Disc In: A Chat with Ryan Drost

August 10, 2020
By Evan Lepler  - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive

The terms are interchangeable: blocks and Ds. Either way you say it, they are a metric that counts the number of times a defender gets a piece of the disc and earns their team possession. Obviously, ‘block’ is a more universal descriptor that spans multiple sports, while “Ds” are a more casual characterization, part of ultimate’s traditional cultural jargon. As a broadcaster, it’s nice to have both as acceptable verbal variations. But one day, I might try and convince some unsuspecting frisbee newbie that “Ds” became common parlance because of Mike and Ryan Drost, who combined have accumulated 324 of them in their illustrious AUDL careers with the New York Empire.

Twin brothers who celebrated their respective 31st birthdays this week, the Drosts are best known on the field for their defensive dominance. Individually, Mike D. tops the all-time charts, while Ryan D. is fourth in AUDL history. And since Ryan did not play in 2013, he actually has more blocks than his brother since the start of the 2014 season. Together, as was pointed out in Mike’s Disc In feature back in May, the Drosts have created a gargantuan gap—214 blocks, to be precise—between them and the league’s next best brotherly duo when it comes to Ds. For perspective, there was not a single team in the AUDL’s 2019 regular season that registered 200 blocks as a full organization, an indication that no siblings—not even if all of Ben Jagt’s seven brothers join the league—will be approaching Mike and Ryan’s totals anytime soon. Presuming they both keep playing into their mid-30s, the defensive disruptions should continue to mount, potentially to the point where they rank first and second on the historic ledger; and in the event of this occurrence, clarifying that Ds were named after Drosts seems all the more plausible. 

Despite the fact that Mike led the league in blocks back in 2013, Ryan is the only Drost who’s ever been named to an All-AUDL team, which he was in 2016, a First Team All-AUDL nod after his 36-goal, 23-assist, 32 Ds campaign for the New York Empire. That was also Ryan’s second consecutive 20/20/20 season, putting him in elite company as one of the seven players in AUDL history to register multiple years of at least 20 goals, 20 assists, and 20 blocks. With the Empire earning championship glory in 2019, Drost is one of four AUDL players all-time to have achieved these statistical plaudits and also a title, joining current Empire teammate Beau Kittredge and Madison Radicals’ Peter Graffy and Andrew Meshnick.

As for how Ryan has gone about wreaking havoc defensively throughout his career, current Empire Head Coach Bryan Jones summed it up simply by saying, “He has a tenacity to make up ground at the very last moment and never gives up on a play.”

Jones appreciated Ryan’s abilities as an opposing coach and AUDL broadcaster, but was especially enlightened when he got the opportunity to coach him during the Empire’s undefeated 2019 season. 

“I learned how smart he is,” declared Jones, reflecting on the season spent on New York’s sidelines. “We use Mike and Ryan differently, but they both have similar abilities and field sense. He’s a really smart player and capable of taking away an opponent’s strong suit as opposed to going after blocks.”

Ironically, Ryan and Mike each had career-lows for blocks in Jones’ defensive system in 2019, but the franchise’s unprecedented success had to be an easy and satisfying trade-off, if not a reminder that the stats may not always tell the true and complete story about a defender’s all-around impact on a game. With that said, only one player in the entire league has more blocks than Ryan Drost since he made his debut in 2014. As a defender, an all-around threat, and now a champion, Ryan’s legacy, along with his brother’s, is in a pretty darn good spot.

I think you’ll enjoy reading the exchange I had with Ryan earlier this week, delving into memories from his rookie year, his favorite moments from his career, and how he almost became a professional referee rather than a player. 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?

Ryan Drost: Life has been very different, just like it has for everyone, though fortunately not in a particularly negative way for me personally. My girlfriend Tricia and I have both been working from home, so we've been driving between Chicago and Connecticut to spend time with both of our families, and recently we've been back in our apartment in Brooklyn again. With so much unknown, we are taking it a few weeks at a time. We've seen some friends a couple times lately, but it's been almost exclusively zoom workouts, online board games, etc. 

EL: What types of things have you done to continue training recently, and did the news of the AUDL season officially getting canceled impact your motivation levels at all?

RD: Oh, definitely. It's hard to stay motivated when everything is canceled and when you know it will be so long before you can play again. Before the cancelation announcement, I was doing regular workouts, including sprints, weights, and throwing.

I’m thankful Tricia is also a competitive ultimate player—she plays in the Premier Ultimate League on New York Gridlock—so I have a great partner to push me in workouts and throwing, especially now that we don’t have team activities.  One day, Tricia and I even held a two-person practice together where we ran through a full warm-up, drills, and talked to each other like we were at practice. Of course, when it came time for the scrimmage portion, we figured there wasn't much more we could do. 

