Which player would you most want leading your team?
April 22, 2022 by Ultiworld in Opinion with 0 comments
College ultimate is filled with stars. Some play in high-profile environments, get reps for elite club teams, or play in international competition. Others compete with deep squads that don’t always make them the headliner for their team. Still others ply their trade for off-the-radar programs that dim their limelight. But our coverage team tries to see them all.
So who are the best players in college ultimate 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 members of our coverage team to weigh in on the following prompt:
If you were starting a college team right after the end of the regular season, with the express goal of winning a hypothetical 2022 College Championships still scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, how would you rank the players within the division? You aren’t building a team of all 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 current D-I players are eligible to be drafted, but with their current injury status.
Our process was altered this year in order to improve how representative our rankings are of the opinions of our voters. We each listed out our top 35 players — up from a cap of 25 in past years — to iron out some of the gradations on the fringes and then combined our lists to create a composite ranking. In addition, we included the ballots of a few anonymous elite players from different regions. We used a weighted scoring system for votes, with Players’ Ballots counting as 60% of the value of Staff Ballots.1
Here’s our top 10. Our full top 25, as well as every player receiving votes, will be available in a second article for our subscribers on Monday.
|Rank||Player||Staff Ballots||Players' Ballots||E. Stephens||A. Rubin||K. Raynor||S. Sullivan||P. Stegemoeller||C. Eisenhood||AC Player||NW Player||SE Player||NE Player||SW Player|
|1||John Randolph (Brown)||Liam Searles-Bohs||John Randolph||Alex Atkins||John Randolph||Liam Searles-Bohs||Liam Searles-Bohs||Liam Searles-Bohs||Liam Searles-Bohs||Liam Searles-Bohs||John Randolph||John Randolph||John Randolph||John Randolph|
|2||Liam Searles-Bohs (North Carolina)||John Randolph||Liam Searles-Bohs||Orion Cable||Liam Searles-Bohs||John Randolph||John Randolph||John Randolph||John Randolph||John Randolph||Andrew Roy||Liam Searles-Bohs||Henry Ing||Liam Searles-Bohs|
|3||Henry Ing (Pittsburgh)||Henry Ing||KJ Koo||Jacques Nissen||KJ Koo||Alex Atkins||Orion Cable||Henry Ing||Henry Ing||KJ Koo||KJ Koo||Jordan Kerr||Cole Jurek||Hayden Austin-Knab|
|4||KJ Koo (Cal Poly SLO)||Jacques Nissen||Alex Atkins||Liam Searles-Bohs||Cole Jurek||KJ Koo||Henry Ing||Jordan Kerr||Jacques Nissen||Alex Atkins||Alex Atkins||Hayden Austin-Knab||Andrew Roy||KJ Koo|
|5||Alex Atkins (Colorado)||KJ Koo||Cole Jurek||Henry Ing||Jordan Kerr||Henry Ing||KJ Koo||Cole Jurek||Alex Atkins||Cole Jurek||Gus Norrbom||Henry Ing||Jacques Nissen||Henry Ing|
|6||Cole Jurek (Minnesota)||Alex Atkins||Hayden Austin-Knab||Joe Merrill||Jacques Nissen||Jacques Nissen||Jacques Nissen||Orion Cable||KJ Koo||Hayden Austin-Knab||Tony Venneri||Alex Atkins||Alex Atkins||Alex Atkins|
|7||Orion Cable (UMass)||Orion Cable||Henry Ing||Hayden Austin-Knab||Andrew Roy||Jordan Kerr||Manny Eckert||Lucas Chen||Hayden Austin-Knab||John McDonnell||Cole Jurek||KJ Koo||Orion Cable||Jordan Kerr|
|8||Hayden Austin-Knab (Georgia)||Cole Jurek||Orion Cable||John Randolph||Henry Ing||Hayden Austin-Knab||Alex Atkins||Joe Merrill||Cole Jurek||Orion Cable||Stan Birdsong||Cole Jurek||KJ Koo||Orion Cable|
|9||Jacques Nissen (Brown)||Jordan Kerr||Andrew Roy||KJ Koo||Alex Atkins||Trevor Lynch||Jordan Kerr||Jaques Nissen||Trevor Lynch||Trevor Lynch||Liam Searles-Bohs||Jacques Nissen||Liam Searles-Bohs||Cole Jurek|
|10||Jordan Kerr (BYU)||Hayden Austin-Knab||Jordan Kerr||Trevor Lynch||Manny Eckert||Cole Jurek||Cole Jurek||Gus Norrbom||Joe Merrill||Henry Ing||Hayden Austin Knab||Orion Cable||Tony Venneri||Calvin Stoughton|
In a less than shocking outcome, John Randoph (Brown) and Liam Searles-Bohs (North Carolina), were at a near dead heat, a 5-4 split on first-place selections. The only other player to receive a first-place vote was Alex Atkins (Colorado), a tone-setting pick from our maverick voter, Edward. So let’s hear it: why should your pick be #1?
