The best storylines heading into 2023.
December 23, 2022 by Ultiworld in Preview with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 college ultimate season are presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author(s). Find out how Spin can get you, and your team, looking your best this season.
It’s time to unwrap some presents as we introduce the 12 Days of College Ultimate. Through December 23rd, we will be releasing one gift per day, though don’t count on getting any partridges in pear trees: it’s all college ultimate. From highlight videos to player chatter to a season predictions, we’ve got a little something for everyone. On the final day of the 12 Days of College Ultimate, our staff writers breakdown the storylines they’re most excited for this college season.
D-III Scholarship Experiment
If you’ve paid a single bit of attention to D-III ultimate in the last year, then you will have heard about Oklahoma Christian’s scholarship program for ultimate. The Eagles are back-to-back national champions, winning both in Norco last December and Milwaukee in May. These victories were divisive in the ultimate community, sparking debates about the fairness of the scholarship program, whether OC should be allowed to compete in D-III, etc. However, I’m excited to see how the Eagles look this year, with a roster built the “right” way.1
While contributions were made to some degree from the entire roster, both of OC’s championships were driven by heavy lifting from scholarship players working on graduate degrees. The average age of their starting O-line in May’s final was 23 years old; I’m not going to do the math for every team, but I feel pretty confident in saying that’s the oldest O-line from any division last spring. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with using the scholarship program to bring in graduate players, it gives the vibe of mercenaries brought in just to win, and it also doesn’t align with the program’s stated goals. In an interview with Noam Gumerman for The Breakside, Eagles coach Garrett Taylor said, “The scholarship program as a whole creates an opportunity for players that may not otherwise have that opportunity to be able to afford a college degree that continues to get more and more expensive…through this program, those guys get to experience something that they otherwise may not have been able to experience.” Bringing in graduate students for one semester isn’t exactly changing their lives.
With all that said, it’s hard to imagine anybody having complaints with this year’s OC team. The Eagles are going to be a young team built around a core of primarily four year players, many of which fit the description from Taylor above, and they’re still going to be really damn good. Emmanuel Bilolo is back finishing his graduate degree and will provide a steady veteran presence, but the other big contributors on the roster are all players who will be around for multiple seasons. 2022 All-American Second Team and ROTY Sammy Roberts will be in POTY conversations, and players like DPOTY runner-up Emmanuel Kameri, 2021 ROTY runner-up Evan Card, and BPOTY second runner-up Thomas Maguire were big contributors in May ready to play even bigger roles this spring. A loaded freshman class brings another injection of talent into the OC program. Garrett Taylor is a great coach; he won COTY in the spring for his ability to rebuild and reconfigure the roster after the 2021 championship, and he’ll face a similar task once again this season.
I can’t wait to see what this version of the Eagles looks like, and I think this year’s team will shift the conversation around scholarship programs into a much more positive light.
P.S. We’ve also got another budding scholarship program to keep an eye on! Davenport University announced the hire of Mike Zaagman to coach their team, which will start competing next fall.
– Michael Ball
Calvin Brown Returns
Last time we saw Calvin Brown on a college ultimate field, he failed to come down with a tough catch mid-air, landed awkwardly, and tore his ACL. As a fellow ACL recoveree, I can tell you that there is nothing I’m looking forward to more than Brown’s triumphant return, especially his first full-field flick bomb.
In case you forgot, Brown is simply the best thrower in the college division. With range that rivals a Boeing 787, power strong enough to play a real life game of fruit ninja, and the finesse of someone who’s been playing ultimate with adults since he was like eight years old, nobody else can do what Brown can do with a disc. Don’t take my word for it though; half a dozen of the best coaches in the country agree. A recent U24 selection, Brown actually made his first national team back in 2021, earning a spot on the 2022 WCBU senior national team before the event was unfortunately canceled.
Though the rest of his much-hyped SLO class has graduated, Brown’s return will bolster a rebuilding squad brimming with young talent. Sophomores Anton Orme and Garrett Bush have spent time playing for Revolver, and Alex Nelson just enjoyed a breakout season playing for Seattle Mixtape. Other returning players like Seamus Robinson, Emmet Holton, Kyle Lew, and Sander Fogerty set SLO’s floor high already. Brown’s return sends their ceiling as high as Cincinnati’s2 skyscrapers will allow.
– Alex Rubin
U24 Revenge Tours
Due to the pandemic knocking out a U24 cycle, it’s been a few years since we have been treated to anything like the fabled Sadie Jazierski Revenge Tour™ of 2019. Folks, let me tell you, we are due for another revenge tour. Starving.
And the good news is that 2023 is almost certainly going to deliver in a big way. More than a hundred players, most of them playing somewhere this college season, *didn’t* make a U24 team. Even more didn’t even get an invite. True – some of them aren’t exactly Jazierski-level can’t-misses. But I guarantee you there is no better bulletin board material than not making the cut, and with the groundswell of discussion and full-throated post-cut protests going around, we could be in for an eruption. The Hazel Ostrowski Revenge Tour. The Suhas Madiraju Revenge Tour. The Seamus Robinson Revenge Tour. The Lylah Bannister Revenge Tour. The Nate Little Revenge Tour. The Allyn Suzuki Revenge Tour. I’m not even going to mention a certain grad transfer. Get your popcorn, people, because there are going to be fireworks in 2023.
