Which player would you most want leading your team?
August 20, 2020 by Ultiworld in Opinion with 0 comments
There’s no shortage of talent in the USA Ultimate Club Women’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 eight 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 Women’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 seven 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||TOTAL POINTS||Players' Ballot||Daniel Prentice||Edward Stephens||Keith Raynor||Ben Murphy||Graham Gerhart||Kelsey Hayden||Steve Sullivan||Charlie Eisenhood|
With the composite list in place, we discussed our selections, our snubs, our pet favorite players, and more.
Five different players were selected #1 (Groom, Chastain, Fennig, Finney, and Verzuh). Who should be at the top? Who shouldn’t?
Daniel Prentice (Senior Staff Writer): It’s Kami Groom (Boston Brute Squad). I know she’s a little more limited in the throwing department than some of the other players in this group, but no one has been more consistently elite than Groom over the last several seasons. She’s finished top two on the Player of the Year voting in each of the last four seasons. That’s bananas. When you take Kami, you absolutely know that you are going to get a POTY-caliber season from her, and no other player on the list can make that same argument. At least, not to the same extent.
Keith Raynor (Senior Editor): I was the lone staff member to take Claire Chastain (Denver Molly Brown) at the top spot, along with the Players. While Daniel is right about Kami’s consistency as an elite player, you’re getting a lot of that with Chastain (All-Club First Team in three of the last four years, two POTY podiums and one OPOTY podium appearance in the same span) at a premium position and in a more complete package. Chastain’s perhaps the best ‘plug-and-play’ build-around player because of her combination of offensive propulsion and defensive capability.
Daniel Prentice: The rebuttal against Chastain is an obvious one: she hasn’t proven the ability to win the biggest games. Winning is a team endeavor and I hate when these types of conversations devolve into counting rings. But it’s not as if Chastain has been surrounded by talentless rosters in her time with Molly. And I grant that it may seem silly to have Robyn Fennig ahead of Chastain in my rankings based on this logic, but Fennig hasn’t had the same opportunities to win that Chastain has had and fallen short of. Chastain’s talent is definitely undeniable though, so I get putting her at number one. I just couldn’t do it with the Nationals track record.
Charlie Eisenhood (Editor-in-Chief): I took Jack Verzuh (Seattle Riot) at #1. I spent quite a bit of time debating who should go at #1 and did not think it was an obvious pick at all. There’s a reason five different players got first-place votes.
But I settled on Verzuh after really thinking hard about who I would draft if I wanted to win a title this year. Verzuh has done nothing but get better. They looked like the best player on the field in the WUCC 2018 final and led Riot to a world championship. They had moments last club season of looking almost laughably dominant. Fury lost a game to Riot at the US Open because they simply could not stop Verzuh.
I get Daniel’s argument that Kami Groom (who I have at #2) has been consistently great, but I’d argue there’s more upside there for Verzuh, who’s perhaps already considered the greatest college player ever. Verzuh can throw far better than Groom and is a more dominant aerial threat. I’ll, of course, give Groom credit for greater speed and overall defensive impact, but Verzuh’s defense is certainly not a weakness.
Verzuh has delivered on the biggest stage, become Riot’s #1 player, and showed last year that they are ready to take over the club division the same way they did college.
Kelsey Hayden (Staff Writer): Groom 2020!
— Ultiworld (@Ultiworld) July 14, 2020
I think Prentice hit the nail on the head. If you want to be sure that you get an elite/top player with unmatched consistency and the ability to win in the biggest moments, you want Kami.
I could be a little biased because I play the same role as Kami and she is the GOAT in that role and I want to be her. But I remember the first time I saw Brute Squad (at Northeast Regionals in my first year of club ultimate when I had never watched a single game online) the first player I asked my teammate about was Kami because I was enamored by how she ran around the field and accomplished everything she needed to, easily. And that day, and any day since then that I’ve watched her, I’ve thought the same thing — you can’t stop her.
Edward Stephens (Staff Writer): The ability to make scoring plays is the single most important quality on the field in any game. I don’t trust anybody to do it as reliably or with as much variety as Robyn Fennig (Scandal). Her throwing game — with the possible exception of Valeria Cardenas, who doesn’t yet bring as much with the rest of her skills — is a cut above the rest of the division.
Fennig is a physical receiver when she needs to be. She understands the attacking spaces and does not hesitate when an opportunity presents itself. Groom, Chastain, and Verzuh are awesome, but if I want to win with one player, I want Fennig.
