A first-time Nationals attendee enters as the top pool seed and team to beat.
December 15, 2021 by Michael Ball in Preview with 0 comments
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The 2021 College Championships are unusual in many ways: the quick ramp-up to a winter Nationals meant that qualifying Series events were the first tournaments some recruits ever played, while extended eligibility rules allowed teams to roster sixth- or seventh-year players and even alumni. For D-III teams, add one more point of distinction: for the first time, the D-I and D-III Championships are being held as a single tournament event. Along with that comes a notable scheduling change for this division, whose games are now spaced out across four days instead of being compressed into two.
The unique format of the 2021 Series as well as the long hiatus since sanctioned play make for lots of unknowns going into the weekend. In these previews, we’ll offer a snapshot of each team and the competition they’ll face when play begins on Friday, December 17. Watch ultiworld.com/live then for updates in all four college divisions!
Seeding: D1; overall no. 4
Power Ranking: #3
Path to Nationals: Def. Colorado College 12-10 in South Central final
Past Nationals Appearances: none
Location: Oklahoma City, OK
Perhaps no D-III name will command more intrigue across the entire tournament this weekend than Nationals debutants Oklahoma Christian, the team that rocked the college ultimate waters in early 2020 with the announcement of their scholarship program; one pandemic interruption later, their recruiting efforts have paid off in their first series experience with a trip to Nationals and the top seed in Pool D.
Any conversation about OCU has to begin with their star power. Kyle Henke, a fifth-year transfer from Texas Tech, might be the best individual player at the tournament. The AUDL and Austin Doublewide star has a propensity for the highlight reel play and is capable of imposing himself on both sides of the disc. Joining Henke as fifth year transfers are fellow Texas Tech teammate Michael Paniagua and Oklahoma State alum Jonathan Costello.
While the fifth years certainly help elevate the Eagles, the foundation of their program is in their undergraduate talent. Elliott Moore (2018 WJUC U20 gold medalist, three-time member of the AUDL’s Austin Sol, and member of Austin Doublewide) and Kevin van Roosmalen were the first two major recruits that put OCU on the map in 2019, and coach Garrett Taylor is quick to acknowledge that the depth of the Eagles roster is the reason for their success.
“We were able to recruit players using our scholarship model and find guys that are difference-makers, while also finding some guys on campus that are real team players,” said Taylor. “Our depth is crazy.”
True to expectations, the Eagles have been dominant in the 2021 series. They marched through a deep, competitive South Central with a 10-1 record; their only loss came on double game point in their first game of Sectionals against Truman State, and they avenged that loss later at the same tournament and again at Regionals for good measure. Oklahoma Christian has the depth to survive pool play, and the new-to-D-III four-day schedule will allow their top-end talent to play heavy minutes in the bracket. Combine this with the experience players like Henke and Moore have already playing at the highest levels, and the Eagles have all the ingredients necessary to make a run at the title in Norco.
Seeding: D2; overall no. 5
Power Ranking: #7
Path to Nationals: Def. Oberlin 9-6 in Ohio Valley final
Past Nationals Appearances: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019
Location: Steubenville, OH
Death, taxes, and Franciscan Fatal making Nationals when a Schuster is on the roster. Fatal have qualified for Nationals five of the last six seasons,1 establishing themselves as the class of the Ohio Valley and regulars on the division’s biggest stage. All jokes about the Schuster family’s omnipresence on this team aside, Franciscan’s sustained success is a credit to their system and player development, which has created a roster filled top-to-bottom with players capable of contributing when called upon.
Coming out of the pandemic pause, Franciscan has benefited from a group of graduates and upperclassman returning under the eligibility exemptions to steer the program through the transition period. Former player Dom Gabriele is now coaching the team, and fellow alumni Nick O’Brien (also serving as an assistant coach), Mark Schuster, and Ben Lyle are back to lead Fatal on the field. Add in seniors Matt Muldoon and JP Duerr, and Franciscan will have one of the more experienced rosters at the tournament.
