National Championships 2023: Pool A Preview (Men’s)

Truck and Bravo are reunited in Pool A, along with two teams hitting postseason stride.

Truck Stop’s Alexandre Fall roofs PoNY’s Chris Kocher for a score in the 2023 US Open final. Photo: Sam Hotaling – UltiPhotos.com

Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 Club National Championships 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.

Pool B PreviewPool C Preview — Pool D Preview — Competition Schedule

A-Pools aren’t typically where we see the big-time fireworks – but with the break in traditional seeding patterns, we could be in for a hell of a show. The pool features both of the last two national champions, and the team who are, arguably, the favorites to take the title in 2023. The battle between the three of them will be electric, and that’s before an ancient program making their tournament debut even get involved to play super-spoiler. Don’t touch that dial, because this is where the action is.

Washington DC Truck Stop

USAU Ranking: #1
Power Ranking: #1
Regional Finish: Mid-Atlantic 1
Overall 2023 Record: 13-1
Against the Nationals Field: 9-1
Against the Pool: 1-0 vs. Ring of Fire, 1-0 vs. Johnny Bravo

What happens when you push right to the edge of a major goal and come away light? If you’re Truck Stop – who last year had one of the most successful regular seasons in recent memory, scorched through most of Nationals, beat a juggernaut PoNY in semis, and then lost to a Bravo side they had handled only a few days before – you start looking for lessons. There was at least one concrete takeaway.

“We recognize that we have to approach every game from a fresh start,” said captain David Bloodgood. “Last year, a little bit of our mind set going into that [national final against Bravo] was, ‘Hey we’ve played these guys. We know them. Let’s stick to that game plan.’ And we learned that lesson that you can’t overlook anybody, no matter how many time’s we’ve played them.”

Now that they have enjoyed a similarly successful season, can they apply it? And will it be enough?

A no.1 seed might have cause to be miffed that this year, thanks to the new Powerball buckets method of seeding distribution, they have some really tough matchups that would not normally be in their pool. A rematch with the team that took them out in the championship last year? Yikes. A scary Ring side who pushed them to the limit at Pro Champs? Uh-oh. But if you’re Truck stop, you’re probably looking forward to hitting the highest gears early, and that’s exactly what these matchups should prompt from them.

And what a high gear it is! We saw Bloodgood, Jasper Tom, David Cranston, Alexandre Fall, Moussa Dia, Fred Farah (and about eight other guys – the list gets long) demolish PoNY’s offense at Pro Champs in what has been the team’s signature win of the season. They did all that while letting Andrew Roy, Jacques Nissen, Christian Boxley, Tyler Monroe, and Aaron Bartlett do their thing on the offensive side of the ball. Honestly, it looks a lot like last season: unhinged pace, unconventional looks, unmatched disc skill, and, every now and again, a jaw-dropping can-opener of a throw from Jonny Malks or Rowan McDonnell.

Truck are built for success right now. Star power, coaching, attack mentality, drive. They can win the championship that slipped through their fingers last season. Now all they have to do is do it.

Likely Ceiling: National Champions
Likely Floor: Semis

Raleigh Ring of Fire

USAU Ranking: #5
Power Ranking: #5
Regional Finish: Southeast 1
Overall 2023 Record: 14-5
Against the Nationals Field: 7-4
Against the Pool: 0-1 vs. Truck Stop, 0-1 vs. Johnny Bravo

“For me, always, winning regionals and then watching the game-to-go is one of the best feelings in ultimate,” said Noah Saul, one of the captains of Ring of Fire.

It’s easy to sympathize with that vision of pure satisfaction, even if you’ve never been in such a situation. Who doesn’t want to kick back and watch the last scramble when you’ve done all the work you need to do? That’s where Ring found themselves after capping off an emphatic 15-13 win over a physical Chain Lightning side for the Southeast title.

It would have been difficult even two months ago, though, to picture Noah and his Ring teammates in that situation. But they have turned the dial late in the season, opened the gas valve, and are heading into Nationals in a big flame. What had been a kind of piecemeal approach to the roster from one major event to the next fell into place by the end of Regionals. Only then did we get to see new import Matt Rehder in full lockstep with the rest of his team. Only then did we see the full wrecking ball force of having Jacob Fairfax on the D-line and Anders Juengst on the O-line, each of them pressing even further into elite player territory than before. Only then did the quality of the many young additions become clear. And only then did they finally start to take shape as darkhorse title contenders.

That ceiling would have been almost unthinkable in the summer – and it’s true that this edition seems to have a bit more in common, at least in terms of construction, with the one that stumbled to a (by their standards) poor finish to the 2022 season than the 2021 championship side, or even the ones from their later semis runs in the 2010’s. But somehow, even without a coach, they have galvanized around the idea of themselves. It’s not material, but it’s palpable in the air around them.

