Stellar Play: Analyzing Stars and Depth in College Ultimate

College teams look to build depth throughout the season as they rely on stars for success

SUNY-Binghamton’s Jolie Krebs against Colorado State at the 2023 D-I College Championships. Photo: Kevin Leclaire –

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.

In the club division, players have the luxury of choosing which teams they want to play for. Just this past season stars like Jack Williams and Ryan Osgar switched from Raleigh Ring of Fire to New York PoNY and Thomas Edmonds made the move from Pittsburgh Temper to Washington DC Truck Stop. Robyn Fennig commuted from California to play for a team based in Wisconsin (a few years after commuting from Madison to Washington DC to play for Scandal), and San Francisco Fury have a habit of pulling in top talent from Southern California despite the considerable drive between the two population centers. Because adults are free to choose to spend their time commuting across the country (or the border in the cases of Molly Brown’s Manuela and Valeria Cárdenas or Chicago Machine’s Connor McHale and Malik Auger-Semmar), so called “super teams” can form, combining the best talent into a team with stars even at what we call depth positions – namely, players who predominantly play on D-lines or in less featured roles on offense.

In the college division, players cannot typically choose where they want to play.1 Many teams get lucky in the admissions process and roster one or two genuine stars, but it takes a lot of time and effort for the best teams to nurture and develop a full two-plus lines worth of contributors, especially when many athletes are still picking up the sport in college. Some teams are never quite able to do it and rely on their top-end talent to soak up more points and touches than might be necessary on a more well rounded team in the club “super team” model. While some of that is simply how the sport is played at the highest level – even North Carolina Darkside, the depthiest of depth teams, played Ben Dameron, Kevin Pignone, and Dylan Hawkins both ways when games mattered most last season – some over-reliance on stars is also an admission that a team is top-heavy.

Of course, stars are lauded for a reason. Sometimes, they’re just good enough to take a team pretty far on their own. Remember 2016 Harvard’s John Stubbs-inspired romp through the Nationals bracket, or more recently Washington’s 2021 trip to the National final courtesy of Abby Hecko’s brilliance. In the college divisions especially, it’s possible for a team with one or two top players to beat a team whose 8th-30th best players might be more playable in big games. That being said, games and championships are not won by Instagram roster release graphics. As we begin the competitive college season, team strategies take shape. The tug-or-war between top-to-bottom good teams and teams that are top-heavy with a few stars will define this college season.

Shoot for the Stars

Brown Brownian Motion

Among the star-reliant teams, Brown Brownian Motion have had the most success in the last half decade. With at least two of Mac Hecht, John Randolph, Jacques Nissen, and Leo Gordon taking the reins between 2018 and 2024, B-Mo have consistently found themselves among the best teams in the country despite needing to rely on those top players to play more than the typical share of points in a given game. While other top teams will rotate who receives the first few touches of a point in an effort to keep defenses honest, Brown often centered the disc to Nissen and isolated Gordon as the initiating look. When they deviated from that, it was a set play that looked something like this (a Gordon to Nissen huck):

(video clip of UNC/Brown QF from 2023 Nationals 20:13).

But their typical offense looks more like the following clip in which they really concentrate touches against a poachy scheme in Nissen and Gordon’s hands. With both players returning this season, expect much of the same from Brown; it’s hard to argue when both are expected to be All-American candidates and Nissen is the preseason favorite to win Player of the Year.

(same game, 117:24)

Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur

Staying in the men’s division, Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur have evolved into this model in recent seasons, pushing Henry Ing, Tristan Yarter, Scott Heyman, and Aiden Landis to play both ways in hopes their talent can bring success that other players on the roster could not replicate. Take a look at the clip below; on their first D-point, Pitt cross over Ing, Landis, and Heyman. Heyman gets a bit lucky to come away with the block, but wastes no time getting the counterattack going. Landis hucks the disc to Yarter, and Pitt scores quickly.

