2021 D-III Men’s Defensive Player of the Year

Celebrating the best defensive performances of the fall season.

Ultiworld’s 2021 College Awards are presented by the National Ultimate Training Camp; all opinions are those of the author(s). NUTC helps young players become better athletes and community members.

Each year, Ultiworld presents our annual College Awards. While the 2021 college season certainly wasn’t typical with its quick course through a fall Series to a first-ever December College Championships, we still want to celebrate and honor the tremendous performances we saw.

Our awards continue with the Defensive Player of the Year, recognizing the individual, and two runners-up, who we felt were the top defensive performers this spring. Whether through generating blocks, shutting down options, helping out teammates, or all of the above, these defenders stood out doing the tough work that too often goes unrecognized.

D-III Men’s 2021 Defensive Player Of The Year

Leo Sovell-Fernandez (Middlebury)

Middlebury's Leo-Sovell-Fernandez. Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
Middlebury’s Leo-Sovell-Fernandez. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

When we last had competitive ultimate, Leo Sovell-Fernandez was the best freshman in the division, winning our 2019 Rookie of the Year award. This fall, we got to see the growth in Sovell-Fernandez’s game over the last two years as he was the best defender in the division and the rightful winner of our Fall 2021 Defensive Player of the Year.

Sovell-Fernandez has a lot of traits that make him an exceptional defender: athleticism, awareness, ultimate IQ. All of these things combine to qualify him for maybe the most important adjective one can use to describe a defender in ultimate: versatile. Sovell-Fernandez was able to guard the opposing team’s largest threat, no matter the role they played.

Take Middlebury’s quarterfinal against St. Olaf as an example of Sovell-Fernandez’s versatility. In the first half, Sovell-Fernandez primarily guarded Ben Fjetland-Souza, the Berzerkers’ center handler. While able to do a solid job containing Fjetland-Souza in the handler space, Middlebury’s downfield defenders were struggling to stop St. Olaf’s cutters from getting open on the force side. In the second half, Sovell-Fernandez switched on to Will Brandt, the Berzerkers’ primary cutter, and it immediately paid dividends. Sovell-Fernandez got a help block on a shot to the deep space that led to a break on the first D-point of the second half. A few points later, Sovell-Fernandez was able to keep Brandt out of the open side, and St. Olaf turned the disc over twice trying to force it to him in difficult spots on the break side of the field, leading to the last break of the game.

Sovell-Fernandez played every defensive point in the bracket for Middlebury, starting every point with the pull and taking the toughest matchup. He led by example and was the driving force behind the Pranksters’ D-line success at Nationals this fall. Sovell-Fernandez returns in the spring for the last semester of his senior year, looking to put Middlebury back on top of D-III once again.

1st Runner-Up

Chris Cassella (Richmond)

Richmond's Chris Cassella. Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
Richmond’s Chris Cassella. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

The Richmond Spidermonkeys boasted the best defense in the division this year, blowing out opponents and notching five breaks in the semifinal against eventual champions Oklahoma Christian. Chris Cassella was the anchor of this defense and is our 1st runner-up for DPOTY.

A graduated player returning under the special eligibility extension rules, Cassella’s experience shone through in his play, vocally leading his D-line and helping set his teammates up for success with smart switches and poaches. Cassella didn’t just set his teammates up for break chances, but also created them on his own, notching big blocks throughout the weekend in Norco.

The Spidermonkeys were one of the most graduate-laden teams in the Series this fall, and they will miss that experience in the spring. Cassella’s leadership on defense is near the top of the list for what they’ll miss the most.

2nd Runner-Up

Benji Keillor (St. Olaf)

St. Olaf's Benji Keillor defends Middlebury's Max Hanscom. Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
St. Olaf’s Benji Keillor defends Middlebury’s Max Hanscom. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

Team defense is great, but there’s something to be said about having a player who can just go out and get a big block when you need it. Benji Keillor was one of the tournament’s most electrifying defenders and was a walking highlight reel in Norco.

Seemingly every time you glanced at a St. Olaf game, Keillor was making a layout block, and frequently, he was wrapping up the point in the endzone. St. Olaf’s real strength throughout the weekend was their ability to go on fast runs to put games away early — and Keillor often played a leading role in those runs. Against Claremont in their quarterfinal matchup, Keillor notched a block on each of the first three points of the game, setting the tone and helping St Olaf to put the game out of reach early.

On a team full of exceptional defenders, Keillor still managed to stand out above the rest. A graduated player participating in the fall series under the special eligibility rules, Keillor won’t be back in the spring, leaving a big hole for the Berzerkers’ D-line to fill.

  1. Michael Ball
    Michael Ball

    Michael Ball is the Men's D-III College Editor for Ultiworld. You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter @mike_ball423

  2. Zakk Mabrey
    Zakk Mabrey

    I helped start my HS intramural ultimate club as a junior at North Central HS in Indianapolis. At Indiana Wesleyan, I served as club president for three years, and was a captain. Now graduated, I live in Indianapolis, run D-III Midwestern Invite, and help with various other tournaments and ultimate projects within the state, while writing for Ultiworld. Catch me on Twitter @tnlzmabrey

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