The biggest stories entering the club season.
July 7, 2023 by Jenna Weiner, Zack Davis, Edward Stephens and Kelsey Hayden in Preview with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 club ultimate season is 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.
Ahead of Pro Elite Challenge, the first stop on the Triple Crown Tour and first major event of the 2023 club season, we’ve got you covered on all the major storylines, players to watch, and way-too-early semis picks in the Club Women’s Division.
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Molly Back to Back
Denver Molly Brown made history last year and cemented their name in USAU legend winning their first ever national championship. Many are wondering if the perennial semifinalists have finally put it together to take a slice of the airtime, or if this is just a bump in what has been the Fury vs. Brute Squad show for nearly a decade. The Denver-based team will certainly be looking to make another run at the title, and if all goes well begin to carve out their own dynasty.
The core of the Colorado powerhouse is returning to the field for the 2023 season. Veteran captains Alika Johnston and Sam Peletier are being by Saioa Lostra to helm the Molly Brown this season. Long time player and leader Claire Chastain is also returning to the lineup this year. Of course the big story last year was the Colombian twins Valeria and Manuela Cárdenas, who lit up defensive sets with their coordinated attacks and flummoxed offenses with their lockdown defense. Kristen Reed also played a huge role in the Molly Brown victory, pulling in the most goals out of the entire Nationals field with an astronomical 21 over the weekend.
It’s not just returning talent that is working in Molly Brown’s favor – the Denver team continues to mine back-to-back college finalists Colorado Quandary for talent. This year they’ve picked up Mei Hecht, Abbie Gillach, and Jordan Stockdale, as well as Marlee Akerson, who is a Colorado College Zenith alum. Additionally, Stacy Gaskill, who played a major role in getting the Quandary to the D-I final, will be rejoining the roster for the first time since the pandemic. With a plethora of veteran talent, as well as a good crop of fresh legs, Molly Brown has all the pieces they need to make another run at the title.
That said, the top of the table in the division is stacked. Brute Squad will look to recast the curse they had on the Molly Brown team in years past this season. Additionally, Scandal is reloading and looking to make a run of their own, Phoenix, 6ixers, Traffic, and Flipside are always on the hunt as well, and of course, the Fury will be out for vengeance. The Bay Area team is never out of the conversation and many believe they would have won last year had it not been for an uncharacteristic first half of play. Has Molly Brown finally made themselves truly unsinkable or are they simply in the eye of the storm?
Semi Status Quo
Since 2015, five teams have made at least two semifinal appearances in the women’s division: Denver Molly Brown, San Francisco Fury, Boston Brute Squad, Seattle Riot, and the Toronto 6ixers. In that same span, only three other teams have made even a single showing in semis, those being Atlanta Ozone, Oregon Schwa, and Raleigh Phoenix. As with much of the history of the division, it’s been an era of relative dominance from a handful of teams while the rest scrap to simply make it to the quarterfinals. Heading into this season, then, a question arises — do you bet on the favorites, or will the field yield a surprise semifinalist this season?
Bet the Chalk
The math is simple when it comes to taking the favorites in this scenario. Of those final four spots, two seem near locks to go to perennial semifinalists Fury and Brute Squad, while a third is all but already allotted to the defending champs Molly Brown. All it takes to make it four-for-four, then, is for a resurgent Riot to make it back to semis for the first time since 2018 or for the 6ixers to have another standout showing as they did last season. While yes, Seattle hasn’t been the team it once was in recent years, this season its roster is rejuvenated, and even if Toronto takes a step back, this is still a program that has now made it to semis twice in three seasons. Add in the incredible consistency of those top three teams, with San Francisco’s semi streak stretching back to the old UPA days, Boston going on a decade without missing out on semis, and most of Denver’s title-winning roster returning, and chalk looks set to get the job done once again.
Bet the Field
Even with the long-term predominance of those top few teams, three of the past five seasons have seen at least one “breakthrough” team in semis, making it more the norm than the exception. That includes two teams making the leap in 2019, as the 6ixers made their first ever semifinal appearance alongside Schwa. Notably, too, the historical depth of the division shouldn’t be taken for granted, since the arbitrary cutoff of 2015 leaves out Washington DC Scandal’s back-to-back titles in 2013-14, and Austin Showdown’s back-to-back semifinal showings in 2012-13. While Showdown is no longer around, all of Phoenix, Schwa, and Ozone have multiple semifinal appearances in their program histories, and newcomers like San Diego Flipside have shown the potential to breakthrough themselves sooner rather than later. Could that happen this year? Well that remains to be seen, but with a preponderance of options, the field seems to have a real chance of sending another team through to semis this season.
Changing of the Guard?
Between generations of top players, there is always a question of when the torch will pass from one to the next. Might this be the year that happens in the women’s division? While many of the old guard are still at the top of their games, the pool of young, up-and-coming talent is growing ever larger, and we may just see quite a few lines in the hands of fresh faces more and more often.
