Which player would you most want leading your team at Nationals this weekend?
May 22, 2019 by Charlie Eisenhood, Charlie Enders, Keith Raynor, Alex Rubin, Graham Gerhart, Patrick Stegemoeller, Edward Stephens and Guest Author 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 a diverse group of eight individuals — from Ultiworld editors to members of our coverage team to a current player in the division — to weigh in. In order to avoid some of the incongruent interpretations from last year’s exercise, we refined our criteria a bit this year and gave our contributors the following prompt:
If you were starting a college team right after the end of the regular season, with the express goal of winning the 2019 College Championships, how would you rank the players within the division? You aren’t building a team of all your selections, so don’t worry about how the players complement each other. Consider each pick the first pick of a team, drafting in order, only you can’t pick the players you’ve already ranked above. All current D-I players are eligible to be drafted, but with their current injury status.
We each listed out our top 25 players, then combined our lists to create a composite ranking. Also changed this year was our accounting method, awarding a descending number of points from each contributor based on their rankings. So, for example, players earned 25 points for a first place ranking, 24 for a second place ranking, and so on, from each voter.
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||2||1||1||1||1||2||1|
|2||Tannor Johnson (Massachusetts)||3||1||2||2||2||4||3||6|
|3||Michael Ing (Pittsburgh)||6||3||4||4||3||7||4||3|
|4||Joe White (Carleton)||2||9||7||3||4||2||9||2|
|5||Mac Hecht (Brown)||5||5||3||6||7||8||10||4|
|6||Gabe Hernandez (Johns Hopkins)||7||6||5||13||11||5||6||5|
|6||Joe Freund (Virginia Tech)||4||7||6||5||6||3||1||NR|
|8||John Randolph (Brown)||8||8||11||10||10||6||7||7|
|9||Dillon Lanier (Carleton)||10||4||8||9||8||12||8||9|
|10||Elijah Long (North Carolina)||9||10||NR||8||5||10||5||23|
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?
Alex Rubin (Men’s Division Reporter): I wanted to know: can this player carry my team? All of the players on my list have proven that they can shoulder a big load and take on a lot of responsibility. I also looked for players who have one distinct thing they are really good at that I could use to guide my theoretical team’s style. I want my team’s strength to match the strengths of my best player. Ideally, the players who I placed higher had multiple such talents so that my scheme could be versatile, but when in doubt, pure talent won out.
Edward Stephens (College Reporter): I want the players who have the biggest impact on any individual game. That’s one of the reasons I ranked Walker Matthews ahead of Elijah Long — they’re both great defenders, but have you seen Matthews’ pulls? Impact.
Patrick Stegemoeller (Senior Staff Writer): My criteria is unchanged from last year:
- 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?
Keith Raynor (Senior Editor): Much like last year, I’m looking for a proven ability to excel against the best players, with a bonus for being able to do it in the college environment. I always value versatility, but will accept extreme specialization in lieu of that.
Charlie Enders (Staff Writer): I want the best talent, regardless of situation. Like Keith said, versatility is nice, but I’d rather have the guy who is the best center handler than the guy who’s top 20 at both handling and cutting, if that makes sense.
Graham Gerhart (Senior Staff Writer): It comes down to players who can carry a team. There are obvious tiers of players, and then I further broke it down by the takeover ability of the players within each tier. If this exercise is to theoretically build a team around these players, I value a player that can put the team on their back. There are some fantastic players in college that don’t have the personality to take command of a game and that hurt them in my rankings. Also, if players had proven themselves as an elite talent at a program that needed the help, that mattered to me, too.
Derek Mourad (Washington Sundodgers): Takeover ability, a specific super power, and offensive prowess were probably my main three. I weighed offensive ability much higher than defense because, if I’m drafting a player this high, I’m expecting him to either lead my O-line or be one of the top contributors on that line.
Charlie Eisenhood (Editor-in-Chief): I mostly tried to sort players into tiers and then decide who I would feel the most confident putting out onto the field for a critical point. It can be really difficult to assess different players in different systems, so having a subjective gut feel for who you’d want out there was a good tiebreaker for me.
Last year, Matt Gouchoe-Hanas was the near-unanimous number one, with Pat Stegemoeller as the lone outlier. This year, Enders joined in. What changed?
Enders: I just think Tannor Johnson is the best player, full stop. His defense isn’t as good, but he’s so gifted offensively that he can single-handedly carry an O-line.
Obviously, ‘Gooch’ is the most well-rounded player. He has the offensive, defensive, and leadership skills to will his team pretty much anywhere. But imagine if Gouchoe-Hanas and Johnson switched teams this season. Does MGH have as big of an impact on a significantly less talented UMass team? I’d argue no — we’ve never had to see him carry a team alone.
TJ can both carry a team (UMass) and play within a system (Dig). MGH has shown the latter but not the former.
Stephens: Well… did TJ carry UMass?
Enders: I mean, not to Nationals. But yes, he did carry them all season.
Raynor: Yeah, but if your argument is that he’s literally the best option to carry a team to a championship, but he couldn’t carry his team to Nationals… Maybe we all have him too high.