Edward Stephens (Senior Staff Writer): You don’t want the guy with the most experience, the guy with the best resume, or the guy with the best skillset. Those are all great indicators, but the player you want to start with is the player who both can and will do absolutely everything right now to help your team win. That’s what I’m seeing out of Atkins so far this season: the driving force. Nobody else is playing like they want it as much as he does.
Alex Rubin (Senior Staff Writer): Look, we just got done debating whether JR should be on an All-Club team. LSB is great, but he’s not at that level right now, especially dealing with an injury. It speaks to how good he is that he still garnered such support, but if I’m drafting a team to win college Nationals this year, I’ll take Randolph on that team every time.
Stephens: I liken this to the Dena Elimelech vs. Jack Verzuh argument during this exercise in 2019 — Jack was clearly the most accomplished and most skilled player in the country, but I went with Dena (by a hair) because I felt that in addition to her skills, she was the hungriest player in the country that particular year. That position was fairly criticized, but it turned out all right for me in the end. That 2019-Elimelech-like hunger is what I see from 2022 Atkins, and that’s why he gets the nod for me.
I’d love to hear from somebody who put Searles-Bohs first overall — what’s the argument?
Keith Raynor (Senior Editor): I’ll bite, Edward. LSB gives me the game-breaking throwing of Atkins and the proven-winner bonafides of Randolph in a tidy package. And now we’ve gotten a big fat sample of D-Line LSB (LSBD?) and the results have been elite. Was that perhaps the only outstanding question about his game the last time we did this exercise? He’s probably less of a center handler than Atkins can be, but I love the reliability and how he has proven he can take over any game, on any stage, in just about any facet.
Steve Sullivan (Executive Editor): I’m with Keith in believing that LSB has the best all-around skillset — there may be individual areas where Randolph or Atkins or other players have a small advantage over LSB, but none strike me as quite as all-around brilliant and reliable on a college field, though Randolph is admittedly pretty close.
The other piece that pushed LSB to the top of the pile for me: I don’t think we’ve really seen him hit his must-win takeover gear yet this spring. To Edward’s point, Atkins has been playing that way all season, and I’m not sure Randolph ever isn’t going all out when he’s on the field — it’s one of his defining traits. I concede that there’s a reasonable argument that those high-effort reps are a meaningful differentiator at the top if you don’t believe it’s possible for someone to just flip a switch to hit another gear. But does anyone else watch LSB and not think he’s got more under the hood than he’s showing right now? It feels to me like he’s playing the role Darkside needs in order to bring the team along to hit their collective peak. But in a must-win situation in his last college season, I believe he’s going to find a way to take over in a way we haven’t seen in the division in at least a few years — which is a truly terrifying prospect for opponents. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but the chance that it might be true is enough for me to give him the slight edge at the top here.
Patrick Stegemoeller (Senior Staff Writer): This question illustrates one of the key elements of this exercise: we’re ranking the top players in the division, not just handing out laurels for performance in the 2022 college season. We’ll have plenty of time to do that with All-American voting and player awards later in the season. I’m taking LSB and JR above everyone else on the list by a healthy margin because we just saw them excel at the highest level of the sport last club season, and have a huge body of work showing that they are the two best players in the college game right now.
I’ve got LSB ahead by a hair because of a more diverse skill set and a larger physical frame, but between those two it was really close.
Stephens: We aren’t all simply “ranking the top players in the division.” The approach I take when we do one of these is asking myself the question, “If I wanted to put together a team to win a College Championship this season, who would I most like to start with?”
The key word is “college” — in my mind, this isn’t a draft to place these players on elite club teams. (If it were, I would order them quite differently.) In the college game, you can’t count on a high skill level around you the way you can in club. You have to create your own plays much more often on offense and defense. That, in my opinion, takes the value out of some highly-polished specialists (like Gus Norrbom) and even those players like Searles-Bohs or Randolph who are much more comfortable being the next or third domino in a sequence rather than the start. The level of responsibility for the whole field increases dramatically in the college game compared to the club game.
Pat, #16 for Alex Atkins is preposterously low. I may be a bit of an outlier from the group at #1, but everyone else has him top 10. Your ranking here is nonsense. And behind teammate Danny Landesman (#12 on your list)? What haven’t you seen from Atkins to drop him like that?