(video clip of Pitt/UVM QF from 2023 Nationals, 9:16)

With a smaller roster, quick-strike scores have become Pitt’s MO. Multiple times throughout the game, they set up set-play hucks in an effort to end points sooner and reduce the wear on their stars’ legs. Sometimes this works, while other times it doesn’t. In the same game, Pitt sent two hucks to nobody because the set-play receiver took the underneath space instead of running out a covered deep look. Vermont had those plays scouted and set up appropriate help defense to deter the one look they knew Pitt wanted. There was also one play when it was so obvious that the throw was going to Ing that the mark was able to jump the route and hand block the throw. Such are the downsides of playing with stars, though, as you’ll see below, they typically help more than they hurt.

(video clip of Pitt/UVM from 2023 Nationals, 25:35)

(And at 1:27:50)

Other men’s D-I teams likely to employ this model include Oregon Ego and Cal Ursa Major. With Mica Glass now firmly in the drivers’ seat, Oregon will ride his two-way prowess as far as it will go; Ego once famously took a team of just fifteen players to the national championship game – they’re no stranger to this kind of playstyle. Staying on the west coast, Cal take the stars concept to the extreme,2 deploying Dexter Clyburn as the deep defender in a zone to allow him to play so many points without burning his legs. And it works. Though they were left out of the strength bid picture last season, Cal made their way into the bracket at Nationals each of the last two seasons, pulling off upsets at Nationals over Minnesota, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin along the way.

The commonalities all of these teams bring to the table: they’re comfortable playing zone defense to rest their stars’ legs and they look to score as quickly as possible no matter their location on the field. It helps having players with powerful throws, but it also takes a commitment from everybody on the team to hold the right spaces available and time deep runs appropriately for this system to work.

Over in the Women’s Division, UC Santa Barbara have made a strong run over the past half decade or so based on the play of their stars. Despite always having a large team, UCSB don’t mind putting their best players on the field point after point after point. They made back-to-back semifinal appearances in 2021 and 2022 thanks to their key playmakers. Audrey Brown, Jasmine Childress, Julia Kwasnick, Kaitlyn Weaver, and Elsa Winslow all wore burning skirts before giving way to today’s Julia Hasbrook, Devin Quinn, and Laura Blume. At Nationals last season, Quinn led the division in goals while Hasbrook finished second in assists. Hasbrook actually totaled 31 assists…out of the team’s 61 points over the entire tournament. That’s more than half of the team’s total! Those three are sure to play plenty of points this season along with 6th year grad-transfer Sophie Havranek as UCSB look to get back to the semifinal round once again and build the next generation of stars in the process.

Of course, any conversation about star-based play would be incomplete without acknowledging Dartmouth’s 2015-2019 run featuring a small but mighty roster including roughly three at a time of Jack Verzuh, Claire Trop, Julianna Werffeli, Angela Zhu, Caroline Tornquist, and Caitlyn Lee. In that time they won two titles and made an additional National final. The team that upended that dynasty: UC San Diego, who similarly have a history of finding and playing through a small cadre of talented players. Their 2019 title run featured an ensemble cast of Dena Elimelech, Kelli Iwamoto, Avery Jones, and Alex Diaz. Just a few years later, D.Co were finding success with Ava Hanna launching hucks to Abby Shilts… and five other players on the field. This year, it’ll be Margot Nissen looking to find Shilts, and the two of them will need to be playing at a high level to get UC San Diego back to Nationals after missing out last season.

SUNY Binghamton’s Jolie Krebs

The 2023 Nationals field featured a number of impressive stars playing for teams who likewise needed every ounce of energy they could muster. Chief among them, SUNY-Binghamton’s Jolie Krebs assisted on 29 out of the team’s 56 goals (52%) at Nationals. The Binghamton offense uses Krebs as a fulcrum; that is to say everything goes through her. In the following clip, Krebs picks up the disc and proceeds to make six throws including the assist. The rest of the team combined makes seven throws.

