May 25, 2023 by Jake Thorne in Profile 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.
Going way back to the 2011 regional redraw, the D-I scene in the Southwest has been dominated by the perennially strong women’s division, who have averaged better than three bids to Nationals since then and frequently place teams in the semifinal… or better. Their success hasn’t gone anywhere in 2023 – they still have three bids and semifinal-level contenders. But something has changed: for the first time in generations of college players, the Southwest men’s division is right alongside its illustrious counterpart. With three teams comfortably in the Nationals field (and another, UCLA, having a legitimate gripe with a USAU administrative decision that erased a fourth), the Southwest men are collectively enjoying their best season in well over a decade.
You might be wondering, as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once wondered, “Who are those guys?” Some of the names you know: Cal Poly-SLO’s Calvin Brown and Alex Nelson have played like stars on the National stage, and Cal’s Dexter Clyburn made our Rookie of the Year podium last season. But the rest? Kind of a new-kids-on-the-block vibe. Given their rapid emergence and the relative infrequency with which they travel east of the Sierra Nevadas to play1, we think it’s worth introducing you to some of the the less heralded faces of the new Southwest.
Cal Poly-SLO Slocore
After losing several seniors that were big impact players the year before, it was questionable whether the team could continue to build upon four seasons atop the Southwest food chain. They answered the doubters by putting up an excellent record and taking the Southwest regional crown.
Calvin Brown showed he is still one of the best players in the division and their young core also stepped up tremendously and made big names for themselves. Anton Orme, Alex Nelson, and Kyle Lew have all burst onto the scene as bona fide stars. Here are some of the names you shouldn’t sleep on.
Eclipsing everything he has done in his previous collegiate years, senior Dodger Middlebrook has been a revelation in 2023 for the SLO offense. He is a good finisher around the end zone and has crafty lefty release points that help him get off break throws with ease. His defining characteristic is his tremendous straight line speed, making him a constant threat going deep off of either initiating cutters catching unders or handlers getting upline into power position.
Holton has found a great role for himself on the offense and is entrusted to take high value break looks to his cutters downfield. He is likely a top-five thrower on the team and foils nicely with Carson Crouch and James Whealan. He’s not all disc technique either: he’s a gifted athlete that makes huge bids and can be quite challenging to contain in small spaces.
The SLO D-line really started to click when Orser rejoined after a prolonged absence due to injury. Orser is a good defender but his most significant contribution is to the D-line offense. He plays with great pace and has a high level understanding of handler set tactics –a perfect outlet for when Brown and Lew don’t see a goal shot they like.
Freshman Max Gade has gone under the radar this year because of all the other great young talent in the Southwest. He deserves more than mere muffled praise, however, as he has been instrumental in getting takeaways and putting away breaks for the SLO D-line. He was often trusted to take the toughest cutter assignment on opposing teams and did extremely well considering his young age. He is potentially the fastest player on the team – which makes for a nice post-turn target for Brown’s shots.
UC Santa Cruz Slugs
For anyone with any familiarity with the Southwest region these last couple of years, it was no secret that UCSC was going to be a problem in 2023. They returned a staggeringly powerful grad + senior class and also have one of the best freshman classes in the country. Most people think of gunslinger and Callahan nominee Aidan Curry when they think about the Slugs, and while his contributions should not be understated, here are some of the lesser known pieces that had a big impact this season.
Last year Kien Warren was just an athletic big defender with upside, and this season he took his game to the next level. He took difficult cutter assignments and made huge plays in clutch moments down the stretch for the Slugs.
Burns is without a doubt the most powerful downfield cutter for the Slugs offense. Elite speed, strength, and a deep throwing bag has made Burns a high value player this year.
Jones – just a freshman – has been the primary driver for the D-line offense on the strength of his high-level competitive mindset. He took difficult handler matchups and excelled at limiting their production in most cases. He’s also blood-related to Mac Hecht which is apparent in his throwing ability and knuckle-down spirit.
Perhaps the most controversial personality in all of the Southwest, Warren has left a major impression on the region with his hyper-competitive antics and gamesmanship. Warren is not only a thorn in the side for his opponents because of his personality, but more in part due to his performance this season. He’s a top-7 player for the Slugs and is one of the players they genuinely trust to make plays in high pressure moments.
Cal Ursa Major
It seemed that Cal was in a tough spot after losing their two highest volume contributors from 2022 (Andrew Roy and Evan Magsig). We ranked them #23 in our preseason rankings – which they ended up absolutely crushing, earning the #14 seed at Nationals after blazing through Easterns and Southwest Regionals. Dexter Clyburn and Gavin May have been worldbeaters this season and might even be higher usage than their predecessors Roy and Magsig, but they are far from the only reasons for Ursa Major’s continued success.
The clear next guy up for Ursa Major this year behind Clyburn and May, Khangoakar has not been given his proper respect until this season. He was always known to be a strong thrower, but his volume of turnovers left something to be desired. In his senior year, he has moved to a more cutting-driven role and has excelled scoring goals downfield and shooting deep to his continues at a better efficiency than in years past.
With a gaping target vacuum left by the graduating Roy and Magsig, Huang had big shoes to fill coming into school. He stepped up into a high-usage role as a freshman and handled the pressure extremely well. He plays up tempo and does everything for the Ursa offense. Mostly behind the disc, Huang does a good job leaking out occasionally scoring surprise goals on his defender deep.
“It ain’t much but it’s honest work”; whoever said that might well have been describing the mark in the zone. Mah has good speed, endurance, and a long frame which give him the perfect physical tools for being the first line of defense in Ursa Major’s infamous CalZone. Additionally, Mah’s strong stamina and offensive capabilities make him crucial for getting breaks on a somewhat underpowered D-line.
A perfect example of an old college ultimate trope: Lankford is the stupid-athletic freshman that joins the team without knowing how to throw but still makes a big difference. He has been a dominant physical presence for Ursa Major who demands a strong defender to match up with him. If you aren’t prepared in advance to contain him after a turn (and sometimes even if you are) he will house you deep with his impressive speed.