Which player would you most want leading your team?
August 13, 2020 by Ultiworld in Opinion with 0 comments
There’s no shortage of talent in the USA Ultimate Club Men’s Division. We look a lot at team success, and often see familiar names and faces in those discussions. But who are the best individual players? Who brings the most value to winning a championship? Figuring out which stars shine the brightest is more art than science, but perhaps there’s democratic power in numbers.
So who are the best players in the division 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 twelve members of our coverage team, as well as an anonymous group of elite players, to weigh in on the following prompt:
If you were starting a club team today, and the season was to proceed as if there were no coronavirus pandemic, with the singular goal of winning a theoretical Club Championship this October, how would you rank the players within the division? You aren’t building a team of all of 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 players who were on a 2019 USA Ultimate Club Men’s Division roster of a team that reached Regionals are eligible to be drafted. All players are to be considered healthy to start the season.
Ultiworld staff and contributors each ranked our top 25 players. In addition, we collected top 25 ballots from ten elite players. The #1 player on a ballot was given 25 points, #2 was given 24 points, and so on. Elite players had their rankings combined into a single composite Players’ ballot. That ballot was then entered in with the staff ballots to create the final rankings.
Here’s our final Top 10:
|RANK||PLAYER NAME||Players' Ballot||Edward Stephens||Hugo Sowder||Alex Rubin||Charlie Enders||Chris McGlynn||Keith Raynor||Ben Murphy||Tim Schoch||Steve Sullivan||Patrick Stegemoeller||Joe Marmerstein||Charlie Eisenhood||TOTAL POINTS|
With the composite list in place, we discussed our selections, our snubs, our pet favorite players, and more.
Four players — Freechild, Mickle, Gibson, and Bansfield — received votes in the #1 spot. Who is really the best player in the division right now?
Tim Schoch (Contributor): The prompt for this exercise was to make our list as if we were a general manager in charge of building a team to win Nationals the next time it happens. With an assignment like that, there can only be one player as the obvious first pick: Kurt Gibson (Machine).
At this point in ultimate journalism, there are only cliched analogies for how good Kurt is. For some, he’s an unfeeling, unflinching Terminator sent from the future to end your opponent’s season. To others, he’s the titan Prometheus, who stole fire and is sharing it with humanity by playing ultimate in its truest, most divine form. He might as well be a Lovecraftian behemoth, omnipotent in his power and indifferent to the actions of the mere mortals around him. I could go on, but whatever analogy I could think up has already been written. Given the choice of anyone, of course, I’m going to choose the guy that people regularly compare to gods and supervillains.
He is the best player in the division and he is the best winner in the division. End of discussion. Imagine writing this article about the NBA in 1996 and not picking Jordan first.
Steve Sullivan (Executive Editor): Tim is correct that any talk about Kurt these days pretty quickly takes on almost mythological proportions. He pointed out that nearly every analogy he could come up with has already been used to write about Kurt (thankfully, more eloquently than Tim managed in his rambling response). But I actually think he hit on a pretty good comparison with late-90s Jordan. Maybe not still at his absolute apex, but the best all-around player who also happens to be maniacal about winning is available? Yeah, I’ll take him.
There will come a day when Kurt is not the right answer at #1 anymore. But we’re not there yet.
Chris McGlynn (Contributor): Plus, Kurt can win anywhere with different supporting casts. His versatility impresses me a lot. The fact that he has won titles with Doublewide, Ironside, and Bravo says a lot to me. He is the type of player you can clearly build around and win a championship.
Charlie Eisenhood (Editor-in-Chief): OK, folks, just making Jordan references isn’t going to convince me that Kurt is the obvious #1 pick in the year 2020. Kurt is about to turn 35 years old. He’s missed significant time in the last couple of seasons for injuries. He’s not the same defender that he once was.
If I need a guy that I’m primarily relying on to get me offensive buckets, I am taking my #1 overall pick, Jimmy Mickle (PoNY). Yes, Mickle is coming off of a bad season, and Kurt off of a great Nationals. But the age cliff comes quickly. Jimmy is in his prime and will be hungry to regain his 2018 form, where he was very obviously the best player in the world. His throwing skillset is beyond Kurt’s.
True, Jimmy is a worse defender. But with my #1 pick, I am looking for total game-changing skill. Jimmy has something most players don’t: he’s too big to stop in the reset space, and his throws are lethal from static positions or in motion.
