Your guide to the biggest players, teams, and stories of the 2024 D-I college season!
January 25, 2024 by Edward Stephens, Alex Rubin, Patrick Stegemoeller and Jacob Cowan in Analysis, Coverage with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2024 college ultimate season are 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.
A few weeks after the New Year’s ball drops wrap up, the murmur of the coming college season begins in earnest. By the time it is nearly February, the whirring of the hype machine is hitting a fever pitch. As the first major tournament weekend approaches, we want to make sure you’re fully prepared for another uproarious college season. Like those that came before it, get ready for the ups, the downs, the thrillers, the stars, the new kids, and all of the wonderful things that make it so beloved with the annual College Primer.
Just what exactly is the deal with UNC? There is only one team, at any level of North American ultimate, who have been as dominant as Darkside this decade: their women’s division counterparts Pleiades1. And looking beyond this decade? We’re on the verge of entering uncharted territory. In the history of the college game, only the Stanford women’s and UC Santa Barbara men’s programs have won three consecutive championships.2 Darkside – and, of course, Pleiades, but you can read more about them in the D-I Women’s Division College Primer – will stand alone if they can put together another run.
Honestly, the odds are pretty good. Darkside went 42-2 last year – one of those losses came when they played their depth after locking up Pool A at Nationals – en route to the title and bring back more than a line’s worth of players who are going to earn serious consideration when we do our annual top-25 exercise. Returners Andrew Li, Ben Dameron, Dylan Hawkins, Eli Fried, Josh Singleton, Kevin Pignone, Matthew McKnight, and Rutledge Smith are all legitimate top-of-the-game players. Noah Krumme, formerly of Ohio State Leadbelly and now playing his sixth year at UNC, fits right in on that murderer’s row. Mixed in with all of that top-end talent are the qualities that have elevated them over the competition for an entire college generation: commitment to systems, commitment to each other, an emphasis on player development, determination, and a sharp sense of how to meet the moment.
Attired in that battle-tested armor, mounted firmly astride the steed that is their own momentum, and bearing an all-too familiar standard – the Earth’s shadow blanketing the moon – Darkside raise their lance for a tilt not only at the rest of the division, but at history.
As well-outfitted as they may be, the chance to rewrite the record books is still just that: a chance. There are challengers aplenty who are dying to unseat them – and capable of it, as we saw last year in games against UMass at Smoky Mountain Invite and Brown at Nationals. Furthermore, not everyone from the most recent championship is back. They’ll miss the steadying presence and unassuming wizardry of John McDonnell in the backfield, as well as the relatively unsung (but, frankly, tremendous) work they got from Bailey Roberts, Daniel Zhu, and Jayden Feagans. Perhaps their greatest obstacle, though, is in the nature of the task itself. Forget the potential quadri-chip for a moment: it is incredibly difficult to win a single college title in any year.
However it goes for Darkside, it’s going to be thrilling to watch them try to set a new high watermark in college ultimate.
Searching for This Year’s UMass
Before we saw UMass ZooDisc line up across from UNC Darkside in last season’s national final, the team underwent a massive transformation. For a full rundown, Edward Stephens’ in depth look-back last season tells the unique story detailing the trials and tribulations of an underclassmen coup, new captain elections, new coaching staff hires, and finally a return to Nationals in 2023 for the first time since 2018.
The team had been clearly building for a few years and made the most of their first opportunity at the College Championships with a trip to the national final. While UMass still have their eyes on the gold medals, who among this year’s crop of teams might make a 2023 Zoodisc-like push into the upper echelon of D-I men’s teams?
Though neither have the historic success that UMass did before 2023, there are two teams who can conceivably make Nationals for the first time in forever and push deep into the bracket. UCLA Smaug have been on the national radar since Riley Kirkman-Davis took control of their offense upon his arrival on campus in 2020. But their proven ability to compete with top teams in the regular season (UCLA have wins over Pitt, CUT, Cal, Utah State, Georgia over the past two seasons) somehow disappears at Regionals, where losses to UCSD, Cal, and UC Santa Cruz have ended their seasons short of a trip to Nationals in recent seasons – not to mention the COVID-19 Pandemic that ended the 2020 season. With UCSC seemingly about to take a step back, UCLA have a clear path to Nationals if they can continue their level of play from the past few seasons all the way through the series in 2024.