But now I've shifted my focus from anything ultimate-specific and we have mostly just been lifting and running in order to keep a base level of fitness up. We're trying to improve our one-mile time and see what we can run by the end of the normal frisbee season.

EL: Your career with the Empire is often grouped together from a longevity standpoint with your brother Mike, along with Matt Stevens, Matt Auletta, Matt LeMar, CJ Ouellette, and the others who've been on the team since the franchise was founded in 2013. But you actually did not play for the team in 2013, joining in 2014. Why was that? I can't imagine you tried out and got cut, so I'm guessing it was a life situation that prevented you from committing or perhaps you were just uncertain about what the AUDL would be like? Did you attend any games as a fan in 2013 to watch your brother and others?

RD: I didn't try out for the Empire in 2013 partially because I wasn't sure what the league even was, and in part because I had had shoulder surgery the previous fall. At that point, I had only played at Amherst and then one season on a mid-tier regionals club team, so I really didn't have any concept of what the AUDL would be. I had a lot of confidence because I had been pretty successful where I had played, but I was also unsure about how I'd fit in at a higher level.

Still, I'm pretty sure Mike would have talked me into going to tryouts with him if I could have played, but I wasn't cleared to play frisbee yet because of the shoulder surgery.

I did go to a few games in 2013 as a fan, including the first ever Empire game. I actually almost officiated that game. I had emailed the team because I was interested in taking statistics for them, but instead they asked me to be a referee since they were still looking for people. I had a call with the league's head of officiating, and he wasn't exactly excited when I told him I had zero referee or observer experience, but the fact that I knew the rules of ultimate was enough to get me assigned. Mike didn't like it though—he was nervous about how it would look to have his brother reffing the game—so I ended up backing out. It's funny because I'm pretty sure the Empire assistant coach wound up being one of the referees for that game.

EL: And the semi-follow up to that is to ask about you and your twin brother, Mike, who both rank among the all-time defenders in AUDL history (he's number one in blocks; you're number four; but your career plus/minus per game is slightly superior!). I think the general feeling is that your overall skillsets and athletic abilities are fairly similar, but I'm hoping I can get you to share your honest scouting report on you vs. your brother? What aspects of ultimate is he better at and which areas do you have an edge?

RD: You’re not the first person to ask, and everyone is always disappointed with our answers, but we are just very similar. I'll give you something though. I like to think my flicks and flick hucks are a little more consistent and a little smoother. And his backhands are probably better.

EL: Last time I'll mention Mike, I promise, but I know that he credits you for suggesting that he start playing ultimate in college and teaching him the basics the summer after your freshman years. Can you briefly share your narrative regarding how you entered into ultimate? What sports did you play growing up, how did you discover ultimate, and when did your passion for frisbee really begin to blossom?

RD: I dabbled in lots of sports growing up, but I started running track and cross country in high school. I continued to run track (but not cross country) throughout most of college. My main event was the 400 hurdles.

I had never heard of ultimate as a sport before college, apart from a version we played in gym class where you could take three steps with the disc and no one threw anything except barbecue backhands. The first week of orientation at Amherst, there were open games of soccer and frisbee on the quad to meet your fellow classmates. I figured I'd go and play some soccer, but when I got there, there were two people kicking a soccer ball off to the side and maybe 50 people playing frisbee. So I was like, I guess I'll play frisbee!

I didn't know any of the rules and couldn't throw to save my life. I was doing things like catching out of bounds pulls and throwing as I ran. I only realized later how annoying that must have been. But I was fast and athletic so the upperclassmen from the ultimate team took an interest in me. I had a blast immediately and they invited me to come to practice the next week. 

However, because I was running track from November through May, I really only played ultimate in the fall season. My frisbee teammates were always pleading with me to quit track, and I finally did in the spring of my senior year so I could play ultimate during my last semester. It was a tough choice, but dislocating my shoulder for the first time that January gave me some clarity. I wasn't able to run the same type of workouts in preparation for the outdoor track season, which meant I was less likely to improve on my times from the year before; but more importantly, during the period where I wasn't sure how serious the injury was, the prospect of not being able to play frisbee at all that last semester worried me much more than potentially missing the track season. That helped put it in perspective for me.

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, which you've done twice in your career, one of seven players in league history with multiple 20/20/20 seasons (including playoff numbers). Over the course of your career, how have you balanced the desire to be as well-rounded of a player as possible while also trying to emphasize or specialize in a certain area? Between cutting/receiving, throwing, and defending, which is the category that you still feel you can improve the most in?

RD: My focus is on defense, especially now, because that's what my role is on Empire and where I can really help the team. I use practice as an opportunity to learn how to play with my teammates and what I can expect them to be doing in certain situations. A lot of that comes naturally to me, but every small improvement there is valuable to the team. Outside of practice, I spend the most time working on my throwing and trying to become more consistent since that’s where I personally have the most to gain.

