries to see them all.
So who are the best players in college ultimate right now? To try to clear away as much of the white noise created by circumstance as possible and get to the heart of each individual’s value and contribution, we asked five of our contributors this question:
If you were starting a college team right after the end of the regular season, with the express goal of winning the 2018 College Championships, how would you rank the players within the division?
We each listed out our top 25 players, then combined our lists to create a composite ranking. Here’s how the Top 10 shook out (you can find #11-25 here if you’re a subscriber).
|Jaclyn Verzuh (Dartmouth)
|Ellen Au-Yeung (British Columbia)
|Carolyn Normile (Pittsburgh)
|Ella Hansen (Oregon)
|Jenny Wei (North Carolina)
|Dena Elimelech (UC San Diego)
|Julianna Werffeli (Dartmouth)
|Julia Butterfield (Stanford)
|Maddie Gilbert (Western Washington)
|Sadie Jezierski (Ohio State)
With the composite list in place, we debated our selections, our snubs, and our pet favorite players. But first, a bit more on how we each approached this thought experiment.
What elements did you most or least favor when compiling your lists?
Graham Gerhart (Women’s Division Reporter): I had two main things that I chose as parameters:
- Disregarded club & Worlds experience (Some people have more opportunities than others. Some people choose to take their summer off. Some people work. Etc.)
- Players had to have had a positive impact on their team this season.
Then I weighted their growth and playmaking ability over the past few college seasons. Particularly, focusing on this season but not disregarding their previous accomplishments. I also took into consideration how well they performed with the personnel around them. It’s easier to look good when you have an excellent team around you (part of the reason I was hesitant to use club & Worlds experience).
The eye test was my final criteria.
Keith Raynor (Managing Editor): I was looking for players with a demonstrated ability to dominate at the college level. While looking at club and international play helped me evaluate their skillsets, the constraints of playing in the college environment are specific. Dominance is highly rewarded because of an individual’s ability to take over at the college level, where skill varies widely across the roster. So skillsets where a player offered versatility and dominance were prioritized for me, as well as demonstrated excellence in college play.
While I definitely focused on this season, I was willing to include as much data as I could garner. I also thought there’s value in increasing college sample size with multiple seasons, since a one-season sample size could present problems with evaluation.
The prompt of who would help me win a championship this season is straightforward enough that I let it guide my thinking.
Graham: I’d say my biggest problem with looking at these players with their club and Worlds experience is that they aren’t playing with the same standard of talent in college. There are definitely players who are in the top 25 conversation that I excluded because they could not lead their college team to new heights despite admirable club seasons last year.
This isn’t about which college players you could build a club team around, it’s about which college players you could build a college team around.
Daniel Prentice (Women’s Reporter): I think I probably struggled with my criteria and the confines of the rankings the most out of all of us. In general, I valued throwing skill a lot, more so than unique athleticism, and I tried to value consistency over flashiness. Like Keith, I factored in as much information as I realistically could: club performances, Worlds performances, previous college Nationals experiences.
I probably weighted club impact more than anyone else did, but my reasoning for that was fairly simple. If players can show out against the best competition in the world, then they can probably do the same at the college level too. I get the arguments about building a club team and college team being different. But in a vacuum, it felt impossible to determine what sort of talent the players would be surrounded by in this context. For example, I don’t think if you added any of these players to the 50th best team in the country, they’d have a realistic chance at winning college Nationals. Ultimately, I won’t say I ignored that thought entirely, but I think it was a smaller factor in my rankings.
Katie Raynolds (Women’s D-I College Editor): The prompt of “build a team who would win Nationals” drove me to several major factors:
- Are they effective on offense and defense?
- Do they have “big game” experience?
- Are they high impact on their college teams currently?
I chose to draw from more than just this college season, with the exception that if I thought a player was under-performing this season, I didn’t use their past performance to keep them on the list. I don’t think I focused more on cutting or throwing, per se, but I considered consistency tournament to tournament and defensive impact. Club and Worlds experience influenced how I ranked my top ten, since some of those players (like Gilbert) have proven they can execute on the big stage even if their college team hasn’t been there recently.
Dude, ranking the bottom of these lists was tough, and often I’ll admit it felt more instinctual than analytic. But I guess that’s what years of doing this gets me…?
