D-I College Championships 2023: Final Preview (Men’s)

The top two seeds looked strong on Sunday, setting up an exciting title bout.

UNC’s Rutledge Smith is ready for the final. Photo: Sam Hotaling — UltiPhotos.com

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And then there were two. UNC and UMass have been the top two teams in the men’s division this entire season. Their highly anticipated rematch on Monday will decide this season’s champion. Here are five things to watch for.

U24 (+ Dylan Hawkins) vs No U24 (and no Hawkins)

Darkside’s Ben Dameron, Matt McKnight, Kevin Pignone, Josh Singleton, and Rutledge Smith will all suit up this summer for the United States men’s U24 team. Many people made a case that college teammate Dylan Hawkins should have been tabbed to join them. That’s just about a full line of players who will represent Team USA this summer who all play for North Carolina Darkside, a truly preposterous amount given that no other school has more than three combined representatives between the men’s and mixed teams.

Across the field on UMass, there will be zero U24 representatives. Luca Harwood and Wyatt Kellman earned a tryout, but neither made the cut. While there are plenty of standout athletes on ZooDisc, will the cream of the crop (per the Team USA coaches) rise to the top, or will the scorned and bitter take revenge?

Depth Leads to Success

Our finalists and future champion are not so coincidentally the two deepest teams at Nationals. The quantity of talented players on their respective rosters were critical to their success this season but each team uses their depth a bit differently. UNC will play through their roster when they have a comfortable lead but when the margins are thin, they play their top 10-12 . On the other hand, UMass has shown that they trust the depth of their roster so much that they are willing to sacrifice the overall talent of the lines they send out to keep their players engaged.

“This might sound a little cliched, but the priority of this team truly is to have fun. We’re playing this sport to have fun. We’re at this tournament to have fun. And it’s not fun when you don’t play. So we want everyone on this team to have as much fun as possible,” said Kellman after the the semifinal. We’ll see if UMass continues with this philosophy when the national title is on the line.

Clash in the Red Zone

If you read between the lines during the post-semifinal presser when Jonah Stang-Osborne said, “When we felt like we needed to put a break run on [Cal Poly-SLO] we went person,” you’ll deduce that UMass doesn’t often go with a strict matchup scheme. And if you watch the games, you’ll see that they often play an extremely saggy matchup-adjacent set that puts little pressure on unders (outside of flash poaches) until the compressed field of the red zone (which they will overload).

If UMass run that scheme enough and suppress Darkside’s pull plays and hucks from motion, it will set up a delicious battle between their swampy red zone defensive look and UNC’s best-in-class red zone offense. The choreography of switches, rolls, and counters ought to be dazzling to behold.

Experience – or a Blank Slate?

UNC have been to nine straight semifinals and five straight finals, winning in 2018, 2021, and 2022. UMass, on the other hand, have not made Nationals since 2018, when they lost in pre-quarters. Before this year’s semifinal, they hadn’t played in a stadium game at the event since 2017 when they fell on universe point to eventual champions Carleton CUT. All of this is to say that just about every player on UNC has been there and done that, while every step of the way at this year’s College Championships UMass was doing something for the first time. Will all of Darkside’s experience give them an edge, or will ZooDisc’s uninhibited, joyful vibe turn out to be the greater advantage?

Rubber Match

With two games against each other under their belt already this season, UMass and UNC are by now somewhat familiar opponents. Zoodisc earned a convincing 15-12 win over UNC the first time the two teams matched up at Smoky Mountain Invite. A month later, UNC got revenge at Easterns (albeit UMass was without Wyatt Kellman who has dropped a +25 statline through 6 games and hasn’t lost a game with ZooDisc this season) reversing the 15-12 victory. They have enough experience against each other this season to be able to tweak their strategy and scheme to find the best sets to run. The mental “game before the game” between the two competing coaching staffs to suss out how to probe their opponents weaknesses one last time will be one of the undercard storylines that could have a major impact who lifts the crown at the end of the tournament.

  1. Edward Stephens
    Edward Stephens

    Edward Stephens has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. He writes and plays ultimate in Athens, Georgia.

  2. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years. After a stint in Los Angeles coaching high school and college teams, they moved to Chicago to experience real seasons and eat deep dish pizza. You can reach Alex through e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@arubes14).

  3. Jake Thorne
    Jake Thorne

    Jake Thorne is a staff writer for Ultiworld with a focus on the college division. He is a graduate of Cal Poly SLO, where he played for four years. He now lives and works full-time in sales for a fintech company in San Francisco.

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