Weighing Player Retention vs. Programmatic Success in the D-III Women’s Div.

With historically top teams losing talent while upstarts retain stars, which will prevail in the 2024 D-III Women's Division?

Wellesley's Tess Dolan (right, holding a frisbee) is marked by St. Olaf's Leina Goto in quarterfinals of the 2023 D-III College Ultimate Frisbee Championships. Photo: Kevin Wayner - UltiPhotos.com
Wellesley’s Tess Dolan is marked by St. Olaf’s Leina Goto in quarterfinals of the 2023 D-III College Championships. Photo: Kevin Wayner – UltiPhotos.com

Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2024 college 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.

Turnover is a fact in college ultimate. With D-III consisting mainly of liberal arts schools due to the 7,500 student cap, it’s rare to have a fifth- or sixth-year in the division. Despite the rise in YCC and high school players, most D-III women’s teams consist predominantly of players with minimal to no ultimate experience when they join. As a result, institutional knowledge and on-field chemistry built by captains and coaches can make an outsized difference.

We’ve seen two types of schools since the pandemic. The first, those that came out of the gate quickly at Fall 2021 Nationals in Middlebury, Carleton, Portland, and Wellesley, and have continued to dominate. These teams had a high retention of game changers for the last three seasons and produced ten of the last 12 semifinalists.1 Come 2024, these perennial semifinalists are starting to lose some key players to graduation and aren’t retooling at the same rate.

On the other side, there are a few rising teams who seem to be hitting their stride this season. St. Olaf, Williams, and Bates are all large programs working their way back to pre-pandemic form, while a few newer teams on the D-III scene are on the rise in Whitman and Colorado College.

Will 2024 finally be the year we see a new guard replacing the post-pandemic juggernauts, or will institutional knowledge and experience prevail? We’ll be exploring this season’s outlook for these two sets of teams; specifically, Portland and Wellesley’s recent success weighed against St. Olaf and Whitman’s high retention.

The Team Makes the Players

While neither Portland nor Wellesley broke through to a national final the past three seasons, both have found great success, each notching two semis appearances and a runner-up finish since 2021. Those non-semi years included a T-5 finish in 2022 for Portland and a year off in 2021 for Wellesley. But almost four years after the pandemic, both are starting to see turnover in their top talent.

Wellesley lost eight players to graduation, headlined by 2023 Donovan winner Tess Dolan and key players like Leah Black, Jenny Chan, Becky Chen, and Danika Heaney. While they retain ten vets, including Bella Steedly, a phenomenal player who could easily make the POTY list, and Annika Wolberg, these losses are a lot for any team to overcome, even with the 2022 Coaches of the Year.

“We don’t talk about whether it’s a ‘rebuilding year,’” Wellesley coaches Marshall Goff and Scott Gatto shared in an email. “Our job isn’t to ‘replace’ those players, but to help new and returning players grow in their own way, and to help each iteration of the team find itself. Regardless of the previous year’s results, we try to keep the same mentality.”

For the Whiptails, finding themselves looks like team-wide goal setting and mental resilience discussions which pave the team’s path for the season. With goals in hand, they focus on their processes during the work of the regular season, realizing the outcome of that work is achievements like high finishes in the Series.

“Process work includes skill building, Xs and Os, and figuring out roles on this year’s team,” Goff and Gatto added. “But also topics like how we can foster effective communication on and off the field, how to work together as a team to solve problems and how to have the sometimes hard conversations required in team building.”

Even the pandemic, which has generally been seen as a detriment to smaller schools and less-established women’s programs2, was reframed in a positive light, with Goff saying, “the pandemic created separation from some team traditions [and] enabled the team to establish new ones.”

Either way, Goff and Gatto find joy that “each year’s team is a new group of great people working together.”

Portland’s story is similar, losing 10 players from their 2023 roster, including key contributors in Makaley Kruger and Mairead McManus. That said, UPRoar do retain a few bigger names than Wellesley, including two players who could easily dominate this season: Julianna “JJ” Galian and Hayden Ashley. Galian looks like a POTY contender and has an extra year of building chemistry with a key distributor in Ashley.

Like Wellesley, Portland also benefits from a stellar coaching staff, with COTY first runner-up in 2021 and 2023. All together, Portland could retool quickly and return to form in 2024. We got our first taste of the new Portland team at D-III Grand Prix. While they lost twice to Whitman, Portland notched an impressive against Carleton and Colorado College on their way to a second place.

For teams with proven recent success like Portland and Wellesley, the institutional knowledge and mental toughness is there, but is the depth of talent after big roster turnover?

The Players Make the Team

On the opposite side of this scale are St. Olaf and Whitman, two teams with limited success since 2021 but poised to break through and make a deep bracket run in 2024. Both performed around the middle of the pack at 2023 Nationals, but looked good overall and recorded solid wins.