Steve Sullivan (Executive Editor): So I think I may have looked at this question slightly differently than others. I wasn’t drafting an all-star team similar to a U24 roster, nor was I trying to say “which player, if I stuck them on the 50th best college team in the country, could lead them to a National Championship.” Both of those are unrealistic versions of a college champion. Instead, my thought process was essentially, “assuming you have a roster of players good enough to be in the conversation to win a title in 2018–basically any team that’s a generic Nationals quarterfinalist with a ceiling as high as their best player can drag them–which players would I feel most confident betting on to lead their team to win in that position?”
At the top end, that meant I was looking for players that have the singular talent and/or intangible qualities necessary to go on a personal hot streak that wins their team three straight bracket games against the best the division has to offer. For that, I considered all available information at my disposal: current college season, past performance, club and international experience, etc. with little preference for position–dominators can dominate from anywhere on the field. I think the list of players that fall into this category is around 10-15 deep, and you absolutely MUST have at least one of those players to truly have a chance to win. And given how stacked the teams at the top end of the women’s division tend to be, you might actually need two.
For the back half of my list, I made an assumption that I had one of the above players and was choosing which next-tier stars I wanted around as a complement. They are players I don’t think are quite at the level to be the centerpiece on a college championship roster, but are the players I’d thank my lucky stars to have as secondary pieces.
As you’ll see in some of my arguments, that means my rankings justifications are a little incongruent–things I valued at the top are less important near the bottom and vice versa.
While the top spot was obvious and unanimous, it’s pretty remarkable that with five of us watching essentially the same ultimate, not a single player earned more than one selection as no. 2. We have to figure out who the heck no. 2 is here. What’s the case for Julianna Werffeli?
Katie: I am insulted that you did not all have Julianna Werffeli as the clear no. 2. She has been an elite defender and handler at the club AND collegiate level, and is possibly POTY over Jaclyn Verzuh this season. The only way teams have shut her down is guarding her with four damn women in a gigantic zone.
Daniel: I wouldn’t say she’s been an elite handler at the club division. She’s very solid, but I don’t think she’s top tier at the highest level right now.
Steve: To be fair, I legitimately thought about having her no. 2 as well, just felt silly having two Dartmouth players there above everyone else. She has been absolutely dominant on both sides of the disc all season.
Graham: Werffeli is the no. 2 on her own team. She’s talented, but I don’t think she’d look as good without Jaclyn, Caitlyn Lee, and Claire Trop on her team.
Katie: I don’t think any of them are favorites to be National Champions without her.
Steve: Literally the only player we all agree on is at no. 1. I think Dartmouth are still favorites without Werf, but she is the reason they’re super-favorites.
Keith: I have trouble rating Werffeli precisely because she’s always doing it surrounded by amazing talent and never as the top dog. But even when Carolyn Normile or Ellen Au-Yeung are surrounded by the best, they still often look like the best player on the field.
Graham: I agree Werffeli is a strong handler, among the best in the college division. There are just others in the division that I still think could take Dartmouth to Nationals. Perhaps with better odds, to be honest.
Daniel: Werf is the perfect player for that Dartmouth team. Incredibly solid at everything. She may not have the same individual takeover ability as some of the other players at the top of our lists, so I see why others would have her lower. But it’s so rare to find someone as dependable as she is at every facet of the game. And maybe the only reason we have that perception of her is because of the talent she plays with. On any other team, she’d be the top player and perhaps a little more exciting in contexts like this draft.
Katie: Ooooh, I disagree in so many ways, my dear Prentice.
Graham: I agree in so many ways, my dear Prentice.
Katie: Werf and Au-Yeung have been consistent for several years in several divisions, and they currently lead their teams on both sides of the disc.
Keith: Graham, you have Werffeli the lowest of all of us. What’s the case against her?
Graham: My argument against Werffeli is that she has always been surrounded by top talent and it’s really easy to look good when you have that around you. In the (limited) footage I’ve seen this season, she hasn’t been “lights out” so much as a rock that Dartmouth can depend on. Nothing shows me that she’s a star except for her lockdown defense of Kelli Iwamoto, who’s about 5″0′. I chose standouts over players that were dependably good. I’m looking for greatness here.