The other team that could make a surprise run is Utah. Yes, the same Zion Curtain program that hasn’t made it to Nationals since 2016 and has spent much of that time out of the national spotlight. But the pieces are there: enough returning talent (Elijah Watchalotone and Austin Hasbrook are the headliners) to show the new kids around, new coaching energy in local pro players Eugene L’Heureux and Nathan Huff, and some star quality rookies (Oscar Brown, Grayson Rettberg, and Will Selfridge will be among the best players on the team). With the BYU cushion – in the past, they have earned the region an extra bid but bowed out of Regionals, thereby granting it to the rest of the field – Zion Curtain don’t even need to earn their own spot; they can spend the season building their systems and getting used to playing together before trying to peak at Regionals. If they do end up making the big show, the skill and leadership of their vaunted underclassmen will be a big reason why, following the same blueprint that worked for UMass last season.
The Brown Way (™)
Do Brown have the formula to end the UNC dynasty?
They came the closest last season, going the distance with Darkside in quarterfinals and taking the champs all the way to universe point. It can be easy to read too much into an isolated game – one team playing at the top of their range and another playing towards the bottom doesn’t give us much meaningful insight – but rewatch that quarterfinal and you can see it was no fluke that Brown were able to go blow for blow with UNC. They have structured their program around an approach that is designed to give them a chance against the biggest and deepest programs in the sport.
No team is going to be able to match UNC up and down the roster. They are too deep, too well coached, too experienced. But you only play seven guys at a time, and there is only one disc to go around. This is a key concept that Brown seems to grasp as they build their team around a top two of Jacques Nissen and Leo Gordon, a dynamic duo capable of rendering all of their opponent’s qualities moot.
It should come as no surprise that those two do the majority of the damage for Brown, but it’s not just a matter of having two supremely talented players. It’s designing a team that creates a platform for those two stars to be as efficient as possible, having everyone play a role that maximizes the impact Gordon and Nissen are able to exert on the game.
Guys like Elliott Rosenberg and Cal Nightingale demonstrate a high level of game IQ to always be present as release options who can move the ball forward without crowding and compromising spacing for the offense. Downfield field stretchers like Luca Duclos-Orsello who patiently wait for just the right moment to strike, anticipating the window when the handler small ball will open up a power position huck. And a whole line of players who have their roles in zone down pat, allowing Nissen or Gordon to put a low impact D-point on their legs before leading the charge on the turn.
This is the essence of Brown’s approach – that if everyone is able to fill their role, no matter what it is, it creates an environment where the team can compete against anyone. Legendary Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankley once said, “A football team is like a piano: you need eight men to carry it and three to play the damn thing” and, based on how B-Mo operate, he may as well have been talking about ultimate. It takes program-wide buy-in to execute on this at an elite level, having your carriers and pianists all on the same page, working towards the same goal. But despite those challenges it appears that Brown have figured out how to make music that everyone should take note of.
And the Nominees for Most Bids Are…
The inter-regional race to collect extra strength bids to Nationals is a thrilling affair every year. In 2023 though, it was bonkers. Everyone thought it came down to the wire on the last day of the season, with California Ursa Major doing seemingly just enough in the ninth place bracket at Easterns to push the Southwest to a staggering four bids. And then, like magic, that strength bid was transferred over to the Atlantic Coast a few days later when UNC Charlotte Skyrise’s ranking benefitted from having games they lost earlier in the season removed from the calculations. USAU has since altered the rules around strength bid calculations to ensure it can’t go down quite like that again, but it will still be a slugfest to see which regions end up bid-rich, and which end up bid-poor.
In a beautifully balanced world, each of the 10 regions would get two bids apiece to make up the 20-team Nationals field. As we pointed out in our Bid Predictions op-ed last month, that is an extremely unlikely scenario. What’s more likely to happen is that there will be a few regions that don’t earn more than their auto-bid – cough Metro East cough – and one or two that generate a hell of a haul. Who’s going to be taking home a lot of bids?
Last year, New England earned a division-leading four courtesy of UMass, Vermont, Brown, and Tufts. They’re basically just as strong this year, so, hard as it is, they might be in line to do it again. UMass and Brown feel like locks already; Vermont should be in very good shape, and both Northeastern and Tufts have enough talent and tough games on the schedule to play their way in. It’s looking pretty good, but New England doesn’t have the best chance for a four-bid year.
If life had been fair last year, the Southwest would also have been a four-bid monster. UCLA and UC Santa Cruz played very well at elite-level tournaments, Cal Poly SLO have been the same top-10 juggernaut they’ve been for the last several years, and Cal – well, on paper anyway, they just squeaked in. They could get back to the magic four (and even stick the landing) with a vengeful 2024. UC Santa Cruz graduated a lot of talent, sure, but there’s enough buzz around UC San Diego Air Squids to think they could bubble up in case the Slugs slip. It’s looking pretty good, but the Southwest also doesn’t have the best chance at a four-bid year.
