July 31, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
In 2014, when Rick Gross first joined the Indianapolis AlleyCats as a 19-year-old kid with minimal ultimate experience, few would have characterized him as a versatile player. He clearly had next level athleticism, but his technical abilities were astonishingly limited. Even he admits his throwing skills were poor, and his cutting instincts required significant refinement.
In other words, he was exactly the type of project that certain teams look for, someone who can develop into a star through coaching and repetition. And by the time he turned 23 in July of 2017, there was little doubt that Gross had become an All-AUDL caliber player. He finished that season with the top plus/minus in the entire league and earned Second Team All-AUDL honors, presumably missing a First Team nod only because his organization had gone 5-9 and missed the playoffs. But the individual transformation from 2014 to 2017 was incredible nonetheless.
“His growth from just a few years ago has been staggering,” remarked long-time AlleyCats Head Coach Eric Leonard in July of 2017. “The first time I met Rick, he was the typical ‘athlete, but not yet ultimate player,’ who could win jump balls but not much else. He has become a truly complete player on both sides of the disc, thanks to his hard work and a high standard of excellence.”
While no AUDL player has ever led the league in plus/minus two seasons in a row, no one’s come closer to doing so than Gross. After finishing number one with a +99 in 2017, he ranked third in 2018 at +92, only four points behind the leader (Dallas’ Jay Froude). The only two others who have even approached this milestone would be Froude, who finished fourth in 2017 and first in 2018, and five-time champ and two-time MVP Beau Kittredge, whose plus/minus registered second-best in the league in 2014 and fourth in 2015. Clearly, that’s pretty special company for Gross, whose career plus/minus ranks also in the top five all-time! Though he’s still chasing teammates Cameron Brock and Keenan Plew, along with veterans Cam Harris and Goose Helton on that all-time plus/minus chart, Gross’s per game plus/minus (4.9) is actually superior to the rest of that quartet.
Furthermore, this next chapter of the Disc In series is focusing on versatility, which we’ll loosely define as the ability to collect goals, assists, and blocks over the course of a season. It took Gross some time to unveil his complete arsenal of skills, but by his third full season, he regularly gave glimpses of his all-around excellence. That year, in 2016, was the first of three straight seasons where he mustered at least 20 goals, 20 assists, and 20 blocks. From 2016-2018, he actually averaged 52 goals, 31 assists, and 26 blocks per season, remarkable numbers over a three-year span.
For a little context, it may surprise you to realize that there’s only one other player in AUDL history who has recorded three 20/20/20 seasons; Madison’s Andrew Meshnick, from 2014-16, produced an average of 33 goals, 33 assists, and 32 blocks per year. Aside from Gross and Meshnick, who each have three 20/20/20 seasons apiece, only five other players in AUDL history have mustered multiple 20/20/20 seasons: New York’s Ryan Drost, Madison’s Peter Graffy, two-time MVP (who has played for five different franchises) Goose Helton, Froude, and Kittredge, all with two 20/20/20 campaigns on their ledgers.
Although hampered a bit by injuries in 2019, Gross still led the AlleyCats in goals, was named an AUDL All-Star, and got to compete in his first final four as a member of the Midwest Division champs last season. And as he explained in our recent conversation, he was especially eager to try and rediscover his 2016-18 form in 2020, prior to the pandemic that provoked the cancelation of the season.
Despite not getting to watch his resurgence on the field this summer, it was still quite interesting to hear Gross’ reflections on his AUDL journey, how he’s grown, and what he still hopes to improve in the future. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: Firstly, how are you and what has your life been like over the past several months?
Rick Gross: I’ve been great. I got engaged in February so my year started off amazing and then this pandemic hit. It’s been weird trying to plan a wedding with all the unknowns about Covid and whether it will affect our wedding in May. As far was work life, I work at a plastics company and we’ve been busier than ever. Making germ shields and other Covid related parts has consumed life at work. Outside of work I’ve dove into the deep end with disc golf. It’s a whole lot more forgiving on the body!
EL: What was your reaction when you first heard about the potential plan that would have brought a possible week-long AUDL bubble season to Indianapolis? And the obvious follow-up, what were your feelings when the decision was made to officially shelve that plan and cancel the 2020 season?
RG: I was excited to hear that there was potential for a 2020 season, especially more so that it would be here in Indy. I was initially bummed when I heard that the season was canceled, but thought it was the best decision for the league and players.
EL: Back in the spring, I heard some of your teammates say that you weren't totally yourself last year in terms of dealing with a preseason/in-season injury that limited your conditioning and overall effectiveness. Obviously, you still had a very strong season for the team that won the Midwest Division, and you had by far your best season in terms of avoiding turnovers, but I'd be curious to hear your recollections about last season and how you felt physically compared to previous years? What was it like to try and compete at the highest level you possibly could while also knowing deep down that perhaps your overall athleticism/endurance was not the same as previous years?
RG: Yeah, last season was pretty terrible for me. Before the season I gained a bunch of weight and got injured during some tournament around Christmas time. I was not able to practice or workout the way I wanted to leading up to the season. I felt slow on every cut and looked even slower on film. I wasn’t close to the player I was in previous years, which was very demoralizing. Fortunately, I played on such a talented o-line. Consistent Keenan Plew, the scoring king himself Cameron Brock, do-it-all Travis Carpenter, in my opinion the most underrated player in the league Keegan North, gunslinger Levi Jacobs and the youngin Alex Henderson. Doesn’t get much better than that! I ended up losing all that weight earlier this year which made the canceled season even more of a bummer. Just builds up the excitement for next season.