He legitimately won PoNY their 2018 title. People talk about the defense wrecking Revolver, which is true. But the real test was Sockeye in semis. And that game was classic Jimmy. Sockeye threw every defender they could at him and it did not matter. He got insane degree of difficulty resets off with consistency and outmaneuvered Dylan Freechild on double game point.
I do not question the decision-making of those putting Kurt at #1 — after all, I have him at #2 — but this is not about who’s had the better career or who played the best most recently. This is about trying to win a championship, and picking anyone other than Jimmy Mickle to run your title-winning offensive line is a mistake in 2020.
Alex Rubin (Staff Writer): Charlie, you’re making the point for those of us who picked Kurt. You wrote “This is about trying to win a championship” — is there anyone better at winning championships?
Furthermore, I ranked with offensive ability in mind, but Kurt has a level of versatility that goes beyond just having the right skills. What is Kurt’s best skill? I honestly don’t know — he is so good at so many of the things elite ultimate players can do.
I also want to note also that Kurt won the popular vote. More people voted him at #1 than anyone else, but because of the way we counted the points he dropped to #2 overall. That should count for something.
Chris McGlynn: Kurt > 2019 Mickle. 2018 Mickle > Kurt. Kurt > 2017 Mickle.
Mickle at his 2018 peak was the best player in the world. He put in an absurd amount of work to get into that kind of shape and just dominate the game. I wonder if we will ever see that level from him again, because a lot of what made Mickle’s 2019 so much worse was just not being as sharp or as physically fit. I want to believe that 2018 Mickle is the rule, but right now it looks like the exception. In 2017 and 2019, Mickle was a top-five player, but he was not the best player in the division.
Kurt’s like Tom Brady. If you want to keep betting against him, go ahead, but he is going to outwork you and make you look foolish, fueled by his burning desire to destroy every doubter and be remembered as the greatest to ever do it.
Keith Raynor (Senior Editor): I’m hearing a lot of ‘All Kurt does is win rings’ talk and comparing him to Jordan and now Brady, but I seem to remember Kurt losing the championship game to a Seattle team led by Dylan Freechild (Sockeye). Jordan’s PER fell by like 30% in the end of his career. Tom Brady is coming off of his worst season since 2013.1 Kurt’s all-time greatness does not equal greatness tomorrow. Time catches up to even the truly great ones.
I’ll take the new model, thank you very much. Freechild is elite in nearly every aspect and is coming off of his best team and individual season. He’s hitting his stride. And the last thing you want to deal with is Dylan Freechild at full tilt.
Charlie Eisenhood: Kurt sure gets a lot of credit for joining really elite teams with other elite players and then winning a title.
Machine could have made the final without Kurt. Let’s not forget that they absorbed all of the best players on High Five. Were Joe White and Johnny Basnfield their best players? You could make the case! Bravo could definitely have won without Kurt. Ironside… okay, maybe not Ironside.
Chris McGlynn: Bravo without a doubt could have won. I’m less sure about Machine making the final. It helped that PoNY essentially rolled over this year in semis, but Machine barely won their pool. If they drop that universe point game vs. Truck, Machine plays Ring in quarters.
Patrick Stegemoeller (Senior Staff Writer): No way Ironside wins that title without Kurt, Charlie. He played something like 22 out of 27 points in the final. He was one of the only players on the team who didn’t look like they wanted to drown themselves after Revolver went up 8-5.
You can say a lot of the same things about 2019 Machine. They lost the first game of Nationals to Chain and looked for all the world like they were going to fall apart at the seams. You know who isn’t going to let that happen?
The concerns about age and durability are not unfounded, and if this were about picking a player to have over the course of a season, I would go with Freechild. But for one weekend, one tournament, one primal sprint towards victory, it has to be Kurt.
Joe Marmerstein (Video Editor): You could definitely make the case that Mickle was the best/most impactful player on that 2014 Bravo team, so it seems weird to give Gibson credit for winning there and gloss over Mickle.
Mickle then also went on to be the best player on Colony, taking them to a WUCC final, which is an incredible feat (and involved beating Gibson and Doublewide along the way), and then transitioned to being the best player on PoNY and toppling the Revolver dynasty. And, unlike Kurt, he’s in the prime of his athletic career.
Edward Stephens (Staff Writer): To quote Tony Soprano, “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” Right now, which is all that counts, Dylan Freechild plays better, more focused ultimate than Jimmy Mickle or Kurt Gibson. Kurt wants it, but he doesn’t have quite the same skill as he once did. Mickle has all the skill in the world, but he doesn’t seem to want it. Show me the guy who has both, and I’ll show you a championship.
