The Tuesday Toss: 17 Questions That Will Define The 2017 AUDL Season
February 21, 2017 — By Evan Lepler
With fewer than six weeks until the start of the league’s sixth season, it’s officially crunch time in the AUDL.
Every franchise knows that decisions made in the coming days—dealing with personnel, strategy, and commitment—are make or break for their 2017 title hopes. Almost every team has improved, so simply getting better may not be enough to rise into contention. For the first time since league was founded in 2012, the league added zero expansion teams during the offseason. That stability has fostered more competition and parity, which translates to deeper rosters and closer games.
Know this now: There will be good, talented AUDL teams that finish the season below .500. That is a guarantee.
Even though every organization has experience, many are still searching for the right framework. In a jam-packed ultimate calendar, what’s the right balance of practice vs. rest? Should a team prioritize a mega-talent that can only commit to half the games or a less flashy role player who’s prepared to buy-in entirely? These are challenging questions, and every team is still trying to figure out the answers. It’s an inexact science, and the differing theories often change from one year to the next.
Building a winning AUDL team is not simple algebra. It’s calculus, done upside down, underwater, and sometimes with a blindfold.
Many teams have already announced their full rosters, while others are still crafting their lineups, presumably weighing dozens of variables as they decide their best course for the season ahead.
There are 39 days between now and the six-game slate of AUDL Opening Weekend 2017. Let’s dive into 17 burning questions that will shape the march to Montreal and pursuit of championship glory.
1. Will the Jacksonville Cannons and their inevitable collection of killer highlights translate into wins?
On paper, one could argue that Jacksonville won the offseason. They are looking more stacked than ever, full of players who are used to regularly appearing in the weekly Top 10.
They return the record-breaking duo of Cole Sullivan and Mischa Freystaetter, the most dangerous connection in the AUDL. They bring back fellow highlight reel regulars like Andrew Roney and Bobby Ley.
Cole Sullivan led the league last year with 81 assists, one shy of the AUDL single-season record.
And their list of free agent pickups is stunning.
On January 6, they added an electric athlete in Jakeem Polk, who’s sky against Dallas might have been the play of the 2016 season, non Seattle-Madison game division. Four days later, they announced the re-signing of Jeremy Langdon after a year away. His steady performance (8a/7g/10b) in eight games on the defensive line for the champion Roughnecks last season is precisely the kind of reliable production the Cannons have sorely been in need of.
Jakeem Polk was a highlight machine during his rookie season in 2016.
Since then, the Cannons have locked in Chris LaRocque and Jordan Huston, a pair of young, skilled Florida State alums who defected to the Raleigh Flyers last year but are back in the Sunshine State this season.
Michael Hickson is also back on the squad after a year away. A part of the 2015 Cannons squad, Hickson was instrumental in securing the team's only playoff appearance with his big plays and relentless work ethic. While no one brings quite the same presence of Freystaetter, Hickson, his former UCF teammate, has the size and skill to truly be a terror in any cutting role.
Tyler Kunsa, who comes to the Cannons from the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, is another title-winning collegian who should help fill an important role for Jacksonville, providing stability to a D-line that struggled to convert breaks in 2016.
As the team’s primary incumbent quarterback, Sullivan’s surely salivating about all of these downfield possibilities. To add to the core of gunslingers, Sullivan reached out to his former University of Florida teammate and five-year AUDL veteran Brodie Smith, and recruited him into the fold as well. Aside from being the second most famous person in the world of ultimate thanks to his YouTube trick shot videos, Smith has a pedigree of being a championship-caliber player when healthy. He made the inaugural AUDL championship game in 2012 with the Indianapolis AlleyCats, qualified for the playoffs in all three seasons he was rostered on the Chicago Wildfire, and was a member of last year's Roughnecks team that won the title.
In spite of missing significant time due to injuries in his career, Brodie Smith is still 13th all-time in assists (118).
Together these additions have transformed Jacksonville into a must-watch contender not just for the South Division, but a dark horse for the league title. Frankly, I’m certain they will be exciting. But will they win a lot of games in the league’s deepest division?
Assistant Coach Beth Vavrica said that while it’s possible Sullivan and Freystaetter’s personal stat lines may suffer in 2017, the Cannons know they will be better this season.