EL: One of the reasons I started by asking about your 2019 season is it does strikingly contrast to your otherworldly 2017 and 2018 seasons, a two-year span in which you led the league in plus/minus. When you think back to these two years, your fourth and fifth years in the AUDL, what were the things that clicked in terms of your game and the system the AlleyCats had you in to enable you to maintain such a high level of production? Is there a particular game or stretch of games from this two-year window that you're most proud of?
RG: I just felt all around better in seasons prior to 2019. I felt faster and more explosive. Everything about my game just felt amazing. My timing on cuts felt perfect, and I had a higher confidence with the disc in my first five seasons than I had last season. But I feel like the other half of my success was due to my teammates. My teammates had a lot of trust in me winning my matchup and coming down with the disc. Playing on a line with such talented players is a matchup nightmare for other teams, which made the target on my back smaller.
EL: Before going further, can you briefly share your narrative regarding how you entered into ultimate? What sports did you play growing up, how did you discover the disc, and when did your passion for frisbee really begin to blossom?
RG: I grew up playing all kinds of different sports, but baseball was the sport I played throughout high school. My cousins invited me to play pickup ultimate one summer, and I instantly fell in love. The only taste of competitive ultimate I had was a couple unsanctioned tournaments with Taylor University. Heard there were tryouts for the AlleyCats and thought why not. The rest is history.
EL: So, this chapter of the "Disc In" series is featuring players who have registered 20 goals, 20 assists, and 20 blocks in a season, and you are one of just two players in the history of the league that has had three separate 20/20/20 seasons in your career! (And not that it really matters, but you were one block in 2016 shy from having three straight 25/25/25 seasons! Presumably some statistician screwed up at some point that year.) The question is this: How have you practiced to become as well-rounded of a player as possible? I know that at one point your throws were behind the rest of your skills so you maybe spent more time and focus on refining your throws, and I wonder if that's still the case or if there's something else that you're now working to perfect?
RG: Wow. I knew I’ve hit 20/20/20 in a season, but didn’t know I was one of two players in the history of the league with three separate seasons of hitting that stat line. I started playing on the D-line, mainly because I couldn’t throw and didn’t know how to cut, which sparked my love for defense. Defense came pretty easy for me, but that wasn’t the case for me offensively. I think being open and coachable is the biggest part of growth. I just opened up to taking in all the knowledge and suggestions from coaches and players. Learning throwing mechanics from Coach [Eric] Leonard and teammates like Kyle Cox helped a ton. And I could study how Keenan and Cam were making their cuts. It helps when you get to watch and play against all these amazing players! I’m nowhere close to where I want to be. My throws are still not up to par with the rest of my game. I’d like to dial in my deep throws and add that to my arsenal!
EL: Back in your first season with the AlleyCats, you made an impact very quickly, recording five goals and five blocks in your first two games. What do you remember most about that season from your perspective? And additionally, I'm eager to hear your recollections about where you were as a thrower then and what it was like to throw your first assist in your 11th game of the year?
RG: I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a pretty weird guy and that I’m pretty shy. I don’t think I said a thing through the first half of my first year. I remember in the middle of a game Levi Jacobs came up to me and asked, “Do you ever talk?” That’s when I realized I needed to become more outgoing. Now you’ll here me screaming during warmups and being more vocal on the field. Kind of embarrassing to think of how bad of a thrower I was my first year. I’ve said it in interviews before but I hated catching the disc anywhere other than the end zone. I was so afraid to catch the disc in the middle of the field because all I could throw was a decent backhand. It’s kind of funny thinking about the player I was my first year compared to now.
EL: With the AlleyCats playing most of their home games indoors over the past couple years, what's your perspective on trying to play your best defense when you're indoors and opponents' throws theoretically won't be impeded by any meteorological conditions? How does your mindset change when playing D indoors vs. out?
RG: Playing defense is completely different indoors versus outdoors for me. Whenever I play defense outside, I bait the deep throw more knowing the factors that can come into play with some of the throws. You can’t do that indoors. You have to be right on your opponents hip at all times knowing that there isn’t a headwind or crosswind to disturb the throws.
EL: Considering you've played plenty of offense and plenty of defense throughout your career, I'll ask you both: who are the toughest players you've hard to guard when you've been on D? And who are the toughest defenders that you've had to deal with when you've been on offense?
RG: The toughest player I’ve had to guard would have to be [Chicago’s] AJ Nelson. I have a pretty funny story about him. It was when we played Chicago in the outfield at some minor league baseball stadium. It was a dead disc and he started up a conversation with me. As soon as I started talking he took off deep for an easy score. It was a solid veteran move and I couldn’t even be upset about it! But he is by far the toughest player I’ve guarded, the fastest player I’ve matched up against and wins every matchup in the air. There are two players that come to mind when I think of the toughest defenders I’ve had. First one being Sterling Knoche from Madison, and not far behind him, Jimmy Kittlesen from Minnesota.
EL: Finishing with a couple non-ultimate questions: outside of ultimate, who's your favorite athlete, and why? What's your favorite team, and why?
RG: I’m going to get a lot of hate for naming my favorite athlete, especially from Keenan, but it has to be LeBron James. He can do basically everything on the court and makes his teammates better. He’s such a fun player to watch and a once-in-a-generation player.
Favorite team is the Indianapolis Colts. Growing up in Indy during the Peyton Manning era made it hard not to fall in love with the Colts!
EL: What’s the best tv show or movie you've watched at some point during the quarantine?
RG: Favorite show right now would have to be “Alone” on Netflix.