Recognizing the top seven performers of the 2023 season.
June 12, 2023 by Edward Stephens, Patrick Stegemoeller, Jake Thorne and Alex Rubin in Awards with 0 comments
Each year, Ultiworld presents our annual College Awards. Our staff evaluates the individual performances of players from throughout the season, talking to folks around college ultimate, watching film, and look at statistics, voting upon the awards to decide those to be honored. The regular season and the college Series are both considered, with extra emphasis for performances in the competitive and high-stakes environment at Nationals.
Our All-American teams recognize the top performers across the division. While previously we have closed our Awards with our First Team and Second Team, displaying the top seven and next seven players who had the best seasons, they have been moved up in the schedule. As our voting process is ordered, the top two vote-getters for All-American honors, excluding the Player of the Year, will be recognized as our Player of the Year runner-ups. As such, those three players are listed in order, with the runners-up identified; the other four players are listed in alphabetical order.
D-I Men’s All-American First Team
Henry Ing (Pittsburgh)
“Throw it up to Henry”1 is a frequent play call for the Pittsburgh offense, as he has shown he can consistently embarrass the best cutter defenders in the country with his superior vertical and unfair catch radius. In most cases, he doesn’t even have to use his now-legendary ability to contest the play, as he’ll just burn you deep with his legs and catch the goal in stride. The only real chance of containing him is to pray that the shooters looking for him have a bad day.
Ing has also taken huge strides as a defender with another year of recovery under his belt after a 2019 knee injury. His lateral quickness and fast twitch instincts are even more impressive than pre-surgery. If he guards you downfield, you might as well just bow out – just like all the other contenders for the top awards spot had to do when matched up against him.
For more on Henry Ing, check out his Player of the Year writeup.
Jacques Nissen (Brown) Player of the Year First Runner-up
Before the 2023 season began, Jacques Nissen faced massive expectations as the new face of an elite team. With high level club, college, and AUDL experience, opponents, fans, commentators, and supporters alike knew that Nissen would be the focal point of all things B-Mo this season. Rebounding from a teamwide slow start at Florida Warm Up, Nissen exceeded expectations and carried Brown to a regional championship and a double game point bracket loss to a UNC team that was barely troubled with its other opponents.
Nissen the thrower was a known quantity. His quick flick release, OIIO angles, careful touch and placement, and penchant for over-the-top hits allow Nissen to reach areas of the field that no other college thrower can find and punish defenses for taking their attention away for but a millisecond. This season Nissen showed off a wider skillset, speeding past defenders to reel in deep hucks, anchoring a defense not just as a hidden last-back but as a genuine block threat, and bullying his way to reset spaces designed to be taken away. Nissen was a force on the field and used his skills not to simply carry Brown as far as he could, but to elevate the play of his teammates and form a cohesive unit around his considerable talent.
With another college season ahead, Nissen again has massive expectations. In 2024, they won’t be to fill the shoes of a historically accomplished teammate, but to exceed the incredibly high bar he set for himself with his exemplary play this year.
Ben Dameron (North Carolina) Player of the Year Second Runner-up
The national final provided a perfect abstract for the particular genius of UNC’s Ben Dameron in 2023. He put up a whopping three goals and five assists – almost exactly proportional to his 12G, 21A line for the entire tournament – on the strength of power cutting in the lane, power throwing from the lane, and flawless play in the red zone set. Honestly, it’s a pretty simple blueprint for how to be an effective ultimate player.
But the simplicity of the method belies the extreme difficulty of executing it over and over again against the strongest, hungriest defenses in the country. It takes an enormous level of polish to read the timing and the spacing through goal box poaches and rolls as consistently as Dameron, to thread an inside forehand from the sideline back to the middle of the field through a narrow window, to take a pristine route on an OI deep shot at full speed. And to execute every time, point after point with the relentlessness of a jackhammer? That’s where routine becomes sublime – which is exactly what Dameron’s performance was this season.
