Trent Dillon started playing ultimate as an 8-year-old in PADA summer league.
When Trent was 10, his dad remembers him catching a trailing edge goal over Trey Katzenbach, a Philadelphia ultimate legend who has spent two decades playing for Rage, Pike, Ironside and Southpaw, at the highest level the sport has to offer.
By the time Trent was a freshman in college, he was an the integral part of what might be one of the greatest comebacks in history of ultimate.
I know because I was there as his teammate.
He was — at the time— a kill-line defender that helped save Pitt’s ass after the O-line I played on dug ourselves into an 8-3 hole against Carleton in the College Nationals semi-final. It appeared the game was all but over, as evidenced by CUT’s now infamous “smoke em if you got em” tweet. But Trent’s focus never wavered, and he ended up being the guy who caught the goal that gave us our first lead of the game, at 11-10. He spent a good chunk of his time on the field neutralizing Julian Childs-Walker, a member of the 2008 USAU U19 squad who was considered one of the most dominant cutters in college ultimate.
Back then, I remember being blown away that this 18-year-old college freshman was able to put on such a standout performance in such an important game, never losing his intensity, surrounded by a field of players who were supposed to be leading him. But what I’d come to learn was that game was just another blip on the radar of Trent’s blossoming athletics and ultimate career.
Growing up, Trent played hockey and swam competitively. When I found this out, it made perfect sense: Hockey, a sport that tests the body’s limits in almost every way imaginable. I imagine how relentlessly Trent sacrifices his body in ultimate. Swimming, a competition that challenges an athlete’s focus and determination the way a marathon might. I imagine the familiar veins popping in Trent’s head as he urges his teammates to do better, work harder.
His senior year of high school at Radnor, a school in Philadelphia, PA, he was the captain of both the ultimate team and the varsity hockey team. Trent put on a solo act in the finals of states that year, leading Radnor’s Frisbee team to a State Championship that wasn’t even comprehensible four years before. By the time his freshman year of Pitt rolled around, Trent had already seen the highest level of the sport: he was on the Southpaw team that finished 6th at Club Nationals in 2011. Even at the ripe age of 18, with less than a year of college ultimate under his belt, Trent arrived at College Nationals that spring having already played consecutive seasons on Southpaw and Los, two teams regularly competing against the best club programs in the country.
But he was way more than a young guy with a lot of experience.
A couple weeks ago, I was playing with the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds in a game against the Detroit Mechanix. We had a big lead as the final seconds of the game ticked away, and on the last play a Mechanix handler threw a lofty backhand over my head for a meaningless goal. It was cold, we were winning, the game was over, and I made something close to zero effort to get the D as time ran out. Why would I risk injury or exert myself for a single, meaningless point?
When we were driving home from the game, I joked about the play, forgetting my head coach David Hogan was sitting in the front seat of our van. It got a few laughs from everyone except Hogan, and he rightfully lambasted me about how it does matter, about how taking those inches is important. Because I had been writing this piece, I bathed in my shame from the back seat and thought of Trent. I tried to imagine him doing what I did, letting the disc go over his head and walking towards the sideline as the clock ran out, and I couldn’t picture it. I couldn’t even begin to imagine it.
Even that first year, as a freshman, Trent exhibited leadership skills that were almost unprecedented on the team. He wasn’t your classic freshman stud because he was 6’6” or the fastest guy on the team or had made Junior Worlds, he was great because he tried harder than everyone. Trent made you remember him in those final moments of practice as the sun came down and everyone else was ready to go eat and fall asleep, but he was screaming as he emptied the tank to make one last play. He did the kind of stuff you hear about Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning doing: first to film, wins the last suicide at practice, plays through anything, beats you to the water fountain, never dogs it during a game. He simply out worked everyone, all the time. That’s why if I could think of one word to describe Trent Dillon’s on field play, I’d say “effort.” And that effort manifests itself in plays like this.
When he was selected to the USA Open team this year, he rode that motor through tryouts. The noise out of the east coast tryout was consistent: Trent dominated not by being the most talented or athletic, but literally by out-working every other player that was there. When the roster was announced, he was the only college player in the country to make the team.
“Our job wasn’t to compare Trent against just the best college players in the country, it was to compare him against the best players anywhere,” head coach Alexander “Dutchy” Ghesquiere told me. “We thought his performance was in the top 3 of all the players at the East Coast event. We didn’t know much about Trent going into the process and I wouldn’t have considered him a favorite for a spot before the weekend started, but that kind of performance demands acknowledgment and the proof for him deserving to play with Team USA was clear.”
But for anyone that had seen Trent’s game in person, the result of the tryout wasn’t a huge surprise. I certainly wasn’t shocked. When he played on the U23 USA Open team, the reports were similar. Trent was selected — by his teammates — to captain the team that would go on to win a gold medal against Canada in the finals. On the last point of that game, with a commanding lead, Trent made what several players described to me as the D of the tournament. It was a come from behind, out of position layout block on a player he wasn’t guarding that he managed to execute without committing a foul. It was a big boy play in a big time moment, and it was vintage Trent Dillon.
“He’s annoyingly good at everything.”
Usually, that guy with the motor that never stops running is also the guy who has trouble completing a 20 yard forehand or uses effort to make up for a lack of talent. For Trent Dillon, this trope couldn’t be further from the truth.
