#1 Darkside dominate the pack to start their 2023 season strong.
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 college ultimate season is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author(s). Find out how Spin can get you, and your team, looking your best this season. Outdoor Playground Set
North Carolina Darkside hosted the Carolina Kickoff last weekend, defending their home turf with a (mostly) breezy 7-0 run through the tournament. The mostly Atlantic Coast affair brought together a small field of familiar foes, eager to begin the work of defining the region’s pecking order. The end result already lays the foundation for a thrilling postseason.
As we mentioned in our tournament preview, #1 Darkside are really good. On Saturday however, UNC’s scores didn’t always look like those of a team gearing up for a run at a third straight title. Darkside had two surprisingly close wins: 15-10 over Duke (2-2 in pool play) and 15-9 over Appalachian State (0-4 in pool play). But on Sunday, UNC showed up in dominant fashion, running roughshod through Richmond (15-6), South Carolina (15-6), and NC State (15-8). Darkside seemed to keep lines relatively open in bracket play, highlighting how absurdly high the floor is for this team. The disc handling skills, defensive effort, and general awareness up and down the roster made it hard to identify who UNC’s go-to players will be this season. While UNC clearly have great talent at the top, Darkside’s suffocating team defense and depth outshone any individual performance this weekend.
The final between Darkside and Alpha had exactly the kind of vibe you’d expect from a championship game matchup between two cross-town rivals: a palpable boost in energy from both sidelines, good spirit and chatter on and off the field, and tight, physical defense on nearly every pass. For Darkside, Matthew McKnight, Rutledge Smith, and John McDonnell seemed to be the go-to handlers on offense, while Eli Fried provided some star power on defense. But it was constant pressure from Darkside’s D-line handler defenders that made the biggest difference. Throws from Alpha handlers were consistently being forced low, wide, and fast, making nearly every possession a struggle for NC State.
UNC received first, then turned the disc over in the Alpha end zone before quickly regaining possession and securing the 1-0 hold. A drop by an Alpha cutter led to a quick 2-0 Darkside lead, before a sustained drive from NC State was finished by a slashing goal from Ferriter. 2-1 UNC. Jayden Feagans scored next for UNC on offense, and a layout block from Thomas Harley on the following point led to another Darkside break. Alpha’s Cooper Williams pulled down a huck in traffic on the next point, dishing to a handler who quickly found a continue for the goal to make it 4-2. UNC went on to score four of the next five to take half 8-3. This stretch went by briskly, with Alpha turning it over early several times and Darkside converting the breaks with just one or two throws.
Alpha started the second half with their strongest possession of the game, finding success with a quick series of under cuts and continuations to make it 8-4. Darkside answered quickly: Josh Singleton scored for a hold by the offense, and on the next point Jason Manning caused a low turnover with a nice sideline mark before finding an opening in the back of the end zone for a break goal. Darkside extended this 10-4 lead into 13-5, but NC State’s Matthew Lee converted a creative stall nine assist on the goal line to make it 13-6. State’s defense then earned the disc back from Darkside, and Alpha’s Lucky Avulapati battled through two UNC defenders to make an incredible second-effort catch for a break score. UNC scored quickly to make it 14-7; Alpha held, but couldn’t slow down UNC’s offense, allowing a turnover-free possession for Darkside to close it out.
After the game, I spoke with Darkside coach Matt Gouchoe-Hanas and captain Andrew Li, a major contributor from 2022 who is on his way back from a shoulder injury. Both emphasized the program’s focus on team defense and on using early tournaments to put young players in positions to contribute. Asked about what he observed over the weekend, Gouchoe-Hanas said, “We have a rookie who’s very new to frisbee…his name’s Hayden Naylor…he had a really exceptional tournament, and one of our breakout sophomores, Grayson Trowbridge, had an excellent game…in the finals with a handblock against the opposing team’s center handler.”
Andrew Li added, “Our depth guys are really well-prepared to contribute. Across the board, we’re throwing in our young guys on O and on D, and we’re not shying them away from the big moments. We ask them to do the same things everyone else is doing, and they’re doing a great job.”