“It definitely is gonna be playing more as a team,” shared Vavrica, who’s set to return to the Cannons sidelines alongside Head Coach Tuba Benson-Jaja this season. “Last year, we saw a lot of individual standouts, both in terms of play for a single game, a highlight reel for a single game, and over the course of the season, some individuals did a lion’s share of the work, and that’s not how it’s gonna be this year. We have different personnel, and everyone is committed to doing their role to make the team great. I don’t see anybody putting their egos first."
“Mischa’s not saying, ‘I’m gonna break my record from last year.’ He’s saying, ‘We’re gonna win a championship.’ That’s going to be a difference. We’re going to have more a supporting cast.”
Ironically, for the team that’s known for making some of the biggest plays, the key to a successful 2017 season might boil down to their ability to make the simplest ones. It’s not flashy to make a determined reset cut, but the Cannons have often been in trouble in the past because of their almost maniacal obsession with going too big, too often. Especially on defense, they lacked the unflappable and determined anchors to grind a critical break against a tired opponent.
Now, it appears they have the right players. If they accompany their skill sets with the right mentality, with a trust and buy-in that is easier believed than achieved, then the Jacksonville Cannons are a genuine threat.
2. Is Brodie Smith finally healthy?
The last time Brodie was 100 percent health-wise, he was a member of the Indianapolis AlleyCats. It was 2012, there were only eight teams in the league, and the trick-shot specialist teamed up with then-league MVP Goose Helton, Keenan Plew, and Cameron Brock to help lead Indy to the finals.
Now, the league is three times as large and, with all due respect to the valiant pros of year one, about 100 times as talented. And while the AUDL has flourished, one of the original marquee stars has struggled through tough luck and hard choices of one injury after another.
“I’ve been playing ultimate every season [since 2012] well under 100%,” Smith admitted. “Some years, closer to 50 or 60 percent, where I can barely move. It’s not fun.”
This was the Brodie on display for pieces of the 2016 season. The arm was still there, but the mobility was visibly hampered by the numerous leg injuries over the years.
Brodie Smith bombs a perfect pass into space during a 2016 game.
“But at the same time, I’ve had to make the decision of do I want to go out and try to play on a team and try to win a championship or do I want to rest. Unfortunately, for me, I made the decision to try and win a championship. It’s great when you win, but I destroyed my body.”
Last year—while rehabbing, of course—Smith played a very marginal role for the eventual champs, appearing in just a few games, none of which were in the postseason. But, aside from a bit of tendinitis, he has avoided serious injury and continues to rehab and train feverishly when he’s not filming his next trick shot extravaganza.
“Structurally, everything’s good,” he said. “I feel great. Spending about five hours every day in the gym. Two hours physical therapy, an hour of recovery. Able to lift some heavy weight now on my knees.”
When I chatted with Smith on Monday afternoon, he was still figuring out whether he was going to buy a plane ticket to attend Jacksonville’s minicamp this weekend. A trip to practice would double as a trip to visit Mom, who still resides in the Jacksonville area.
It was a phone call from Sullivan in the offseason that prompted the serious consideration of signing with the Cannons, and he also discussed the situation with Jacksonville’s Chris Gibson, the younger brother of Kurt, whom Brodie has played with almost nonstop since their college days. When the Cannons and Roughnecks collide, it will be the first time, outside of scrimmaging and practice, that the two Amazing Racers will actually compete against each other in a real game.
“I just gotta get lucky,” Brodie said. “I need one season where I get lucky and I don’t have some sort of weird thing happen to me.”
In his viral YouTube videos, he’s the unrivaled star, a hero full of precision and theatrics. Going forward, all he needs to be is a steady role player. When healthy, he brings cache and confidence.
If he stays healthy, he’s just another guy on a loaded roster who will be fun to follow.
3. How big can Jeff Babbitt be in a full season for the New York Empire?
As an AUDL rookie, fresh off a superhuman college career at UMass, Jeff Babbitt continued to cement his reputation as a defensive monster. When you watch him on film, catching buzzer beaters or getting horizontal, he often comes across as a giant.
Jeff Babbitt doesn't so much catch the disc as devour it.
For many years now, his mythical stature in the ultimate community has fostered a somewhat laughable story about his actual size.
“Usually, I’m assumed to be 6’5” or 6’4”, and that’s not close,” admitted an honest Babbitt, who said he’s actually right around 6’1 1/2". “Almost every single game or tournament, someone will come up to me and say how they thought I was taller. But it also follows someone else saying, ‘you’re just so tall.’ Like when I get a D, they’ll say, ‘you’re just so tall.’ And then someone will just stand next to me and be like ‘oh wait, he’s actually not that tall.”