The big question surrounding Fatal heading into Norco is how their game will translate from the harsh winter conditions of the Ohio Valley to the beautiful sunshine of southern California. Franciscan went 5-0 at Regionals despite the twin gauntlets of a competitive D-III men’s field and blizzard-like conditions in central Ohio in mid-November, and their ability to not just endure but excel is a testament to their resilience in the face of external challenges. The team believes they have figured out systems and sets on both sides of the disc that have optimized their talent and led to their success in the series so far. If those tactics translate to the calm, clear conditions expected in Norco this weekend, then Fatal has the experience and leadership to contend with the best in the division.
A fun aside to watch: the program’s longtime head coach Ian Gill will rejoin the sideline in Norco in an assisting role, trying to achieve his 150th win as part of the Franciscan coaching staff. He currently sits at 148. It’s hard to be sure, but is this the winningest coach in the division?
Seeding: D3; overall no. 9
Power Ranking: #11
Path to Nationals: Lost to St. Olaf 15-6 in North Central semifinal; def. Luther 12-7 in game-to-go
Past Nationals Appearances: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019
Location: Northfield, MN
New, more SEO-friendly name, same outcome: Carleton’s top D-III men’s team is back at Nationals for the 14th time.
Historically the class of the North Central, CHOP’s road to Nationals was a little bumpier than usual this year. Entering the weekend with a postseason record of 9-3, Carleton needed to battle their way through the backdoor bracket of Regionals and avenge a pool play loss to Luther in order to earn a place in Norco. Still, there are signs of Carleton’s traditional dominance in their record; they took seven of those nine wins by a five-point margin or greater.
Leading CHOP is senior Alex Rafkin, a breakout player from Nationals in 2019. The cornerstone of the Carleton D-line, Rafkin had 11 assists and 8 blocks that weekend, and he constantly set up the CHOP defense for success with some of the best pulls we saw in the whole tournament. He’ll be Carleton’s most impactful player on both sides of the disc, and it will be interesting to see how CHOP’s coaching staff chooses to use him as the weekend progresses.
Always among the deeper teams in the division, perhaps the biggest challenge for Carleton this weekend will lie in the new format that stretches the D-III tournament over the course of four days rather than its usual two. If the schedule benefits teams like poolmates Oklahoma Christian that are likely to rely on a smaller number of stars, that change may come at the expense of one of Carleton’s longtime advantages. CHOP has always had the top-end talent to square up against other team’s best players, but have tended to separate themselves from the competition as they progress down the depth chart over the course of a grinding tournament weekend. Still, if co-coaches Michael Massad and Max Longchamp can find a way to leverage that well-roundedness against the kind of top-of-division talent found elsewhere in this pool, Carleton should be more than capable of making a run at their fourth D-III title.
Seeding: D4; overall no. 15
Power Ranking: #25
Path to Nationals: Lost to Richmond 12-6 in Atlantic Coast final; lost to Navy 13-10 in game-to-go; Navy declined bid
Past Nationals Appearances: 2018
Location: Fredericksburg, VA
Every team’s road to Nationals looks a little different. Mother of George’s goes through two losses in bid-earning games and a surprise invite when the second-place team from the Atlantic Coast, Navy Poseidon, were ultimately unable to make the trip west. But don’t think that means this team is incapable of competing with Nationals-caliber teams: Mary Washington soundly beat that same Navy team 9-3 in the semifinals of Regionals before losing 13-10 in a tightly contested rematch in the game-to-go.
Furthermore, having attended Nationals in 2018, Mother of George have players on their roster with experience on the big stage. Landrum Beard, William Carpenter, Owen Donovan, and Beau De Koninck were all contributors on that 2018 squad, and they’ll take on large roles in Norco this weekend. De Koninck, in particular, is primed to be a potential breakout star of the tournament. The team’s 2020 Donovan nominee, De Koninck spent this past summer as a practice player for Washington DC Truck Stop and has played for Space Heater in the past. If Mother of George makes noise in Norco, look for De Koninck to be a big reason why.
More than anything, Mary Washington leadership stressed how much they appreciate the opportunity to compete at Nationals at all. Working at a three-week preparation time deficit compared to the rest of the field due to their last-minute addition to the tournament, Mother of George was able to raise the funds for their trip in just one week, and their captains wanted to stress how thankful they are for the support of their friends, family, and their ultimate community to make this trip happen. The team looks forward to showing their appreciation with passionate and competitive play.
Maybe missing 2018 because the Schuster parents spaced out their children by one year too many? ↩