On the fifth day of Christmas, Ultiworld gave to me...the top title challengers.
December 16, 2023 by Ultiworld in Preview with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2024 college 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.
It’s time to unwrap some presents as we introduce the 12 Days of College Ultimate. For the next 12 days, we will be releasing one gift per day, though don’t count on getting any holiday fowl: it’s all college ultimate. From highlight videos to player chatter to a season predictions, we’ve got a little something for everyone.
Today’s gift is looking at the five D-I teams in each division that could take down the reigning champions: North Carolina.
“Will they, won’t they” is one of writing’s most classic tropes. Will the romantic pairing actually pair up, or will the writers torture us forever? Will Nick and Jess from New Girl just date already? Will Mulder and Scully end up together on the X-Files, or not? Jim and Pam, Ross and Rachel…
In the college frisbee world, the pairing du jour has been UNC and gold medals. Will UNC win another ring, or won’t they? But it’s only December. Only time, and actually playing the games, will tell.1 Until then, here are the reasons the top five contenders (four teams plus “the field”) will take down the 3(!)-time repeat champions — and the reasons they won’t.
- Why they will: This team is poised to be even scarier on offense than last year at a time when UNC has lost some key D-line pieces. Kennedy McCarthy and Emily Pozzy will be back on the attack and have the addition of some valuable reinforcements: Ruckus adds U20 national team talent Ella Monaghan, in addition to tryout invitees Tatum Cubrilovic, Annie Pozzy, and Nika Rockafeller. They also pick up a veteran signal-caller in 2021 Coach of the Year Liz Leon, which will help bridge the strategy gap between the teams.
- Why they won’t: The Ruckus offense can get hot, but they have been relatively reliant on a deep game that UNC has (so far) been able to stop. When Pleiades keyed in on stopping those shots in last year’s semi, the Vermont O-line collapsed. What’s more, Ruckus couldn’t get a single turn off of the UNC O-line. Personnel-wise, they aren’t without losses either; the graduations of key handler Sarah von Doepp and do-everything player Marina Godley-Fisher will hurt.
- Why they will: Quandary returns some of their best players — indeed, some of the best in the division — in Stacey Gaskill, Clil Phillips, Abbie Gillach, and Emma Williamson. All are a year older, a year wiser, and have the big-game experience twice over. We know this group has the pure frisbee ability and mental strength to win when their backs are against the wall (see their performance in pool play last year against Stanford). And if they’re not hungry now, they’ll never be.
- Why they won’t: If they haven’t gotten it done in two chances, why should we believe that the third time’s the charm — especially with a roster more depleted than most. Colorado will try again this year without the likes of Bailey Shigley, Mei Hecht, Sai Lostra, Jordan Stockdale, Corn/Sam Cortright, and Kenny (just to name a few). All those names were O-line starters and experienced glue pieces, especially Lostra. With that group gone, North Carolina has to like how their top end matches up with Colorado’s despite losses of their own. Get your popcorn ready for the Gaskill-Birdsong matchup.
- Why they will: It’s old news at this point, but it bears repeating: Superfly has one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the entire country. But it’s not just the coaches — the players aren’t slouches either. Stanford returns most of their top talent, including Esther Filipek, Macy Vollbrecht, Sage McGinley-Smith, and Anika Quon, who is coming off a practice-player club season with Fury. They have one of the strongest rookie classes in the entire country with U20 player Harper Baer and Dora McCotter-Hullet. On defense, their zones can frustrate the most experienced of teams — if they can value the ball offensively, they will certainly have a chance to beat UNC.
- Why they won’t: Strategically, their offense has a tendency to be huck-happy, which will be tough in the Madison wind and against the stingy North Carolina defense. But here’s our more far-fetched answer: the word on the street is that many of Superfly’s top players are abroad this fall, and low numbers at practices aren’t uncommon. Not only does this mean they’re missing out on fall prep time — in the worst-case scenario, this more-casual early season could set them up for a middling regular season like last year. If they’re not careful, they could end up in the Pool of Death facing hard pool play games and a hard quarters matchup. That’s not the way you want to start your tournament if you have your sights set on taking down UNC.
