Tuesday Toss: 2024 Season Heats Up In Week 5

May 28, 2024
By Evan Lepler

One month into the UFA season, a smorgasbord of intriguing storylines have already emerged.

At the top of the list, Salt Lake has found a new gear, Carolina has rekindled its 2021 championship form, and the two-time reigning champs in New York have appeared much more mortal than past seasons, even if the Empire are still sitting at 4-1 atop the East. 

We have witnessed road teams enjoying historic success, Callahans becoming even more common, and all but two of the 24 franchises have experienced an early-season setback. On an individual level, new stars have surged into prominence, including several international imports who’ve enjoyed memorable debuts. 

Still, the pre-Memorial Day ultimate is always something of a prelude, an appetizer simmering before the real battles begin to bubble. Once college ultimate ends—and big-time congrats to the Brown men on their program’s fourth championship and the UNC women on their unprecedented fourth consecutive championship—the professional landscape starts to shift.

In the coming weeks, dozens of college standouts will rejoin their UFA teams across the continent, and depending on health, availability, and circumstance, many could be in the mix to help boost teams toward Championship Weekend. These additions, to a certain extent, will bolster a team’s depth. But more importantly, it’s about adding quality, and with so many younger players capable of competing at the highest level, we will inevitably see several teams where college kids can and will contribute immediately. 

Three days from now, we’re set for perhaps the most fulfilling frisbee Friday in years. Jeff Babbitt returns to New York. Carolina puts its perfect record on the line at Austin. Chicago hosts Madison in a battle between one-loss squads in the Central. And that’s all before the main event out in Colorado, where the Summit host the Atlanta Hustle in the latest Super Series showdown. 

Those are just four of the five games scheduled for Friday, and four of the 14 contests on tap for this jam-packed upcoming ultimate weekend. The 2024 season, which has been gradually simmering over the past month, is set for a sizzling slate in Week 6. 

The Full Field Layout

Some abbreviated thoughts from keeping tabs on the Week 5 action while dodging lightning bolts and watching college ultimate this past weekend in Madison. 

Chicago’s two wins in Texas were the clear top story of the weekend, especially because of who was suiting up for the Union. Four of the top five in plus/minus on Friday were guys who were not on the team last year. The organization has undergone a pretty massive overhaul since making the UFA championship game just two years ago, but they still have the same coach and some of the same leaders. To win back-to-back road games with the new nucleus, including a victory over a team that made Championship Weekend last year, speaks to the team’s strong foundational core. At this point, it feels certain that every team in the Central will have multiple losses during the season, and it’s likely that 9-3 or 8-4 will win the regular season race in this division. Chicago could absolutely be in the mix, especially if the team can get an on-field contribution from standout Joe White, who has not played yet this season but is listed as questionable for Friday’s matchup against Madison. 

Meanwhile, Minnesota remains the favorite in the Central, responding to their Week 4 blip with a strong final three quarters against the Radicals this past Friday. Matt Rehder may not be the most consistent playmaker, but he gives the Wind Chill offense an explosive and slightly more versatile hybrid alongside Quinn Snider to make things happen downfield. And Bryan Vohnoutka, even in his mid-30s, remains one of the most underrated two-way performers in the entire league. With road wins over Chicago and Madison, the Wind Chill’s status atop their division is clear, though that certainly does not mean Minnesota will finish atop the quadrant with interdivisional battles against Colorado and New York still looming on the schedule. 

While exactly two-thirds of the league have played four games or fewer, the Salt Lake Shred are already halfway through their slate with a perfect 6-0 record. Most recently, the Shred fought off the pesky San Diego Growlers with a brilliant third-quarter on Saturday night. The Growlers held a lead at halftime on Salt Lake’s home turf, but the Shred scored six straight goals and completely overwhelmed San Diego in the third. Luke Yorgason and Jacob Miller lead the league in completions, Jordan Kerr paces the circuit in assists, and the Shred’s defense has repeatedly shown it doesn’t need a timeout call to convert numerous breaks in a row. If Championship Weekend was being held outside of Utah, I would currently consider the Shred co-favorites in the title chase, along with the Carolina Flyers. But since Zions Bank Stadium will give the Shred a healthy hometown boost in the postseason, I think you gotta view Salt Lake as the team to beat after one month of action.

