Which player would you most want leading your team?
August 27, 2020 by Ultiworld in Opinion with 0 comments
There’s no shortage of talent in the USA Ultimate Club Mixed 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 11 members of our coverage team, two elite player guests, 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 Mixed 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 eight 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||POINTS||Players' Ballot||K. McCormick||M. Charles||C. Enders||S. Jezierski||B. Murphy||K. Raynor||G. Gerhart||S. Sullivan||C. Eisenhood||M. Rippe||Jenna Weiner|
The full Top 25 will be available later this week for Ultiworld subscribers.
With the composite list in place, we discussed our selections, our snubs, our pet favorite players, and more.
The battle at the top between Sarah Meckstroth (Drag’N Thrust) and Anna Thompson (AMP) was very close. (Mac Taylor also received a #1 vote, but we’ll talk about him later.) Defend your top player!
Charlie Eisenhood (Editor-in-Chief): I selected Anna Thompson at #1. Not only do you have a proven champion, you get to fill an extremely valuable position: female handler.
And not just a replacement level female handler, the undisputed #1 female handler in the division. She followed up winning her second straight club title by reportedly looking like the best female thrower at the USA National Team tryouts. What more do you need to know?
Thompson is also an ace defender with speed and explosiveness. She’s got the tools to be an all-time great. And she’s still on the upslope towards her peak.
Steve Sullivan (Executive Editor): The choice between Thompson and Meckstroth is tough precisely because they share a lot of the same traits: proven winners who contribute all over the field. It’s no knock to come out on the wrong side of this coin-flip — you can clearly build a championship-level roster around either one as a focal point.
That said, I’m fully on board with Charlie on the Anna Thompson argument — I think not enough people recognize just how good she is at everything. Here’s one example of how I see this overall dominance manifesting: Thompson might be the only player I can think of that somehow manages to project both legitimate swagger and unshakeable calmness at the same time through the way she plays. She is more than willing to attack with some tough, ambitious throws, yet at the same time feels like she’s always 100% in control. It is no easy thing to have such staunch confidence in your own skills yet not get carried away by that mindset and try to do too much.
In the end, Thompson has a less replicable skillset, plays a premium position, and stands out even in a National Team setting. That’s why she’s my #1.
Max Charles (Elite player guest): Anna Thompson! Versatile, clutch, results. What else do you need to know?
Mary Rippe (Elite player guest): I chose Meckstroth because she’s a five-tool player with size. Meckstroth is an extremely competent thrower with power and touch, able to throw to a variety of players and break the mark. While the same could be said about Anna here, Anna more successfully controls the pace of the game from the backfield; when asked to move downfield, she isn’t nearly as dominant as Meckstroth in the cutting lanes and is arguably less impactful as a defender.
In my opinion, Meckstroth is more versatile in attack — from downfield or behind the disc — and often draws extra defenders to open up yards for her teammates. As an added bonus, she also has the capability of playing cross-gender help defense because of her size, range, and speed. Both have extremely good field awareness and both are solid choices for #1. For me, Meckstroth’s offensive versatility and extremely high competence in just about everything make her my first choice.
Ben Murphy (Contributor): I’d echo most of Mary’s first comment about my decision making concerning Meckstroth vs. Thompson. I agree that Meckstroth’s height and ability to win any match up whether cutting or handling was part of why I chose her. Anna has slightly better throws for distance, but Mecks’ other advantages downfield are more valuable to me.
Additionally, I have seen strong evidence that Meckstroth brings more to the table from a team leadership and especially a strategic and tactical perspective. Some of the more interesting zone looks I’ve seen over the last couple of seasons were on teams that Meckstroth coached or captained, to give an example.
Kevin McCormick (Contributor): Not the metric I used, but Mecks is slightly more replaceable than Anna; Lexi Zalk and Linda Morse are right on par in terms of speed, height, and awareness, but none of the other players have Anna’s throws. Maybe Sadie Jezierski or Jenny Fey, but Anna plays much better D than either of them.