- Why they will: The Thunderbirds evoke UNC in a lot of ways. Like UNC, their disciplined offense and reliable reset system make them one of the most well-rounded offensive teams in the country. Like UNC, they have a world-class coaching staff in Danie Proby (Team Canada U20, U24, and WUC 2024 coach) and Robbie Brennan (Team Canada World Games 2022). Like UNC, their top players — Mika Kurahashi, Madi Ong, and Anna Goddu — are some of the best in the division.2 Like UNC, UBC boasts some of the best depth in the division, in part thanks to their near-monopoly on Canadian youth talent.
- Why they won’t: Jessi Jones, UNC’s head coach, remarked after their 2022 quarterfinal matchup that UBC is the team that is the most similar to Pleiades. It could be that UBC’s similarity to UNC isn’t a boon but a curse — playing against UBC could feel familiar, if not legitimately comfortable, to the UNC squad. Additionally, UBC loses some of their key starters: Oliana Chan, Andrea Moir, and Monica Hsu. In particular, Moir was a key defender for them at NWC and would have been a prime matchup for Gaskill if she had been active during their semi. Finally, their O-line struggled against the Colorado pressure, giving up four breaks in the first half – a deficit that proved insurmountable for the team in the second half. Only time will tell if their O-line defense can find a way to get the disc back, especially against the depth and talent of UNC.
The four teams above are clear threats in our minds to challenge UNC. In the tier below are several teams that we think could make a run on semis this season — they’ve just got some big buts.
- Washington Element: Element picks up U20 player Lauren Goddu along with other strong youth talent (Anna Pettis, Kelly Tam, Jessica Luu, Lily LeDonne, and Ciona Antolin), Sophia Palmer continues to be a dangerous hybrid, Savanna Tucker is getting exponentially better every season, and Anna Cauchy is back from injury… but no Abby Hecko and Amy Ngyuen will be as big a blow as it appears.
- UC Santa Barbara Burning Skirts: Devin Quinn and Julia Hasbrook are as close to mind-melded as is scientifically possible… but the Skirts don’t have enough firepower on the other side of the ball to pose a true threat.
- Carleton Syzygy: Tori Gray and Mia Beeman-Weber are legitimately scary defensively, plus Syz is adding U20 player Chagall Gelfand and other strong rookies to their young stable of players headlined by Naomi Fina… but they might not have the depth or athleticism to hang with UNC and haven’t shown the ability to rise to the occasion in big-game situations.
- Tufts Ewo: Edi Lam and Lia Schwartz are legit and Ewo has made strategic strides as a program over the last few years… but the losses of Olivia Goss, Hazel Ostrowski, and Leija Helling will be too much to overcome in a single season.
- Oregon Fugue: Trout Weybright and Syris Linkfield now have a season of club under their belts and will be joined this year by Acacia Hahn, but the fact remains that Fugue has not enough experience and not enough depth to stay with UNC.
It’ll be another year with North Carolina Darkside as the favorite. They never seem to run out of stars: from Nethercutt to Gouchoe-Hanas to Searles-Bohs to now Dameron. And that’s just the shortlist, excluding numerous All-Americans. Taking a win off of them — let alone a title — is a tall task. But the division’s best come into this season knowing it is the mountain that they’ll have to summit if they want to take home the hardware. But odds are they will be considered the championship favorites until they are either hoisting a fourth title or eliminated from contention. Look for one of these top challengers to be lined up across from them whenever one of those possibilities comes to fruition.
