Whose Year Is It in the Men’s Division?

PoNY, Truck Stop, and Rhino All Make a Case for the Crown.

Seattle Sockeye's Dylan Freechild celebrates his first national championship. Photo: Jeff Bell -- UltiPhotos.com
Seattle Sockeye’s Dylan Freechild celebrates his first national championship. Photo: Jeff Bell — UltiPhotos.com

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.

This is the most interesting the top of the men’s club division has been in a decade.

For a while you had Revolver, and the teams that would have to get lucky to beat Revolver. Then there were a few years where one, maybe two, teams could reasonably lay claim to being the team of that season. The team with the plot armor. The one that can credibly look in the mirror and say “it’s our year.”

But in 2023 there are three teams that have arrived at a point where anything other than a title is narratively unsatisfying. Crucially, none of them are the defending champs. Washington DC Truck Stop, Portland Rhino Slam!, and New York PoNY all are poised to become champions, to take the step that has eluded them and tie everything neatly into a bow. The ingredients are there for all three squads:

  • Rosters that bring back all the key figures plus newcomers that should push them to new heights.
  • Momentum from successes that seemingly should beget more success.
  • Unfinished business, a sense of incompleteness to the story arising from a failure to fully deliver in previous seasons.

Every year there are plenty of teams that tell themselves they can do it. And maybe some weirdness happens and someone unexpected emerges with the crown (you only have to look back all of one year to find an example of that…). But from the outset, it is rare to have three teams that all have such compelling narratives surrounding their season. Each takes to the field at this weekend’s US Open.

Take each team in a vacuum for a second. Picture each one. Mull the idea of them in your mind. Now put them up on podium. It fits, right? You can see it. Let’s talk about why.

Truck Stop

Truck Stop got so close last year and seemed so deserving of a title that they come into 2023 with a ton of narrative momentum.

But let’s stop and think a bit about the gray area between narrative and real analysis. “You’ve got to get to semis or the final and lose before you can win a championship” is a widely repeated, perhaps even genuinely held, belief. The narrative comes from a seemingly meaningful idea: you have to be in big moments before you can learn how to perform in them. Knowing how to execute under the highest possible pressure, plotting out what sort of adjustments to make when playing deep into a tournament, preparing to play one game for all the marbles in the final – that’s not just narrative vibes, it all seems meaningfully important.

It may be why getting close-but-not-quite-close-enough is such a fundamental concept in our notion of what makes a deserved champion. It also explains why it’s easy to see Truck pulling down a title this year. Last year, they paid their dues to the gods of narrative and flew close to the sun and got humbled at the last hurdle. Now this year, they reap the rewards of that humbling experience. That’s a story we like. (It should be noted that Johnny Bravo, of course, did none of this. Which is a narrative we don’t like, and maybe one of the reasons the “fraud” grumblings are so loud.)

Truck Stop were a sensation a season ago, rolling out an offense that baffled defenses all season long and carried them to the no.1 overall seed at Nationals. Any time a team makes a jump from being a quarterfinals also-ran to the top seed, there is going to be some skepticism. But it was all-systems-go in pool play, as Truck blew past Omen and GOAT and (dramatic irony incoming) Johnny Bravo. Then they comfortably dispatched defending champions Ring of Fire in quarterfinals. Under the bright lights of semifinals, they triumphed over rivals PoNY.

Valid injury asterisks aside for PoNY, it was the sort of win that seemed to prove something. Truck could truly hang, against the best, in the big moments. It was the kind of performance that makes you feel like a team deserves to be champions.

And then they went out and exploded that narrative by playing their worst game of the season in the final against Johnny Bravo. An inch from eternity, Truck Stop came up one measly game short.

You only get that close if there is a reason, right? If it taught you some lesson, it smoothed out some last flaw in your character so that you can emerge as a more perfect entity. The heartbreak of falling short is vindicated, redeemed as not a failing but merely a necessary step to ultimate triumph. Because if it doesn’t… and if you blow it again the next year, or take a step back, then maybe that loss wasn’t a final moment of growth necessary to becoming a champion. Maybe it was just a failure. Maybe you blew your one and only chance. Maybe it will never be that good again, and what it was, was still a failure. Gulp.

Those stakes are of the type that can sit on the chest of a team who came so close to winning, by all rights probably should have won, a championship. The outcome of Truck Stop’s season is not merely just about this season, all of the blood and sweat of 2022 rests on the result as well. Every coach in the world would do whatever they can to keep that thought out of their players’ heads, to keep them locked in on the task in front of them. But coaches don’t get to write the history books. Truck Stop has more than one season on the line in 2023, and that’s why they are so compelling.

Rhino Slam!

Alright, but in terms of pure narrative, how could it not be Rhino’s year? They check the “need to lose in semis” box, as they’ve done it two years in a row. Now add onto that a narrative tidal wave.

The homecoming of Dylan Freechild is the single most interesting storyline for an individual player this season. Either a conquering hero or a prodigal son or both, coming back to Rhino, trying to bring a national title to Oregon that he never won during his illustrious college and early club career. One of the finest players of his generation taking on a new challenge, giving a spark to the last years of his prime. His legacy as an all-time great is secure, but bringing a first championship to the team that he helped push back into National prominence a decade ago as a precious teenager, winning a championship that would escape the gravity of Sockeye’s substantial history… I mean, do I even need to make the comparison?

