Your guide to the biggest players, teams, and stories of the 2024 D-I college season!
January 25, 2024 by Jenna Weiner, Scott Dunham, Graham Gerhart, Grace Conerly, Felicia Zheng and Laura Osterlund 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 Years 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.
The Argument for a Four-peat
The last time UNC Pleiades lost a sanctioned game was four years ago1. Sonic the Hedgehog dominated the box office, Roddy Rich’s “The Box” topped the Billboard charts, a relatively new app, TikTok, was trending upwards, and the whole world grew wary of a new flu-like illness called the coronavirus. We’ve lived a thousand lives since then. Only six players on their current 30-person roster have felt a tournament loss. Last year, they were practically untouchable, with only a handful of games that were even close, and they cruised through the season. Entering the 2024 season, all eyes will be on the now-dynasty to see if they have what it takes to do what no D-I women’s team has done before2: win a fourth title in a row.
To add to their case, they’ve already played two tournaments in their current iteration: the preseason Blue Ridge Finale and the Carolina Kickoff. They announced their return with shut-outs against Appalachian State, Duke, Clemson, and North Carolina B. While they also had a handful of games that were much closer, the Pleiades made sure everyone knew that stopping their win streak this season will be a great feat.
Like all other college teams, they’ve lost some solid stars this year, namely 2023 D-I Women’s Player of the Year Alex Barnett and Offensive Player of the Year Ella Juengst, but the talent that remains appears to have the power to win them a fourth straight championship. Especially with the crossovers between club and PUL, with Phoenix and Radiance respectively, Dawn Culton, Erica Birdsong, Theresa Yu, and Emily Przykucki all have the know-how to win at every level. And, with the addition of Bella Russell, a player who earned high praise from her Radiance counterparts (she got a shoutout as someone to watch at PUL Champs weekend by a coach) as a rookie, they have the top-to-bottom roster that will set them up for success.
Having talented players with club and semi-pro chemistry helps, but, like any Triangle Area team, the main contributing factor that will likely put the Pleiades above their competition for another year in a row is their systematic, disciplined offense. Patience is a rare commodity in the college realm, as fresh, green players generally want to do what it takes to stand out and make big moves. To their credit, this pays off a lot of the time. But it also results in many, many errors and turnovers. North Carolina do not feature nearly so many lapses in judgment. They instead tend to opt for the more successful, albeit sometimes boring, approach. With their strong core of returning players, a talented coaching team (including the returns of Mary Rippe and Jessi Jones), and the infamous Triangle Area systems in place, UNC Pleiades are in a good spot for the 2024 season. Good enough so that a fourth title is well in their grasp, making them once again the team to beat.
Return of the Contenders
Can any team pull off the heroic defeat of UNC that the ultimate community has been waiting for for years now? In the women’s division, 2023 semifinalists Vermont, Colorado, and UBC may have the best chance of anyone. Losing a big game is often the first step in being able to win a big game later down the road. The crowd, the lights, and the atmosphere are all factors that are impossible to replicate in practice.
Last year, the bright lights may have been the UBC Thunderbirds’ undoing, but this year they are poised to earn a second national title for their school. For starters, they return Madison Ong, Anna Goddu, Mika Kurahashi, Avery Lee-Pii, Miu Shiraiwa, and Helena Tremblay, who all played big minutes for their club team, Team Canada U24, or both. While UBC are not without losses – Oliana Chan, Andrea Moir, and Jessica Liu – come to mind, they recruited multiple Canadian youth standout players to boost their roster. In terms of talent, they can pick up right where they left off from last season, which is a great plus for a college team where turnover is a constant. But it is the experience they gained last year which might give them the edge they need. Less than semifinals would be a disappointment this year.
On the other hand, Colorado Quandary come into this season with significant losses. They lost 42.4% of their positive offensive stat contributors from Nationals3. The roles, both in terms of on- and off-field contributions, of Sai Lostra, Mei Hecht, Bailey Shigley, and Sam Cortright, will be hard to fill. But luckily, that is the great thing about college: when leaders graduate, then others can step up. This year the question is can Clil Phillips, Abbie Gillach, and Sierra Petrash lead the team to a championship? The road for them will be tough given the rising talent around the division and their heavy losses, but it would not be a surprise to see them back in semis.
