Which player would you most want leading your team at Nationals this weekend?
May 23, 2018 by Charlie Eisenhood, Charlie Enders, Patrick Stegemoeller, Steve Sullivan and Ian Toner 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 six 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).
|1||Matt Gouchoe-Hanas (North Carolina)||1||1||1||3||1||1||1.3|
|2||Adam Rees (Oregon)||2||4||3||2||2||3||2.7|
|3||Joe Freund (Virginia Tech)||4||5||5||1||4||2||3.5|
|3||Tannor Johnson (Massachusetts)||3||2||2||6||3||5||3.5|
|5||Mike Ing (Pittsburgh)||5||3||4||4||5||13||5.7|
|6||Henry Fisher (Carleton)||6||8||6||5||6||4||5.8|
|7||Mac Hecht (Brown)||8||7||9||18||10||10||10.3|
|8||Sol Yanuck (Carleton)||7||6||13||17||8||15||11.0|
|9||Cody Spicer (Colorado State)||16||10||16||12||14||8||12.7|
|10||Jacob Fairfax (UNC Charlotte)||19||12||15||11||16||6||13.2|
With the composite list in place, we discussed 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?
Keith Raynor (Senior Editor): Our prompt was winning a 2018 College Championship starting from the current point in the season. So for me, I was looking for someone with demonstrated dominance at the collegiate level. You can find a lot of players who don’t make a ton of mistakes, but I wanted to reward dominance and excellence. I want the guy who can win most matchups from a sidestack, the defender who can completely envelope a top offensive weapon, someone who can throw the bomb and the break, or can eat up anything in the air.
I used evidence from their career, with a bit of a decay function for the further from recency it is. Proven ability to be successful in different environments, but particularly College Nationals.
Pat Stegemoeller (Men’s Division Reporter): Primary criteria:
- Can they be the best player in a semis game at Nationals?
- Can they guard multiple positions?
- Do they have a “superpower” that other teams need to gameplan for?
- How effective are they playing with other good players?
Ian Toner (Men’s Division Reporter):
- Can I build well-staffed, imposing universe O and D lines with my top 14? (without any overlap)
- Do they have experience in a final four game at the College Championships, Club Championships, Pro Championship or international championship level? (only two or three in my top 14 don’t)
- Are they more than a one-dimensional talent? Said another way, are they well-rounded enough to play on a universe line without making the team compensate for a weakness or attribute of theirs in a significant manner?
Charlie Enders (Men’s Division Reporter):
- Can they catch?
- Can they throw?
- Can they play defense?
- Are they one of the 25 best in the division at combining those things?
Jokes aside, I prefer players that don’t have a weak spot in their game. There’s certainly a need for specialist and role players on normal teams–but this isn’t a normal team. If you’re assembling the Avengers but can only take five of them, are you gonna pick Ant-Man? If you like Paul Rudd as much as I do, maybe. But the point is that while Ant-Man can do something better than anyone else (shrink/grow), he isn’t the guy you want when the universe (point) is on the line.
Steve Sullivan (Executive Editor): First off, in some ways it’s a little awkward that we allowed everyone to define for themselves how they wanted to answer the prompt question–makes for some really tough comparisons and conversations.
Unlike some others, I was not drafting a straight-up U24-style All-Star team; it’s completely unrealistic to think that any one school could accumulate ALL of the best college-aged talent1 and I felt like I needed to think about this in terms of a realistic college roster in order to actually make sense of the prompt.
Instead, the way I thought about this is “assuming I 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 a team to win in that position?”
So for me, it was less about selecting a player to build an entire season around and more about which players 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.
Charlie Eisenhood (Editor in Chief): When it comes to putting together a winning team, it’s easy to get tempted into thinking too much about pure skills: throwing ability, athleticism, speed. But one of the things I tried to do was imagine the players in game situations and whether I could expect them to make a play. That starts to encompass things like mental toughness, resilience, and their clutchness. How did I determine those things? No doubt a lot of it was qualitative (especially given the lack of stats in ultimate), but I tried to consider high stress moments the players had been in and how they responded, whether that be at College Nationals, a big Club game, international competition, etc.
Is it at all surprising to people that Gouchoe-Hanas was almost unanimously ranked no. 1? Who would have guessed that at the start of the season?
