A 1st Teamer By Any Other Name…

Yesterday, Ultiworld released the All-Club 2nd Team for the Women’s Division and today we followed that up with our All-Club 1st Team. We created a list of some of the best players in women’s game this season while also bringing in information about the statistical production of those players. We hoped to combine those numbers — products of new experiments in tracking Ultimate data — with the typical subjective view of players to provide a fresh take on how to recognize the game’s elite.

One player’s selection for the 2nd team surprised — and flustered — many of our readers: Octavia “Opi” Payne.

Opi has risen to be the star of the women’s game, and in many ways, the face of it. Her stint with the World Games team this summer propelled her into another stratosphere of celebrity. Opi wears her talent on her sleeve when she takes the field: a never back down player that routinely loads up the highlight reel with her spectacular athletic feats. It is safe to say she is one of the most — if not the most — talented women in Ultimate.

If only we had put together the All-Talent Team.

Payne’s placement on the All-Club 2nd Team — a far from insulting place to land — was chosen by both subjective and objective measures. Recently, the player in question penned an article for the blog High Release entitled “Forget About the Highlight Reel” and it couldn’t be a more perfect fit.

“It’s true, sometimes incredible feats of athleticism are the only way to save a possession or get a block—and they aren’t easy to execute,” Payne writes in the piece. “Still, it’s the most mundane things that often make the biggest impacts on the field.”

Scandal has, over the past four years, really found an identity and a play style. Their coaching staff and leadership helped the team really define what Scandal ultimate looks like. That starts with grinding, intelligent, and stifling defense. On offense, they maximize space in the middle of the field, churning out cuts while the handlers aggressively motor up the lines and into fill spaces to switch fields. Some players truly excelled at running this system, like Kirsten Unfried and Allison Maddux.

There were times this year when Opi seemed to get away from the system. We all marveled at her upwind bombs during Scandal’s Championship win; Payne’s power as a thrower is unmistakable. When she made an acrobatic grab on the near sideline against Fury and unleashed a huge throw, it was breathtaking. That was part of the gameplan. That was execution of it.

Opi’s play was not like that all season. It wasn’t even that way all tournament. She turned it over a lot. Sure, Payne’s completion percentage is lower because her role is deep throwing, but no player’s job is to turn it over. At points this year, Opi struggled to find the balance of when to take aggressive shots and when to preserve possession. Defensively, she sometimes overplayed a cutter, finding herself lunging for a disc while six feet off the ground, only to see her receiver get possession and be awarded an unmarked throwing opportunity.

And it was not merely that Opi took risks. Her sheer talent demands that she attempt things others fear. Sandy Jorgenson has made a living baiting throwers and sometimes she gets beat doing it; that’s ok in Scandal’s defense. The problem was that Opi was taking risks that seemed to live outside of the environment Scandal was creating with their play. Too often a great string of motion off a turn would have DC rushing up the field only for Opi to jack it needlessly.

By the time you were watching her on ESPN3, Opi had reigned in those issues. She’s not perfect and her semifinal and final performances were not flawless, and that’s fine. What she did do, however, was execute the Scandal gameplan. The results speak for themselves. If we had been witnessing that Opi taking the field for the duration of this club season, she’d be an unquestionable first team selection.

While some of our statistics positively reflect Opi’s value, others show her performance as weak compared to some of the game’s other top players. But looking beyond the stats, and beyond the heroic performances in a couple of games at Nationals, and past the highlight reel, my view of Opi is that she is an elite talent who is still growing as a player.

Having seen Scandal play at all but one tournament – Mid-Atlantic Regionals – this season, I feel confident in selecting one of the game’s most talented players for the 2nd team for this season.

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