While Trent might share proudly the fact that he was chosen as captain of the U23 team, or that team Canada chose him as MVP in the Spirit Circle after their final, the kid that confidently tells anyone who listens “stats mean nothing” also has a habit of blowing up the stat sheet. At worlds, the guy known for his lockdown defense and phenomenal shoulder high bids led all of his peers in combined goals and assists. And frankly, it wasn’t even close. With 13 goals and 6 assists, Trent’s combined 19 points was six more than the three players who tied for second behind him. I actually said “wow” out loud to myself when I opened the team USA stat sheet, knowing that I was looking at a stat line for a player who spent most of the week on the defense, a stat line for a player on a team of the best college athletes in the world.
“He is going to be 100 percent at all times when he is on the field, offense or defense, cutting or handling, it doesn’t matter. And he is annoyingly good at everything,” Alex Thorne says in the opening of Trent’s Callahan video.
And it’s true. Coaches could write a book about Trent’s ability to exert himself consistently, but his talent is just as eye-popping. The proof of this simple fact is a game I played with myself while writing this piece: “What is Trent’s biggest weakness?”
I couldn’t even begin to formulate an answer.
At Pitt, his throwing ability might only be surpassed by Max Thorne and Pat Earles, who happen to be two of the best throwers in the college game. He has an 80-yard forehand in his pocket at all times and one of the deadliest, most consistent around break backhands I’ve ever played with.
His hands are as good as they come, and his ability in the air can be summed by the 50-50 ball D he got on Jeff Babbitt in his Callahan video. He’s fast, he’s quick, he’s long, he’s a smart decision maker and you can put him in almost any position at any time and expect the same result.
Trent handling means a guy who won’t turn the disc and will break the mark repeatedly. Trent cutting means a defender is a few minutes away from begging for water on the sideline. Trent on your best handler means havoc in the dump space. Trent on your best cutter means you better find a new best cutter. I had a moment where I considered Trent’s mark as the weakest part of his game, remembering the practices I had spent breaking it, but before I could even finish the thought it dissolved as I was reminded of the regularity with which Trent gets cold-hearted, disc-breaking foot blocks.
As players and coaches across the country consider who to vote for this Callahan season, what will only be known to most of the voters is what they see in highlight reels or remember from tournaments.
But Trent Dillon’s value to a team, to our sport, spreads far beyond the lines that make up that box we play in. When I asked Trent to tell me what accomplishment at Pitt he was most proud of, he didn’t choose the two National Championships he won. He didn’t choose being 2nd team Freshman of the Year or being named (repeatedly) to the Ohio Valley all-region team. He didn’t chose making it on the NexGen bus or winning matchups with the best players in the country or being selected as a captain at Pitt three years in a row. He didn’t even choose his performance in the CUT game his freshman year. He thought of a teammate: Carl Morgenstern.
I remember when Morgenstern showed up my senior year, as I was one of the captains of Pitt. He was a gangly ginger with good speed and one year of high school ultimate experience. As Carl remembers it, he wasn’t even comfortable forcing backhand or flick yet, and I certainly didn’t think I was looking at a future stud on Pitt’s D-line. But two years later, Morgenstern proved me wrong, and his play since then has been documented repeatedly on Ultiworld.
“I put a lot of effort into Carl in my sophomore year and now he’s one of our very best defenders,” Trent told me. “Almost all of that was earned by Carl and not me, but I’m still proud that I saw Carl’s potential early on and was driven enough to put my sweat and energy into his development.”
Carl remembers it similarly.
“He would organize film study session with me, constantly give me feedback at practice, and answer the numerous questions that I had,” Morgenstern said. “I developed more than I could have ever imagined as a defender my freshman year and I credit most of that initial growth to Trent.”
These are the intangibles that separate Trent from your typical callahan nominee. Jody Avrigan, another one of the U23 Team USA coaches, said it thusly: “He knows when to fire people up in a huddle, he knows when to quietly get in a teammate’s ear, he knows when to crack a joke, and he knows when to not talk — but just look in your eyes and give a ‘let’s go’ nod.”
When selecting a Callahan nominee, the ultimate community at large is implored to remember an athlete “not just for their on-field accomplishments,” but players who “display superior athleticism, outstanding sportsmanship, leadership and dedication.” Though I don’t know every nominee in this year’s field personally, I have a hard time imagining anyone who can match Trent’s sportsmanship, leadership and dedication. Even in his worst moments, like the timeout blunder against Wisconsin (which was a first and only for Trent), he finds a way to laugh at himself.
And yet, despite embodying everything that we honor about our sport, Trent has managed to consistently perform at the highest level. Before one more run at Nationals this year, Trent will already have two National Championships, four consecutive quarterfinal appearances, the founding of Pittsburgh’s first unifying club team Temper (which made Nationals in 2014 with Trent as their captain), a 2nd team freshman of the year nod, first-team Ohio Valley All-Region for three (and presumably four) consecutive years, a tour on the NexGen bus, a Skyd All-American nomination, a gold medal with the U23 team as their captain, a spot on the 2016 WUGC USA Ultimate Men’s National Team, and — of course — Carl Morgenstern all under his belt.
Not bad for a guy with another 40 days left in his college ultimate career.