Picking Team USA (West Coast Tryouts Recap)

Assessing the best players in the US is difficult, but these players made their mark at the western tryouts.

Team USA huddle during the 2022 World Games ultimate frisbee semifinal. Photo: Kevin Leclaire - UltiPhotos.com
Team USA huddle during the 2022 World Games semifinal. Photo: Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com

It has been eight years since the last World Ultimate Championships1 took place and nearly four years since the United States brought their best together to form three teams to compete in the red, white, and blue (and often black dye, too).

The evaluation process is notoriously grueling for players and understandably difficult for those making the personnel decisions. The two-day tryout is a barrage of elite level play and participation, a true test of many of the game’s best. Every player knows the expectation will be for gold medals when they head to Australia and the pressure is on from the beginning.

In that environment, it is exciting to see who rises to the occasion. Pushed to discomfort, into new roles, and unfamiliar territory, it is an experiment with fascinating results. We had the chance to watch half of it — with the other half taking place out east — unfold.

Some Ground Rules: As much as possible, we tried to judge the players solely by what we saw on the field of play at the tryout. It’s impossible to banish preconceived notions of talent and roles entirely, of course, but we did our best. We also considered roles on the field and tiers of play within those roles – this isn’t the World Games where every player needs to be capable of doing everything.

A Big Caveat: There were always three (and sometimes four) fields of action going on at once. That means we only ever saw, at most, 65% of the play at any given moment even with two of us there. We watched a lot of frisbee, but we missed even more. So to those of you reading this who were there and think we’re dead-wrong about someone… you’re probably right.

Locks

  • Khalif El-Salaam
  • Claire Chastain
  • Raphy Hayes
  • Cheryl Hsu
  • Henry Ing
  • Anna Thompson
  • Quinn Finer
  • Dena Elimelech

Say hello to the core of your 2024 Team USA teams! These eight players all effectively cemented their names onto the roster sheets with their performances out in San Francisco and will provide an incredible base for the Team USA coaching staffs to build around. While they’re likely to be distributed across the three teams this summer, for now let’s group them in pairs.

Khalif El-Salaam and Claire Chastain are two returning World Games representatives and both performed up to the high bars they’ve set themselves. El-Salaam was a constant and consistent contributor, moving the chains on offense and shutting down his players on defense, while also being a notable vocal leader both on the field and the sidelines. Chastain likewise was an all around rock whenever we saw her, contributing in both the handler and cutter space and was a clear veteran leader at a tryout where Molly Brown had the largest representation after Fury.

PNW pairing Cheryl Hsu and Raphy Hayes both had stellar weekends, as Hsu consistently looked like one of the best women-matching handlers throughout the weekend and Hayes routinely showed off his signature bursts of speed and athleticism. Both will slot immediately into a primary offensive role on whatever team they find themselves on.

Meanwhile, current and former Keystone State representatives Henry Ing and Anna Thompson each look like no-brainer additions given their experience in both mixed and split-gender contexts. Could that duo pair up as a potent 1-2 combo for the mixed squad — it certainly seems plausible. Quinn Finer and Dena Elimelech round out the final West Coast locks, both recent college superstars demonstrating their two-way prowess on a regular basis. They’re bound to have coaches arguing over how to best deploy their prodigious talents.

Team USA West Coast Tryouts 2024. Photo: Jenna Weiner

Lock-ish

  • Paul Arters
  • Tori Gray
  • Michael Ing
  • Cassie Wong
  • Eli Kerns
  • Sharon Lin
  • Jack Hatchett
  • Kaela Helton

This next grouping of players on the women-matching side all made their impacts clearly felt at the tryouts, though their profiles coming in range from the still-in-college Tori Gray to the World Games team-making Kaela Helton. Starting with Gray, despite still being eligible for U24’s she looked right at home amongst her more experienced peers. Maybe it’s a hot take to put Gray this high but that was how well she performed at the tryout.

Likewise, Cassie Wong was not a name that jumped off the page when the initial list of tryout invitees was announced, but the former Boston Brute Squad stalwart and current Seattle Mixtape player was fantastic all weekend, especially on the defensive end. As for Sharon Lin and Helton, the two former teammates showed off their well-worn reputations as a big-block-getters time and again regardless of their matchups and flowed like water on offense, all but guaranteeing them a spot with their ease of fit.