Katie: As someone who loves watching defense, I think it’s often tougher to notice when a player is executing excellent handler defense, and that’s a big part of why I think she’s a great defender–you can tell she’s a good handler defender, from her numerous handblocks to her shutdown of reset cuts.
Often at the college level, the team’s best players are their handlers. Shutting down those stars–like Iwamoto, for example–crushes a team in a more efficient way than taking out one cutter. All of which is to say, between the two, I’ll take amazing handler D over flashy plays downfield when making a team.
Graham: All I’ll say in response is that I’ve seen every player I ranked above her be explosive and impactful more consistently than I’ve seen Werffeli. Despite all her other gifts, explosive is not a term I’d use to describe her.
Despite no one ranking her no. 2, Carolyn Normile ended up with the second highest average ranking. How?
Steve: I’m amazed that I, as a mixed player1 who has been directly impacted by Normile’s incredible skill, am the one to rank her the lowest. Having played against Normile several times over the last couple club seasons, I am fully aware of just how incredible a player she is. She’d absolutely be one of the first players I’m drafting to join my mixed club team, so I was really sad to find out I was the outlier in ranking her outside the top 5 here.
I guess the reason I had her so “low” is that her skills and mindset seem like a better fit for playing with other high-skill players. Her most valuable traits at the club and international level don’t necessarily translate to being a singular takeover college stud; from what I’ve seen of her at Pitt,2 she too frequently wants to make the “right” play, keep her teammates involved, and play a little more conservatively than her skill would allow. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the hell out of those traits and I have also seen her occasionally take over for stretches, but somehow I still wonder if she has the killer instinct as much as some of her peers at the top of these rankings. I may well be wrong on that account and I’ll be plenty happy if she proves me so with a dominating run at Nationals. Despite being the outlier here, I’m a huge Normile fan.
Daniel: Funny enough, Steve, all your reasons for knocking Normile down on your list are my reasons for having her so high on my list. She’s an absolute rock in the backfield. She arguably the best pure handler in women’s college ultimate, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that I don’t have to worry about the poor decisions some of her peers make when trying to do a little too much.
Katie: I also think that in making an “all-star team”, your reasons for ranking her lower, in fact, make her more of a power player on a stacked team. She lead the U24 women’s team in goals AND assists,3 which is utterly insane. I see your rationale, Steve, but I think she’d play even better on a stacked team like the one we’re all building and debating about.
Steve: You’re absolutely right that if she’s playing on a roster with multiple other elite players, she probably “levels-up” more than almost anyone else, since her skills and intangibles are a perfect fit for getting the most out of her team. But if THE championship moment comes down to her making THE play, I’d almost rather have someone in that spot who is more willing and comfortable being an absolute alpha.
Keith, you were the clear outlier on Butterfield. Why do you have her so high?
Keith: I have to say that I was pretty shocked how low our team was on Butterfield, who I have at no. 2. If it wasn’t for Verzuh’s presence, I think she’d be the premier offensive weapon in the division. Has monster hucks and solid enough break throws that she can make you pay under, and patrols the skies as well as any player in the division. And she’s a gamer, a big time playmaker who can find a way to make that crazy catch when you need it.
Anybody know the list of players with at least 15 goals and 10 assists at Nationals last year? Verzuh, Gegg, and Butterfield. She’s one of two women to lead her team in both assists and goals at 2017 Nationals.4 Heck, she was putting up a double double back in 2015!5
Ok, so maybe stats don’t tell the whole story. Read these words:
“Butterfield and Verzuh less of factors in this semifinal so far. They have been guarding each other and canceling each other out.” -Katie Raynolds via @UltiworldLive
“Canceling each other out.” Who else is canceling out the most dominant woman in college ultimate history? She even beat Verzuh on a huck to go up 13-12 in their NW Challenge semifinal matchup. How many women in the entire division have caught a huck when Verzuh was anywhere within a mile of them?
I understand a lot of my argument here is her ability to go toe-to-toe with Verzuh, but what bar is higher than that? She was crushing prior to this, and now she’s inherited a role in an offense that allows her to flourish6 and there are simply few, if any, non-Verzuh players who can do what she does.
Daniel: For the record, I didn’t rank players with any thought about who they’d be going up against. That didn’t really feel like a natural part of the exercise.