And to be clear, the story of Rhino in 2023 is not just the story of Freechild.

For the last decade, Rhino has been, in the public imagination, an endearing underdog. A generation of college kids saw Chasing Sarasota (and some disproportionate NGN coverage) and landed on a favorite club team. Those edgier early 2010s teams were spiky and swaggering, in a way that could have been off-putting but instead embodied a certain understandable “we have to do what needs to be done to kill Seattle” disposition, culminating in a 2014 upset of Sockeye at Nationals (immortalized by Fulcrum). Which was definitely sick, but still just a prequarters win.

The team hit reset and came back again with another flavor of lovable underdog: thrilling high variance. Creating more homegrown star players and elevating some underappreciated talents, Rhino swashbuckled their way to the elite circles of the frisbee world. An inspired near-upset of defending champions PoNY in 2019 announced their presence, and semifinal appearances the following two seasons cemented it. The talent on these recent teams, headlined by the core of Raphy Hayes, Leandro Marx, Owen Murphy and Jack Hatchett, is no joke.

But despite their success over the past few seasons, it has never felt like Rhino’s core identity has changed. An innate part of the team’s appeal is that the talent felt homegrown, and not with GMOs. Of the six players being added to the roster this season, four of them are returning players with roots in the Oregon scene (including Will Lohre, who is doing a smaller scale version of Freechild’s return after winning a title with Johnny Bravo last year). In fact, many of the key players on the roster are people who have returned to Portland after adventures elsewhere, like Eli Friedman and Chris Strub, ironically imitating the life cycle of a certain aquatic creature better associated with Rhino’s rival one state north.

Rhino hasn’t been wholesale importing All-Club players en masse, and they also weren’t factory farming a generation of terminators like Seattle, or more recently North Carolina. Like the city of Portland itself, they were smaller, organic, and if not always polished, at least you felt good about having them in your life.

Freechild coming back to Rhino, at this exact moment in time, feels right because it is both the additional superstar boost that the team needs to take the next step while still being true to the city and state’s DIY vibe. Not imported but grown here, set free, and returned. Now what is a better story than that?

PoNY

Okay, but, surely, actually, it is PoNY’s year. Right? Right. Right?

In 2018 the team assembled an Ocean’s 111 of players designed to crack into the vault of Revolver and plunder the USAU title belt. They did it, lovable rebels taking it to the big bad five-time title winners. They blew up the Death Star. I was there, it was awesome, and it deserves two separate pop culture references to encapsulate.

Then they start the pivot to becoming their own evil empire in 2019. I mean, check out that roster. Looking at it with 2019 goggles on, there’s no way PoNY isn’t ending up with at least 2 or 3 titles, yeah?

Alright, they come out flat against Machine in semis, but repeating as champions is super hard. There is a reason no one has done it in a dozen years in the men’s division. And then in 2020, no title because no Nationals because COVID. Can’t blame ‘em for that! 2021 comes along, the team struggles a bit during the regular season, but who amongst us didn’t have a weird, emotional rollercoaster in summer 2021? They collected themselves for Nationals, punked Sockeye in semis and were on the wrong end of an offensive masterclass in the final by a Ring team that had been playing together all year in the AUDL. Alright, it’s maybe not been the tidal wave of trophies we anticipated, but there are some caveats here! And then comes 2022 and semifinals against Truck Stop and the genuinely harrowing Grant Lindsey injury and DC plays the best game of their lives and there we have another totally reasonable caveat.

And now we come to this summer. On the one side, you’ve got all of these caveats (haters might call them excuses) piling up, and on the other you’ve got Jack Williams and Ryan Osgar and the rest of the PoNY 2023 roster. A roster that looks like if the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel depicted not Adam and God attempting to bridge the gap between the mortal and the divine, their outstretched fingers separated simultaneously by inches and eternity, but rather a visage of God giving himself the Predator handshake meme while bellowing “hell yeah Brother.”

And the question arises: have they sufficiently failure-proofed themselves? The very essence, and value, of sports lies in the uncertainty of it all, the unwritten ending that can happen from even the most seemingly predictable beginning. PoNY have been on the wrong end of that thrilling, essential randomness for the past several seasons. Have they constructed a team this season that is so sufficiently stacked, so purely loaded from top to bottom that they will transcend the whims of fate that the rest of the mortals in the division are subject to?

No. They could book flights to Nationals on the wrong airline, and end up having half of their squad stuck in an airport watching them lose to RDU again. But they are pretty darn close. PoNY’s roster construction gives them the opportunity to be one of the greatest teams of all time in 2023. It also gives them opportunity to be one of the biggest disappointments too.

*****

Ultimately, only one team wins the title. Only one team gets to look back and say “that was our year.” At least two of these teams are going to leave the season feeling like they left something on the table. Maybe all three!

That’s what makes this all so compelling. Are Truck Stop going to fall at the last hurdle again? Are Rhino going to blow this cosmic alignment of players and narrative? Are PoNY really going to emerge from this period of roster abundance with only one title?

The answer is the same for all three: not if this is their year.


  1. Jones’s 26? 

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld, co-host of the Sin The Fields podcast, and also a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.

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