And, just for the record, New York is pretty close to neck and neck with the Shred and Flyers from a championship odds standpoint. Quietly, the Empire have significantly evolved since their loss at Atlanta, most notably in their superb performance this past Saturday against Philly.

At the other end of the spectrum, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Portland all remained winless after road setbacks against Pittsburgh, New York, and Seattle, respectively. But the Toronto Rush did taste triumph for the first time this season by humbling the Thunderbirds on Saturday night north of the border. 

Who would have ever predicted that the East’s first interdivisional victory of the season would belong to the Rush rather than the Empire or the Breeze. Through the first five weeks, in which there have been six interdivisional games, the West is the only division to avoid interdivisional defeat, winning its only opportunity with Salt Lake’s positive result over DC. Meanwhile, the South is 2-1 in interdivisional matchups, while the Central is 2-2 and the East is 1-2. 

There are 10 more interdivisional contests on the schedule over the next eight weeks. 

Seven On The Line

1. New York Retires Beau Kittredge’s Number 50

Even though he only played two seasons for the Empire, Beau Kittredge had his jersey number retired by the New York organization on Friday night. The two-time UFA MVP and five-time champion received a frame #50 Empire jersey and was celebrated as part of the team’s annual alumni night. 

“I haven’t been here in a long time and it’s a good thing to come back and see the sport and how much it’s evolved in a few short years,” said Kittredge, in a conversation with Dan Hilton during the WatchUFA.tv telecast. 

Kittredge played in six UFA seasons for four different franchises from 2014-19, going 17-1 in his 18 career playoff games. When Hilton asked him what were some of the things in his career that he was most proud of, he immediately mentioned the development of professional ultimate. 

“I still remember some of those early conversations,” explained Kittredge, “about where the sport was gonna go with some of these people that were like ‘what if we try to make professional ultimate a thing?’ And I remember thinking, I’ve always wanted to be a professional ultimate player, but there was no league. Now we have these people that want to make the league happen, we should give it a go. We have the skill. It’s a beautiful sport. We just had to put it all together. It took a long time, but it’s so cool to see where it is now.”

2. Empire Set New Standard versus Philly

Aside from the Kittredge ceremony, New York also enjoyed their cleanest game of the season. In fact, with just seven turns against the Phoenix, the Empire produced a new league-wide season low in the turnover department. It’s the fewest turns any team has had in a 48-minute game since New York’s historic playoff performance against DC last August, when the Empire managed just four turns in four quarters vs. the Breeze in the East Division finals. 

The Empire also put together by far their best hucking performance of the season, going 11-for-12 on 40-plus yard throws against Philly. In their first four games, New York had gone just 15-for-36 on their hucks, a league-worst 41.7 percent clip. Adding in Friday’s near flawless effort, the Empire moved up to 19th in the league in huck percentage. The Carolina Flyers, who’ve completed 21-of-28 hucks in their two games, lead the league with a 75 percent success rate on their biggest throws, though that will likely dip during their doubleheader in typically windy Texas this coming weekend.

3. Is D-Line Conversion Rate Misleading?

I pose this question because you would never guess who leads the league in D-line conversion rate through five weeks. 

It’s the winless Philly Phoenix, who have converted almost three-quarters of their break chances during their four straight losses to start the season. But the catch, of course, is they have generated a historically low number of break opportunities in their four games. In 16 quarters, plus two overtime periods vs. the Breeze, the Phoenix D-line has only produced 11 turnovers from their opponent’s O-line. They are 8-for-11, good for a 72.7 percent success rate, which is number one in the league. But their D-line has broken on only 12.9 percent of the total number of points its played, and that’s second-worst in the league, better than only the hapless Mechanix. 