Butterfield is great, and brings a unique skillset to the field. But she doesn’t have as much pure skill as the players I have above her. Her stats from last year are off the charts, but her usage was also insanely high. Now she’s thriving on a team that puts her skillset into a role built to take advantage of her strengths. She’s like Kevin Love or Chris Bosh, putting up gaudy numbers before moving to a deeper, more talented team and playing at an all-star level in a more focused role. She’s undeniably a great player, but in a vacuum, she simply is not the second best player I’d want to build a team around to win a championship.
Graham: Well said, Dan.
Keith: I don’t think I agree with this NBA comparison. She’s less borderline All Star and just still a total takeover player. Sure, she doesn’t have to do everything anymore, so her stats will shrink a bit, but I think come Nationals, you’re still going to see her putting up a double-double.
Daniel: I’ll admit that K-Love and Bosh aren’t perfect comparisons for Butterfield. She’s nearer the top of the division than they ever were the NBA. But like Katie, I think she’s more a fringe top 10 than a bona fide top 5. Perhaps she’s more like DeMarcus Cousins. One of the game’s greatest bigs, but I’m always gonna pick the elite five-tool players first.
Katie: Okay, I don’t watch basketball so that all goes over my head.7 But Keith, you are selling me with your Verzuh vs. Butterfield argument. I have her ranked higher than Dan or Steve do–Graham has her one spot higher–but I still think no. 7 or no. 8 is the right spot for her skillset.
Keith: I feel pretty confident that after Nationals, I’ll be the closest to reality, no whammies.
Steve: Keith is right that there is an argument to be made here that any squad without Verzuh must first and foremost consider how to limit her impact in order to have a chance to win. In that case, Butterfield is probably your best bet. I concede that, with consideration also of Dena Elimelech.
But to extend the NBA comparisons a bit further, this exercise is a little like being any team in the Eastern Conference over the past decade that doesn’t have LeBron on their roster: you have to construct your entire strategy around the idea that you need to beat him personally to advance–and it still hasn’t actually worked for anyone IN SEVEN YEARS. After watching Verzuh’s performance in Cincinnati last season–particularly how much she dunked on Schmaltz in the final, who was the consensus best “Verzuh-canceler” in the division and who had herself dunked on everyone all weekend leading up to that point–I’m prepared to consider that it just might not matter.
So I think the counter argument here–and why I ultimately moved Butterfield down a bit–is playing out the scenario where Verzuh gets injured and NOW who has the best chance. If Butterfield was selected primarily as my Jaclyn-stopper, but now that script is out the window, I’m honestly not sure I feel super comfortable with Butterfield as my Plan A when I look around at other contenders’ top dogs.
It’s an interesting argument, but this may be the once-in-a-generation instance where you just don’t stand a chance if you don’t have Verzuh; you’re simply playing for second place no matter what. Maybe you just punt on the impossible task of matching Verzuh and instead build the best Plan B.
Dena Elimelech has arguably been the best player in college this season. Why did she fall outside our aggregate top 5?
Graham: I know this is me being a homer, but I still think Dena Elimelech is a good foil to Verzuh, and that did affect her ranking when I made my list. I think that Elimelech can trade pound-for-pound with all the big aggressive players that are our other big names. Personally, I believe there is a bias against her because she hasn’t played on a prolific club team or the U24 National Team. She’s proven that there isn’t a player that can dominate her one-on-one, much in the same way that Verzuh has. Go watch the NW Challenge footage. She wasn’t wrecked by Verzuh.
If we’re ranking players in a “post-Verzuh” world, as Steve indicated, she may be lower on my list. As it stands, though, Elimelech is one of the few players in the division that Verzuh cannot dunk on and that adds value. I’d like to know why Katie has her rated so low.
Katie: I pushed Elimelech lower based on a lack of big game experience. All the other women above her have more experience in the Nationals setting and are excellent players. I watched nerves get the best of UCSD as a whole in the NWC final, Elimelech included.
Could Elimelech beat some of these players heads-up on any random Sunday? No doubt. But if I’m gunning for the ‘ship, I want more veterans.
Graham: Maddie Gilbert hasn’t been to College Nationals in the past two years if I’m correct? Possibly more.