Vermont Ruckus are another team looking to reach new heights in 2024. All signs point to them being able to make a final or win a championship this year: they return some of their best players, add many YCC/U20 level rookies, add 2021 men’s division coach of the year Liz Leon, and, crucially, have big game experience from last year. In particular, they only lose 18.1% of their positive stat contributors from the College Championships. This level of continuity will be key for them as Pleiades and Colorado both lose significantly more than them4. In addition, their rookies, while they might not be their best players, will certainly lighten the load on the Vermont stars — Caroline Stone, Kennedy McCarthy, Emily Pozzy, and Mae Browning — earlier in the tournament. All these factors together make it almost impossible for me to see a world where they do not make semis – and give them more than a puncher’s chance of taking the championship from the three-time champs.
The Great American West
Enough with the potential title contenders; after all, everyone knows the real drama in college ultimate is who will get the bids to Nationals in the first place.5 Now while the final USAU bid allocations won’t be decided until some two-plus months from now, that doesn’t stop us from speculating where the chips may lie come the end of the regular season. And, if history (and our preseason power rankings) is any indication, by season’s end it might just be best to be out west.
We don’t have to look back far to find evidence of western dominance: in 2023 the Northwest, South Central, and the Southwest made up fully half of the Nationals field with four, three, and three bids respectively. While yes, by name, the South Central isn’t a western region, with Colorado and Texas teams claiming all of the region’s bids since 2016, the case can be made well enough regardless of the nominal designation.
Still, if we want to be particular and keep it to those more purely western regions, the Northwest and Southwest haven’t combined for fewer than five bids between them since the 2011 redraw — and that was in 2021 when the NW lost a third bid to the Ohio Valley on a tiebreak. At their peak, the two took an incredible nine bids in 2014 (six to the Northwest and three to the Southwest) and there’s a distinct chance they could reach those heights again this season.
In the preseason power rankings, an incredible nine of the top fifteen teams hailed from either the Northwest or the Southwest region. The aforementioned UBC lead the Cascadia pack at #3 overall, followed by #6 Oregon, #8 Washington, #14 Western Washington, and #15 Victoria, with #9 BYU repping the Big Sky Conference. For the Southwest, #5 Stanford take charge ahead of #10 UC Santa Barbara and #13 UC San Diego, a smaller core but one that seems as likely as ever to capture at least three bids for an eighth season running. If we opt to welcome back the South Central, all that does is add #3 Colorado and #12 Colorado State, for a grand total of eleven teams across the three regions. Whew.
The caveat to all of this, of course, is that history isn’t inherently predictive, and preseason power rankings are even worse. There’s no guarantee that all eleven of those teams will be as good as we think they are at the moment, and, with the arbitrary line of fifteen, we conveniently ignore the fact that from #16-25 there’s all of one western team in the power rankings — #24 UC Davis. And yet, whether based on seasons a year ago or a decade ago, on projections now and into the future, the best of the west seem certain to give a real test to the best of the rest in 2024.
The Power of the Duo
Ultimate is a collaborative game. Not all team sports require players to work together but synergy is a core component of the sport we play. That’s why it can feel so electric when its clear two players are on the same wavelength as each other. They hear the same rhythm and turn our field sport into a dance. Some of the most exciting college games of all time have come from the connection of two core players tearing up the field together.
In 2024, the power of the one-two punch has never felt stronger. There are deep teams in the division, perhaps deeper than it’s been in a long time, but the power of indomitable duos is still transfixing to watch, and worth looking out for. Whether it’s Lia Schwartz and Emily Kemp on Tufts, Quincy Booth and Fiona Cashin on Georgia, or Julia Hasbrook and Devin Quinn on UC Santa Barbara, even the best of teams have two players that seem to only have eyes for each other. Playing defense against teams with this chemistry is almost impossible. Throws are put up not because the player is open, but because they trust the receiver knows where the disc is headed.
The duos that can operate with each other in the open field are deadly, but where they really shine is in the end zone. Especially at the college level, defenses are not equipped to shut down two players that decide to go every-other with each other. Given enough space to operate, there’s not much a team can do to stop two athletes from getting open in some area of the field and working off of what has been given to them. The full field is where duos can shine, but the end zone is where they seal the game. Look for them to define the women’s division this season.