Ben Murphy (Contributor): Plug-and-play, Keith? Your best player isn’t a plug-and-play — it’s the player you want to build around, to highlight, that makes everybody else on the team better, and that dominates on the field consistently. It’s clearly Kami Groom.
Jack Verzuh is a fine pick, talent-wise, but I’d take Kami for her superior spirit and winning track record on and off the field. Verzuh also has not helped their team win as often as Groom.
Fennig is awesome to watch, but she turns the disc over way too much for my taste in a top pick. I had her at #12 and was worried that might be too high. Could she be the best overall player? I think so. But not with her current decision-making calibration.
Chastain hasn’t won as much as Groom, as Daniel noted, but she also hasn’t seemed to really step up and take over like Groom seems to do when her team really needs her, and she doesn’t seem to make the players around her better like Groom does.
I’d love to hear from Steve Sullivan, who picked Carolyn Finney (Fury) for #1 about that selection and had Groom at #6.
Steve Sullivan (Executive Editor): To be fair, picking the #1 spot was much harder for me in women’s than in the other divisions. There are legitimately a half dozen players you could reasonably select here, most of whom have already been discussed here.
The reasons I ultimately selected Finney are because I love her all-around skill set and she’s proven to be a winner at every level. Maybe her throwing arsenal isn’t quite as extensive as someone like Robyn or Valeria — again, maybe — but she can still deliver the disc to anywhere on the field at any given moment, and plays with a bit more discipline than the other high volume shooters being discussed for the #1 spot. Her quickness means she rarely struggles to get open, even against elite defenders. And she’s a plus defender at almost any position on the field. That’s a complete player.
Even more, Finney is a crazy competitor. I hope everyone knows the story about her performance in the 2011 college final (if not, read about it here). She caught or assisted all but one of her team’s goals — on the other, she threw a huck to just outside the front of the end zone and earned the hockey assist after her receiver flipped the next pass in for the goal — to claim a championship, all while playing on a heavily-taped sprained ankle. She similarly played through injury at the 2017 World Games tryout and still earned herself one of the 14 toughest roster spots on the planet — something none of Groom, Chastain, or Fennig managed.1 Few if any players train as hard as Finney does off the field. Her winning mentality has made her a leader on a Fury squad that already knew a thing or two about winning. Just listen to Matty Tsang rave about her skillset and leadership.
As for Kami, I think my first draft of this list had her in the top three, but she ended up sliding in each successive edit. There is no doubt she is one of the fastest players in the division and has learned how to use her physical gifts to devastating effect both as a cutter and a defender. But with her limited throwing arsenal, I do wonder if she’d have quite as big an impact on a team that isn’t blessed with the depth of amazing throwers that Brute has. In my judgment, being able to make a play with the disc in your hands is more valuable than making a play as a cutter. Every player who ended up in my top five is someone I think offers a bit more in the disc-skill department than Kami.
Second — and I’ll caveat this with the fact that it’s based largely on outside perception rather than any first-hand internal knowledge — I think I get more vocal leadership out of everyone in my top five compared to Kami. There are obviously different kinds of leadership, and there’s little doubt Kami leads by example on the field and with her work ethic. Winning teams need that kind of leadership. But if I can select anyone in the division to be my best player, I want someone who both gets it done on the field and has the ability to vocally galvanize a group in the biggest moment. Kami strikes me as a little too quiet and all-business for that role, though perhaps I’m wrong on that account. I’d be happy to be corrected.
Kelsey Hayden: I don’t think speculating about her leadership style — when we don’t attend Brute practices and simply don’t know — is a reasonable argument against her.
Graham Gerhart: I don’t think I’ve watched a game where Groom was on the field and she wasn’t one of the five best players in that game. Even her ‘off’ games are tremendous. She doesn’t turn the disc over as often as others on the list and her skillset in aspects outside of throwing exceeds that of other competitors. It was pretty close to a lock for me here. If we’re building a team around one player, I want that player to still be a coach’s dream on her worst day. That’s Groom.
Steve Sullivan: That’s a great point, Graham. When your bad games are still good games and they’re “bad” in a way that doesn’t hurt the team, that’s worth A LOT. 100% agree that this describes Kami’s game.
Kelsey’s point is valid as well. I tried to caveat my assumptions about her voice, but you’re right that I don’t know what kind of leadership role Kami has on Brute — or, more importantly, what she’s capable of. I’ll admit, I never intended or expected to be by far the lowest on Kami — I fully agree she’s tremendous — though I will stand by my argument about the relative value of disc skills.
