Welcome back, everyone! I hope you had an excellent break. If you’re coaching or playing college ultimate, I hope it was really restful, because here comes a steady diet of work, school and ultimate. Before I get to this week’s post I want to plug David Gessner’s beautiful essay. It’s been making the rounds since it won Greatest Sports writing from USA Today, so you may have already read it. If you haven’t, stop reading this and go read that. I had two reactions to it. First, the joy of reading my own life lovingly and eloquently depicted. Then the anguish of realizing someone had written my autobiography and that it was better than anything I’d ever write. Oh, well. Back to college ultimate – here are a few of the things I am keeping an eye on going into the season.
Wide Open Field
The slow and steady rise in the quality of play in college ultimate isn’t consistent. There are some years where the sport takes a great step forward as teams rise to new levels and there are other years where everyone takes a step backwards. This is looking to be a year without clear favorites and without a dominating program at the top of the cycle. On the men’s side, the big powers are in a downturn and the favorites are completely unproven. Early favorite Central Florida is a perfect example: how much faith do you have in a team that’s only been to Nationals twice? The same is true on the women’s side. Oregon wasn’t alone in graduating a heap of talent. Every North Central team from last year’s dominant 4-bid performance lost major personnel. Look no further than Carleton: their finals appearance was the last game of Anna Reed’s Syzygy career. And also the last for Marlena Hartman-Filson, Flannery McArdle, Grace Quintana and Taylor Want.
All in all, it should make for a really good and exciting year. Expect a lot of inconsistent results early on as teams work to figure themselves out. Unlike last year where champs Oregon and Pitt overwhelmed everyone with depth and talent, this season will be decided by the teams that can figure out how to get the most out of their limited resources.
Random Fun Prediction: There will be at least one new, never-been-there before finalist.
North Carolina Breaks Through?
Both Darkside (1) and Pleiades (5) are ranked in Ultiworld’s top 5, both posted excellent results in the fall, both teams sent players to Club Nationals…what’s not to like? (Aside: I hope I don’t curse myself with this one.) I’ve watched these two teams a long time and as good as they’ve been over the last decade, neither has broken the glass ceiling: quarterfinals. The barrier between quarters and semis is one of the hardest to break in ultimate. There’s only half as many spots (duh) and while the quality of team you face in pre-quarters is highly variable, once you get to quarters, everyone is really good. For a great example of this, look no further than Machine’s experience at Club Nationals. They drew a talented, but not great PoNY squad in pre-quarters and beat them in a battle. Then they had to face a rested and peaking Sockeye in the quarters. Ditto for Chain’s Truck pre quarter followed by Ironside quarters.
Random Fun Prediction: One, but only one, of the Chapel Hill teams will make semifinals.
The Not-So Dark Horse
There’s a team that everyone is ignoring and really shouldn’t: the Ohio State women. Although they lost Paige Soper, they return a huge portion of last year’s squad. It is really easy to overstate the importance of one player and forget that incremental development across 15 players can make huge changes in a team’s quality. It’s also easy to forget that the days of winning Nationals with one or two players are over – sure, you need that top talent, but Aces and Spaces doesn’t work like it did in the 00s. Ohio State is deep and on the upturn of the building process having made quarters in 2012 and semis in 2013.
Random Fun Prediction: They’ll make semifinals again and with the right draw, finals.
The Impact of the NW Challenge
In its first year of existence, the NW Challenge has positioned itself to set the stage for the National Championships. Scheduled at the end of the ranking season and featuring 6 of Ultiworld’s top 10 teams, it will be a wonderful preview to the festivities in Cincinnati two months later. Oddly, it probably won’t have much impact on bid allocation outside of the Northwest and Southwest. The East teams coming (OSU, Carleton, Tufts, Colorado) will likely have bids sewed up by that point and are unlikely to fall much even after a bad weekend. You can lose at this tournament, but it won’t be a bad loss. The other advantage the East teams have is that they are likely to be the top team of their region and therefore somewhat insulated by the teams below them. The Northwest and Southwest, by contrast, are sending more teams and are therefore more exposed. The Northwest is likely to lose any chance it has at the rumored 5- or 6-bid season; there just aren’t enough wins to go around.
This tournament will also have a huge positive impact on women’s Centex. Because it was really the only tournament over Spring Break, Centex was filling an important role for just about every team in the women’s division from the lowliest D-III schools to the big powers. The need to accommodate divergent teams coupled with some difficult logistical limitations (fields, days, schedule) meant Centex was stretched to the edge of what was possible.
Random Fun Prediction: Five teams (Carleton, Colorado, Stanford, UBC and BLU) are attending both the NWC and Centex. Expect a mixed bag from these teams. One of them will play great at both tournaments and establish themselves as a real title contender. Two of them will play well at one tournament and poorly at the other. Two unfortunate teams will play poorly at both. Bummer for those regions. (Don’t ask me which teams will be which – that makes it harder for me to claim my predictions were good.)
D-III on the Right Path
It is good to see D-III Warm Up is back again. I am psyched to see that Warm-Up is hoping to add a women’s division; I’d be happier to see the women taking care of themselves with their own tournament. It’s one of the beauties of ultimate that no one will do it for you; self-organizing is crucial to growth. There’s a need for an east coast version of this tournament – someone please step up! I’m looking at you Rice and Elon! We should give some credit to USA Ultimate. For all the grief USAU gets for not showing proactive leadership, they nailed this one. They made the D-III series before the division (particularly women’s) was ready. So while there are some growing pains, it is so much better than waiting until the division is past ready.
Random Fun Prediction: Elliot will bet me on the UPS-GOP game at Nationals again. And lose again.
[note]Editors note: With two runner-up finishes in the last two years, the odds are in my favor.[/note]