(2023 Nationals CSU/Bing Pool Play, 6:30)

Northeastern’s Clara Stewart

Northeastern’s Clara Stewart had similar usage to Krebs (she had 26 assists out of her team’s 51 points at Nationals). In this clip, Northeastern is playing against Carleton’s zone defense. The Valkyries collectively throw the disc 20 times (including one throw that goes back on a pick). Stewart is involved in all but five of those throws (four if you don’t count the one that got sent back) and throws the assist.

(2023 Nationals PreQ vs Carleton 13:30)

Both Binghamton and Northeastern set their strategies and offensive priorities to get the disc in their best thrower’s hand as much as possible. The more throws their very talented stars make, the more likely any given throw goes upfield or to the end zone…in other words, the better their chances of scoring. Rather than rely on set plays to facilitate one- or two-throw scores as the star-based Men’s Division teams did last season, Binghamton and Northeastern concentrated their higher volume of throws in the hands of their best thrower.

Though we’ve focused so far on a handful of players per team, every team needs to put seven players on the field at a time. And every team needs well more than seven to get through a full college season of long tournaments. Stars will still dominate gameplay and our conversations – even Massachusetts Men’s (Wyatt Kellman, Caelan McSweeney) and UNC women’s (Dawn Culton and Erica Birdsong) have players who stand out among their peers – but the crux of the college game is leveraging the strengths of star players while developing a well-rounded team around them in order to succeed. Clyburn isn’t great for Cal without six other players mastering their spots in the famed CalZone. Nissen and Gordon can’t hold down the fort for Brown without players like Cal Nightingale and Elliott Rosenberg to round out a backfield weave. Role players like Maxwell Oleson (Pitt En Sabah Nur), Nadia Scoppettone (Vermont Ruckus), Camden Mah (Cal Ursa Major), and Phoenix Adams (Oregon Fugue), just to name a few, will all have much to say about their teams respective seasons…just perhaps not as much as Henry Ing or Kennedy McCarthy might.

“It’s Not Fun When You Don’t Play”

Massachusetts Zoodisc

“The priority of this team truly is to have fun,” Massachusetts Zoodisc captain Wyatt Kellman said after last season’s semifinal win over Cal Poly SLO. “It’s not fun when you don’t play.”

The two Men’s Division finalists from last season, Massachusetts and North Carolina, praise the depth of their roster. All season long, Zoodisc insisted they trusted every player on the team, and indeed every player got significant playing time in the bracket at Nationals. Down late in their quarterfinal against Texas, the UMass coaching staff had no problem sending out their D-line for a crucial hold – a time when many coaches would have called a timeout to rest their stars and send out their top seven.

“One of the strengths of this team is our depth,” Kellman said in that same press conference. “We can run out line after line after line of super athletic, super skilled throwers who are just going to do the right thing…when other teams slow down, we keep going at the same pace.”

Just so you can picture what Kellman was saying, take a look at the clip below in which UMass sends out a line without Jonah Stang-Osborne, their usual D-line QB. Kellman plays as a deep defender in the junk set and knocks down a hammer; then the machine goes to work. Six different players touch the disc as UMass scores a break to tie the game. After giving up multiple early breaks, UMass didn’t rely solely on their stars to claw back into the game; instead they let all of their players play.

(clip of UMass/Texas QF from 2023 Nationals, 23:56)

North Carolina Darkside

Aside from a few marquee matchups in late regular season tournaments, UNC Darkside will play the majority of their season without being truly tested. Darkside have been known to give rookies some run on the O-line against lower-ranked competition to ensure they have the reps necessary to improve their skills for the one or two points they may be needed in a bracket game at Nationals. Darkside’s D-lines are taught to play an efficient style of offense that produces break scores better than any other team in the division, and they execute it extremely well. Their play style relies on timing and chemistry more than raw skill, allowing players to be nearly interchangeable once they master the “run the ball” system popular in the Triangle area. See in this clip below how the D-line offense doesn’t throw a single pass more than seven yards upfield as it marches in for a game opening break, even as the defense is aggressively fronting downfield cutters. Whether looking for All-American talent like Matt McKnight or less heralded players like Grayson Trowbridge or Daniel Zhu, Darkside just move the disc quickly and earn a straightforward scoring opportunity.