Keith: I was surprised, thought I’d be alone…I expected Tannor to get the consensus top spot.
Steve: In a ranking list that offered no shortage of opinions that left me scratching my head, Gouchoe-Hanas sitting comfortably at no. 1 was perhaps the most surprising thing about this entire exercise for me. Sure, he’s playing at a POTY level this spring, but if people could choose any one player to lead their team in a bracket game, surely we’d all end up with one of the versatile, all-around athletic beasts at first pick, right?
Apparently not. Even on a personal level, I was surprised not only to find that I had Gooch at no. 1, but also how sure I was in that ranking. Every time I watched Darkside play this season, the entire game just seemed to revolve around Gooch whenever he was on the field. It was like he was Neo figuring out the Matrix–sometimes he let the play come to him and facilitated the offense, sometimes he completely bent the game to his will by going every-other up the field, but at all times he exuded a calm swagger that let everyone know he was utterly in control. Often it appeared he was doing so without even breaking a sweat.
While I truly expected one of the big, dynamic cutters to claim the top spot, in the end, perhaps it is precisely because there is no Verzuh-equivalent athlete on the men’s side that allows Gooch to stand out. Several of his competitors for the top spot are similar to each other in size and style, making them all blend together. Meanwhile, Darkside’s star feels more irreplaceable for his role.
Enders: I freakin’ love GH. He’s exceptional in every aspect of the game and has played and excelled at every level (club a little less so, but give it time). He regularly makes incredible, highlight-reel plays, but also does all the little things Darkside requires of him. This is a guy who started as Johnathan Nethercutt’s reset and is now one of the most dangerous handler/cutter combinations in recent collegiate memory. If it seems like I’m gushing, it’s cause I am.
Honestly, I don’t think he gets enough praise as it is, so I’m pleasantly surprised to see him topping everyone’s list but Pat’s.
Pat: I have him as a top three choice, so clearly I think he is a great player. I don’t want this to come off as MGH hate, but you’ve all painted me into a corner of having to be the critic.
Okay so here goes… Watch the Wilmington v. North Carolina semifinal from last year. He makes some bad throws and decisions in that game. He’s trying to match Jack Williams and instead gets suckered into literally throwing away UNC’s lead. It’s not fair to paint someone entirely based off one game but a) the margins at the top are slim, and b) I think that what happened in that semi is representative of the problem with Gooch’s candidacy here.
He’s a wonderfully well-rounded player, who you can plug into any title contender and see an immediate impact. But he doesn’t have a superpower that he can fall back on when all else fails and he needs to take over a game. In two consecutive years we saw John Stubbs and Williams go to a place that Gooch couldn’t, and when he pushed on the throttle to hit that level, he caused UNC’s engine to stall out. He’s an incredibly compelling player and I’m excited to see him try to take the leap this year. Until he does though, he isn’t my top choice.
Steve: I totally get your argument here, Pat, and I agree with you about his semis performance last year–it wasn’t his best game and he got rattled by Jack Williams’ brilliance like the rest of Darkside. But I think he’s looked like a different player this year. Maybe he learned from that Wilmington game last year or maybe his confidence just leveled up with the U24 experience in Perth this winter. I no longer worry about him getting sucked into trying to do too much, plus I think he is just comfortable doing more than he has in the past.
Ultimately, I don’t think his ceiling this weekend is as high as Jack Williams last spring or Stubbs the year prior, but I’m not sure I buy that anyone else in the division does this year either.
Pat: Yeah, in some ways MGH suffers here from too much experience in big games. We’ve seen so much of him that it becomes easier to pick him apart. Freund and Rees are tantalizing because we are still mostly imagining what they would look like on a semis level team.
Eisenhood: Everyone has already said plenty about the all-around talents that Gooch has, but one of the things that pushed him to the top for me is his consistency and his fearlessness. A number of other players in the top five may have a higher ceiling (particularly Johnson and Freund), but they do not deliver game in and game out the way that Gouchoe-Hanas does. I think pinning UNC’s choke against Wilmington last year on him is just unfair–there were worse offenders and there were systematic breakdowns (oh, and Jack Williams was on fire NBA Jam style).