Keith Raynor (Senior Editor): To me, you’ve gotta take Thompson. The clutch gene is there, on top of providing you some of the best throws in the game, period. You’re plenty confident sending her out on a D-line, too. Her skill set, as a package, is the most irreplaceable in the division, and I don’t really have any doubts about that.
Mary Rippe: Is Meckstroth more replaceable? Maybe. Anna is very good at her role as a center handler and AMP utilizes her talents well. That said, I have a totally unfounded and not-backed-up feeling, though, that Drag’N isn’t asking Meckstroth to be as dominant as AMP is asking Anna to be…. but I don’t necessarily think that means that Sarah can’t do that.
There’s near-consensus on Thompson and Meckstroth, but who is the top man-matchup player in the division? SEVEN different men appeared highest across the 11 ballots — plus three others if you break out each individual player ballot! What’s the case for each?
Ben Murphy: For me, Khalif El-Salaam (Mixtape), Tannor Johnson (Slow White), and Michael Ing (AMP) all seemed like the ideal combination of well-rounded skills, peak age, and with experience winning at high levels.
Kevin McCormick: “Well-rounded skills, peak age, and with experience winning at high levels,” is basically Sean Mott (AMP)‘s resume, especially the winning part. I know I’m biased as a Philly guy, but here’s some fun local info: PADA’s competitive summer league has 40 teams — it’s hugely coveted to win. Mott has played (and captained) exactly twice (2018 & 2019) and won both times. Mott has won seven total leagues in a little over 2 years. He carries the right balance of confidence and cockiness that raises the play of everyone around him.
I gotta push back against Tannor having the winning experience. Team USA doesn’t count because they always win (though he obviously gets credit for being selected). What else has he won?
Ben Murphy: Tannor won with Slow White in 2016 in Rockford. Also, I’m not sure league counts. But maybe it does?
Kevin McCormick: League absolutely should not count, but I can’t exactly delete that info from my brain. The question here is why did we pick our #1 and for me, when I think of Mott, I think of winning. Focusing on club, he has played two seasons with AMP — a team that made Nationals 13 times with zero titles — and helped lead them to titles both times. He went to Nationals with Patrol all three years he played with them (2015-17), then they missed Nationals the last two years when Mott switched to AMP. So he’s clearly a difference-maker at the club level. The league stuff is more just “fun fact” icing.
Charlie Eisenhood: Nick Lance (Shame) was my number one man-matchup player (#1). Is he a mixed stalwart? No, clearly not. But was there a more impressive thrower in the wind at Nationals last year?
Lance elevated a talented Shame team and delivered them to a semifinal appearance. Yes, people will knock him for his terrible final point against AMP in semis — that’s fair — but if I’m thinking about someone I can trust to just be awesome at the handler position on any team no matter what, Lance is one of the best options in the division.
For what it’s worth, Sean Mott was my number two man-matchup player (number four overall). He’s an absolute all-around killer out there, a superb offensive weapon.
Keith Raynor: I have Tannor Johnson at the top and Sean Mott behind him. To me, these are the two most dominant men in mixed. Their impacts are almost impossible to remove, and they get the job done in whatever way is necessary. Both have added increasingly malleable throwing skills to their athleticism and can play both ways. To me, that gives them an edge over the others.
Max Charles: It’s Mott, and it’s not close. At 2019 Nationals, he had 11 goals and 14 assists in an offense quarterbacked by Anna Thompson. Only three players recorded a double-double at Nationals: Mott on the championship team and two players from Superlame (finished T-7th). Mott led AMP in both columns, and the aggregate 25 points tied for third at the tournament. No other player in the division is matching that offensive production from outside the center handler position. The volume of both goals and assists speaks to his threat on and off the disc. A ‘pick your poison’ matchup is a common cliche in these ranking conversations, and Mott is the male mixed player that has the stats to prove it. When he touches the disc, things happen (or have already happened).
The way in which he holds space, times attacks, and plays to the intricacies of mixed offense is second to none and the reason he is able to post such a performance en route to a championship.
Steve Sullivan: First of all, loads of respect to Mott — he’s clearly come in and crushed the past couple seasons and I continue to be more and more impressed by him every time I see him play. But he’s not my number one.