This is perhaps a small reminder that while conversion percentage certainly matters, the volume of opportunities to break probably looms as the more significant stat, especially at the extremes. 

4. Red Zone Rate Underrated

Avoiding turnovers, especially when you’re close to scoring, is obviously an important aspect of winning. 

Last season, the 11 best teams when it came to red-zone conversion rate all had .500 or better records. The Breeze, Shred, and Empire, who were considered perhaps the three best teams in the league last year, were one, two, and three in this category. 

In 2024, even after just a month, the data is similarly clear. Presently, 10 of the top 11 teams in red-zone rate are .500 or better, with the 2-3 San Diego Growlers, who’ve lost twice to 6-0 Salt Lake, as the lone exception. The Carolina Flyers are number one in the league with a scintillating 96.7 red-zone conversion percentage through two games. 

Interestingly, the best full-season red-zone rate in UFA history—since tracking began in 2021—belongs to the 2021 Chicago Union, who converted 87.4 percent of their possessions near the goal line. Of course, that Union team fell to the Flyers in overtime in the semifinals at Championship Weekend, but it was not a result of red zone errors; the Union went 12-for-12 in the red zone that game, but their 4-for-12 display on hucks severely damaged the cause. 

5. Atlanta’s A-Team Traveling West

Although it’s early in the week and lineups can shift unexpectedly, the early listing for Atlanta’s lineup at Colorado consists of the exact same 20 that suited up against New York on May 4. Obviously, on that particular night against the Empire, the Hustle showed exactly what their ceiling can be as they handed New York their first loss in almost three years. University of Georgia standout Adam Miller has not played since, but he’s expected to be back on the UFA field this Friday, as are most of the Hustle’s other premier players. 

The lone exception might be Aidan Downey, who won the 2024 Callahan Award this past weekend in Madison. Downey played two games for the Hustle back in 2022, but he has not taken the field in the UFA yet this year. When he does make his 2024 debut, it will give the Hustle the last two male Callahan winners on the same squad, as Downey joins the 2023 Callahan recipient, Justin Burnett

6. Colorado Adding College Talent Too

The early Summit roster for Week 6 includes a couple members of the University of Colorado Mamabird squad that could potentially make their UFA debuts this Friday against the Hustle. Nanda Min-Fink led his college team in goals at Nationals and could give the Summit O-line a boost, while Zeke Thoreson has been considered one of the rising defensive talents in the entire country. 

Jonathan Nethercutt, who missed Colorado’s last game versus Salt Lake, is also expected to be back on the field for the Summit on Friday. 

7. Updating the Callahan Count

There were only two Callahans during the eight-game Week 5 slate, which proportionally is a smaller number than we’ve seen earlier this season, but it still perpetuates the crazy trend of Callahans becoming way more common since the start of the 2023 season. 

For perspective, from 2014 through 2022, the UFA averaged just under 15 Callahans per year, approximately one Callahan in every 10 or so games. Clearly, the defensive score used to be super rare. 

But incredibly, we’ve already seen 15 Callahans in just 47 games this season, a rate of nearly one for every three games played. Last year, there were 42 Callahans in 155 games, including the playoffs. 

There’s no doubt that the rule changes moving the pull forward 20 yards and basically outlawing sideline roller pulls shy of midfield have helped to dramatically increase the Callahan count, which is adding intrigue and entertainment value to virtually every game. 

The Hammer

Quick turnaround for me in the travel department this week. After an exhilarating (and exhausting) four days at College Nationals in Madison, I fortunately caught a flight home late Monday evening. But back to the airport I go this Thursday night, and I’m super excited to journey back to the Rocky Mountains for Friday’s Super Series action featuring Atlanta and Colorado. These are clearly two teams with championship ambitions, and we know that each team’s highest level is exceptional and elite, though neither has consistently met those expectations. 

So we shall see together whether the Hustle or the Summit can finish the month with victory, and the calendar flips to June on Saturday with a very busy weekend of ultimate across the Association.

I’ll be alongside Ian Toner and Chuck Kindred Friday in Golden, and we’ll talk to you then!