Ben Murphy (Contributor): I considered Dylan, Jimmy, and Ryan Osgar (Sub Zero) at the top spot, but I chose Johnny Bansfield (Machine) because he’s the most talented player in the division, capable of showcasing the best individual skills and a remarkable package of both brains and athleticism.
Of course, these guys are all exceptional, but none of them are as good as Johnny. I understand why nobody else thinks he’s the best player in the men’s division — most of you haven’t had a chance to see him do amazing things on the ultimate field for almost ten years, as I have. He wasn’t on the NexGen Tour. He didn’t go to a college with an established ultimate program like Oregon or Colorado or Florida. Before he got to Eastern Michigan, they had a team, which he helped lift from maybe-making-Regionals to making Nationals. I don’t know if they’ve made Regionals since he left. He’s been toiling in the Midwest instead of in ultimate hotbeds.
I don’t blame any of you for not seeing it — part of it is Johnny’s own fault, as I pointed out to him recently on Twitter. Even when he has been in the spotlight, he has not tried his hardest often enough before this past year, and it shows. People think Dylan or Kurt or Jimmy are better because their best plays have been caught on media, seen by throngs of spectators, witnessed by reporters, or helped good teams win in big moments. Make no mistake though: Johnny is the best thrower of the bunch, he’s the best defender of the bunch, he’s the quickest at getting open for a reset, and he’s the smartest player of the bunch.
He just got done playing Nationals only on Machine’s D-line, notching 14 assists and 6 blocks and zero turnovers, and you’re all out here talking about Kurt Gibson’s over the hill body like he’s the one that could carry your team to the championship. Kurt’s an all-time great, but this is about what to expect in the future, and Kurt is several years older than these other guys.
After he demonstrated in 2019 that he’s ready to put everything on the field, I’ll take Johnny Bansfield, please.
Joe Marmerstein: I completely agree with your points about Bansfield and Gibson, and it’s why I ranked Bansfield above Gibson (though I have Gibson the lowest of anyone, but that’s a separate discussion I guess). Bansfield was great at Nationals, but there are a couple caveats. He wasn’t as great all season, and it’s tough to extrapolate consistency from one exceptional tournament performance.
Also, one thing that impacts how guys like Bansfield and Gibson perform is the fact that they’re on a D-line. Teams are game-planning way more to stop Mickle’s offense than they are to stop Bansfield’s offense. D-lines are having practices based on beating PoNY’s O-line, but O-lines are spending way more time practicing beating the defense, not beating the D-line offense. Of course, D-line offense is insanely important and we have discussions elsewhere about how we are generally undervaluing defensive players, but this is a case where we might actually be over-valuing the offensive performances of players who are playing primarily on the D-line.
Patrick Stegemoeller: Anyone else take some issue with Ben categorically claiming that, actually, Bansfield is the best thrower, best defender, quickest reset, and smartest player, but we all just haven’t seen it? That sounds like something a freshman posts about their captain on an All-Region thread.
Also, it’s not like Bansfield has been stuck on some unknown team his whole career up until now: High Five made Nationals every year since their 2015 merger. Maybe the reason he came in at #11 overall isn’t because we haven’t seen enough of Bansfield, but because we have seen him be inconsistent for years.
Hugo Sowder (Staff Writer): I’m not buying the clout or mythos behind Kurt Gibson as the reason you crown him the #1 player. At the end of the day, I created my ballot based purely on his 2019 performance. And that performance has some holes in it, specifically concerning his health and focus across the entire season.
On the other hand, there is nothing lethargic or lagging in Dylan Freechild’s play right now. Sockeye didn’t have to worry about Dylan’s durability or level of desire, even at an early-season tournament like PEC. Sockeye had a better overall season than Machine and Dylan was an essential motor for their success on offense. The legend of Kurt still carries a lot of weight, but Dylan delivered a championship and did so after playing every tournament with his team with largely the same level of focus and commitment to winning that he also brought to Nationals. Before 2019 began, I would absolutely notch Kurt at the top of the men’s division, but with everything we saw last season from Dylan — his commitment to play every single game, his ravenous level of desire to win, and high level of focus at every tournament — you have to hand him the top spot.
Chris McGlynn: Two years from now, this answer will be Jack Williams (Ring of Fire).
Steve Sullivan: Not for nothing, but this is why I have Jack Williams at #2 — ahead of Freechild. You’re never as thirsty for a win as when you’ve been close but haven’t won yet. We saw the level of focus and commitment throughout a full year from Dylan last year — that is the kind of effort you get from a generational player still striving to reach the pinnacle. Winning is hard work. But, that also means it’s easy to see why motivation can slip a little once you’ve crested that peak.