(UNC/Georgia 2023 Nationals Pool Play, 5:52)

One could argue that Darkside are stars-foward, with All-American candidates like McKnight, Rutledge Smith, Ben Dameron, Dylan Hawkins, Josh Singleton, and Noah Krumme headlining the roster…but that’s too many stars to be purely a star-driven team. We haven’t even touched on emerging playmakers like Eli Fried, Sam Redinbo, and Luke Duan. I wrote that whole list and somehow left off 2022 Callahan Award nominee Andrew Li. I think you get the point: UNC is a deep team, and their know-how and leadership figuring out when to deploy what kind of depth is a big reason they haven’t missed a National semifinal since 2013.

Besides the top-level juggernauts, when we think of depth teams, the first things that come to mind are teams who consistently punch above their expectations. A plucky underdog team led by one star might get some intriguing results, but that level of success won’t be sustainable. Truly deep teams can win with different iterations of their roster year after year and aren’t reliant on the health of one player to carry them through a tournament or a season.

Stanford Superfly have a handful of stars in Esther Filipek, Sage McGinley-Smith, and Anna Fisher Lopez, but the real star of their team is the potency of their zone defense and simple offensive systems. Superfly can put out any seven of their players and have a reasonable chance at getting a good scoring opportunity because of their collective discipline and the effectiveness of the systems their coaching staff implements.

Virginia Hydra

Likewise, Virginia Hydra have rostered several stars over the years, most recently Kira Flores, but rely on teamwide chemistry, good fundamentals, and collective buy-in to consistently succeed despite not being a traditional power within the sport or residing in a traditional ultimate hotbed. For over a decade, Hydra have incorporated new and unheralded players into their system, and it works: they’ve only missed Nationals twice in the past ten seasons. Take a peek at what Katie Raynolds wrote in her piece on the Virginia program all the way back in 2016:

The system isn’t fancy. Hydra will rarely throw complicated zones or run nuanced set plays. Their weapon of choice is maddeningly patient, disciplined ultimate. They don’t panic in the red zone, they use their full 40 yards across the field, and they hit their open cutters. It sounds simple, but when the stall count climbs and options are limited, Hydra’s offense is a master class in calm.

Let’s check in on Hydra eight seasons later. They still trust every player on the field to fill a role and make the right choices. In the clip below from Nationals last season, Hydra are able to open up a good deep shot for Aviva Kosto. Even though they don’t hit it, the disc is moving to the next open cutter rather than funneling back to a dominant thrower in disadvantageous spots.

(Pool Play at 2023 Nationals against Colorado, 7:03)

In this next clip, Hydra handle the Colorado zone look nicely at the beginning of the point before Quandary switch to a match-up scheme. You can see Flores sizing up a crossfield blade early in the possession. On a team with less trust and more pressure on a star player to “make a play,” she might have thrown it. But on Hydra, Flores can find the next open throw and trust the offense will move forward from there. Compared to the clips above of SUNY-Binghamton and Northeastern, it’s telling that the players are looking for the next best option rather than to get the disc back in the hands of their best player.

(same game, 26:39)

Colorado Quandary and North Carolina Pleiades

Speaking of Quandary, the conversation of stars versus depth becomes most interesting in the cases of Colorado and North Carolina, who benefitted from the COVID eligibility extensions to ride teams full of talented depth the the National title game each of the past two (Colorado) and three (UNC) seasons. Pleiades in the past could put out two full lines of stars – remember when they had all of Alex Barnett, Anne Worth, Grace Conerly, Bridget Mizener, Tyler Smith, and Ella Juengst in addition to the stars on the current roster? – but now are reliant on Dawn Culton, Erica Birdsong, and Theresa Yu as proven vets to carry on their undefeated streak. Colorado could do the same with award nominees Kristen Reed, Sam Cortright, Rachel Wilmoth, Emma Capra, Sai Lostra, Britta Bergstrom, Akane Kleinkopf, and Kenny joining current stars Clil Phillips, Abbie Gillach, Emma Williamson, and Stacy Gaskill.

