By: Gabe Hernandez
Top Tier: UNC and Brown are the teams to beat, SLO looking dangerous
The men’s division hasn’t seen a repeat champion since Pittsburgh did it in 2012 and 2013, but this year’s Darkside squad has shown they are a top contender for that honor. Looking for their third title in five years, it would be a surprise not to see this team in a sixth straight semifinal behind performances from their entire roster. The sheer level of talent on this team, headlined by defensive stalwart Elijah Long and Callahan Award finalist Matt Gouchoe-Hanas, is tough to bet against in any situation. You know how good they are.
It’s fitting that the only other team at Nationals with two losses this year is a team that went 1-1 against the defending champs during the regular season. Led by sharpshooter Mac Hecht, Brown has been a force to be reckoned with all season long. Aside from Stanford Invite, they ran the table at every tournament they went to and have demonstrated they can consistently perform at a high level, a quality that usually results in success at the big dance. They closed their regular season with a title at Easterns that included a big win over Darkside, setting the stage for a heavyweight tiebreaker match if these two teams meet again in Austin.
SLO comes into the tournament perhaps as the team with the highest ceiling, simply due to their top-to-bottom standout athleticism. Under the guidance of Cody Mills and the leadership of their fifth-year stars, Core has steadily risen through the ranks, from being the eight seed at Southwest Regionals in 2015 to the four seed at Nationals this year. In that time, they have slowly channeled that athleticism into impressive results and have developed into a top talent in the country. Watch for quarterback Caleb Merriam, gazelle Dillon Whited and an impressive rookie class to power this team deep into the bracket. When this team is firing on all cylinders, there isn’t a team they can’t beat.
Next in Line: Pitt, Colorado, Oregon
On paper, En Sabah Nur had a successful season. At 28-6, they finished third in country with solid performances at notable tournaments (Florida Warm-Up, Classic City Classic and Easterns). Interestingly enough, they are 4-4 against Nationals-qualifying teams this year, which is reason enough to keep them out of the top tier. However, if any of the past few years have taught us anything, we know Pitt is a postseason team. They have reached the quarterfinals at Nationals every year since 2009 with multiple titles, upset a heavily-favored Carleton team in semis last year, and have consistently proven that they are contenders for the crown. Players to watch out for are Noah Robinson, Andrew Lehmberg and the deadly Ing brother duo.
And they’re back! Colorado has a huge chip on their shoulder after a tragic loss in the game to go last year against Texas, ending Mamabird’s 20-year streak of making Nationals. This season, the Boulder bros notched key wins over Minnesota, Wisconsin and Oregon on their way to reclaiming the South Central crown. Their roster is headlined by Alex Tatum and U-24 player Quinn Finer, who are capable of picking apart defenses with ease. On defense, Mamabird relies more on their depth and athleticism to generate blocks, but watch out for veterans Sean Chapel, Mathieu Agee and Isaac Chestler on the turn. Colorado lost to SLO by one during the regular season; a well-executed revenge game plan could be crucial in winning them the pool.
Oregon’s early title hopes took a hit after star cutter Will Lohre went down with a season-ending injury. Unfazed, they’ve shown they’re still a force to be reckoned with and come into the College Championships on top of the Northwest once again. Xander Cuizon-Tice, Leandro Marx and Duncan Fitzgerald are matchup nightmares who showcase trademark Ego speed, and Ted Sither has shown impressive composure as the centerpiece of their offense. The team also brings valuable experience, having been involved in a number of close games against other attendees in Austin, including a win to close out Easterns over Pittsburgh, the top seed in their pool.
The Middle of the Pack: NC State, Ohio State, Washington, Wisconsin, Texas, Georgia, Minnesota
The drought is over! After several years of disappointment, NC State Alpha is headed to the big dance. The last time this happened, Neymar was making his European debut at the age of 17, Michael Vick had just gotten released from prison, and Tiger Woods was still married to Elin Nordegren. With throwers like Bailey LaBerteaux and receivers like Austin Von Alten, the pack is ready to “get buckets” and “make money.” Though they weren’t able to beat any of the teams ranked above them at Nationals during the regular season, they have the firepower and energy to take advantage of any lull in the opposition and potentially snatch a key upset in the bracket.
Ohio State clearly has what it takes to hang with the best. They have toppled BYU and Pittsburgh and have lost by less than to two points to UNC, NC State, Oregon and Texas. However, their record against Nationals-qualifying teams is a meager 2-5, and while they have played many top teams closely, they will need an extra spark if they want to make some noise. Whether that spark comes from top offensive specialists Neil Taylor and Zach Braun or athletic defenders Tim Harmody and Mark Luke, Leadbelly is in a great position to push into the bracket on Sunday.
