What we're watching for as the D-III season gets into full swing.
March 2, 2022 by Michael Ball in Coverage, Preview with 0 comments
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With the benefit of watching a Fall championship series, we actually know a lot more about the landscape of D-III ultimate than we usually do entering the spring. However, even with that information, we still have plenty of questions about what to expect over the next few months of the 2022 college season. Here are five of the most pressing:
1. What do defending champions Oklahoma Christian look like?
In their first championship series as a program, the Oklahoma Christian Eagles achieved the highest possible success and won a National Championship. So what will their title defense look like?
The most glaring difference between the Eagles from fall to spring is the loss of Kyle Henke. The 2021 POTY was the catalyst for OC’s steady O-line, both pacing their offense with steady resets and completions while also providing highlights when needed. Henke was also part of a rotation that would crossover for D points, and he threw one of the Eagles’ two breaks in the final in Norco. It is impossible to underestimate his importance to the Eagles in the fall. Add in the loss of Henke’s fellow Texas Tech alumnus Michael Paniagua, and OC has a sizable amount of production to replace on offense.
Luckily for the Eagles, they have plenty of firepower returning and ready to play bigger roles. Junior Elliott Moore, fresh off of OPOTY 1st runner-up honors in the fall, is back to anchor the OC O-line. Grad student Jonathan Costello took a backseat to Henke in the fall but is more than capable of stepping up into a much bigger playmaking role in the spring. Kevin van Roosmalen and Evan Card are cutters who served in continuation roles in the fall but have the ability to do more.
Beyond the returners, the Eagles also have a new batch of recruits on the roster that are ready to contribute right away. Thomas Maguire, a transfer from Messiah, is a terrific defender who’s more than capable of contributing on offense. Emmanuel Bilolo (UT-Dallas, Flash Flood), Trevor Cook (Indiana, Black Sheep), and Max Hamilton (Indiana, Fungi) are all players with club and college experience that will be ready to step into important roles.
Replacing a player like Henke is never easy, but OC coach Garrett Taylor has all the ingredients for another great team. Will they find the right combination to defend their title?
2. Should Middlebury be the favorites to win the title?
The Middlebury Pranksters put forward a team in the fall that would have brought home a title in almost any other season. They didn’t lose a single game except the final, and even in that loss, the Pranksters offense only gave up two breaks. What’s more, Middlebury didn’t have a single graduated player on their roster in the fall, meaning that they will be back again this spring with a cohort that has a run to the championship game already under their belt.
Walker Frankenberg is back after winning the 2021 OPOTY to lead the O-line. Leo Sovell-Fernandez is back after winning the 2021 DPOTY to lead the D-line. Max Hanscom is back after finishing 1st Runner-Up for BPOTY and landing on the All American 2nd Team. Sure, there are unique circumstances because of the fall championship series, but there’s never been a D-III team returning a trio of stars that’s this decorated.
As always, the Pranksters are much more than just their star players. Role players like Ben Morris, Jack Landrigan, George Drumheller, and more also give Middlebury one of the deepest teams in the division. As if the team the Pranksters brought to Norco wasn’t strong enough already, Middlebury will also be adding senior Josh Sims Speyer back into the fold after he missed Nationals in the fall due to injury.
The Pranksters are essentially a lock to return to Nationals in Milwaukee this spring. Will they get over the final obstacle and win it all this time?
3. Which team suffers the most from the loss of graduated players?
The unique circumstances of the fall championship series allowed graduated players to have one last chance at competing with their teams. This led to a level of play and talent at Nationals higher than we’ve ever seen. Inevitably, there are going to be teams that feel the loss of these graduated players more than others; who are they?
We already discussed Oklahoma Christian’s losses, and Middlebury is returning everyone. The other two semifinalists, Richmond and St. Olaf, might be more impacted by the loss of graduated players than anybody else. Richmond’s losses are headlined by 2021 Donovan winner Hunter Lang, but they are far more than just that. Harris Cannon (2020 Donovan winner), Chris Cassella (2021 1st Runner-Up DPOTY), Xavier McCormick, and Ben Weinstein won a championship and went to two semifinals while at Richmond, making them one of the most successful graduating classes in D-III history. For St. Olaf, no loss will be felt more than that of Donovan finalist Drew Otterlei. Other graduates will be missed for sure (Benji Keillor, Matt Whear), but Otterlei was one of the team’s best defenders and the driving force behind St. Olaf’s D-line offense.