– Edward Stephens
Someone Beating The Pleiades
The star-studded two-time reigning champions are back at it again. With a winning streak that has lasted a full millennium of days and a pool of mind-bending talent that still somehow hasn’t dried up, there’s little reason to think that the Pleiades out of UNC won’t make it three out of three. That said, 2022 runner-ups Colorado Quandary, back-to-back semifinalists UCSB Burning Skirts, and Kennedy McCarthy-led Vermont Ruckus lead a chasing pack that’s about as good and as deep as there’s been in years in the D-I Women’s division.
Let’s start with those silver medalists from last year, Quandary. Not only do they have Clil Philips and Saioa Lostra returning after taking down a club championship with Molly Brown, but they should have a healthy trio of Bailey Shigley, Stacy Gaskill, and Skye Fernandez available as well. Those five make up a top-line group that can confidently go toe-to-toe with UNC’s own star veteran grouping, and sets up a juicy potential rematch this season.
For UCSB, while the Burning Skirts perhaps don’t have the same star talent this year as in seasons past, two straight seasons of semifinal appearances is nothing to scoff at. And with Devin Quinn and Julia Hasbrook at the helm, their opponents should be wary of overlooking the Southwest’s leading lights. When it comes to Ruckus and Washington Element, though, their star power is evident with POTY contenders McCarthy and Abby Hecko taking center stage for their respective teams. Both McCarthy and Hecko are more than capable of taking over a game and if that game comes against UNC, watch out.
Those are just four of the most likely contenders to knock the Pleiades off their perch though, as I somehow haven’t even mentioned the likes of Carleton, UBC, or Tufts yet, all of whom were at least quarterfinalists3 last May. Each one of them could absolutely find that extra gear needed to beat UNC on any given weekend, and it just takes one to end UNC’s unbeaten streak. Will it happen, though, this year? Will the reigning champions, unbeaten for nearly three straight years, finally taste defeat? We’ll just have to see.
No college player has been crowned D-I Ultiworld Player of the Year twice. That’s not for lack of opportunity. Since the award’s inception in 2014, six players have appeared on the podium multiple times: John Randolph, Matt Gouchoe-Hanas, Han Chen, and Michael Ing, along with two more. Jack Verzuh did it a record three times, which could be tied this year by Dawn Culton. Of those, Verzuh and MGH landed spots in season following winning the top honors. (Aside: the only college player to win twice, D-III Middlebury’s Claire Babbott-Bryan, is reportedly back for a third potential award run.)
In an unprecedented situation, Abby Hecko (2021) and Culton (2022), the last two players to win POTY in D-I women’s are both rostered this season. With their respective winning seasons separated by only by a few weeks, and extended eligibility allowing for longer tenure, there’s a unique environment fostering this clash. On two top 10 teams, the once prized recruits are now grizzled vets leading programs that would like to add banners to their figurative rafters.
It helps that we’ve seen them go one on one before in their 2021 national semifinal, and that Culton’s defensive proclivities make her a wonderful foil to the offensive powerhouses that typically play starring roles in college ultimate’s annual rendition. That makes them all the more likely to square off in a meaningful and competitive manner that should give up popcorn-worthy battles.
The Hodag Streak
What was the last thing that made you feel old?
For me, it was realizing today that this college season will mark a decade since the 2013 Callahan race. It was the first year after Nick Lance’s video rocked everyone’s world and the quality and quantity of videos really started to take off. Freechild won on the back of his masterpiece. Jimmy Mickle and Will Driscoll made being long look smooth as hell. Bailey Zahinser went nuclear over a B.o.B (woah, remember B.o.B?) track. Brice Dixon went from “who?” to “him” with perhaps the first Callahan video that put someone from outside the main ultimate hubs on the map. It felt like a moment, a new chapter in the culture for a new generation of players.
And it was a decade ago.
A lot changes over a decade. Programs rise and fall, norms shift, comfortable truisms go from known to acknowledged to cheesy to lazy crutches for people who don’t realize they sound like an old hack. A decade ago in the men’s division Florida were the preeminent villains, the North Central was the best region in the country, North Carolina ultimate was low-skill goonery, and the Metro East had recently sent a team to semis.
And the Wisconsin Hodags always made Nationals. Here in 2022, the Wisconsin Hodags still always make Nationals, a streak now of 23 (depending on how you want to count 2020) straight years without missing out. One of the few constants in a changing landscape.
The streak is in jeopardy this year. Wisco had a rough COVID-effected 2022 season, coming into Nationals seeded last in their pool for the first time in forever, and they haven’t been a real title contender since 2017. Minnesota have become the stable force atop the North Central (see above, things changing since 2013). Carleton are reloading and generally don’t horribly underperform two years in a row. Either this is the year Wisconsin finally succumb to the ravages of time… or they keep doing it.
With every year the stakes get higher for the Hodag Nationals streak, making it more improbable that they can keep it going without a slip. Adding another link in a chain back to the game’s past, or finally shattering in an era-ending cataclysm. That’s admittedly a lot to put on the shoulders of some 19 year olds. College sports, goddamn.
As with any opinion piece, I’d like to really emphasize that this is just my opinion, and in no way am I qualified to dictate the right or wrong way to allocate scholarships. ↩
Carleton in fact making it to the semifinals ↩