Brown Brownian Motion
- Why they will: Nobody came closer to beating UNC in a game that mattered at Nationals3 than Brown in the quarterfinals. Leo Gordon and Jacques Nissen were excellent in that game, playing both ways and basically willing the team to score. Both return for their fifth year with a bit of revenge on their mind. Alongside the star duo, Cam Curney returns to the team after a season away. If he’s able to continue his development into an ace defender, it could give BMo a weapon they didn’t have before. With perhaps the best coaching staff in the division, two of the best players still in school, and a history of success, Brown has the best chance of upending UNC’s reign of dominance.
- Why they won’t: Well, they’ve had several tries since their 2019 triumph and BMo haven’t been able to beat UNC despite rostering John Randolph, Nissen, and Gordon during that time. At the end of the day, a smaller school with incredibly selective admissions is always going to have a tougher time recruiting ultimate talent than a larger school like UNC that can expect to pull in local talent who want to attend and graduate transfers looking for a USA Ultimate medal. Brown has the top end talent to compete with any team in the country, but there is only so far that talent and scheme can go. Brown maximizes their roster year after year, but they still might not have enough to compete with the depth of talent that UNC can trot out on the opposing sideline.
- Why they will: UMass was the only team to win a game that mattered against UNC in 2022. After taking a belief-building win at Smoky Mountain Invite, ZooDisc couldn’t replicate the feat in the National final. With the experience of an ESPN game under their belt, UMass will come back more prepared than ever for a potential rematch. With a season of high level club play for Caelan McSweeney and time to get healthy for Wyatt Kellman, UMass’s best players (along with the indefatigable Luca Harwood) should be even better in 2024. A handful of rookies led by U20 selection Ethan Lieman are sure to make a positive impact as well. The saying goes that a team needs to lose the big game before they can win one. They experienced a big loss last season, and they return too much talent and experience to be counted out of the potential for a win.
- Why they won’t: Barring a major schematic shift or an incredible season from a rookie, has UMass gotten three points better than they were last season? That’s how much they lost by to UNC in last season’s national final. With Jonah Stang-Osborne participating in a gap year and stepping away from the field this season, UMass lose one of their most impactful defenders and the key to the counterattack offense. UMass will have all season to grow and develop as a 2024 roster, but it will take more than just typical year-over-year improvement to knock off a Darkside team that also returns nearly all of their major contributors from last year’s squad.
Cal Poly SLO CORE
- Why they will: Like UMass, Cal Poly SLO bring back the bulk of their contributors from a semifinals team. Calvin Brown is as decorated a sixth year as there is in the division, fresh off of a gold medal with Team USA at Beach Worlds. Anton Orme, James Whelan, Alex Nelson, and Garrett Bush should all be in awards conversations at the end of the season. SLO enters the season as the best team on the west coast (yes, even considering BYU). Despite not overwhelming during the regular season, SLOCORE turned their play up a notch at Nationals and earned their spot in a winnable semifinal. With the bitter taste of a blowout loss still lingering in central California, SLO should come back eager to prove that they are not just a team that has occasional bursts of success, but a program that has kept itself at the top of the division for multiple generations of players.
- Why they won’t: SLO has played in two semifinals since 2019 and neither one was close. SLO’s coaching staff continually pulls the most out of their players and has some of the most advanced defensive schemes that the college division has ever seen. And yet…they have still never played to a level to beat BYU or UNC, the definitive top two teams in college over the past half decade. There’s a first time for everything, but the evidence points to SLO being merely a top five team this season, rather than a top one team.
Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur
- Why they will: Henry Ing nearly followed up his 2023 D-I Player of the Year award with the club version. He merely finished second, and is returning for another season leading En Sabah Nur. With Pitt stalwarts like Aidan Landis, Scott Heyman, Peter Kotz, and Tristan Yarter returning as well, Pitt has the top end talent to compete with anyone in the division. Like the other teams on this list, Pitt boasts an elite coaching staff that consistently has the team performing among the division’s best. With a player as talented, well-rounded, and motivated as Ing, it feels like anything is possible.