There are teams throughout the division with key graduated players to replace. Franciscan are losing Mark Schuster and Nick O’Brien. Carleton CHOP have to replace Alex Rafkin. We could go on and on and list someone for most teams. While the fall season is usually used for development, this year, teams had players in crucial roles that won’t be back for the spring. It will be interesting to see which teams manage to adjust the best.
4. Which team from fall Nationals makes the biggest leap in the spring?
As we discussed above, most teams in the division will have some big shoes to fill this spring. However, there were some teams who were able to use their fall season for development while still making a run to Nationals, setting them up for further success in the spring season. Which teams are most primed to make the leap this season?
The favorite quarterfinalist to make the leap to semis and beyond has to be the Berry Bucks. After being largely off our radar entering Norco, the Bucks put on a show in California, winning maybe the most exciting game of the tournament in prequarters against Colorado College before running out of steam against Richmond. Berry bring back their entire roster from the fall, including 2021 BPOTY Caleb Enright and ROTY 2nd Runner-Up Collin Hill. Those two, along with Walter Ellard, form one of the most formidable trios in the division. With 2021 COTY Robert Bradham at the helm, expect the Bucks to build on their fall finish.
The other team positioned for improvement from their fall finish is the aforementioned Colorado College Wasabi. After a strong pool play performance where their only blemish was a 15-11 loss to St. Olaf, Colorado College were on the unfortunate side of their prequarter classic against Berry. Wasabi’s roster for the spring features Donovan finalist Josh Felton, Second Team All American Lincoln Grench, and do-it-all junior Oliver Kraft. Their only loss is Sam Pfeifer, but even he is returning in the spring as an assistant coach. Colorado College felt like they fell short in Norco; expect them to return with a vengeance this spring.
While these two programs are the most likely to jump into title contention, there are several other teams from Norco who should be improved this spring. The Claremont Braineaters only lose two players from their fall roster and return a young team led by Leo Kitchell and COTY 2nd Runner-Up Alex Rubin. Kenyon Serf only lose one graduated player and return the powerful duo of Owen Hevly and Lucien Kisch. North Park and Rochester both return most, if not all, of their rosters from Norco.
All of these teams got valuable experience at fall Nationals. Can they use that experience to take the leap this spring?
5. Which teams that didn’t make Nationals have the best chance to qualify in the spring?
There’s no chance we get the exact same Nationals field in Milwaukee that we had in Norco; inevitably, there will be some amount of turnover. So which teams are most likely to earn a Nationals bid in the spring that didn’t in the fall?
The one region’s bid most clearly up for grabs is the Northwest. The Whitman Sweets represented the NW in the fall, but the Sweets normally participate in D-I regionals in the spring due to conflicts with their graduation. As of Norco, Whitman had communicated to Ultiworld that they expect to do this again in 2022, opening up the NW D-III bid to a different team. The most obvious replacement would be Whitworth Bangarang, who only lost to Whitman on double game point in the fall, but they won’t be the only team in contention. The Puget Sound Postmen lost to Whitworth on DGP in the semis, and programs like Lewis & Clark and Portland are always in contention. The Northwest should be as competitive as ever.
The other region where turnover is most likely is the Ohio Valley. Regionals in the fall were played in…subpar conditions, with snow and gail-force winds impacting games and keeping scores low. It’s not groundbreaking to hypothesize that results could have been different had the tournament been played in more normal conditions. As mentioned above, Kenyon brings back most of their fall Nationals team, but Franciscan is experiencing extreme turnover. On top of the aforementioned roster turnover, they’re also losing their entire coaching staff from the fall. Oberlin beat both Nationals teams at fall conferences, and teams like Cedarville, Messiah, and Grove City all gave them tough games. We expect the Ohio Valley to land a second bid again this Spring, and if they do, everyone at Regionals will feel like they have a chance to take it.