At this point, Jack Williams is the most talented player in the division that hasn’t yet tasted glory. For at least a couple years, it had been Dylan, but he got his ring last fall — we’ll see if he can maintain the same insane focus and effort in striving for a second as he displayed in his first. Maybe he can. But do you think he’s as thirsty right now as Williams? I’m not sure I believe that.
Having seen it in big moments before (see: College National semifinal 2017), it’s clear Williams is the same kind of ultra-competitive, uber-talented potential apex predator in this sport. Would anyone be surprised if he levels up again and leads an already very good Ring squad to a title as the POTY? Sign me up for that thirst.
#9 Trent Dillon (Sockeye) is the highest-ranked player without a unanimous selection. He’s as high as #3 (Tim Schoch) and as low as outside of the top 25 (Joe Marmerstein). How are views on him so disparate?
Joe Marmerstein: The main reason Trent didn’t make my top 25 comes down to the role he’s had on Sockeye the last couple years: he’s been more of an O-line role player, but in that role, Jacob Janin has had a bigger impact on the field (in terms of being a finisher and limiting turnovers).
That being said, in retrospect, I should have included Trent, probably right around where I have Jacob Janin. He’s one of the top defenders in the division and can guard a wide variety of players. I’d probably have him on my D-line, and there are few people on this list who could replace him there.
Charlie Eisenhood: Trent is so versatile! I have him at #12. He just contributes positively pretty much anytime he’s on the field. He can give you offense, he can make one of the defensive plays of the year in the semifinal against Jack Williams, he can fit into any system and play on any line.
With all due respect to Jacob Janin, he’s a pure offensive cutter that’s honestly replaceable. Yes, he does his job extremely well. Yes, he is probably underrated relative to his talent. But there are a lot of guys who could be a secondary cutter behind Freechild and Rehder on an O-line.
Trent, on the other hand, gives you a ton of line flexibility and will be an elite presence on the field regardless of where you put him. He’s not a good enough takeover offensive player to get inside my top 10, but multifaceted skills at that level are hard to find.
Joe Marmerstein: I mostly agree with what you’re saying, Charlie. I also tried to value versatility a lot in my rankings; in my mind, I just kept picturing Trent in the role he’s had the last couple years.
“But there are a lot of guys who could be a secondary cutter behind Freechild and Rehder on an O-line.”
Trent has also been in that role the last couple years and hasn’t been as good as Janin. In my notes, Janin is similar to Kocher (especially from a couple years ago) or Schlachet in terms of what he can do on the field, and those skills are generally underrated.
Tim Schoch: You see that folks, that’s called walking it back. I’m willing to cut Joe some slack here. He must have gotten all those ‘Dyllons’ mixed up Sockeye’s roster, it happens to the best of us.
Charlie was saying it, but Trent gives you so much on the field. He is athletic and intelligent in big and little spaces. He is a top defender in the division who can guard the best offensive players around. Sockeye used him a variety of ways and it’s that lack of a well-worn niche in his playstyle that is being held against him. Sockeye played him all over because they could and he excels in so many roles, which I hold as an invaluable asset. The idea that if he had a more permanent and fixed position on their roster would cause him to be ranked higher is insane to me.
None of this mentions his off-the-field reputation as a leader and work ethic tone-setter. The prompt was who would we take on our team to win a championship the next time there is one and Trent is going to help your team succeed over the course of a season as well as in the single-game-a-day format of an ESPN3 weekend. Is ranking him #3 overall on my list too high? No.
Alex Rubin: I am stunned that anyone left him off of this list. As others have said, Trent’s versatility stands out, and that was a huge factor in why I ranked him in my top 10, but what is most impressive to me is his motor. He’s like a starting pitcher who throws harder as the game goes along. When everyone else is letting fatigue seep in, Trent is still making the same crisp cuts he was on the first point. He is taking tough matchups at the end of games and generally succeeding because he is still going at 100% speed while everyone else’s fatigue meter is impacting their play.
Keith Raynor: We’ve all beaten up Joe Marmerstein and he’s basically cried mercy. But I also cannot abide Tim Schoch putting Trent at #3. What team-carrying ability has he demonstrated? Trent’s limitations (primarily as a thrower, secondarily a lack of size) prevent him from getting into that elite tier in my book. How he got eight spots ahead of Chris Kocher (PoNY) and 18 spots ahead of Cassidy Rasmussen (Revolver) on your list is a mystery to me.