For the men-matching players, these four were a cut above. Arters’ renowned unflappability stood out in contrast to the youngsters populating the tryout, but his ability to create space in the cutting lanes elevated him. Michael Ing was like a bounty hunter out in the 4-Line Drill, getting handblocks on some of the best throwers in the west at tryouts. Eli Kerns looked like he had some of the best fitness at the tryout. It seemed like he could’ve gone a couple more rounds despite how grueling each and every rep was. And Hatchett’s well-rounded D-line prowess was evident, as he bombed pinning pulls and scored blocks by baiting deep looks where throwers underestimated his closing speed.

 Likelies

  • Noah Coolman
  • Jade McLaughlin
  • Ben Dameron
  • Aubree Dietrich
  • Calvin Brown
  • Sam Rodenberg
  • Jacques Nissen
  • Sadie Jezierski
  • Wyatt Kellman
  • Kristen Pojunis
  • Mattieu Agee
  • Lisa Pitcaithley

There are a surprising amount of young players among this tier’s men-matching players. But make no mistake: they were fantastic at tryouts. Some may be surprised about how high Noah Coolman is on the list, but he absolutely lit it up at tryouts. The consensus at the tryout among players was that he played incredibly well. Other than a few execution errors in drills or endzone set, Dameron performed to expectation as one of the best in the country.

Calvin Brown looked like he belongs among the best in the world. His throwing ability mixed with world class cutters was a spectacle to watch. Nissen might have some similarities, but his steadiness stood out more than his flashes. And Kellman is probably the front runner right now for college Player of the Year and made a great case for himself at tryouts. He played ferocious and energetic defense the entire way through. And Agee’s defensive speed was hard to miss. His skillset is perfect against teams that look to employ the shootout strategy against Team USA.

Welcome to a mostly-mixed zone from the women-matching player complement. Of the six players in this “likelies” list, all of Sam Rodenberg, Jade McLaughlin, Sadie Jezierski, and Aubree Dietrich played in the club mixed division in 2023, with McLaughlin, Jezierski, and Dietrich all long-time mixed division representatives. With three teams making the cross-Pacific trip, having skill playing mixed ultimate is a real plus, though this quartet also excelled when they were on the women’s division field at tryouts.

Fort Collins shame. teammates McLaughlin and Dietrich had their compasses set for “end zone” and both were unstoppable at times when jetting toward yet another score. Seattle-ites Rodenberg and Jezierski typically have different roles with their respective club teams, with Rodenberg a premier downfield threat and Jezierski a silky-touched thrower, but both showed off their wide offensive toolboxes regardless of what field they were on.

As for the other two folks yet to be mentioned, Kristen Pojunis and Lisa Pitcaithley both slotted in on the mixed field with aplomb, with Pojunis racking up one of the highest block totals on the weekend and Pitcaithley working superbly with Jacob Smith in particular. Between their tryout showing and top-level play in women’s division play, Pojunis and Pitcaithley will be guaranteed plusses for whichever team they likely land on.

Team USA West Coast Tryouts 2024. Photo: Jenna Weiner

Getting a Long Look

  • Cody Spicer
  • Alika Johnston
  • KJ Koo
  • Amber Sinicrope
  • Simon Higgins
  • Erin Rea
  • Trent Dillon
  • Nhi Nguyen
  • Rutledge Smith
  • Maggie O’Connor
  • Will Brandt
  • Shayla Harris
  • Alex Atkins
  • Carolyn Finney
  • Nathan Champoux
  • Anna Nazarov

The theme for this assortment of women-matching players is “plug and play” — every one has a niche that they’ve carved out on the field that they could fill for Team USA — provided they make a team in the first place. Alika Johnston and Amber Sinicrope are your prototypical “I can go every other if I want to” handlers, who are more than capable of taking over a point when the moment calls for it. Both showed flashes of dominance at tryouts on both the mixed and women’s fields, and both could fit onto either team without issue. Moving further up the field, Erin Rea and Nhi Nguyen are awe-inspiring cutters and are effectively automatic when the disc is in their vicinity in the end zone. Regardless of which team they may end up on, their handlers will be thankful to have them.