EL: What do you most remember from your AUDL debut? It was a slim loss to Toronto, but you scored five goals and recorded three blocks in your first ever professional game, with no turnovers. Do you recall having nerves before that game? Any particular moments you were especially proud of or remember as a not-so-smooth "Welcome to the AUDL" type experience? How did your individual success in that game help your confidence, if at all, going forward?

RD: I didn't really appreciate what the AUDL was at that point, so I don't remember being nervous. I didn't know enough to be nervous about playing against Mark Lloyd and the rest of Toronto's experienced team. I mean, the atmosphere just wasn't the same as what I imagine it is now for new players. Case in point, one person showed up an hour before the game that day, and [Head Coach] Tom [Gibson] announced to the team that he'd be playing in the game with us. None of us outside the North Carolina crew had ever met him before. That kind of thing wasn't unusual back then.

But I do remember that I had a very good game, and I think I scored three or four of those goals in the first quarter actually. I got a run through block early and scored a goal immediately after, and yes, those plays definitely helped me feel like I belonged right away.

EL: The top plus/minus of your career, in a single game, actually came in your second game ever, a +12 while routing a noncompetitive Rochester team. Besides that, you've been +8 or better 10 other times. But obviously the stats don't always tell the story, especially for someone who's primarily been a defensive player. So the question is this: what do you consider the best game of your career individually? I know it's easy to say winning the title as a team, but I'm really curious if there's another game that stands out for a particular matchup you had or a game-changing sequence you were involved in or some other reason that you were especially proud of?

RD: Haha, I don't remember my individual performance from that Rochester game. I'm assuming that's the game we won 27-8, in which case it still comes up from time to time and we get a good laugh out of it. We liked to ask [former Dragon who then joined the Empire] Tim Kominos for his perspective on that game every now and then.

If we're speaking purely about my individual games, I'm most proud of a 2018 game against Ottawa. Jeff [Babbitt], Ben [Jagt], and Beau [Kittredge] were all nursing injuries and didn't play. It was the middle of the season and it was a game we expected to win and were "supposed" to win, but our record wasn't that great so we definitely needed a win. I felt like I stepped up without our top guys and helped us win that game. There was a particular play at the end of the third quarter where they threw a huck that would have tied it, but I caught the disc on defense. After an injury delay, I tossed it off and sprinted to the other end zone and ended up coming down with a floating half-field huck from Mike. I felt like that was a huge two-point swing which helped us avoid a devastating loss.

For an individual play, the most memorable moment is that hammer I threw to Jeff to tie the game against DC as time expired. It happened in 2016 but it was actually on FS2 [this past Wednesday night], and I flipped it on to watch. I turned it off before overtime though—no need to see that!

EL: Having been tasked with guarding so many top players throughout your career, I wonder who've been the two or three toughest matchups for you to handle in AUDL games? I specifically mention AUDL games because I understand it'd be easy to just focus on teammates you go up against in practice, but in games who've been the toughest individuals for you to guard?

RD: The single toughest matchup was probably Tyler DeGirolamo in 2014 [with the DC Breeze]. I only played two games against him, but his combination of size and speed was unguardable. He absolutely shredded us in the first game. We had to design our entire defense around how to contain him for the second game. Everyone had to know where he was on the field and help. We won that game so it did work, but he took the whole team’s focus. Currently, Quentin Bonnaud from the Montreal Royal is really tough to cover, and Rowan [McDonnell from the Breeze] too.

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?

RD: Growing up, my favorite athletes were the same as most kids in the 90s--Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey, Jerry Rice. But there's no doubt that my favorite player now is Joe Mauer, and it has been for a while. My favorite team has always been the Twins—because they're named after me!—and he was the local kid who stayed there for his whole career, won an MVP, three batting titles, multiple gold gloves... but I still never felt like he got his due. I had a Twins blog back in college where I wrote many glowing words about Mauer. Mike and I actually flew out to Minnesota for his final game in 2018 and it was very special. 

EL: What’s the best tv show or movie you've watched at some point during the quarantine?

RD: Technically I finished it a little before quarantine, but I watched all of Breaking Bad and that was really good. I expected there to be a little more preamble but they dove in right away and it was non-stop tension right from the start. For the first several episodes I kept expecting the pace to slow down and for the show to settle in, but then I was finally like, okay I guess it's just going to be this thrilling the whole time!

Currently we're watching The Wire. The problem we're finding is that Tricia's already seen so many of the top shows people recommend, and I haven't seen any of them. But she's awesome and is re-watching them with me. For the next one, I think we'll find one that neither of us has seen.