Itay Chang (Oregon)
Hero ball is not dead. Or, at least, it wasn’t for the duration of the 2023 season – because Itay Chang revived it. Chang rotated into every role for an Oregon team that sprang back into the national spotlight after a couple of seasons in the wings. On offense, there was no matchup that scared him away from taking the space he wanted, no mark that could keep him from getting off a 20-yd around break through, no team that could slow his turbo-charged give-and-go points. He took the hard shots, and he took the hard cuts. The results? A gaudy feather in his cap in the form of a 12-assist, 16-goal stat line.
But as good as he was on offense, he was even better on defense. Whether it was after the turn or on one of his frequent crossings over to the D-line, Chang fueled opposing throwers’ nightmares for months as he put the chains on their option A receivers – while still giving himself the option to flash-poach option B or C. His game-saving layout block on universe point against Colorado at Presidents’ Day was one of the defining moments of the college regular season. His tremendous work at Nationals – check out the clamps he put on Calvin Stoughton in prequarters or the three blocks he notched against Cal Poly SLO in quarters – was a perfect capstone to a heroic season.
Leo Gordon (Brown)
There’s no shortage of great competitors in the college division. It’s common for the top athletes at this level to feel like they are putting all of themselves into the team in pursuit of a championship. But even the players who layout in a four line drill, most strictly follow the intense training regimens, and go sober for months leading up to Nationals do not want to win half as badly as Leo Gordon.
Gordon is a gamer who shows up in the biggest moments and always seems to rise to the top despite the level of competition. Case in point? He threw five assists and scored two goals in a valiant effort against UNC in quarters that came up just short of an earth-shattering upset for Brown.
Even more than in his blistering 2022, it was an impossible task to guard Gordon this season. It was good as guaranteed that he’d get open consistently no matter which defensive assignment is on hand to challenge him. Tremendous disc skills and a knack for clutch blocks – the latter aided by his truly elite straight line speed – only bolster his case as one of the very best players in the division.
Wyatt Kellman (Massachusetts)
When Wyatt Kellman was healthy and playing for UMass Zoodisc this season, the team’s only loss was to eventual champion UNC Darkside. That’s a fun stat, but of course there are a million variables that go into why one team wins a game and another doesn’t besides “was Wyatt Kellman playing?” Watch closely when he plays though, and you start to get a sense of why separating UMass’s season into games-with-Wyatt and games-without-Wyatt doesn’t seem so harebrained.
Kellman just did everything for Zoodisc, playing myriad roles on both sides of the disc. Lots of elite players, particularly at the college level, are versatile. They can throw and catch and play defense. But very few players are able to put themselves in the positions and moments to actually impact games with their full range of abilities. Kellman covered every inch of the game with his imprint, seeming to always arrive around the disc or into a crucial defensive position never late or early, but precisely when the situation called for it. He was a safety blanket, passed back and forth by UMass’s O and D-lines, offering steady stability and big playmaking in equal measure.
Of course, the “healthy and playing caveat” matters, and Kellman had to overcome serious injury problems to get on the field this season, missing Easterns and the entire postseason until Nationals. For a player whose presence on the field impacts so much of a game, his lack of presence for swaths of the season was a cruel irony. But when he played, he was everything UMass needed him to be and more.
Rutledge Smith (North Carolina)
On a team full of well-rounded offensive threats, UNC most often started their offensive possessions with a pass to Rutledge Smith. Trusted to initiate the most formidable offense in the country, Smith effectively wielded all of the tools of a well-balanced player. Though he effectively functioned as a cog in the Darkside machine, Smith showed off smooth break throws, close catches under pressure, and the occasional flare of a deep shot. At Nationals, Smith opened up another part of his game, acting as an athletic and dynamic finisher. Smith led Darkside with 15 goals at the College Championships, often starting and ending a point with the disc in his hands.
Darkside often worked the disc up the field methodically given the large amount of separation the team’s cutters can generate and the great sense of timing all seven players possess. But, on game point in their semifinal win over Vermont, teammate Ben Dameron launched a trust throw huck to Smith for the game winner. “We tend to have [Smith] more in the backfield,” Dameron said. “But, you know, you can’t sleep on his deep game. He’s extremely fast. He’s very tall, very quick. He’s gonna get separation.” From the start to the end of the point, Smith showed his power to be a star, and he shined brightest in the biggest moments.
I’m paraphrasing ↩