Stegemoeller: I hope he doesn’t make a 30-minute Instagram video about this, but I don’t think he is good enough to get the kind of usage rate he does. He throws a ton of turnovers, his on-field play doesn’t seem to elevate his teammates (although his fiery attitude definitely seems to get people pumped up), and dogs it at times on defense. Now, all of this can be excusable for a guy who is carrying an under-talented team in college. But Mamabird is stacked. And he played the same way for Boulder Lotus in the club season.
Atkins is a high-volume gunner, and a ton of fun to have around making big plays and starting kick spike controversies, but he doesn’t check a lot of the boxes I’m looking for in my best-of-the-best players. Russell Westbrook may be my favorite NBA player of the past decade, but I’d never have him as a top five player.
KJ Koo (Cal Poly SLO) got a top five slot on five ballots, while the other five ballots ranked him anywhere from sixth to #13. Why should Koo be in or out of the top five?
|Ranker||Staff Ballots||Players' Ballots||E. Stephens||A. Rubin||K. Raynor||S. Sullivan||P. Stegemoeller||C. Eisenhood||AC Player||NW Player||SE Player||NE Player||SW Player|
|Above Koo||Jacques Nissen||Liam Searles-Bohs||John Randolph||Liam Searles-Bohs||Alex Atkins||Henry Ing||Danny Landesman||Alex Atkins||John Randolph||John Randolph||Alex Atkins||Orion Cable||Hayden Austin-Knab|
|KJ Koo Rank||5||3||9||3||4||5||13||6||3||3||7||8||4|
|Below Koo||Alex Atkins||Alex Atkins||Trevor Lynch||Cole Jurek||Henry Ing||Jacques Nissen||Andrew Roy||Hayden Austin-Knab||Alex Atkins||KJ Koo||Cole Jurek||Liam Searles-Bohs||Henry Ing|
Rubin: Koo is the truth and has a legitimate shot to win Player of the Year this season. He has all of the tools you want to see in a leading playmaker: high-level deep throws and touch throws, plus the ability to get open as a cutter or as a reset, and can cross over to defense to shut down an opposing team’s top weapon. He’s been asked to do a lot this season and has SLO humming along as a regional favorite and darkhorse semis contender. What more do you need to see?
Charlie Eisenhood (Editor-in-Chief): Alex is spot on. Technically I ranked him sixth, but I fully agree with the sentiment. Despite a heavy workload, he’s been the best player in most games SLO has played in. Extremely effective on both sides of the disc. The players I have ahead of him have the benefit of playing on better teams with better supporting casts.
Calvin Brown (Player Voter): Not to be too much of a homer, but KJ is 100% a top five player. He’s elite in so many facets of the game and is a huge matchup problem on offense and a high-level versatile defender. I don’t really think it’s valuable for him to dominate our offense at this point in the season (similar to players like JR and LSB), but I do think he’s capable of carrying the load against elite defensive teams.
Raynor: Let’s also not forget we have seen KJ in other roles be extremely successful. I’m still not sold that him being the offensive centerpiece is actually better than him being a shutdown defender and QB-ing after the turn. He was one of the best defenders in the division in 2019 and he proved in 2021 that he could carry the offensive load of a team competing for semifinals. I just can’t turn that down when we can check the receipts on his impact.
Stephens: Among players you ranked below Koo, Alex Atkins and Joe Merrill (Brigham Young) have both played better than him in head-to-head matchups in 2022, and Hayden Austin-Knab (Georgia) and Henry Ing (Pittsburgh) just finished lighting up Easterns, where they didn’t get a chance to go head-to-head against him because Cal Poly flamed out in pool play. Koo has been absolutely bombastic in the past, but give me the players who are actually getting it done right now over those who, for whatever reason, are still on cruise control this spring.
Sullivan: Edward, there’s a real reason some players throw on the cruise control in the regular season. To win a national championship, it’s about peaking at the right time, not about blasting everyone when the games don’t really count. Just ask the Utah Jazz or Denver Nuggets. Whether for personal injury preservation or team-building by trusting others with more prominent roles early in the spring, I don’t hold it against people who don’t go all out on every point during what really only counts as preseason.
The case for Koo has already been made pretty strongly here, so I don’t need to add too much. Let’s not forget the role Koo was thrust into at fall Nationals — he really only became the offensive centerpiece after other key pieces for SLO went down with injury, without multiple seasons of preparation to be in that position. Yet even while being asked to take on a relatively unfamiliar position — and while being sick! — I’m not 100% convinced he didn’t put out the best individual performance in Norco in December. Sign me up with that guy any day.