While St. Olaf made the semifinal in 2022, they missed Nationals entirely in 2021. St. Olaf brought a very young team to Obetz last season and managed to place T-7 with close wins against Mount Holyoke and Haverford/Byrn Mawr alongside a 15-10 loss to a Wellesley team that looked poised to win the entire tournament.

Losing only four players to graduation, with the biggest loss being Annika Challgren, Vortex will also be missing Unni Isaksen in 2024, their 2023 Nationals assist leader. But St. Olaf retains Leina Goto, a big name talent and stat sheet dominator, and benefits from Minnesota’s lengthy youth ultimate pipeline, with three new players with YCC experience in Julia Mockert, Rachel Katzovitz, and Alexia Swiglo joining the team. Another past YCC player, Erica Collin, looks to step into a larger role in her third year on Vortex.

St. Olaf’s three captains, Grace Milhaupt, Emi Mulhern, and Ellie McDonald, are known commodities in the division. They bring experience and dynamic strengths on both sides of the disc, with Milhaupt a D-line handler, Mulhern an O-line handler, and McDonald an O-line cutter.

And they’re well aware of their high retention: “Not only are we fortunate enough to have a lower turnover rate this season, but we also welcomed an experienced rookie class,” Milhaupt, Mulhern, and McDonald said. The Vortex captains highlighted Maggie Walsh, a newer but reliable D-line cutter, Julianna Eno, another D-line cutter who loves to layout, and Hannah Omodt, a senior D-line handler who will join Milhaupt in the handler set.

In the pursuit of building chemistry up and down their roster, Vortex have already attended two fall tournaments and are focused on directed coaching following their four week J-term.3 “We’ve been very lucky to be able to dig into our systems sooner than we’ve been able to in past years,” the captains added.

While it could be easy for Vortex to get caught up in the hype surrounding them in 2024, St. Olaf is trying to maintain a steady ship.

“Mental toughness is a big tenet of our team culture, so our main focus of the season will be to find the right balance between playing in the moment and looking towards the future at the same time,” said Vortex’s captains. “From a rankings standpoint, we are very grateful and take pride in being in the position that we currently have, but we also remain confident in the fact that these teams, like us, will no doubt do whatever they can in order to make a run for the national championship.

“[Vortex] are planning to spend the beginning of our competitive season focused on solidifying our sets and building confidence in our abilities as a team, with the goal of showing up at Nationals ready to play our best game.”

Whitman shares a similar narrative to St. Olaf – minimal turnover, retention of big name talents in Gemma Munck and Gabbie Campbell, a big youth scene to leverage for immediate contributors, and a mid-tier finish at tenth for 2023 Nationals. While they didn’t pull out victories against the top half of the tournament like St. Olaf, they had tight losses to Wellesley, Colorado College, and Haverford/Bryn Mawr.

Munck is the type of player who dominates the field, requiring the other team to put their best defender on her. Even when this happens, like in the D-III Grand Prix final against Portland where Munck drew the Julianna Galian matchup4, Munck still dominated the stat sheet and the field with 3G/3A/1D.

The Sweets seem to be on an upward trend with the aforementioned Munck and Campbell, but beyond big-name players, the Sweets benefit from an incredibly high skill floor. They retain Ollie Fox while gaining Leah Uhlman and Juliette Silvers, who were teammates on the 2022 Seattle Seven Hills YCC team.

For younger teams with high retention like St. Olaf and Whitman, team and player chemistry can make the difference in tight games against juggernaut teams like Middlebury or Carleton. We got our first taste of this narrative at D-III Grand Prix, which saw recent success teams Portland and Carleton College Eclipse finish second and third, bookended by retention teams, tournament champions Whitman and fourth placed Colorado College.

Since 2021, the teams at the top had both recent high performance AND retention. At least at the outset, 2024 is the first season since the pandemic’s onset that those strong teams finally seem to have some chinks in their armor. D-III Grand Prix is just the start of the season, but it promises 2024 could be anyone’s year. It’ll be exciting to watch how it all plays out.

  1. And consider Wellesley did not compete in the 2021 Fall Season, so were unable to be a semifinalist in that season 

  2. And indeed impacted Wellesley more than many, with the team not able to compete in the Fall 2021 season. 

  3. St. Olaf has a third, smaller term during January that is a popular time for students to study abroad 

  4. A formidable defender, Galian was the DPOTY First Runner Up in 2023 

  1. Anna Browne
    Anna Browne

    Anna Browne is a writer for the D-III Women's Division. She has been playing competitive ultimate since 2019, spending her college years at Michigan Tech. Anna is based in Detroit, Michigan where she plays in the Women's Club Division and coaches the Michigan Tech Superior Ma's.


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