Obviously, Babbitt’s consistent and stunning acrobatic explosiveness has brainwashed fans into believing he is an actual giant. In reality, that might better describe the impact he could have as a full-time AUDL standout for the first time this season.
Growing up in Easton, MA, Babbitt’s athletic exploits growing up were channeled toward basketball and football, the two sports he played during his time at Oliver Ames High School. When he gave up football during his sophomore year, he began to look a little bit more at ultimate thanks to the introduction by his brother Matt.
After a year and a half at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, Babbitt transferred to UMass, largely because he was looking for a more serious, competitive ultimate scene. And in three collegiate seasons in Amherst, he established himself as one of the most feared and revered stars in the sport.
Babbitt's highlights from his college career are a thing to behold.
It did not take long for him to make a huge splash in the AUDL, collecting 19 goals and 17 Ds in his month and a half with the Empire after signing following College Nationals last spring. This season, helping New York rise in the East is his number one priority.
Presently, he’s living in the Westchester area, right outside of NYC, training and prepping for the AUDL season. He is one of the small handful of players for whom ultimate is currently a full-time gig.
He’s also done some recruiting. Former college teammate Connor Kline will be joining New York in 2017, and is bringing along a fellow native Minnesotan and former Minnesota Wind Chill teammate Ben Jagt. Although Jagt won’t likely become a real part of the team until after Memorial Day, it’s possible that he could have a Babbitt-sized impact when he arrives.
Jagt’s actually a legit 6’6” too.
4. Who is San Francisco’s "King?"
In the highest levels of Bay Area ultimate, the offensive positions have long been nicknamed after chess pieces. For years, Robbie Cahill served as the dominant “King.” Then, the torch was primarily passed to Ashlin Joye, who became arguably the greatest thrower in the world during his two seasons leading the San Jose Spiders to the title in 2014 and 2015. Last season, the San Francisco FlameThrowers often put Eli Kerns in this role, and while not as polished as Joye, the younger Kerns certainly had the tools to grow into this prestigious job.
But with all of this context revealed, it brings me to my foremost observation when I first saw the reveal of the FlameThrowers’ 2017 roster: they are surely stacked and likely the favorite to win it all—where Beau goes, of course, winning usually follows—but they don’t have Cahill, Joye, or Kerns, the latter of which was the biggest surprise, albeit not a shocking one, especially when you consider that Simon Higgins, another key cog and Kerns’ buddy since childhood, was not listed on the roster either.
It’s really easy to harp on the amazing players that San Francisco did not announce on their roster: There’s no Russell Wynne or Christian Johnson or George Stubbs. Try game-planning to stop a line including those three, Cahill, Joye, Kerns, and Higgins. Good luck!
But even without these dynamos, who are choosing not to play in the AUDL this year for a variety of reasons—focusing on competing with the U.S. National Team, school, work, other life plans, etc.—the FlameThrowers are still a breathtaking collection of talent with several candidates to become the new “King".
The obvious candidate is Cassidy Rasmussen, who probably has the most experience with his specific role of anyone on the new San Francisco roster. AUDL newcomer Grant Lindsley brings a sparkling ultimate resume and skillset that makes him an intriguing option. Guys like Lucas Dallmann and Greg Cohen, established leaders of the D-line, also would be fun to watch in the featured offensive role.
One of the most talent players in the league, Cassidy Rasmussen is coming off of back-to-back titles with San Jose and Dallas.
When you dig even deeper, there’s even less of a reason to be too concerned.
I like having Nathan White, with his terrifying wingspan, as a primary handler defender pestering the other team’s backfield, but he has the tools to take the reins on offense too. The FlameThrowers have sneakily added Justin Lim, who handled a ton of responsibility in his college days at Carleton before elevating his game last year in Seattle.
Joel Schlachet, considered to be the epitome of a perfect pawn in the San Francisco scheme, could also take charge in a new, more aggressive role, as could Jordan Marcy or Michael Spear.
It’s truly an embarrassment of riches, with Beau Kittredge and Mac Taylor doing damage downfield. Taylor’s an AUDL rookie, but his U.S. National Team exploits precede his glowing arrival.
A teammate of Beau Kittredge's in college and on numerous Team USA squads, Mac Taylor has been at the peak of the sport for almost a decade.