Enders: I do think TJ is the best option for carrying a team. If UMass couldn’t make it with him, they weren’t going to make it with anyone. Plus, on a team like this hypothetical one we’re building, he doesn’t have to be the one to carry, with theoretically other talent around him. Still a nice skill to have.
Almost everyone has Joe Freund in Top 5 — except Edward Stephens, who doesn’t have him ranked at all. Explain yourself, Edward.
Stephens: Alright, I’ll give it a shot. I coached in the women’s division the last couple of years, and didn’t keep as firm an eye on the men’s side, so I’m just going on what I saw from Freund in 2019. I think he isn’t nearly as good as the rest of you give him credit for. He’s imposing, athletic, and polished — why isn’t he carrying Virginia Tech to anywhere close to Nationals? Why isn’t he taking over? Virginia Tech had some nice players and a ton of size, but they couldn’t even make the game-to-go-to-the-game-to-go. Pat would draft him first overall in all of college — I would draft him, like, tenth in his own region.
Anyway, you all clearly see something — but what?
Stegemoeller: So if Johns Hopkins had a worse performance in one game, you would rank Freund higher?
Tech lost two games during the postseason: in their Regional semifinal to UNC and in a close game to Hopkins in the backdoor. To a Hopkins team featuring Gabe Hernandez, who we all — including you — have ranked pretty high on this list, as well. If a few things go differently and Virginia Tech beats Hopkins, are you dropping Gabe from the rankings?
Freund has shown that he can be the best player on a Nationals-level college team, and has excelled on the club and pro levels. Whether he made Nationals or not this year doesn’t change that. He’s a five-tool player you can put anywhere, with enough athletic upside to break a game. You can quibble about where to put him on your list, but leaving him off disregards both his talent and his pedigree.
Stephens: First of all: pedigree, shmedigree. And Hernandez has the same kind of reputation as Freund historically. The difference is that he backed it up. Joe Freund, for all his talent, did not stand out on the field when I watched Virginia Tech play this season. And as far as team success — he’s a senior. Shouldn’t it be his team? What happened?
Stegemoeller: My point is, if two scores had gone the other way in that game at Regionals, would you be saying that Freund had backed it up and Gabe didn’t?
Stephens: I’d seen enough out of Hernandez at that point, regardless. He was dazzling. Maybe I don’t rank him top five, but he was great. If Freund pulls VT above the 13th place bracket at Easterns or closer to a Nationals ticket at Regionals, I’m probably not leaving him out of my top 25.
At the same time, Connor Russell, whose team finished in the exact same place as Freund’s, is on my list — although Wilmington lost in a tighter game to a better team in the same round. I thought Russell was excellent all season in a way that makes him a better pick for this exercise, even with the egg the Seamen laid at Easterns.
The point is ranking players who bend the game to their will. I didn’t see it from Freund this season, and I saw it from a lot of other players. They’re the ones I’m going to bet on to keep doing it.
Similarly, why didn’t Elijah Long make the cut for you, Graham?
Gerhart: I’ll admit, I was maybe a little too conservative with adding UNC players to my list. I’ve long felt that UNC is a sum of all their parts and have struggled to parse out which players are more deserving than their counterparts. I felt that if I was adding one or two UNC players, I may as well add seven because of their similar talent levels.
Elijah Long probably deserved a spot on my list, he’s certainly shown that he is good enough. I just believed that there were plenty of other talented players across the division that have had to carry a larger burden. If I’m drafting a team and my first pick has to carry the team, I want to know that my first pick can be the best player on his own team. There were many others on my list that also have shown that they can do that, so I went with them.
Eisenhood: I think you’re being a bit too punishing of UNC as a deep team. Elijah Long has been an elite college defender for a couple of seasons and can lead an offense after a turn. He may not “take over” in the traditional sense, but that’s scheme, not skill.
Gerhart: Sure. And I admit that I was probably too conservative with my placing of UNC players. It was a rationalization I made early in the process and didn’t think twice on it when I clearly should have.
Raynor: He’s been the second best player on the best team for two years. A consistent, exceptional, two-way player. I’m tied with Pat for highest on him for good reason. I’m curious what he’d look like on a less good team, but I haven’t seen any reason to doubt him yet.
Both UNC and Brown had a pair of teammates land inside the Top 10. Which duo would you rather have: Matt Gouchoe-Hanas and Elijah Long or Mac Hecht and John Randolph?
Eisenhood: You’re not really going to go wrong here. To me, it depends on the makeup of the team. MGH/Long is clearly the superior defensive duo, but I’d rather have Hecht/Randolph for offense. I also think the UNC pairing is going to be more comfortable on a deep team, whereas the Brown guys are used to shouldering a huge amount of the offensive load.
On balance, I probably take Gooch and Long because they’re very versatile going both ways. Randolph is too, but Mac is more of a purely offensive player.
Rubin: Came here to say exactly that. Three out of four of those players are top defenders in addition to their offensive skill, so I’ll take the duo that can do it all.
Mourad: I have Gooch ahead of Mac and Long ahead of JR on my list, but you can’t discount the chemistry that the Brown duo possess. I’m sure that Gooch and Long can play together well — we saw that in 2016 on UNC’s O-line and now when one of them crosses over to the other line — but I think those two are pretty similar players, while Mac and JR complement each other perfectly. Therefore, I’ll take Mac and JR.
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