Desperate for a Second Bid
Every year, come May, it feels like there are never enough bids to go around. The algorithm gives and takes; some regions will be blessed with a multitude of bids and some teams will find themselves left out in the cold. With the return of the Evil Empire heralded by 2023’s four-bid Northwest, the competition will be even fiercer in 2024. Without further ado, let’s take a survey of the regions on the hunt for a second bid.
Atlantic Coast and South Central: Home to two of the best teams in the division, any team but UNC and Colorado in these two regions will need to earn a strength bid if they want to secure potential passage to Nationals. The good news is both regions have teams prepared to rise to the challenge. In the AC, Virginia leads the charge, followed closely by NC State, who just recruited sixth-year Ellen Yu to add some firepower to an experienced team. For the South Central, both Colorado State and UT Dallas return the core that took them far in 2023. Come May, the chances are good these two regions will be well-represented at Nationals.
Great Lakes and Ohio Valley: These two regions share a similar story: they’re competitive at the top and desperate for a second bid to ease the pressure of regionals. For the Great Lakes, Notre Dame, Chicago and Michigan are evenly matched but far from strength bid territory. In the Ohio Valley, Pittsburgh leads the pack with Pennsylvania, Ohio State, and surprise 2023 Nationals team Carnegie Mellon on their heels. Despite how closely contested these teams are, both regions finished 2023 far getting a second bid. They will need to have breakout performances from multiple teams during the regular season to stand a chance of earning the coveted second bid.
Southeast: Georgia come into the season as the dominant force in the Southeast. Their Nationals experience combined with retaining one of the most dynamic duos in the division, Quincy Booth and Fiona Cashin, will make them the heavy favorites to take the automatic bid. That means one of Georgia’s closest competitors, Florida, Tennessee, and Florida State, will likely need to earn a strength bid to go to Madison. Unfortunately, the Southeast’s contender class simply doesn’t seem like it reaches high enough to be in strength bid earning territory. They’ll need some quality wins on their resume to have a chance of getting a second bid.
North Central: Carleton reign over the North Central with an iron fist, having won the last six regional titles. If another North Central team wants a spot at Nationals, they’ll have to earn it with a second bid. Minnesota make a strong case for being the most likely bid-earner, having given Carleton a challenge in the game-to-go last season. If they can keep up this performance against top teams, there’s a chance they can snag another bid. Wisconsin didn’t have the best 2023 season, but a strong rookie class and a robust spring schedule that will see them travel from coast to coast may be just enough to put them over.
Metro East: Last season, for one glorious moment, the Metro East clung on to two bids. That didn’t last long but you can be sure they’ll be trying again this year. Yale and SUNY Binghamton are the frontrunners in the region and most likely to earn a strength bid. Both will attend Commonwealth Cup and East Coast Invite this year, giving them plenty of opportunities to increase their rank and confidence with sanctioned games against quality opponents. Cornell could be a dark horse for the Metro East. Their strong results at New York Minute indicate the Wild Roses are having an up year and they’ll have a chance to prove it at East Coast Invite. Don’t be surprised if you see a couple of Metro East teams in Madison this year.
Players to Watch
Erica Birdsong (UNC)
In the past two-and-a-half seasons, we’ve seen Erica Birdsong grow from a freshman with potential to one of the most imposing bigs in the division. And with Pleiades graduating some of their key offensive players, this is the year Birdsong gets the keys to the O-line. She is a do-it-all and dunk-on-you type of player with great timing and throws that are improving exponentially.6 As UNC look to pull off the historic four-peat, Birdsong will be a crucial player.
Devin Quinn (UC Santa Barbara)
No player comes into the college season as a finished product, but with Devin Quinn’s size and ability, no one would have been blamed for watching her rookie season and thinking she was already at her apex. Instead, every year of Quinn’s college career has been an “oh, there’s more” experience. It’s comparable to the first time people saw that Godzilla also had a nuclear cannon up its sleeve. With a rare blend of height, coordination, and field awareness, Quinn unlocks new dimensions on the field for UCSB that force defenses to adjust or be bowled over. UCSB has now developed a reputation for playing deep into the postseason and you can bet Quinn’s going to play a major part in that if they do it again in 2024.