On that note, I’ll also offer some light push back on your claim that Kami is the GOAT at her position. She has certainly had a dominant career thus far and may someday earn her way into the Hall of Fame and GOAT consideration, but let’s not crown her just yet or so easily dismiss many past greats. Shoutout to any Gloria Lust-Phillips stans out there.
Three sets of teammates take up seven of the top 10 slots. Which pair would you want to build your team around: Claire Chastain & Manuela Cardenas (Molly Brown), Carolyn Finney & Sarah Griffith (Fury), or two of Kami Groom, Lien Hoffmann, and Angela Zhu (Brute Squad)?
Daniel Prentice: I love this question, though I think there’s a clear top two pairs. It’s close for me between Groom & Hoffmann and Finney & Griffith, as both would give a phenomenal cornerstone for both my O-line and D-line. Based on my own rankings, I have to go with Groom (my #1) and Hoffmann (#5) since I have Finney (#6) and Griffith (#8) both ranked below them. Getting the handler for the O-line in Finney is tempting, but I think overall the Brute Squad pair is just a little more dynamic right now. But still a really tough call.
Keith Raynor: If I’m going by rankings, I’m also going with the Brute Squad BFFs of Groom and Hoffmann. From a pure production standpoint, they are the best duo. However, the fact that they share a lot of strengths does make it murkier as to what to actually would do. I could have my #1 handler, Claire Chastain, and Manuela Cardenas, who I have at #9, and they also seem to have quite a bond. Drafting two players in similar positions feels like a Knicks GM move.
Still, I’m going to take a pair of multi-time champions who’ve done a lot of winning together in their career, and who can are a downfield one-two punch that can play at a pristine level on offense and defense.
Graham Gerhart: I’m on the Brute Squad train, too, but with a slightly different tack. Zhu and Groom have played together on the same Boston D-line that is also their kill line for offense, as necessary. I want the handler presence and tenacious defense that Zhu provides. Dare I say that Hoffmann had a bit of an off year in 2019 compared to past success?
Edward Stephens: Against my own rankings, I’ve got to pick Cardenas and Chastain. They rank lower than the Groom & Hoffmann set when I’m thinking about individual impact. However, I’ve seen enough of the way they can hog the disc together — especially in their PUL season last year — to believe that, by and large, nobody can touch them on offense. Little passes kill if you have the right personnel; Manu and Claire are it. Just imagine having to deal with the two of them skittering about the backfield game in and game out. And both of them can absolutely rip it, too, which isn’t something you can say about either of the other pairs.
Steve Sullivan: I have thought about this one a lot and changed my mind on it more times than I can count. I’m a little surprised, but I’m ultimately landing on the Chastain & Cardenas combo.
In the end, the Molly Brown duo is the only pairing that gives me two chances at getting the best player in 2020. We’ve already seen it from Chastain, who was POTY in 2017. And does anyone really question that Manu has the ability to achieve POTY level at some point? It’s more a matter of when, not if. Even if neither is that player this season, to Edward’s point, they play so beautifully and intuitively together. I love the way their handling skills work together and I could absolutely envision them running an O-line in a big point without even really needing to include any other teammates. Heck, even if they don’t win, I’d have a blast watching them play together more.
Maybe the other reason I’m landing here is because I just can’t decide which two Brute Squaders I’d take. Kami is an obvious choice, but would I rather pair her with her long-time running mate and perfect cutting pair partner Hoffmann? Or do I take Zhu, who brings a different skill set and would form easily the most ferocious defensive pairing of any of the options? For all the talk of the other young stars in our top 10, Zhu is also only 24 and has already appeared on our club DPOTY podium three times! She’s still getting better and looks like she could become the next leader for Brute sooner than later.
What’s strange is that according to my rankings, Finney and Surge should have been my pair. I just don’t have quite the same confidence in how well they mesh together. Both are phenomenal individual players, but I’m not sure their respective styles to do much to level up the other.
Regardless, there’s a coherent argument to be made for any pairing here — you can’t go wrong with any of them.
Kelsey Hayden: I would also like a ticket on the Brute train, please! Based on my rankings, and the pair that stood out to me immediately when this question was posed, was Groom and Zhu. Obviously defensively they would be absolutely painful to come up against, but also are super productive offensively. I don’t have anything against any of the other pairings though, so on any given day I could be swayed another way.
Charlie Eisenhood: Y’all are nuts: give me the World Games combo.
If I just need players for one season, I’m taking Finney & Surge. Some of the best to ever do it! Both in my top five! Offensive handler extraordinaire and one of the best defenders of a generation!