Regardless who fills what role, new coach Ryo Kawaoka, who’s returning to the FlameThrowers organization after captaining the inaugural squad in 2014 and playing in 2015. He has plenty of options at his disposal. And he’s hoping to tweak some of the stagnation that he feels has caught the San Francisco offense at times in the recent past.
“With a gigantic amount of space, we should be getting the Kings in space and in motion,” said Kawaoka. “Let the pawns do the handler movement and possession. Cassidy, Grant, Lucas can all create space downfield, but we also want to use their big throws. The Kings are gonna be a lot less stationary, and we’ll rely on the pawns a lot more.”
One would expect San Francisco’s overall talent to simply figure things out early in the season, but if any of the West Division defenses become particularly stingy, it will be interesting to see who on the newest edition of the FlameThrowers, if anyone, truly takes charge of the offense and makes it his own.
5. Just how talented of an ultimate city is Seattle?
When I learned that the Seattle Cascades would no longer be partnering with the local club team, Sockeye, and many of the standout players who helped lead the Cascades to an unforgettable trip to the AUDL Finals would no longer be on the squad, I was bummed. That was an incredible team to watch, with a bunch of individual talent that could do some jaw-dropping things with the frisbee.
Matt Rehder and Nick Stuart—two players not on the 2017 Cascades roster—lit up the field at Championship Weekend V.
So I was delighted on Monday evening when the Cascades announced that, in fact, several of the heroes from last year’s Championship Weekend would indeed be returning! Guys like Donnie “I’ll kill myself to make a D” Clark and Will “I love throwing 100-yard buzzer-beaters” Chen!
Will Chen solidified his legend status with this insane, full field buzzer-beater from the 2016 semifinals against the Madison Radicals.
Along with Mark Burton, Sam Harkness, Mario O’Brien, Matt Russell, Ben Snell, and Jesse Bolton, the Cascades do have a solid core of vets that are capable of assuming big roles and responsibilities. Adam Simon, better known in the ultimate community as “Chicken,” and Zack Smith are two additional former Cascades who will be back on the roster this season.
Mark Burton was an MVP finalist during the 2016 season thanks to his 60 assists and 40 goals.
But beyond that, there will be a plethora of new names and faces for fans to learn from the Seattle scene. And let’s be honest, there is probably not an ultimate community in the world better suited to replenish a talented team with new, fresh blood than Seattle.
“I am real excited for people to discover how deep Seattle Ultimate is and that ‘big’ names don’t matter, but who is bought in and has a positive attitude for a common goal as a team: To be back at Championship Weekend,” said Burton.
I am curious to see what the Cascades can do. Second place in the West seems wide open. But it’s hard to believe that this team will be better without Nick Stuart, Matt Rehder, Reid Koss, Danny Karlinsky, Joe Sefton, Phil Murray, Simon Montague, Duncan Linn, and others.
We shall see who steps up in their absence. And we will discover what the other top talent in the Pacific Northwest is capable of.
6. Will adding a bunch of solid, former Los Angeles Aviators players transform the San Diego Growlers into threats in the West?
With Seattle’s expectations uncertain, there is certainly an opening for a contender or two to emerge in this division. Aside from San Francisco and Seattle, remember that Los Angeles also qualified for the postseason out of the West in 2016.
But the Aviators were dealt an undeniable blow when Tyler Bacon, Dan Bellinger, Hunter Corbett, and Jeff Silverman, all important pieces to LA’s run to the playoffs last season, chose to sign with San Diego for the upcoming season. Along with Sean Ham and Kevin Smith, the Santa Barbara-based quartet that’s heading even further south gives the Growlers a pretty impressive contingent of playmakers as they try to build on their disappointing 2016 campaign.
Highlights from the four new members of the Growlers.
“I am absolutely confident that we will finish with a better record than last year,” Corbett said when asked about expectations after San Diego’s 2-12 mark. “We are looking to stir it up in the West.”
The primary reason for the move was largely based upon the common goal of trying to consolidate a lot of the Southern California talent in one place to better compete with the rest of the division and the league. Whether they have achieved this remains to be seen, but the Santa Barbara core went into the offseason with big ambitions for the year ahead.