I have been lucky enough to play full club seasons with four of the players who were ranked in the top 25 in this exercise.1 I can say, without any hesitation or qualification, that Mac Taylor (Blackbird) is the most skilled and talented of all of them.
There’s a reason Mac was recently selected among the 10 best men of the last decade! His combination of size and quickness make him an absolute match-up nightmare and he has skills worthy of building an entire offense around. Mac is long enough to throw around any mark, effectively eliminate most throwing lanes as a mark, and play big in the air. At the same time, he’s quick enough to create separation in small spaces, smother as a handler cover, or take advantage and pounce on slightly misplaced throws. His raw top-end speed is still on par with even the best speedsters in the division and he legitimately has some of the prettiest, zippiest throws you’ll see anywhere. I’m honestly not sure there’s a team anywhere on the planet that wouldn’t want him on their universe line.
I can already hear people making an argument about if Mac is good enough to help a team win Nationals, he should have at least been good enough to be at Nationals last year. Fair. Blackbird was on the wrong end of an incredibly well-played Regional final last fall, playing national runners-up Mischief closer than any team did in San Diego, save AMP. Then, as frequently happens to teams in that situation, Blackbird came out flat and flubbed the game-to-go to a Polar Bears squad they dominated twice before in the Series, but who was red-hot coming off a big emotional win in the backdoor bracket. Take it from someone who was there: that loss is hard to pin on Mac.
Had we done this exercise a year ago, after Mac carried a much thinner Blackbird roster to fifth place in the country and took home OPOTY honors, I expect he’d have been a unanimous top 10 pick. Sure, he’s another year older, but his skills and athleticism didn’t change that much. I can understand the case for a couple of these other mixed guys being ranked ahead of Mac on individual ballots. If you want to use that as an excuse to have him outside the top 10, I can at least respect that. But it is patently insane to have left him off of your ballot entirely — ahem Sadie, Ben, and elite players — and having played with him, I know he’s still clearly in the top 5 in the division.
Charlie Eisenhood: The mic has been dropped.
Charlie Enders (Contributor): Yeah, what Steve said.
Kevin McCormick: I started with Mac around 12 but then started doing 1-v-1 comparisons to the players above him and he just brings so much to the field. I both loved and hated guarding him because he is such a rare combination of well-rounded and insanely talented.
Four ballots had Erica Baken (Drag’N Thrust) in the top 5 (Keith, Max, Players’, and Jenna). Meanwhile, Charlie Enders and Eisenhood had her outside of the top 15, and Mary didn’t include her in the top 25. She was just on the POTY podium in 2019. What’s the missing link here?
Mary Rippe: I didn’t include her because every time I felt like I could, I found another pure handler or a hybrid who was able to contribute similarly but who had more powerful throws and was more consistent. I valued offensive consistency highly when generating my top 25 and only made justifications for individuals with absolutely dominating superpowers or who’s known “wild card-ness” defines them as a productive player and produces wins. To me, Baken’s superpower as a thrower does not supersede her relative inconsistency on offense, and she’s not a wild card so I can’t make an excuse for that.
Baken makes for an excellent piece who keeps the offense churning (an ability to play aware defense doesn’t hurt), especially if she’s on the D-line, but she’s not someone who I want to build a team around. Of course, there’s an argument for what Baken brings to a team outside of her own personal offensive game — how she make her teammates better on/off the field, her in-game adaptability, turnovers forced, wins produced — but I don’t have those stats to properly apply them. I apologize to the Baken stans out there.
Charlie Eisenhood: I have Erica Baken at #19 in my top 25. In my mind, she’s always been a very solid player that had an especially good 2019 regular season.
She certainly deserved the accolades for her performance last club season, but it would be an overreaction to say that she is suddenly now one of the top five women in the division. Is there upside? Sure — if she sustains the level of play that she displayed last year for years to come, then a higher ranking would be justified. But we’ve seen a longer period of elite play from her teammate, Sarah Meckstroth. And Baken’s less impressive play at Nationals last season also weighed down her POTY candidacy and pulled her down my list somewhat.