The most likely region to bum-rush Nationals with four teams is the Northwest. Between Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, British Columbia, Utah State, and Utah, they’ll have plenty of teams in range. And that doesn’t even account for BYU. CHI have been one of the best teams in the country for a generation of college ultimate, and how they handle a bid to Nationals (should they earn one again) is anything but certain. There have been years in the past where they have earned a bid for the Northwest and managed their post-season in such a way as to keep the bid in the region, further increasing the chances of a windfall. If you’re betting, bet Northwest.
Everyone’s odds go down, though, if the South Central, Atlantic Coast, or North Central end up as three-bid regions – which would be completely within reason.
Players to Watch
CJ Kiepert (Vermont)
Quick – who has the most effective scoober in the division? If you answered anything other than CJ Kiepert, you should be ready for a correction the first time you see Vermont play in 2024. If CCC was any indication, the max-effort, max-attitude D-line stalwart has made a splashy transition to the O-line center handler role – where he’s throwing shmeat, and thriving. And even if he turns it over (which he definitely will with some of his shots) you can count on his trademark dogged defense to get the disc back. The departed Johnny Sickles’ shoes are big, but Kiepert has what it takes to fill them.
Dexter Clyburn (Cal)
The progression of Dexter Clyburn’s college career to date has been something to behold. Phase one: Make a seamless transition to college ultimate, essentially running the D-line offense as a freshman. Phase two: Raise your game to fill in the considerable holes left by the departures of two All-Americans on both sides of the disc. Phase three… Well, we haven’t seen phase three yet, but if Clyburn’s first two seasons are any indication, we are in for a hell of a show during his junior year. Already one of the division’s very best throwers and defenders, the depth blossoming around him ought to free him up to open his full game. That’s likely to mean big things for Ursa Major in 2024.
Scott Heyman (Pittsburgh)
A speedster with high level throws, top level club experience, and steely determination, Heyman operates with the skill of an A1 star but without the attention given the presence of reigning Player of the Year Henry Ing on Pitt’s roster. Don’t let Ing’s gravity take your eyes off of Heyman though. He’ll be a key initiator, facilitator, and cross-over player for a top heavy team with eyes on a Championship.
Declan Miller (Carleton)
Stepping into an archetype like the next incarnation of the Avatar, Declan Miller is the latest Seattle high school prodigy turned Carleton talisman who seems poised to take the college division by storm. An electrifying freshman season was cut short by an injury that kept Miller out of Nationals, so we’re still waiting to see his debut on college ultimate’s biggest stage, but the skills displayed across college, club, and Team USA are more than enough to make him one of the division’s most exciting players. He’s a true five-tool prospect with a full array of throws and an uncanny game sense, and he is learning to use his size and strength to create mismatches all over the field.
Mica Glass (Oregon)
The reigning Rookie of the Year, Glass is both Oregon’s future and its past. A throwback to turn of the 2010s Ego teams that were here to chew gum and throw blade hucks, and there wasn’t any gum to be found in a dump swing reset system. So many elite freshman come polished from high school programs that have them ready to be cogs in a top college offense, but Glass is an offense unto himself. He opens the field up with his throws and is able to get the disc back into his hands from all sorts of unpredictable angles and approaches, both as a reset cutter and a defender. Oregon put themselves back on the map last season, and now they’ll be seeing how far off the map Glass can take them with his inimitable style.
Chad Yorgason (BYU)
Former BYU coach Bryce Merrill recently said on the Pod Practice Podcast that he couldn’t imagine BYU or Salt Lake Shred ultimate without Chad Yorgason. Given his dual role as an athletic stopper on defense and a key facilitator on offense, it’s easy to see why. With the departure of the last remnants of the Jordan Kerr/Jacob Miller/Joe Merrill superteam, BYU enters a new era and is just as competitive. Chad Yorgason’s versatility, speed, and disc skills are a key reason why CHI can graduate top players each of the past three years and still remain a fixture in the top five of our power rankings.
Gavin Abrahamsson (UMass)
Last year UMass were lauded for their depth, and in particular their commitment to playing every player on their roster in every game. Gavin Abrahamsson, in his rookie season, was far from another part of that faceless army. Leading the team in goals at Nationals, he displayed an excellent sense of timing on continuation cuts and a remarkable level of composure for his age late in the tournament. Coming off of a strong club season with Amherst Sprout alongside many of his college teammates, don’t be surprised if Abrahamsson shows off his strong throwing repertoire for a ZooDisc offense that will be without star thrower Luca Harwood for the beginning of the year.
