The Conundrum of Greatness – Immortality in a Time of Darkside

Darkside's dynasty has robbed the college men's division of the ephemeral nature that makes it so special. Could one of its other stars rise up this year and wrest greatness - and immortality - from UNC's grasp?

Pittsburgh's Henry Ing with the pull at the D-I men's college ultimate frisbee tournament, Smoky Mountain Invite 2024. Photo: William "Brody" Brotman - UltiPhotos.com
Pittsburgh’s Henry Ing about to rip a pull at Smoky Mountain Invite 2024. Photo: William “Brody” Brotman – UltiPhotos.com

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Do you appreciate “greatness”? Or maybe, how important is “greatness” as a concept to you in the constellation of heroes and villains and triumphs and tragedies that become your cosmology of sports?

Speaking just for myself, I find greatness-for-the-sake-of-greatness pretty uninspiring. The continued polishing and buffing of some ideal version of the sport – championship after championship delivered in service to achieving a newer, better state of perfection – holds limited appeal.

Manchester City just won an unprecedented fourth-straight Premier League title to the somber din of a million grim, nihilistic shrugs (and that’s even before you get into the 115 reasons why they should be closer to being put in soccer jail than on top of a podium). The Durant-era Warriors made the NBA an exercise in spreadsheet management.

These teams are probably the greatest ever in their sport. But the more greatness is stratified away from the mess and drama and fallibility of humans, the more sterile it feels. I can appreciate someone playing a perfect G chord on the world’s finest crafted piano, but at a certain point that chord is just reverberating around an empty room when “people” and “emotions” get in the way of sonic fidelity.

In related news, UNC Darkside has won three straight titles and is working hard on a fourth this weekend.

There’s a lot of excitement around the men’s division in College Nationals this year, but it fundamentally starts with the idea that UNC *might* finally lose. Now of course we all know that, eventually, UNC Darkside will not win Nationals (probably). But there is an immediacy to this season because this is the last, best chance for a generation of star players who have had their own individual and team brilliance eclipsed by Darkside’s monument to dominance.

Brown’s Jacques Nissen at the 2023 D-I College Championships. Photo: Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com

Henry Ing, Jaques Nissen, Aidan Downey, Calvin Brown, all guys who in a different era could have been *the guy,* have one last run at winning a title and ending North Carolina’s reign.1 In a normal era you would expect at least one of them to win a chip. Probably several.

Collectively, those four are 0-8 against UNC at Nationals, with North Carolina’s victory over Brown on Friday adding to the total.

And look, there are plenty of great players who never win the big one. There are more title-worthy teams than space at the top of the podium. But this group of stars in particular stands out because of the era – with extra pandemic eligibility years and the increasing convenience of taking fifth years due to remote instruction, not to mention the general warped sense of time the previous few years gave us – it seems like these guys have been the preeminent forces in the division forever.

Ing and Calvin Brown were impact freshmen in 2019(!), and we saw Nissen and Downey as meaningful figures before COVID struck as well. They’ve all spent years carving their individual greatness into the rockface of the sport. Both Ing and Brown were Callahan Award finalists, and either Nissen or Downey are very likely to add the award to their trophy case in a couple days. They’ve all won club and international honors, and lock up the top spots in the Ultiworld Top 25. They’ve been so present for so long, so affixed to the frontal cortex of college ultimate, but none have accomplished the thing that traditional brings immortality, the thing the history books can never forget: winning a championship.

There’s an odd dissonance to it, another symptom of this uncanny era of the sport, warped by the twin gravities of COVID and Darkside. For something that’s key proposition is renewal, growth, and finality, the cycle of college eligibility and the change it promises, it’s strange when college stars seem like they must 27 by now, or when one program wins again and again and again.

Aidan Downey rips a flick for Georgia during pool play at the 2024 D-I College Championships. Photo: Rudy Desort – UltiPhotos.com

Part of the deal with college sports is the strictly limited time you have with it. The clock ticks louder and louder as even extended eligibility begins to run out. One of the ways to escape from the trap of time is to do something that stops the watch hands, that crystalizes a moment in our public memory of you and your team, flaws and all, as champions.

Maybe this is why dynastic greatness, particularly in the college division, strikes me as so distasteful. It is a greatness in pursuit of a certain kind of enduring perfection that is antithetical to the finite nature of college sports. Save that shit for club, where the eternal pursuit of the perfect around flick belongs. You can’t blame a team for being great, but you can blame them for stealing time, for closing the avenues to immortality for others, for making the most alive part of something feel foregone.

This weekend we are watching some of the best players in the history of the college game collide with arguably its greatest dynasty. Despite some wobbles this season from UNC, and a feverish attempt to manifest a new champion from almost everyone (including me), they are still the no.1 seed. They should still be the betting favorites. North Carolina’s program is unparalleled, and has created a standard just about every other team wishes they could match. But in that process they’ve become a foil, if not a villain themselves then at least an emissary for all of the inevitable things we want the heroes of our stories to defeat.

Ultimately, I think what we want from sports is to see great athletes bleed and sweat and cry and throw up prayers to whoever could be listening until they succeed. Transcendence and ascension, but in a world still with gravity.

Ing, Nissen, Downey, Brown, all guys who have spent so many years ascending, only to crash down to earth with everyone else at the end of the season. Darkside’s become as undeniable as gravity but maybe, just maybe, this year someone will fly. Even if only for one moment, the one that stops time.

Cal Poly SLO’s Calvin Brown gets up for the two-hand jam over Colorado defenders during pool play at the 2024 D-I College Championships. Photo: Sam Hotaling – UltiPhotos.com

  1. Presumably. With the way extended eligibility is now, who knows 

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld, co-host of the Sin The Fields podcast, and also a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.

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