Sadie Jezierski (Elite player guest): I agree with what Mary said in terms of consistency. While I didn’t play against her in 2019, after seeing some games, I thought her defensive abilities were valuable. That helped her land at #15 for me. On the D-Line, she definitely kept the offense moving, which I value a lot in mixed, and helped lead Drag’N to big breaks. But I would rather build a team around a player who can change the game on an offensive line as well.
Max Charles: A woman center handler with power throws is possibly the highest value position in mixed (as reflected by my top pick as well). If I’m trying to build a team to win, filling this archetype is my top priority. It gives me an offensive versatility both near the disc and downfield that you just can’t get with male-only handler sets. Baken is phenomenal in that role. Offensively it’s more than what she throws, but how she forces a defense to play. She’s also someone I trust to get the disc back on a turnover. That is something I’d want to have as the foundation of my team.
Charlie Enders: Drag’N does a great job of putting Baken into situations she excels in. She’s great at breaking the mark, give-and-go’s, and handler defense. She also has glaring weaknesses, the most obvious being her playing worse in big situations.
Steve Sullivan: Baken actually landed a little higher on our composite rankings than I expected at the outset. She’s our fifth-ranked woman in the division, ahead of titans Jenny Fey, Raha Mozaffari, and Sandy Jorgensen — there is no slight here. If anything, she feels a little high at #8. To me, she’s a top 10-15 player, which is impressive as hell in its own right. Don’t forget that she made the Mixed WUGC team in 2016. But the POTY podium season was more of an aberration than her ranking here.
Women-matching players occupy the top four spots on our overall rankings, but represent only 11 of the top 25. How did we arrive at this alignment and why are there fewer women overall?
Ben Murphy: We’d be remiss not to explicitly discuss some aspects of the gender bias that exists in the mixed division. Plenty of folks are working hard to address gender equity on and off the field, but there’s still work to do and it shows up here just as it does in other usage metrics and discussions.
For me personally, I didn’t want to have gender be an explicit factor since it wasn’t part of the prompt, but I did look at genders of players after I’d done my rankings and ended up shuffling a little bit. How many other people paid attention to it as they were doing their rankings? Was it meant to help guide your rankings or just as a measuring stick afterward?
Sadie Jezierski: I paid attention to this a lot. As a mixed player, I value the women talent much more and led me to pick women in the top more than the bottom. I did pick 13 men and 12 women, mainly due to picking some male athletes who excelled playing with women (which is a skill within itself) over some female-identifying players.
Mary Rippe: I agree with much of what Ben said. I also initially went into my decision-making focusing less on gender and more on trying to decide who does what for their respective teams and who does it most effectively. However, I don’t know if you can necessarily separate the two (still mulling this over) and ended up shifting this mindset a lot based on what Sadie mentioned above.
Specifically, I considered gender identity’s impact in the following ways:
- As a female-identifying player, can you play cross-gender help defense? This is only an added bonus if you’re offensively sound and a well-rounded player, but is a nice plus.
- Can you throw to men and women equally well? This is a hard skill.
- As a male-identifying player, are you aware of your body on the field and do you create opportunities for women to be successful? This is harder to point out, but the best mixed teams are successful partially because their men can open up space for teammates to work into or take advantage of their defender poaching off onto other players. There’s more nuance here than I just explained, so I’d be interested to hear what others think re: this specific impact.
Ben Murphy: For background, I play mixed as well (almost exclusively) and agree that all these factors about players demonstrating both within- and cross-gender cooperation and teamwork are a critical part of player valuation. Those strengths and weaknesses manifest themselves on the field often enough that, as people familiar with mixed, we can evaluate players comprehensively enough for this exercise without having to disentangle all these things from each other. So while athleticism is a separate skill from, say, cross-gender throwing, they both show up together on the field enough that we could say we’ve evaluated players comprehensively.
I’d love to hear others give their figures and whether they used this ability as measuring stick (like it sounds like Sadie and I did) or as an objective target as they built their lists. I’d also be curious to hear whether people think there should have been separate lists by gender or some specific targets. I prefer how we did it because the flexibility facilitates more discussion and interesting dissent, but I’m interested in other perspectives.