I’d be really curious to hear Pat’s perspective, not only for keeping Koo out of his top 5, but even his top 10.
Stegemoeller: He’s clearly really good, there are 12 guys who are better.
I don’t fault him, or any player on these lists, for having their role adjusted to fit the needs of their team. This isn’t about which players are having the biggest impact right now, it’s which are the top players. So if Koo was a top five guy playing like a role player this year, I wouldn’t hold it against him.
The thing is that I haven’t seen enough of a body of work from him to put him above some other players we’ve seen consistent excellence from. Koo rose to the moment in Norco, and deservedly got huge props for that. But even in his shining moment, we saw a player who is a little loose with his throws and can stagnate the offense when the disc sticks to him.
As Keith points out, I’d love to have this guy as a focal point on my D-line, but there are guys ahead of him in my ranking who I’m more comfortable giving the keys to the offense.
After finishing sixth in our 2020 Player Rankings and winning D-I Player of the Year, Jordan Kerr (Brigham Young) slid to 10th, ranging from 3rd to 15th. Is Kerr a top-tier player or not?
|Ranker||Staff Ballots||Players' Ballots||E. Stephens||A. Rubin||K. Raynor||S. Sullivan||P. Stegemoeller||C. Eisenhood||AC Player||NW Player||SE Player||NE Player||SW Player|
|Above Kerr||Cole Jurek||Andrew Roy||Cole Jurek||Cole Jurek||Jacques Nissen||Alex Atkins||Henry Ing||Manny Eckert||N/A||Manny Eckert||Liam Searles-Bohs||Hayden Austin-Knab||Alex Atkins|
|Jordan Kerr Rank||9||10||12||5||7||9||4||15||Unranked||13||3||15||7|
|Below Kerr||Hayden Austin-Knab||Danny Landesman||Tony Venneri||Jacques Nissen||Hayden Austin-Knab||Cole Jurek||Cole Jurek||Lucas Chen||N/A||Danny Landesman||Hayden Austin-Knab||Leo Gordon||Orion Cable|
Eisenhood: He was an auto include in the top 25, but it’s hard not to see him as being a bit less effective for BYU than he’s been in the past. Joe Merrill has been their best player this year. Sure, roles matter, but so does the impact we’re seeing on the field.
Rubin: Kerr definitely looks different this season as he’s been forced into the backfield more to take the reps that Braden Eberhard used to manage, and Jacob Miller has developed into a strong initiating cutter to slot into Kerr’s spot downfield when Kerr receives a centering pass. Talent-wise, he certainly hasn’t lost anything, but the role Kerr is playing doesn’t accentuate his strengths the same way his 2020 role did. He is still undoubtedly a top-tier player though.
Stephens: Depends on where you draw the line for top-tier: in my initial brainstorm, I circled every name who was a no-doubt inclusion and ranked that group before I filled out the rest of the list. Kerr got the circle treatment, so by my definition, top-tier. But there were 12 of them, and I ranked him 12th.
I feel like I’m not seeing him light it up this season the way he did in the past, so maybe he’s making a conscious decision to step back so that his teammates can develop in what has been an even more odd year than usual for BYU. Or maybe having a rock-solid center handler like Eberhard to distribute the disc to him was his secret sauce all along?
Stegemoeller: So did some of you not see Kerr be the best performer on a team that just made the bracket at club Nationals? He might have the most polished all-around offensive game of any college player in the county, no matter what role he’s playing this season.
Sullivan: Are we really going to have a debate on if Jordan Kerr is a top-tier college player?! This dude won a D-I Player of the Year award! That’s not just top-tier, but top shelf of the top-tier.
Listen, none of you are wrong that the role Kerr is being asked to play this season — whether for the long-term health of the BYU program or simply because of personnel changes — is different than in past years and not one where he is able to showcase the very best of his abilities. But in this exercise, I’m not selecting the Jordan Kerr as he’s being used this spring by BYU, but the best version of Jordan Kerr I can coax out of him right now. Allow me to build a roster around this guy to put him in a position to succeed and I say he’s still good enough to be the best player on a team that has a chance at a national title. The more I write about him here, the more I worry I had him a little low at #9.
Stay tuned for part two of this exercise, where we share our 11-25, more discussion, and a full list of every player who received votes.
Our experience has shown that players’ ballots trend towards regional concentrations and emphasizing the strength of their teammates, as well as other quirks such as occasionally not ranking themselves, which is why their ballots are weighted in this manner. ↩