- Why they won’t: Pitt’s 2024 roster looks similar to their last few lists of names: a few headliners followed by a series of up-and-coming question marks. Few teams manage to generate the buy-in that The Brotherhood™ can, and not to disparage the hard working players who might only see the field a few points per game once the stakes raise at Nationals, but Pitt hasn’t had the depth recently necessary to take on a team with the kind of talent and depth that UNC has. They will need unworldly performances from Ing and Yarter, and that’s a lot to ask given that they rely on those two to cross over and play more than an average amount of points in pool play too. Pitt will always put up a good fight, but they need stronger play from their entire roster to beat as well-rounded a team as UNC.
- Oregon Ego: Mica Glass is really good and should only get better. Raekwon Adkins and Callahan Phinney are poised for great rookie seasons. Chander Boyd-Fliegel and Max Massey are due for breakouts on the national stage, and veterans Gabe Nobis and Adam McNichols are incredibly valuable college players. But, as they have for the past decade, Ego doesn’t have the defense nor the depth to keep up with a juggernaut like UNC.
- Colorado Mamabird: Mamabird will be playing without Danny Landesman, and a UNC challenger needs every single thing moving in the right direction. Besides, Coach Nethercutt can’t bring himself to take down the dynasty he had a huge part in creating.
- Georgia Jojah: Fall college ultimate results have no bearing on the competitive spring season, but Adam Miller, Scotty Whitley, and Cole Chanler led Jojah to the CCC tournament final while Aidan Downey, one of the best players in the division, was studying abroad. They’re a little too green to present a real challenge to UNC, but they have the plucky upstart vibes to put in a real scare.
- Vermont Chill: Team Chill’s ascendancy to the semifinal last season is seen internally as a catalytic moment rather than a culmination; they’re hoping for more. Zack Watson-Stevens, Parker Lin-Butler, and Casey Thornton headline the next generation of Vermont leaders who have only ever known the team as a nationally competitive entity. If they’re able to stay healthy and retain some graduate-level talent from year’s past to help bridge the leadership gap, Vermont has a fighting chance…but those are some big ifs.
- Texas TUFF: Similarly, Xavier Fuzat, Cade White, Owen Smith, and John Clyde have something to prove after taking 2023 finalist UMass to double game point in a remarkably competitive quarterfinal. TUFF doesn’t have as much depth as other contenders, but is always a tough (pardon the pun) out and has a top end with as much professional experience as any in the country given the three AUDL teams in Texas. Think what you want of the AUDL, but those higher level reps come in handy against good college competition.
- Carleton CUT: CUT had a tough time competing without Declan Miller last season, but luckily one of the division’s best throwing talents returns and that is enough to put Carleton back on the map. We’ve seen the likes of John Stubbs and Jack Williams basically singlehandedly take down UNC, and Miller is the kind of talent that could inspire such a performance. The extra reps his team took on last season inspires more confidence that they have a good supporting cast. We haven’t seen CUT in a meaningful bracket game at Nationals since 2018, and that relative inexperience could make such a task difficult, but they have the top end talent necessary to compete with the best.
- BYU CHI: With the current structure of the college season and the inflexibility of the school’s Honor Code that prevents playing on Sunday, BYU will not be playing UNC at Nationals this year. However, in years past they were probably the team with the best roster to challenge the champs. With the graduations of Jordan Kerr, Jacob Miller, and Luke Yorgason in recent years, the talent level might not be #2 in the country any more. However, Chad Yorgason, McKay Yorgason, Logan Clarke, Jensen Wells, and Zach Burnside lead what is sure to be an athletic roster with creative coaching. In an exhibition setting, BYU won’t be favored but again has the top end and leadership to pull off the upset.
Us prognosticating endlessly certainly won’t help. ↩
Those three all just got selected for the WUC Team Canada Mixed. ↩
Darkside sat their starters during a pool play loss after their bye to the quarterfinal round was secured ↩