Kevin McCormick: The root answer lies in a combination of roles, team dynamics, and exposure. Many teams that make Nationals, and most that fail to, still aren’t playing equitably on the field. They might play equitably against non-elite teams, but when push comes to shove, their men dominate the stats. The stat leaders from Nationals confirm this. People watching these teams play at Nationals will likely see mostly men making big plays and later remember those names more. This would explain why most ballots have more men than women.
The concentration of women at the top is where exposure comes into play. Teams that play equitably and are intentional about maximizing opportunities for every player to contribute are, in recent years, more likely to play in big games that get broadcast. So everyone (i.e. not just those people physically present at Nationals) knows who those top four women are: three of them played in semis this year and the other played in semis last year (granted, after already being a big name in the women’s division). They not only regularly win their matchups, but they also put up numbers and make big plays when it counts.
Keith Raynor: There’s something to the effect that Kevin is describing. I’m not quite sure about the order of events. Did teams with really talented women-matching players figure out they could press that advantage? Or did teams that more effectively created space for those players provide a bigger stage for both their recognition and development? Whichever order, it helped establish the hierarchy that we see playing out in the rankings.
From my personal perspective, there are a handful of elite and dominant women-matching players who offer a big advantage over the average matchup, while the top tiers of men-matching players are flatter across. That led me to highly value getting the top-shelf talent that Anna Thompson, Sarah Meckstroth, and their ilk offer.
Jenna Weiner (Contributor): To Ben’s question, I did keep the ratio in mind as I made my list. The differences between players as I got toward the bottom of my ranking were relatively minor and players were somewhat interchangeable, so I purposefully ended up with 13 women. I agree with Keith’s point, too, that top women are particularly valuable, so 7 of my top 11 picks were women who I felt could be centerpieces of their teams in 2020.
In general, the way that teams distribute the disc definitely plays a role in how we evaluate players. Notable for me is the cutter/handler disparity, since there seem to be more well-known men handlers than women handlers, with the exception being some of those top women players. There’s probably more to get into here, but why do teams have more men center handlers and top women often end up in more cutting roles? That almost definitely plays a part in how men are more involved and noticed to make the mid-to-bottom part of the top 25.
Max Charles: Roles were very compelling in a lot of my choices.
To rehash a lot of the points above, gender equity in mixed strategy is evolving and I think the teams that are currently rising are the ones that feature women in unique (by current mixed standards) roles. Whether it is a touch-dominant woman in the handler space like Anna [Thompson] and Erica [Baken], or (as Mary noted) a woman who can bend the poaching and switching ‘rules’ like Sarah [Meckstroth], Lexi [Zalk], and Jen [Cogburn], those are the edges and challenges to the norm that you can build a contender mixed team around.
I sold just about every touch-funneled male center handler. As reliable as their breaks or high percentage their hucks may be, it feels unimaginative and easier to plan against defensively (especially in an all-male handler set). Can a player like that get you far? Absolutely. Is it a top priority? I’m not so sure. That’s not the role that I am hitching my championship wagon to.
Steve Sullivan: I don’t have too much to add here, as I think both Kevin and Keith have touched on some of the biggest elements at play.
To Keith’s question, regardless of what comes first — talent or opportunity — they tend to perpetuate each other. Whether you’ve attracted top women talent to build around or just put your women in high-visibility positions to develop and earn recognition, doing either of those tends to attract more new talent and lead to success that reinforces the strategies of highlighting women in big roles. Women talent begets bigger roles for women begets more recognition for those players begets more women talent. Of the 11 women who appear in our Top 25, eight of them play for just three teams — AMP, Drag’n Thrust, Space Heater. Two others — Mischief and Mixtape — had multiple women teammates land inside the top 35. Kudos to the programs that have tapped into and benefit from this virtuous cycle.
Lesson for other mixed teams: want your women to get more recognition for how good they are? Put them in more visible roles on the field.
And have played against everyone else who got votes. ↩