Tim Schoch: Keith, you’re severely underrating Trent as a thrower. He is so good as a receiver that his prowess as a distributor has lapsed from the public’s perception of him. He is definitively a better defender than Rasmussen and Kocher. And while he isn’t yet as masterful a thrower as Cassidy in his prime, probably now as well, you can’t tell me we aren’t going to see him expand his toolbox further. Coming out of this pandemic, we will be in the heart of Trent’s prime and I will buy as much of his stock as you are willing to sell for the next time we see frisbee.
Steve Sullivan: Tim, I’m with you on much of what you’re saying, but I’m not sure I’d claim Dillon is definitively a better defender than Kocher. Lest we forget, Kocher was on the DPOTY podium the year before Trent was. I actually think Kocher isn’t a bad comp for Dillon, maybe just a couple years ahead on all-around-skill growth and experience. Which is another way of saying that Trent is incredible, with an even brighter future ahead of him. Pencil him into a top 10 spot on this list for the foreseeable future.
Edward Stephens: Trent is phenomenal; I can’t imagine anyone would disagree. It all comes down to where you place the value in this system. I had Trent a little on the low side at #16. My thinking was, generally, in order:
- Takeover players
- Offensive specialists
- D-line leaders
Within that framework, I put Trent below a bunch of guys who can carry an offense, as well as Chris Kocher and Johnny Bansfield, who do the all-around thing just a tick better right now. That same framework has him ahead of Antoine Davis (Revolver), Jay Froude (Doublewide), and Sam Little (PoNY), who fit into the same category.
Four of us are low on Cassidy Rasmussen (#10), who is in the top 10 on eight ballots, but in the bottom five or unranked on four ballots ( Hugo Sowder, Tim Schoch, Ben Murphy, and Charlie Enders). What’s the case for and against him?
Steve Sullivan: Cassidy is just an all-around beast. Anywhere you want to put him on the field, he’s going to be brutally effective and a consummate professional. As Patrick Stegemoeller discussed in his write up of Rasmussen in the Top 10 Players of the Decade, he has dominated in all corners of the ultimate Punnett square. Even after Revolver bled most of their truly elite-tier talent over the past couple of seasons, Rasmussen kept them humming along as a semis threat last fall as their indisputable top player in basically every facet of the game.
His play isn’t flashy and he isn’t always going to be throwing or receiving the goal-scoring pass, but the precision and incisiveness of his cutting and the attention it draws is what opens up space for the rest of his teammates. Maybe it’s just that he’s been so consistently good for so long that people take him for granted, but anyone who ranked him outside their top 15 pretty much whiffed.
Charlie Eisenhood: He’s Revolver’s best player and it’s not like they’re no longer good. He didn’t try out for the US National Team, but is there any doubt that he would make it? Incredibly versatile player. Maybe I’m a touch too high on him at #4, but he seems like a top 10 lock.
Charlie Enders (Contributor): I let recency bias get to me a bit. Revolver’s forgettable season last year meant he didn’t really spring to mind when I thought about top 10 players, but all things considered, he probably is.
Ben Murphy: I remember debating moving him up and I felt like I hadn’t seen as much from him as from the other players. I weighed 2019 too heavily as I have reviewed my rankings and heard feedback about the various discussion topics.
Tim Schoch: De gustibus non est disputandum. I’m not here for the warm-hearted embrace of forgiveness and understanding I’d receive by repenting the more delusional takes. The moment I sent in my list, I drew a line in the sand around each and every one of my picks and I’m here to defend them.
Cassidy Rasmussen is still quite good. But he isn’t the superstar, untouchable, instant-offense, ‘just add water’ player he was on his way to an All-Decade selection. His role on the offense wasn’t as all-encompassing as in the past and he played a far less dynamic game. This iteration of Revolver had fewer blue-chip players on offense and instead of taking up a larger space on the field, Cassidy fell behind Kerns as the primary thrower and behind Higgins and team rookie Adam Rees as primary receivers.
Maybe Cassidy lives and breathes the ethos of Revolver’s ‘role player’ mentality but this seems like a strange year to play second violin with Ahslin Joye residing on the D-Line and the team reeling from the program’s foundation-shaking loss in 2018’s final. While Cassidy is still someone any team would want on their O-Line, there are two players on Revolver’s that I would take ahead of him going into the next club season.
He couldn’t get the best defense in the conference past Ryan Tannehill… ↩