D-I Men’s 2024 Breakout Player of the Year

Highlighting players who took a leap toward stardom in the division this spring.

Each year, Ultiworld presents our annual College Awards. Our staff evaluates the individual performances of players from throughout the season, talking to folks around college ultimate, watching film, and look at statistics, voting upon the awards to decide those to be honored. The regular season and the college Series are both considered, with extra emphasis for performances in the competitive and high-stakes environment at Nationals.

The Breakout Player of the Year recognizes rising juniors and seniors who made themselves known in a new light this season. While our nebulous definition of “breakout” reflects an evolving set of criteria, rather than celebrating the improvement of those from whom big things were already expected, we aim to use this award to celebrate the emergence of those who previously have not been on the national radar. Whether it be through growth in ability, role, or both, the Breakout Player of the Year and runners-up honor those who rose to the occasion with improved and high-impact performance on a new level this season — putting them squarely in the spotlight moving forward.

D-I Men’s 2024 Breakout Player Of The Year

Aaron Kaplan (Oregon)

Oregon’s Aaron Kaplan mid-catch for the score at the 2024 D-I College Championships. Photo: Rudy DeSort – UltiPhotos.com

Ego began this year with an Itay Chang-shaped hole in their team. The 2023 All-American and Defensive Player of the Year left empty shoes that any team, let alone one as young as Oregon, would struggle to fill. After some team-wide hiccups at the Santa Barbara and Presidents’ Day Invites, Aaron Kaplan made clear who would be the one to take the mantle as the do-everything two-way foil to Mica Glass’ offensive gravity. With a chance to avenge their only regular season losses on the line at Northwest Challenge, Kaplan found a level of execution and production on both sides of the disc to push Ego over Colorado and Cal Poly SLO in consecutive games, taking a tournament title and proving themselves as real contenders. In those games, and throughout the remainder of the season, Kaplan played with the confidence and polish of a seasoned upperclassman, not a second-year getting his first shot at major O-line touches.

Much like Chang before him, Kaplan’s game is a potion of patience, risk taking, and superlative defensive instincts. He seldom makes a bad decision with the disc in his hands, but is far from conservative, making use of an array of fast, precise deep throws to capitalize on Ego’s frequent downfield speed advantages. He also showed out as a real threat to break deep himself, often leaving the backfield of pull plays and in flow to chase down hucks from backfield-mates Mica Glass and Max Massey. Where Kaplan really pops on screen, though, is when he crosses over, or the Oregon offense turns the disc over. The combo of his ability to anticipate cutters and throwers, and the quick-twitch athleticism to capitalize on that anticipation, made him one of the most productive two-way players in the division. Capped off by a heartbreaking – and controversial – one-point quarterfinal loss, this year’s Ego team took a clear step forward from their 2023 showing, and Kaplan’s brilliance down the stretch was critical to that growth.

– Emmet Holton

First Runner-Up

Scotty Whitley (Georgia)

Georgia's Scott Whitley throws a flick during the 2024 D-I men's ultimate frisbee tournament Easterns final. Photo: Brian Whittier
Georgia’s Scott Whitley throws a flick during the 2024 Easterns final. Photo: Brian Whittier

Entering Florida Warm Up this year, Georgia seemed to be headed for another season with Adam Miller and Aidan Downey leading a relatively unknown army of playmakers, an approach that had previously led to middling results. What happened next? Scotty Whitley got three massive layout Ds in the second half of the tournament final, announcing himself as a major force on the national stage whilst helping his team to a dominant win over Brown.

That second half performance would prove to be a common occurrence for Whitley, who spent significant time on both O- and D-lines this year showing off his diverse playmaking skill set and intensity on both sides of the disc. The lefty was dominant against teams that worried too much about his bigger-name teammates and, much like he did in the Florida Warm Up final, put together an impressive resume of big plays in big moments. Clearly the third-best player on Jojah (although there were moments in which he seemed like the best and most locked-in person on the field), Whitley has some big shoes to fill with both Downey and Miller moving on. If his talismanic play this year is any indication, Whitley is perfectly positioned to lead Georgia into the future and keep the goofy, energetic, and dangerous vibes rolling for Georgia into future seasons.

– Jacob Cowan

Second Runner-Up

Michael Poe (Alabama-Huntsville)

Michael Poe at the 2024 D-I College Championships. Photo: Gino Mattace – gmattacephotography.pixieset.com

Entering the season, there was some buzz around this year’s UAH Nightmares. Once Kenni Taylor appeared on the roster, even casual fans started to pay attention, and other recognizable names like Bradley Fleming and Jonathan Sillivant gave the Nightmares a Nationals chance. That buzz, though, did not include Michael Poe, a relatively unknown member of the larger Southeast ultimate community. And then, from the very first tournament, in streamed game after streamed game, Poe stole the show with his consistency downfield and his ability to catch difficult, hotly contested deep looks. Poe’s ability to bring defensive pressure and get open for continue passes downfield help to land him a spot on the podium in a crowded breakout player race. Much like his ability to sky a pile of defenders, Poe’s overall performance this season – including at Nationals, where he played up to the occasion – earned him the award over a number of viable candidates.

– Alex Rubin

  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).

  2. Jacob Cowan
    Jacob Cowan

    Jacob Cowan began playing ultimate in New York City in high school. After a couple of club seasons with Brooklyn Blueprint and following a college career playing with and captaining the Grinnell Grinnellephants, he is now searching for the best cheap meal in Madrid.

  3. Emmet Holton
    Emmet Holton

    Emmet grew up playing ultimate in the Bay Area and played 5 years on Cal Poly SLOCORE from 2019 to 2023. He currently lives in Berkeley, CA and works as an architectural designer in San Francisco.

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