This season, both title favorites will need to either build up the skill of their younger players to become stars of their own, or manage the transition from a “depth team” to a “star team” in order to succeed. How are they going to play it?

I’d bet in favor of the teams trusting their younger players. Take a look at this clip of the UNC D-line offense against Stanford in last season’s quarterfinal. Culton and Birdsong are stars who are playing, but the counterattack uses all seven players on the field and lasts for over three minutes! That’s way too long for any duo to solely carry a possession. Emily Przykucki plays a central backfield role and Jessica Wu comes up with some big gainers including the goal. Unless you have a direct connection to UNC ultimate, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of Przykucki or Wu before, but Pleiades trust them to play well in a bracket game at Nationals.

(UNC/Stanford QF from 2023 Nationals, 20:45)

As this clip illustrates, trusting depth means giving the disc to D-line cutters against an aggressive zone rather than forcing it back to your stars. And it can work at the highest level. This matchup against Stanford was UNC’s closest game of the season, and still UNC put their depth to work. Given the success they’ve had, it’s hard to question the process.

Stars or Depth

The race to develop talented underclassmen into playable depth has already started. The winners will be playing at Breese Stevens Field on Memorial Day weekend. The losers by then will be thinking about how to improve for 2025.

While the continued success of both UNC programs hints at the need for a certain level of depth, the more spontaneous incandescence of teams like Stubbs’ Harvard and Hecko’s Washington gives hope to teams who haven’t yet found the right combination of players to rely on fully. What makes college ultimate so special is that a player or two actually can carry a team, sometimes knocking off “better” teams in the process. UNC might have the most players in the Top 25 rankings in both divisions, but if Jacques Nissen or Mika Kurahashi or Calvin Stoughton or Trout Weybright has the right game at the right time, it might not matter. After all, we call them “stars” because they shine brighter than everything around them. A deep team without a true star (think about last season’s Minnesota Grey Duck, NC State Alpha, Victoria Vikes, and UCLA BLU) can get to Nationals even in tough regions, but might struggle to get results once there.

That being said, a star can only take a team so far on their own. Stubbs’ Harvard, Hecko’s Washington, and Jack Williams’ 2017 UNC-Wilmington teams all lost in their respective finals. Championship teams will find their balance between relying on star level players and building through a deep roster. The specific makeup of each team will determine how much weight to give to each strategy, and in the end teams that can do both best will probably succeed.

  1. Vermont Team Chill recently made a point of this with a roster release revealing their players’ top choice schools…and not all of them were Vermont 

  2. the team name, Ursa Major, is a constellation after all 

  1. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years. After a stint in Los Angeles coaching high school and college teams, they moved to Chicago to experience real seasons and eat deep dish pizza. You can reach Alex through e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@arubes14).

TAGGED: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

TEAMS: , , , , , , , , , , ,

More from Ultiworld
Comments on "Stellar Play: Analyzing Stars and Depth in College Ultimate"

Find us on Twitter

Recent Comments

Find us on Facebook

Subscriber Exclusives

  • Better Box Score Metrics: WUL Week 3 EDGE
    Subscriber article
  • Out the Back: Ultimate Potpourri
    Subscriber podcast
  • Huckin’ Eh: Conferences and C4UC Recap, Interviews with Prime Pandas and Ninjax
    podcast with bonus segment
  • Huckin’ Eh Subscriber Bonus: Jean-Lévy talks on Building an Ultimate Program
    Subscriber podcast