Katie: You’re correct. But she played on Riot this past season, and she’s been on Worlds team several times.
Keith: And she looked great both for Riot and the U24 Women’s team in Perth.
Graham: Dena basically dragged an inexperienced UCSD team to Nationals last year. Give her some credit.
Keith: She’s a player most people hadn’t heard of until this year and now she’s considered a top 12 player in the division. That’s a healthy amount of credit, given her resume.
Graham: I know we all have different criteria for our lists, but she’s a large part of the reason why UCSD is #2 in the entire women’s division. No. 12 isn’t enough credit. All the teams above her have at least two or three players in our top 25. UCSD doesn’t.
Katie: Well, she’s ranked no. 6 overall thanks to all of your faith. I look forward to being proven wrong in Milwaukee.
Keith: Worth noting that Katie and I were the only two to rank Kelli Iwamoto–or anyone else from San Diego–and also the lowest on Elimelech, so perhaps we are higher on UCSD’s total talent.
Daniel: Elimelech has been the non-Dartmouth POTY this season, no? She’s been a badass to the point that I excluded her from my general weighting of club/outside of college performance.
Graham: YES, DAN. THANK YOU, DAN.
Katie: I will grant you that she plays more points in a weekend than most of the women I ranked above her.
Graham: It’s not like she has no club experience either. 7 Figures is always in the top 30 of the Mixed Division.
Daniel: Yes, ideally, she’d have been on a U24 team or done more at club level, but there are very few players that have been as dominant at this level as she has been this year. And I think the whole idea that you need playoff experience to win in the playoffs is generally blown out of proportion.
Graham: I’m just saying, if we’re drafting players right now, Elimelech is my second or third pick based on this season alone.
Keith: Fits with fading consistency for potential stardom, as you mentioned with Werffeli.
The only player who got ranked at the no. 2 spot that we haven’t yet discussed is Ella Hansen. Steve, defend your case for ranking her so high.
Steve: In my estimation, Ella has the best, most consistent throws in the division–and I’m not sure I think it’s all that close. Her form is beautiful, her release is incredibly quick, and her range is basically the entire field, no matter the conditions. I’m straight up jealous of her forehand. Not only is she going to consistently bomb pulls that force her opponents to work a full 70+ yards on offense, she basically cancels out the “huck and play D” strategy, since she can power hucks right back the other direction, even into stiff wind. She throws people open when there is seemingly no space to squeeze in a pass and I have yet to see a mark significantly alter where she can attack. In the women’s college game, I think that’s the most valuable skillset to possess–short of having Verzuh, I want my best player to be someone who can win the game with the disc in her hands ahead of someone who can dominate downfield.
But Hansen is more than just her throws, she’s solid across the board. She’s big and smart defensively, elusive without being overly quick in the dump space, and intelligent enough to quarterback an offense by controlling the pace of the game.
Keith: I really like Hansen–I have her at no. 6 and second only to Normile as a primary handler–and think you’ve made a very compelling case, Steve. With these players at the top, you’re splitting hairs and playing to preference.
But going against Hansen: a lack of versatility and the turnovers. Across the three streamed U24 US National Team games, Hansen was the only player on Team USA to throw more than 30 throws (this group essentially comprises the handlers) and complete less than 80% of them. Other aggressive deep throwers like Zhu and Normile completed well over 10% more of their passes.
While we have seen her play a lot of downfield defense, a lot of her blocks and interceptions come in zone defense rather than matchup. Have we seen her win matchups downfield on offense? If you look at the other players in consideration, they attack from all angles.
Look, of everything that happened this year in ultimate, getting “One Throw Ella” to stick is basically my crowning achievement. So I’m happy to ride for her, but there’s also some reasons I had a few other elite talents above her in my rankings.
With Slow White ↩
Admittedly, not a ton. ↩
14 goals, 22 assists; her 36 points put her ahead of Angela Zhu and her 30 points. ↩
Jackelyne Nguyen, tied for 1st in goals on Cal last year, is the other. ↩
When she was runner-up for Breakout Player of the Year with Notre Dame. ↩
See how she slots into the high usage role Gegg ceded, as evidence by her 2017 Nationals stats? ↩
I do know K-Love played for the Timberwolves–go Pups! ↩