Gooch is a real gamer–he wants to be on the field in the big spot and isn’t afraid of the moment. Hence, he gets my no. 1 spot.
Keith: Pat, I challenge your assertion that Matt Gouchoe-Hanas doesn’t have a superpower. He’s the captain. He’s the leader, the guy you’d run through a brick wall for because you know he’d do it, too. He’s one of the only players in the division–hell, in my opinion, in ultimate–who simply makes all of his teammates better. There’s an emotional gravitas he carries on the field.
It’s a fair criticism that it wilted in the face of Jack Williams going supernova, but I’m hard pressed to see him letting that happen again.
Steve: I think Keith and Charlie just perfectly described what I was trying to say earlier by calling his presence a “calm swagger” and by saying that he has learned a lot in the last year–I don’t see him shrinking from any situation in Milwaukee.
Who’s No. 2: Johnson vs. Rees vs. Freund?
Toner: If you take MGH at 1–like most of us did–the smart GM looks to diversify talent in different areas beyond the primary handler/primary hybrid. That kind of rules Rees out of the no. 2 slot.
Now it’s down to Johnson vs. Freund. I think Freund’s a more reliable defender and slightly better decision maker with this disc in his hands than Johnson.
Steve: So pretty quickly, our different interpretations of the question are really coming into view. In my evaluation of no. 2, I’m not assuming I already have Gouchoe-Hanas–in fact, I’m more assuming that he isn’t on my roster, that essentially someone else drafted him first. So if he’s not available to be “the guy” for my team, who’s my next pick?
Keith: I took Johnson here, with Rees at no. 3 and Freund at no. 5. My criteria makes it pretty clear why, and that’s Johnson’s takeover ability. I think he actually exceeds Gouchoe-Hanas in that ability. If everybody in the division is playing at maximum capacity, Johnson becomes the division’s premier bucket-getter. For a player who is a workhorse cutter to be able to make the incredibly difficult throws he does so routinely is remarkable.
His floor is definitely below both Rees and Freund, but he gets close enough to his ceiling at a high enough rate for me to give him the nod.
Enders: I think it comes down to a matter of preference, as each of these guys is an absolute beast in their own way. Rees lacks the size of both Johnson and Freund, but has lethal quickness and a deadly first step. Johnson is the best thrower of three, but also the worst defender (not that he’s a bad defender, but Freund and Rees are some of the best in the division). Freund is a monster on both sides of the disc, but I knocked him down a bit for Virginia Tech’s choke job at Regionals. Not entirely his fault of course, but a large part of the blame has to fall on their best player.
In the end, for me Johnson is just such a terror on offense that he justifies his slightly weaker defense. I actually took Mike Ing in front of both Rees and Freund too, but one debate at a time.
I’m curious why you think his floor is lower than Rees and Freund’s, Keith? Not that I think you’re wrong, I’m just curious as to your reasoning.
Pat: Since I put Freund as my number 1, I guess I’ll make the argument here why he should be your number two.
Not that it’s a perfect test, but I think he wins the hypothetical “seven of this guy vs. seven of that guy” game against either Rees or Johnson. He has the best size + speed combination of the bunch, and enough throwing ability to take advantage of the physical gifts. He’s sort of like Tyler Degirolamo in that you need to give him unders in the open field, but his footspeed and disc movement are so good in an endzone set that he can still kill you when the field gets small.
What isn’t exhibited in the “7v.7” test but was important to my decision is that Freund plays defense in a way that makes the rest of his team better. He could still improve a bit as a match defender, but you can build a zone around him. He takes away so much of the field that the rest of your line can play aggressively, knowing that they will have help on the weak side or over the top.
Steve: I went back and forth on the ordering here so many times and if I kept thinking about it, I’m sure I’d continue to tinker.
Prior to Regionals, I had actually settled on Freund in the second spot, for a lot of the same reasons Pat just enumerated. Of the three, he has the best combination of physical tools and he’s the best overall defender.2 But after Virginia Tech failed to qualify for Nationals, another reason I had Freund at the top–that he is a gamer who always plays up in big games–no longer felt as true. If he can’t will his team through a bracket at Regionals, can I count on him to do it at Nationals?