NC State Alpha also turned in a good showing at the Kickoff, but it’s still hard to say how they project against other Nationals-level teams this season. Undefeated until the tournament final, Alpha started off Sunday with a shaky 15-12 quarterfinal win over Georgetown (1-3 in pool play), then a semifinal matchup against UNC-Charlotte that involved a lot of drawn-out marathon points. Alpha advanced over UNCC Skyrise, with both teams throwing out zone defenses on several points (and staying in zone most of the way down the field!) to take advantage of the gusty conditions. Against these zone looks, Alpha were better able to gain yardage through systematic handler swings, while Charlotte’s zone offense was more stop-and-go. Daniel Ferriter looked solid in the handler rotation (and according to Alpha’s Twitter account, dropped about a hundred assists in pool play Saturday). Rookie Henry Kennedy flashed at times, contributing a nasty inside forehand break to punctuate a long Alpha possession in the semifinal. Alpha also had a bit more skill and experience downfield, with Cooper Williams and Sean Wiles standing out as big targets in the middle. Skyrise came as close as 13-10 down the stretch, but Alpha won the last of several marathon points to go up 14-10, then gained entry to the final with a toe-dragging goal for a 15-10 win.
Skyrise, which ended the Carolina Kickoff slotted in fourth place, looked like a team on the rise. I spoke briefly with head coach and Charlotte Express veteran Sean Kelley about the state of the program. He seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the increasing level of participation and buy-in, and I’d have to agree based on the on-field product. UNCC went 2-2 in pool play but had a solid quarterfinal win over Penn State, who finished 3-1 in the A pool with Darkside. In the semifinal, Skyrise showed good handler chemistry and solid athleticism (though maybe a lack of experience) among the cutters. Rookie Kal Busker stuck out as a productive first-year player downfield, with a nice huck grab followed by a quick assist to fellow rookie Robert Scott-Williams. I didn’t catch a flash play from captain Ben Simmons, but he also seems to generate a lot of big plays for UNCC.
UNC’s semifinal matchup with no.4 seed South Carolina ended *quickly,* and not really due to sloppy play by the Gamecocks. Darkside just made everything difficult for their opponents and capitalized on mistakes with demoralizing consistency. Despite the lopsided score, South Carolina showed some poise on offense, cleanly working the disc down the field on the game’s opening possession before a relatively unforced throwaway near the goal line. Like clockwork, Darkside responded with a huck and a quick dish to go up 1-0. USC tried the long ball on their next offensive possession, but UNC’s Eli Fried outpositioned the receiver and went chest-high for a layout block in the end zone. The Darkside defensive line turned it over, but quickly recovered the disc; Luke Duan scored to make it 2-0. In the time it takes to compose a tweet about another game, Darkside went up 4-1. Blink again? 6-3.
The Gamecocks connected on a huck near the goal line, but turned the disc over on a stall nine desperation shot. UNC took advantage quickly to make it 7-3, then a poach block in the middle of the field for Darkside turned into an 8-3 halftime lead. Darkside received the second half pull, held to score, and the rout was on. UNC’s rookies and depth players started to stand out as the game wore on; particularly memorable was a defensive play from first-year player Hayden Naylor, who snatched a USC pass out of the air nanoseconds after it left the thrower’s hand; Naylor then quickly dished, found a soft spot in coverage in the back of the end zone, and collected the bookends on a soft upside-down pass to make it 12-5. Not very rookie-like at all. Soon thereafter, Darkside had closed it out, 15-6.
Again, South Carolina looked perfectly competent in this game and had a solid tournament, finishing third. The Gamecocks went 3-1 Saturday, with a 15-11 loss to NC State deciding the pool. USC knocked off no.3 seed Duke in a quarterfinal matchup and beat UNC Charlotte twice, in pool play and in the third place bracket. When the offense was working against Darkside, I really liked the Gamecocks’ flow and continuation; it wasn’t as if they scored on desperate or lucky plays. Against Darksidse, USC scored on a nice huck from Thomas Davidson to Jackson Giovanelli, who then dished to Gavin Russell; Russell placed a great touch forehand in the back of the end zone for a Joseph Cammarata goal. Those types of scores showed what the Gamecocks offense could be.
Brad Ward is a media analyst and freelance writer in Durham, NC. He played ultimate for the University of Mississippi, and for club teams including Brah, Turbine, and Turmoil.
TAGGED: USAU College D-I Men's, Presented by Spin Ultimate
EVENTS: 2023 Carolina Kickoff – Men’s , 2023 Carolina Kickoff – Women’s
Tennis Racquet Bags TEAMS: NC State , North Carolina , South Carolina , UNC Charlotte