Will that actually translate to a title, or at least a legit run at one? Eh, jury’s out. There are teams who have proven beyond any doubt that they belong in that conversation, and Ring aren’t one of them. There is one of them in the pool with them, though: the very same Truck Stop they ran with for a whole game at Pro Champs before coming away with a close loss. Keep your eye on that one as the barometer for how far Ring can really go. A win there, or even a universe point defeat, will be enough to put the whole division on notice. A bigger loss, meanwhile, probably indicates that Ring need another year in the oven before they’ll be back at the pinnacle of the division.

Likely Ceiling: Finalist
Likely Floor: Prequarters

Denver Johnny Bravo

USAU Ranking: #9
Power Ranking: #10
Regional Finish: South Central 2
Overall 2023 Record: 17-7
Against the Nationals Field: 1-6
Against the Pool: 0-1 vs. Truck Stop, 1-0 vs. Ring of Fire

“We’re focused on peaking at Nationals and putting together a run at Nationals when it matters,” said Johnny Bravo captain Quinn Finer.

Coming from any other team, that reads like robotic sports-speak. But from Bravo, after how they found their stride at this tournament last year, can you really doubt the potential? Having finished third in their pool and down multiple breaks at half against Sockeye in prequarters, they began to play simply sublime ultimate for three-and-a-half games on their way to a championship. These players, especially the ones at the top end of the roster like Finer, Chance Cochran, Denny Bechis, Calvin Stoughton, and Cody Spicer, have internalized the process of flipping the switch to Championship Mode.

Still, it’s hard to see exactly how it’s going to happen. The team lost three huge pieces from the 2022 O-line in the offseason (Will and Ben Lohre, Cole Wallin). Then that unit lost Danny Landesman to injury. On top of those sure absences, the status of one of last year’s tournament heroes, Alex Atkins, is uncertain. Two weeks ago, Finer said he was tentatively going to play. But rumors have been circulating this week that he may now be more seriously injured. We’ll see what kind of condition he’s in. But as well as Justin Abel and Matty Jackson and Seth Faris have performed this season for that unit – and they have been very, very good – they don’t bring the same kind of dynamism and command as ‘Kins.

The defense could be even punchier than their famously staunch 2022 edition with Spicer, Cochran, Jay Froude, Kai Marshall and additions like Saeed Semrin and Noah Coolman. That will certainly help mitigate whatever challenges a short-handed offense faces. In the strongest indicator we have going into the tournament, though, that wasn’t enough to keep them competitive with Doublewide in the South Central regional final. Bravo have a deep well of belief in themselves; they might have to draw from it once again when they’re out of other answers. You can see the chance at a repeat if you squint. You just have to really, really, really squint. Then again, everyone’s eyes were wide open by the time they finished off Truck Stop to end 2022.

Likely Ceiling: Quarters
Likely Floor: Out on Day One

Eugene Dark Star

USAU Ranking: #18
Power Ranking: #12
Regional Finish: Northwest 2
Overall 2023 Record: 17-7
Against the Nationals Field: 1-6
Against the Pool: 0-0

Dark Star have been putting in the work. Year-in, year-out – scratch that – decade-in, decade-out they have toiled away at their sportcraft in their particular corner of the ultimate world. With apologies to Blueprint, Dark Star making it to Nationals for the first time since its founding in the sport’s early days is the best story of the year so far.

The 2023 team have been feeling the love, even in unlikely corners of Eugene. “One of our teammates was getting his hair cut, and the barber was actually on the mixed team – Star used to be a mixed team back in the ‘70s – and she saw his hat and started talking to him about it,” said captain Braedon Petrus. That is undeniably cool.

These happy moments are a result of Dark Star turning the tables in the Northwest region this year, dumping a Furious George side that had been ahead of them in the pecking order for, uh, the entire Cenozoic era. As a reward, they get a business trip to San Diego to keep the dream going deep into the fall. What should we expect? Can this team make the bracket?

Short answer: yeah, maybe. They are athletic, disciplined, and, compared to most of the field, relatively unknown. They have a trio of players in Scott Radlauer, Hylke Snieder, and Cody Bjorklund who, even though they weren’t with Dark Star at the time, have been through the Nationals gauntlet before and can help guide the (many) first-timers in advance of the tournament. And, much like close neighbors Rhino, they have benefitted from the wellspring of young players in the area – Max Massey and Antonio Rueda come to mind – any of whom might find a growth-spurt sort of moment and start to pop off.

But it’s a tough draw. Truck look, frankly, beyond their level; Ring probably aren’t far behind. The most vulnerable upset target, Johnny Bravo, just came off a championship. Given those circumstances, a winless tour of pool play is more likely than not. That isn’t written in the stars, though: there might just be an upset brewing just out of sight, somewhere in the dark.

Likely Ceiling: Prequarters
Likely Floor: Out on Day 1

  1. Edward Stephens
    Edward Stephens

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

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