Daniel Prentice: Nuts seems a little unfair, considering Brute Squad just beat Fury last year when it mattered most. 💁♂️ Also, since you mention the World Games, it is truly still indefensible to me that Kami was not on that roster. She was better than both Finney and Griffith in 2017 without a doubt. I know they aren’t going for purely the best 14 players, but come on.
Graham Gerhart: I dunno about Groom being better than Finney in 2017 because I saw what Finney did in that National Championship game and I don’t know if anyone else has that same fighting spirit like her, but Prentice’s point is well made. Groom’s been brilliant no matter what metric you go by, especially this past year.
Steve Sullivan: Maybe I’m overthinking this and I should have stuck with the only pair that, like Charlie, both landed in my top five.
Keith Raynor: Steve, just do what you always do: go with the oldest option.
Steve Sullivan: 😬
Two international players — Lauren Kimura (Toronto 6ixers) and Manuela Cardenas (Denver Molly Brown) — landed inside our top 10. What makes these two the most feared non-Americans competing in the US right now?
Daniel Prentice: The answer is obvious for anyone who’s seen them play. They’re capable of plays that 99% of the division can’t make, throwing-wise and athletically. They can both dominate point in and point out and I’ve never seen either of them shrink in the face a big moment. I actually had Cardenas just outside of my personal top 10, but I have absolutely no problem with her being in there on aggregate; she could easily be a consensus top five player in a year or two. And Kimura was just the best player on a team that made the national championship. They’re both the caliber of player that would walk into any club and be a major piece right away.
Kelsey Hayden: As a Canadian, I don’t consider Kimura international…
But really though, both these players play on teams that complete in the US, so I didn’t think about them as international players; I just looked at them as phenomenal players in the division. I don’t really have much to say as to why I included them over other international players — they’re just better. And they’re better than almost all the American players too. If I’m looking for people to command the field and get shit done, I want them, even if they have to fly a little further to get to the field.
Edward Stephens: And since we’re on the subject of Manu — is there controversy here? She may have been the best player on the field in the 2018 Molly-Brute semifinal, at the age most US players are just starting to get a true feel for the game. The year before that, she outmuscled Mark Lloyd for a close disc in the most important moment of a World Games semi. And have we mentioned her breathtaking block from WJUC? Merely top 10 could look silly as early as, well, the next time any of these players get to step onto the field for a meaningful game.
Keith Raynor: It’s a real shame that Kimura was hurt for Sixers’ title bout last year, because she was the thing that took Sixers over the top. Her athleticism is underrated, but her handler bona fides are properly respected. And while she’s great in a high usage offensive role, she could be even better as a D-line handler.
That last part is probably less true of Manu. She has elite takeover ability on a point-to-point basis, and her game fits really well into the current trends for movement and space around the disc. I don’t know how flexible she is as far as role — she seems to operate best when she is getting a lot of touches. That could change with time, and you want your first pick being able to handle volume, anyway.
Steve Sullivan: Totally agree with you, Edward. There’s a very real possibility that Manu ends up looking wildly underrated in our rankings pretty soon. The only real question mark is if she has the maturity to lead a club team to a USAU title. For as good and dominant as she is, there’s a decent chance she’s never been the best player on a senior-level team to this point in her career — Yina Cartagena and Claire Chastain are probably seen as the top leaders on Revo/Colombia and Molly respectively. In terms of on-field talent, Manu has obvious top-tier skills and athleticism. Jaw-droppingly so. In terms of if she’s ready to be the clearcut #1 option for a team and shoulder the responsibility that comes with it, that’s at least still up for debate — though I don’t want to be the one to argue saying she isn’t.
On Kimura, is there any player whose stock has risen more in the past couple seasons? As recently as 2017, I’m not sure I even knew who she was. She wasn’t on the Canadian World Games team (or even an alternate) and the 6ixers hadn’t really ascended into the elite tier yet. Then Kimura comes out and earns First Team All-Club honors in both 2018 and 2019. Becoming a consensus top 10 player happened at warp speed for the Canadian star, while everyone else in our top 10 has been on our radar for far, far longer.
Graham Gerhart: It’s funny that these two are both in the top 10 considering how wildly different they are, to me at least. Kimura’s strength is her steadying presence and surety with the disc. When she’s playing everyone around her becomes more confident and assured. Cardenas is a firecracker, filled with wild kinetic energy. Her variance between being perhaps the best player in the world and a liability seems to hang in the balance every game she plays.
There is space for both of those players on a team, and I’d definitely want both of them, but I’m more confident that Kimura will keep rising up the list over Cardenas, assuming she stays healthy.
Though I’m not going to defend those exclusions. ↩