“A lot of us had a sour taste left over from disappointing finishes to our AUDL and/or club seasons,” said Bacon, who finds himself joining his third AUDL West Division team in four seasons after previously winning a title with the Spiders in 2014. “Many of us are nearing the end of our top playing days. So a group of us decided to step up our offseason workouts by hiring a trainer. Dan Bellinger, Mark Elbogen, Michael Kiyoi, Timmy Beatty, Aaron Weaver, Sam Fontaine, Hunter Corbett, Nate Kirchoffer, and myself have been meeting at the gym at 6:00 AM a couple times a week, and then meeting after work three to five times a week for ultimate. Since deciding to sign with the Growlers, there has been a healthy increase in the level of competition at the gym and on the conditioning fields between newly formed rivals. I think it’s going to be a good, friendly rivalry that pushes all of the Santa Barbara individuals to big 2017 AUDL seasons for their respective teams.”
With the hungry, imported talent, San Diego now has to hope that several of its returning young studs can make a leap. Guys like Steven Milardovich and Dom Leggio are already very good players; they are gonna have to become great. Youngsters like Zeke Ivers, Travis Dunn, Max Hume, and Jesse Cohen have all shown glimpses of potential, but now they must deliver consistent efforts and productivity.
Playing with some of the Santa Barbara veterans will help, but if the San Diego Growlers are going to seriously challenge a team like San Francisco, it’s the San Diego core that will need to elevate their games.
7. What’s left in Los Angeles?
The Aviators’ cupboard is not totally bare, but the handful of defecting Condors is definitely a blow in the team’s hopes to return to the postseason for the second consecutive season.
Mark Elbogen, an MVP finalist in 2016, will be back with LA, and in a way, he might be an even bigger threat to earn an MVP award this year because he’ll probably have even more responsibility on his shoulders.
Mark Elbogen was an offensive force during the 2016 season, putting up 47 assists to go along with 49 goals.
Elbogen, along with Eric Lissner, Eli Friedman, and Allen Lai provide a solid core of returners, and L.A. is excited about some new pieces they are bringing aboard.
“Keep an eye out for guys like Aaron Weaver and Jacob Bartholomew,” Elbogen said. “We even picked up KuoHsun Wang from Taiwan, who has since moved to LA to ball out with us!”
Jack Marsh, another talented Aviator from a year ago, is coming off shoulder surgery in October and is unsure about his plans for 2017. But with rehab going well, Marsh is a week or two away from being cleared to play frisbee again. Nothing is certain, but Marsh has been invited to practice with the Aviators when he’s ready, and from there, he will consider whether he is able to commit to playing this season.
One thing L.A. does have is a very strong group of owners, so it would not be too surprising if the Aviators leadership had a few tricks up their sleeve to reveal before April 1. Having played in more close games than just about any other franchise in the league over the past two years, Los Angeles knows how to build a competitive program. With the right additions, perhaps they can get over the hump and surprise their departed former teammates.
“Obviously, I would have preferred that the cards fell in such a way that [the Santa Barbara crew] could all play together in the AUDL, since these are all great friends and teammates of mine, but I’m not worried about the outcome,” Elbogen said. “If nothing else, splitting the Santa Barbara crew will strengthen the rivalry between the Aviators and the Growlers, will push everyone to train and play harder, and you better believe those will be fun games to watch!”
8. Who’s Darryl Stanley?
Coaching in the AUDL is not easy. There’s minimal time between points to actually make adjustments, and the opponent is always solid and hungry. The length of games also results in a cavalcade of choices that the coach must pick throughout the action, making it very easy to have dozens of tough decisions to dwell upon after a close loss.
In the first half-decade of the AUDL, most coaches have had to simply figure it out on the job. But not many coaches have had the specter of replacing the leader of the U.S. National Team lingering over their shoulder.
In reality, new DC Breeze Head Coach Darryl Stanley is entering an excellent situation, with the full support of ownership, players, and perhaps, most importantly, former coach Alex Ghesquiere, who will serve as the team’s Technical Director, an advisory role that will still keep him actively involved.
In fact, Ghesquiere had Breeze owner Don Grage and Stanley over to his house a couple weeks ago to discuss the plan for the season, then invited Stanley and the Breeze captains back a few days later to further develop the agenda.
“[Stanley] is very excited about learning from Alex,” Grage said. “It’s kind of an ideal situation.”
For those unaware, Stanley, 31, is far from a coaching novice. He helped lead Major League Ultimate’s Philadelphia Spinners to a title last year and previously served as an assistant coach of the Philadelphia Phoenix in the AUDL. He guided the University of Pennsylvania to back-to-back conference championships, and he helped mold Philadelphia’s developmental club team, Citywide Special, aiming to bring all of Philly’s ultimate talent under the same umbrella to compete on the national stage.