The template for such a change, of course, can be found with the way Fury have integrated the younger crop of stars like Anna Thompson, Shayla Harris, and (returning for 2023) Dena Elimelech into primary slots even as ultra-vets like Opi Payne and Anna Nazarov continue to play at a platinum level deep into their careers. Which other teams might follow suit?
An easy place to look will be to Raleigh, where the burgeoning crop of UNC Pleiades mega-champions may be maturing into club gold. Bridget Mizener, Alex Barnett, and Dawn Culton have already been solid at the club level and are good bets to elevate their considerable talents into bonafide stardom as they solidify their grasp at the helm of the promising program.
Molly Brown, of course, have already benefited from an enormous youth boost in the form of spectacular seasons from the Cárdenas twins’ turn on center stage last year, as well as the brilliant play of Saioa Lostra and Kristen Reed at Nationals. Despite a solid core of veterans, this year may bring even more refreshment in high-usage spots in the form of more prominent roles for Colorado Quandary heavy-hitters Clil Phillips, Bailey Shigley, Stacy Gaskill, and perhaps even rookie Abbie Gillach.
Casting a wider geographical (and collegiate) net, Brute Squad should continue to elevate Samiya Ismail and Yuge Xiao into major slots while opening the door for several more youngsters to join them in feature roles. Caroline Tornquist could turn into their premier cutter as soon as she gets back to the US. Zoe Hecht and Leija Helling are two of last year’s players who are poised to break out. And keep an eye on Gigi Downey of Mt. Holyoke, a transfer from Slow and vital contributor to the USA U24 women’s team.
There are far too many other players at the cusp of major breakouts for a full rundown, but here is a brief list of best bets from elsewhere the division:
- Tiffany Zheng and Tyama Lyall (6ixers)
- Marge Walker (Scandal)
- Erica Birdsong and Quincy Booth (Ozone)
- Carly Campana and Chloe Hakimi (Riot)
- Abbi Shilts and Ava Hanna (Flipside)
- Claire Schmitt (Nemesis)
- Madison Ong and Helena Tremblay (Traffic)
It’s unlikely, but legitimately possible, that the entire cohort of All-Club players in the women’s division end up being under 30 years old.
For years, New York BENT was on the outside looking in. Year after year they would put the work in through the season but fail to clinch a Nationals spot at the competitive Northeast Regionals each September. In 2021 when the Toronto 6ixers were unable to cross the border to compete due to the pandemic, BENT finally secured a bid and took the flight to sunny San Diego – but that success was fleeting, and they failed to punch the ticket again in 2022.
Flash forward to this season and it looks like BENT may finally have all the pieces lined up for success in the infamous Northeast. Yina Cartagena is back again after joining New York in the regular season last year, and she’s brought Colombia Revo teammate Elizabeth Mosquera along for the ride too. Oh and have you heard of college (and club) stars Abby Hecko and Ella Juengst? They’ll be joining in on the fun this season with BENT as well. The starpower between those four alone should be enough to get a lot of Ws, but coupled those pickups with regional rival Toronto 6ixers having a bit of rebuild year without the likes of several of their top players this season, seems like BENT might just get to attend the Big Dance once more.
How the Northwest Was Won
There are plenty of interesting regional storylines around the country this year, but one that we will be keeping our eyes on is the Northwest Region. Last season, the Northwest sent three teams to Nationals in the form of Traffic, Riot, and Schwa. They were seeded eighth, ninth, and tenth respectively. It’ll be interesting to see how the placements shake out this year, especially with the amount of turnover from both Riot and Schwa. Riot does already have a win over Traffic at an unsanctioned Round Robin, and while certainly a positive indication for Seattle, wins in June are hardly an accurate indication of where teams will be in the early fall.
Joining Traffic, Riot, and Schwa in the melee of the Northwest is a new team looking to make a move on a Nationals bid this season: Utah Dark Sky. Replete with Mountain West talent, Dark Sky is led by the likes of Shaela Wallen, Kat Songer, and Mack Perkett, who, along with a number of their teammates, helped lead the Utah Wild to a place at the 2023 WUL Championship Weekend. Could they replicate that success in the club scene? It definitely seems possible, whether that comes courtesy of winning their own bid or upsetting one of the favorites along the way.
The Fury of Fury
In 2022, San Francisco Fury, they of current, and historic, greatness, blinked only twice — but oh, what times to blink at. The division’s largest giants fell short when it mattered most, losing a world title on universe to Medellin Revolution and a national title to Denver Molly Brown, and with their ever aging roster it left many of us on the outside wondering: Was that it?
And then, in classic Fury fashion, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and brought nearly all of their stalwart superstars back. They’re the names you know, trying to do it all once again for what might be the last time1, and what a revenge tour it could be. While yes, Fury can’t make up for the heartbreaking loss at WUCC, they’ll fancy their chances at getting one back over Molly Brown, and would love nothing more than to simply run it back just as they seem to have always done. With an abundance of motivation driving them forward, don’t discount the San Franciscans living up to their name and once again reinstating themselves as the team to beat for what feels like the millionth time.
Players To Watch
though watch them all come back again next year and make me look silly as they often do ↩
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