Moving to what we’ll call the “California contingent” of this group, Shayla Harris and Maggie O’Connor are two potent weapons that coaches would be glad to deploy at will to disrupt their opposition. Harris has built a reputation as a defensive juggernaut but don’t doubt her offensive capabilities: she’ll just as easily sky someone for a goal as she will pick up a layout block on that same player. O’Connor is an artistic offensive aficionado, especially as a lefty and one of the more creative throwers the coaches will have to choose from. Bring her in off the bench to throw a different look at an opposing defense and watch her sling a classic SoCal special en route to a score.

Finally we have the famous Fury duo of Carolyn Finney and Anna Nazarov, who have a combined five World Games appearances as either rostered players or alternates. They’ll slot smoothly onto any team with their metronomic throws, veteran nous, and an abundance of that all too rare “clutch gene.” Finney and Nazarov aren’t the locks they once were, but they aren’t far from it either.

Taking a look at these MMP, they are some cases for each. Champoux might be a generational defender. Getting guarded by him looked like torture. If he showed a bit more as a thrower, his case would be nearly undeniable. Brandt was one of the breakout players of the weekend. He made jaw-dropping play after play and earned the respect from the coaches and play pool alike. Koo, despite not playing USAU club or UFA for two years, was clearly a top half of the tryout quality player. He seemed to always be in the right spot at the right time and seldom made mistakes.

Spicer is one of the best defenders in the game for the past few years. His throws did not look all that sharp compared to the field so we’ll see. On day one, Dillon showed off his signature top end speed and tracked down some low and zippy deep throws that had no business being caught. Higgins and Atkins, while not truly standouts on the weekend, have strong tools and resumes.

Potential Role Fillers

The last category worth highlighting are the players who played well without necessarily being generally dominant or absolutely eye-popping. All have a case to make the team, but a lower percentage of them will. At this stage, I would guess coaches will lean a bit more into team construction to plug gaps with various superpowers. Not knowing what they’ll need on the teams, it’s impossible to know who they’ll take. Instead, here’s a rundown of what advantages they’d gain by taking each of the players below.

  • David Sealand – Stellar cutter defender, always seems to make a big play when it counts the most
  • Saoia Lostra – Poise under pressure, guaranteed positive plus/minus player
  • Jason Vallee – ‘Grind you out’ defender with a nose for blocks, low-key nice on offense, too
  • Kaitlyn Weaver – Game-breaking speed, deep game on point
  • Calvin Stoughton – Durability and consistent energy
  • Claudia Tajima – Visionary throwing and exceptional field sense
  • Kyle Henke – Big play ability, unexpectedly deep throwing bag
  • Alyssa Perez – Connective tissue in the middle of the field
  • Marc Munoz – Layout catches and blocks, crafty break throws
  • Ronnie Eder – Lanky cutter defender with a penchant for timely blocks
  • Ben Field – Strong matchup defender, confident in hitting difficult throwing windows
  • Viv Chu – Comfort in the mixed game like no other
  • Leo Sovell-Fernandez – Nasty break release points, wolverine defense
  • Kirstin Johnson – Field general able to dictate the pace of play
  • Jacob Smith – Physical defense, stat sheet stuffer
  • Kendra Miller – Always open cutter with top-notch athleticism
  • Nick Stuart – High percentage deep look, field stretcher
  • Rory Veldman – Lockdown defender, as versatile as one gets

  1. Then including a “G” for Guts 

  1. Jenna Weiner
    Jenna Weiner

    Jenna Weiner is a Senior Staff Writer, a co-host of Ultiworld's Double Overtime podcast, and considers herself a purveyor of all levels of ultimate. She's played mostly on the west coast but you're likely to find her at the nearest ultimate game available.

  2. Jake Thorne
    Jake Thorne

    Jake Thorne is a staff writer for Ultiworld with a focus on the college division. He is a graduate of Cal Poly SLO, where he played for four years. He now lives and works full-time in sales for a fintech company in San Francisco.

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