I agree with Keith that if every player were playing at his peak capacity, Johnson is the pick here–and probably even no. 1. His offensive skillset is so good that he can take over a game more completely than almost anyone else I’ve seen. Of all the guys on this list, he’s the one I’m most sure could find a way to get open in the endzone for a goal 15 times in a single game if that’s what you needed him to do. But at this point, we’ve seen him hiccup slightly in multiple big games, which worries me a little if I need him to absolutely own three consecutive bracket games to carry my team to a title.
So I went the other direction from Keith, and landed on the guy who has the highest floor among the three, even if he has the lowest ceiling. Rees is such a solid all-around player that I think even if he’s having an off day or one of his skills just isn’t clicking, he will always find a way to make a massive positive impact on a game with his diverse talents.
Eisenhood: Adam Rees again scored high for me in the consistency department, along with his obvious toolkit. As I mentioned earlier, I think that both Johnson (offensively) and Freund (defensively) have higher ceilings, and if I was in an actual draft situation, I might not necessarily take Rees, depending on the situation and who else I anticipated drafting later. But all three were very bunched together in my rankings and I think Rees just gets the edge because I would be so sure of him making a play when I needed one.
Keith: Steve got to my point about Johnson’s floor, Enders. Along with him making difficult throws is him turning the disc over. He’s definitely the least consistent with the rock of any of these players, a tough trait to swallow for a disc-dominant playmaker.
Enders: I can accept that. Obviously he’s more of a risk-taker than Rees or Freund, and his team depends on him to generate a lot of their offense. Rees is surrounded by supremely skilled teammates on Oregon’s O-line, while Freund is more defender/receiver than thrower, so they just naturally aren’t going to be responsible for as many turns as a high-volume shooter like TJ. But I don’t think there’s a wrong answer here, which says a lot about just how evenly matched these three are.
Why does Pat hate Mac Hecht?
Pat: Hecht is in the best-case scenario for his talents right now at Brown, and they aren’t a semis team. He gets to play a ton, throw whatever he wants, and the offense is built around him. But if that’s your team, you have a pretty clear ceiling because he’s not elite at getting open for resets against good dump defense, and his throwing ability is good but not on a Nethercutt/Wahlroos “reshapes the geometry of the field” level.
And if he’s not your best player, then you lose most of his utility. He wasn’t a factor in club last season, while there are guys I have above him who have proven they can integrate into elite talent around them. In short, he is a high volume player who isn’t quite good enough to carry a team to semis by himself. If you take Hecht with a top ten pick, you’ve just drafted Kemba Walker. Congrats.
Eisenhood: Even if he is at the ‘best case scenario’ right now, that’s a pretty damn good case.
Can he carry his team to semis? Maybe not, but that’s a really high bar. Do you think any of the guys from 10-18 in your list could?
Hecht is not exactly fleet of foot in the backfield, but that’s probably his only significant weakness. He can punish handler defenders by starting downfield and initiating their pull play; he’s one of the best in the country at that right now. He made Joe Freund look foolish all game in their semis matchup at Warm Up.
Hecht has a great combination of skills—size, throws, defense, field vision—that make him tricky to deal with. Frankly, Brown seems to run into trouble more when their role players get stifled than when Hecht gets bottled up.
Pat: My issue is that if he can’t carry me to semis, I want him to be able to be a better third or fourth option than he appears capable of being.
Keith: I’m not sure I share all of Pat’s thoughts here. Brown certainly has spent a lot of time ranked like a quarters team. And I’m also not sold that Hecht can’t play well with great players. I just think the jury’s on out that part. He’s a complete thrower who makes his teammates’ jobs easier, we’ve seen plenty of his archetype operate as the primary handler but maybe not “the guy” for successful college squads.
You mentioned looking for a superpower you have to gameplan for, and he scores very well in that category.
You do raise some good questions about him getting shut down and, at the top, that not being good enough. I have him the highest despite some of that, because very few college players share his skillset and an elite center handler can make up for a lot.
Pat: I think he is only standing out as “an elite center handler” because it is a year in which the position is pretty depleted. Most of the top players this year are cutters and many of the best throwers play hybrid roles, like MGH and Rees.
Though Carleton has made a run at it recently. ↩
I might give Rees the advantage in one-on-one situations around the disc, but Freund is better downfield and can quarterback a zone. ↩