Quincy Booth (Georgia)
Booth burst onto the college scene last season as an instant impact player for Georgia. Though she is only in her second year of college, Booth already has a wealth of experience in high-level ultimate. She was the youngest player at 2019 Club Nationals and has spent multiple years being a top contributor for Atlanta Ozone. Her ability to operate as both the central handler and shutdown difficult defensive match-ups speak to the incredible talent she brings to the field on both sides of the disc. For Georgia, Booth is a conduit for their offense. She can distribute the disc at will to any corner of the field and her deep shots keep defenses on their toes. As Georgia aim to continue their nationals streak, there’s no better player to have at the helm than Quincy Booth.
Aria Kischner (Carleton)
Now entering into her senior season, Kischner has grown into a premier offensive threat. Her biggest strength is her versatility. She can initiate against the best defenders; she can throw punishing continues; she can guard the other team’s best player, and she can also dunk on people.7. While Carleton might not be in the title conversation right now, as long as they have Kischner, don’t count them out.
Lia Schwartz (Tufts)
Irrefutably, the best defender in college ultimate is the wind. So when there’s a player who has throws that cut through the wind so sharply that you almost forget it’s there, well that’s the type of player you’d want to keep an eye on all season. The wind’s not the only one that struggles to shut down Lia Schwartz. She has every throw in the book and can reliably find her cutters at any point on the field if they’re open. After losing a talented graduating class, Tufts are going to rely a lot on Schwartz to make offense out of nothing; it’s a good thing she’s more than capable of doing that multiple times a game.
Madison Ong (UBC)
Madison Ong is the type of player that makes a coach grimace when they’re trying to match up their defenders against her. Sure, the obvious answer would be to put your best defender on her, but if she’s just going to get the disc anyway, is it really worth putting your best defender on a platter like that? Ong makes defense a problem because she plays like the defense isn’t there. After years of youth, college, and club experience, Ong knows how to position herself on the field to be open when her team needs it. There’s not much more you can ask from a star at any level of the game.
Savanna Tucker (Washington)
With 2023 Callahan winner Abby Hecko off and graduated, Washington will need someone to step up to replace her production this year, but they might already have that player ready-made in Savanna Tucker. At the 2023 College Championships, Tucker was Element’s second-leading scorer behind Hecko and it frankly wasn’t all that close. With twelve goals total, she nearly doubled her next closest teammate (Amber Lee, with seven) and added a clean half-dozen blocks as well. Tucker’s two-way efficiency was elite at times in 2023, and while the loss of Hecko will certainly smart for Washington, Element should be able to rest easy knowing one of their standout seniors looks on track for a breakout season.
Elise Freedman (Northeastern)
Fresh off winning a club title with Boston Brute Squad, Elise Freedman is ready to lead Northeastern to another successful season. Freedman’s star has been steadily rising over the past few seasons and after 2023, there’s no doubt she’s among the division’s best. She is a crucial centerpiece for Northeastern with her elite athleticism, uncanny ability to dismantle defenses, and natural game sense. With Clara Stewart graduated, Freedman will have the keys to the offense and be even more instrumental to Northeastern’s success this year.
Abbie Gillach (Colorado)
Entering her junior year with Quandary, Abbie Gillach has steadily improved to be one of Quandary’s best players. She is a tenacious defender, often tasked with guarding the other team’s best player. On offense, she is a consistent outlet with her ability to get open and has some excellent throws as well. While other players might light up the stat sheet more, Gillach does the small things right that helps her team succeed.
Dori Gaines (Virginia)
Dori Gaines is quickly becoming a household name in the Atlantic Coast region. The Virginia senior has a reputation for being an athletic downfield threat and dogged defender. Gaines’ intensity and grit on the field earned her a spot on our All-Effort line last season. As Virginia vies for a second bid, Gaines’ experience and skill will be crucial to their success this season.
Mae Browning (Vermont)
It’s rare for a transfer player to make an immediate major impact, and yet there was Mae Browning at Nationals last May, leading Vermont in both assists and blocks after making the move from Washington. Browning plays with such poise and confidence that you wouldn’t guess that she was just a sophomore when she was doing things like this in a national semifinal.
With Vermont’s roster only getting better around her after an already spectacular debut for the New England champs, look for Browning to be at the center of everything good once again for Vermont.