Fin Fuhrmann (Carleton)
Last season Carleton made it to the bracket at Nationals despite missing acclaimed first year handler Declan Miller. While there is much to be said about the play of Daniel Chen and Cullen Baker in getting CUT that far, it wouldn’t be fair to do so without highlighting the play of fellow sophomore Fin Fuhrmann, who took on a key initiating and throwing role for CUT’s offense. The Seattle product seems equally comfortable moving behind the disc as he is attacking downfield. His tall frame and variety of release points provide a reset valve as both a receiver and a thrower for moments when the offense gets stuck — of course with Fuhrmann and co. steering the ship, those moments are few and far between.
Owen Smith (Texas)
Both Texas TUFF’s 2023 roster and the 2023 college rookie class in general were pretty deep, so it’s understandable if Owen Smith’s excellent play as a freshman got a little lost in so much other ado, visibility-wise. Let’s just not overlook him again. The tall sophomore has shown a flair for the big play and the kind of grit that TUFF can lean on in big moments. Combined with his industrial toolkit set of skills, he’s poised for a big year as a featured player.
Kyle Lew (Cal Poly SLO)
Cal Poly SLO seemed just short on ceiling raising players in 2023, but Kyle Lew taking a step forward in 2024 could give SLO the firepower they need against the rest of the top 5. With Alex Nelson and Anton Orme tearing apart coverage schemes downfield Lew is going to have the opportunity to eat up a lot of yards on unders and sling in-rhythm continuation hucks. If SLO hit their ceiling this year then it’s likely that Lew will be one of the most productive yardage gainers in the country.
Will Selfridge (Utah)
Last summer we saw Selfridge dominate in his UFA (née AUDL) appearances. Splitting time between the Salt Lake Shred O- and D-lines, Selfridge finished +32 over 12 games while posting a 96% completion percentage – a great mark for a new player. As the go-to guy for an up-and-coming Utah team, Selfridge alone has the talent to take Zion Curtain to the next level (which could mean a return to Nationals). A talented cutter, Selfridge’s athleticism helps him dominate downfield. His explosiveness combined with above-average throwing prowess and professional experience foretell an All-Region performance that may be enough to get Zion Curtain back to the promised land.
You’re All Underrating…
CUT made the bracket last season without their best player/early 2024 All-American candidate. Given that a lot of the team spent all fall playing high level ultimate together with KFK in Denmark while studying abroad, the needle is pointing up for CUT. Though they lose a few key defenders from last season’s run, a large rookie class arrives with plenty of YCC and adult club experience (including a USA U20 athlete in Tej Murthy). With Declan Miller, Cullen Baker, and Fin Fuhrmann as the offensive backfield axis, Daniel Chen should have no problem dominating downfield and CUT should have no problem scoring. It’s not unreasonable to think Carleton could be back in semis. – Alex Rubin
This UCLA team has top 10 talent, but they just are getting overlooked because scandalous bid shenanigans rerouted a bid from the Southwest and they missed Nationals last year. They’ve got depth, star power, and the key ingredient: a burning sense of righteous indignation equal in power to the fusion core of a white hot star. UCLA are revenge tour-ready, so get on the right side of history while you still can. – Patrick Stegemoeller
I hate to do this. I never do this. I always try to refrain from writing nice things about my hometown team until they deserve it. But I’m too big a believer in so many of the qualities embodied by this particular Jojah edition not to go out on a limb for them this once. Lots of major talent among the upperclassmen? Check. The 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes have ripened to perfection. Swagger? Check. Both Adam Miller and Cole Chanler are all-world in that category. Breakout potential? Check. You’re going to see huge seasons out of Scotty Whitley, Kofi Reeves-Miller, and Jack Stephenson. Takeover talent? A big, bold check named Aidan Downey. They’ve got it all. Now if they can just make it out of pool play in one piece at Smoky Mountain Invite. – Edward Stephens
Last year, Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur made quarterfinals and ended the season seventh in the power rankings. And, somehow, per the first edition of this season’s power rankings they’ve gotten worse? Despite returning 2023 Player of the Year Henry Ing? And fellow U24 gold medalists Scott Heyman and Tristan Yarter? And key playmaker Aiden Landis? And adding U20 selection Micah Davis? Something doesn’t add up. Pittsburgh certainly underachieved at Nationals last year, but given they have as much or more star talent than any other team in the division, I feel comfortable declaring that a quarterfinals appearance is the floor for this team. Once there, don’t be surprised if one of the most established programs in college ultimate history has what it takes to string together a couple of wins and fight for the division’s crown on Memorial Day. – Jacob Cowan
The Current Power Rankings
College D-I Men's Power Rankings:
Considering Pleiades haven’t lost a game in that stretch, they’re the ones who earn the superlative here. ↩
Note: those two programs both did it twice – the UNC teams are only on their first such streak. ↩