Washington followed up a terrific 2018 season with an impressive encore, despite losing a number of top contributors. Derek Mourad, Manny Eckert and Lucas Chen anchor an athletic squad that relies on crafty PNW throws and inflatable floaty energy to dismantle teams. Mourad, in particular, is a Swiss army knife who can do everything from shutdown defense and winding pulls to huge hucks and skies. They were also gifted fifth-year grad transfer Jeff Zhao and star freshman Gabe Port, both of whom have integrated quickly into featured roles on a team with semis aspirations.
Emerging from the chaotic North Central Region, the Wisconsin Hodags have high hopes for this tournament. Nick Vogt spearheads a team unafraid of the big moment, and their intense playing style bodes well for the high-pressure moments that are sure to come in Austin. Vogt, John Tan and Jeff Maskalunas have used their athleticism and size to make huge plays downfield all season long for the Hodags, and there’s no reason to expect that to change anytime soon.
Practicing only 40 minutes away from the Nationals complex, TUFF is looking to defend their hometown. Texas had a strong showing throughout the regular season, besting several Nationals-qualifying teams in the process. Texas is playing without standout junior Noah Chambers, but they have more than enough depth to make up for his absence. Top cutters Matthew Armour and Callahan nominee Vinay Valsaraj can score on just about anyone, while throwers like Matt Chambers, Keivaun Waugh and Brian Street can punish teams from anywhere on the field.
It’s always nice when your team peaks at the right time, and Georgia has fully embodied that narrative as they head to Nationals, Southeast champs once again. They asserted themselves over Central Florida as the best team in the region and look to silence more doubts on the big stage this weekend. If Jojah can evenly distribute their play time at Nationals like they did at Regionals, you can expect strong performances in later rounds and into the bracket.
Minnesota also looks to be peaking at the right time after winning the North Central for the third time in the past five years. The regular season was filled with injuries and close losses, but with the return of the Coles, Jurek and Wallin, they’ll be a different team at Nationals. Third-year captain Sam Kaminsky will anchor the defensive line and use the depth of young, athletic cutters to make plays. Grey Duck has all the pieces for a memorable weekend; will they fall into place, and if so, what story will they tell?
Looking for Upsets: Michigan, Tufts, Northeastern, Cal, Iowa State, Victoria, Rutgers
Often described as a faceless army, Michigan came out on top of a stormy Great Lakes regionals with big contributions from big throwers and big athletes, including Raymond Lu, Adam Stautberg and Jared Schwallie. However, MagnUM has not really been challenged throughout the regular season, so it’s hard to predict how they will fare against top-tier competition.
Tufts enters this year’s tournament with an exciting UMass upset at regionals. Combined with wins over Minnesota, Carleton College and UNC-Wilmington, you can begin to see flashes of a team that could sneak into pre-quarters if slept on. Look for lots of contributions from Bryce Walsh, Oliver Newland and Eric Chen.
Northeastern also enters the tournament with a regionals UMass upset. Notable regular-season wins include games over Wilmington and Tufts. Their “entire team” is their best receiver, and they will look to utilize that advantage to land an upset victory.
Cal UGMO returns to the Big Show for the first time in seven years on the backs of speedy handlers Alex Pan and Ashwin Vaidyanathan and disciplined systems orchestrated by cerebral coach Dan Silverstein. On defense, Callahan nominee Tommy Lin makes life miserable for handlers and cutters alike, while Silverstein’s creative defensive looks can confuse opponents into throwing the disc away.
Cinderella lives! Iowa State earned their first trip to Nationals in program history with a thrilling upset of U-24 feeder Carleton College. Just like the regular season, they relied on the entirety of their roster to make plays in big moments, and they head into the weekend with the same mentality they’ve had all year long: Trust your depth.
The only Nationals-qualifying team Victoria has defeated is Cal, but they haven’t really given anyone else a close game. Their top talents include Dawson Pasin and Sean Bennett, who were able to help the team come up with solid results at notable west coast tournaments. They face a tall task but are looking to prove themselves on the big stage.
Rutgers defeated UConn to claim the Metro East’s envied bid to Nationals.
Games start Friday, May 24, at 8 a.m. CT, in Round Rock, Texas. Follow along with the College Championships at collegechampionships.usaultimate.org, and get updates and scores with the USA Ultimate mobile app (iOS / Android).