Macy Vollbrecht (Stanford)
It seems unfair to call someone with so much poise already a ‘rising star’ but that’s exactly what Macy Vollbrecht is. Stanford badly needed a secondary field marshal in 2023 and Vollbrecht filled that role with aplomb. Superfly have an ability to raise the ceiling of every player that goes through their program, so Vollbrecht arriving with such polish already set her in good stead. With another year under her belt, Vollbrecht is the puzzle piece that can morph to fill the gaps left by Stanford’s 2023 graduates.
You’re All Underrating…
More often than not in recent years, Carleton Syzygy have been on the brink of something great. They have dominant showings in the regular season, only to lose single bracket games at Nationals that really matter. Consistency is key and Syzygy do this well. They fight tooth and nail in each and every game they play and never can be counted fully out until the game ends. And with a majority of their top stats-getters returning this season, including Tori Gray, Naomi Fina, and Mia Beeman-Weber, not to mention a depth of countless others who make regular valuable contributions on the field, Carleton are in a good spot to make yet another deep bracket run come Nationals. – Laura Osterlund
While BYU are universally acknowledged as a strong team, I think we are all underestimating their top-five potential. BYU have a bevy of playmakers such as Kate Barry, Olivia Munns, and Autumn Saunders who have years of experience playing together and undeniable chemistry. This year, they added Nikki Merrill, a transfer from Utah State and Utah Wild practice player who is sure to bring speed and intensity to their offense. And BYU proved at Santa Barbara Invite last season they can hang with the best in the division by going unbroken and undefeated. Though we may not see BYU at Nationals, get hyped for them to make waves this season. – Felicia Zheng
UC Santa Barbara
Sports fans are notorious for having short memories, and in UCSB’s case, it’s clear that people seem to have forgotten that this team made back-to-back semifinal appearances in 2021 and 2022. While yes, this roster is not those rosters, the Burning Skirts bring back basically all of their key contributors from 2023, and add 2022 D-III All-American Sophia Havranek (Occidental) to boot. You’re telling me that a team with Havranek alongside Julia Hasbrook, Devin Quinn, Laura Blume, and Vienna Lee is going to miss out on at least a quarterfinal appearance for a second year running? Sounds like bulletin board material to me. – Jenna Weiner
If you want to pick a team from outside the top five most likely to win a title in the next four years, I would pick Oregon. They have some of the best young players in the game in Trout Weybright, Syris Linkfield, and Acacia Hahn. Their depth is only getting better. While this might not be their championship year, they will be laying the groundwork for one in the coming seasons. They are young and hungry, and they have lots to prove; it will be exciting to see how high they can climb this year. – Grace Conerly
You may be tending to write-off Washington Element after they graduated Player of the Year Abby Hecko and top handler Amy Nguyen, but you’d be making a mistake if you do, as no team adds more talent to their 2023 Nationals roster (which lost only to the two finalists) than Washington. The place to start is with the 2024 ROTY8 Lauren Goddu, who is now back to full strength after battling injuries. Their #2 star from 2023, Anna Cauchy, is back for a sixth year. Few teams will be able to match the combination of speed, hops, and throws of those two. Throw in second seasons from Jessica Luu and Anna Pettis, as well as debuts from Kelly Tam, Lily LeDonne, and Ciona Antolin – and all of a sudden you have all the elements9 of a bracket-destroying force. – Scott Dunham
After losing Clara Stewart in 2023, a lot of folks started selling their stock in Northeastern. Sure, Stewart was a do-it-all handler for the team in a way that elevated them beyond their predicted ceiling, but the team was never a one-person army. Elise Freedman is poised to have a breakout year (if you don’t already count her 2023 season for that) and Britney DeRoehn is more than capable of putting up points in big games. Add Elyse Hall to that lineup and suddenly the fall of the Valkyries seems a lot less preordained. Dare I say they might even ride? – Graham Gerhart
The Current Power Rankings
College D-I Women's Power Rankings:
Stanford has staged two three-peats in their time ↩
[goals+assists+ds from graduates]/team total] ↩
40.46% for Pleiades and 42.4% for Colorado, data unavailable for UBC. ↩
Editor’s note: sorry, had to. ↩