When a new job compelled him to move to Washington D.C., the timing was perfect for him to step into a new challenge of trying to synergize all of the top talent in the nation’s capital. For the first time, the Breeze has created an official partnership with local club team, Truck Stop, and Stanley will be the coach of both squads.
Ghesquiere, who is leading a U.S. National Team for the second straight season, knew that he would not be able to make the same commitment to be at every Breeze practice and game, yet he remains focused on helping Stanley and the D.C. franchise continue to improve.
Most importantly, D.C. returns most of its sensational core players, one of the most talented groups in the league.
“The players we have signed in 2017 are a definite who’s who in DC ultimate,” Stanley said. “Getting to work with Alan Kolick, Markham Shofner, Jeff Wodatch, Jonathan Neeley, Nate Castine, and David Cranston leaves me speechless. There is so much talent here, and I’m hoping we can continue in their upward trajectory this year. I want to have this prepared to not only challenge but overcome East Division heavyweights New York and Toronto.”
9. Can the Breeze-Truck partnership help D.C. reach its ultimate potential?
The AUDL right now is a little bit like the early seasons of Survivor. Contestants are still experimenting with alliances and trying to figure out whom they can trust. Presumably, over the past few years, players have realized that they can’t easily topple Beau’s tribe by themselves.
Consequently, we’ve seen several developments where cities and regions have attempted to coalesce their top players in pursuit of a targeted goal. We saw that in Seattle last year, and in a way, it’s what San Diego is trying to do this year, though the Growlers’ challenge is that the Aviators are also a mighty respected organization that won’t just roll over in the pursuit of SoCal talent. It may create an exhilarating regional rivalry, but the geography of the situation makes taking over the world a tougher a proposition.
D.C. ultimate, long divided between several club and pro franchises, will finally be united in 2017. The official partnership between the Breeze and Truck Stop felt inevitable, and it’s now a product of happenstance and purpose.
“Last year, we had 14 guys who played both Truck and Breeze,” said D.C. Captain Jonathan Neeley. “With even more guys set to do both this year, it really just seemed kind of silly not to acknowledge the overlap and work with it rather than outside of it.
“There’s a lot of benefit to working with the Breeze because of the organization’s manpower. The Breeze makes it easier for Truck players to work with youn players, for example, because it’s got folks doing legwork like setting up clinics. That was never impossible with Truck, but having it be easier isn’t exactly a bad thing.”
This coalition of D.C. powerhouses feels like it could set the tone for years to come. With plenty of talent and motivation, the goal is clearly to reach the top of the ultimate mountain, a perch that D.C., despite lofty expectations and deep reserves of skill, has never been before.
10. Is Raleigh the place where Goose Helton and Brett Matzuka can finally experience AUDL glory?
Over the past two years, the Raleigh Flyers have unquestionably featured talent and purpose. They are the only South Division team to make the playoffs in each of the last two years, but this coming season still feels like a major turning point for the North Carolina Triangle. After all, Dallas still has potential to dominate, and Jacksonville appears stronger than it’s ever been. And, by the way, the Atlanta Hustle are also coming off an impressive road playoff win behind 2016 MVP Dylan Tunnell, who will be back with the Hustle this spring.
But maybe no ultimate city embraces the chip on the shoulder attitude quite like Raleigh, and an argument could be made that the Flyers will bring their most talented roster ever to the stadium in 2017. Aside from the inevitable addition of some of the best Charlotte weapons, the Flyers’ also made a significant splash last week by officially announcing the signing of two-time AUDL MVP Jonathan “Goose” Helton.
Jonathan Helton highlights from 2012-2015.
With Helton on board, it should not be a huge surprise that Brett Matzuka has also agreed to partner with his nomadic ultimate buddy once again in the Flyers organization. The duo played together in D.C. last year and paired in Chicago for a season before that.
2015 All-AUDL member Brett Matzuka is joining the Flyers in 2017.
Now, they join Jonathan Nethercutt, Noah Saul, Justin Allen, and the rest of Raleigh’s cadre of youthful athletes. The Flyers have done as good a job as any team in the league at fostering young, electric defenders, and with more and more experience, guys like Hunter Taylor, Tim McAllister, and David Richardson become more and more terrifying to try and attack.
Helton and Matzuka add a much-needed jolt of consistent disc skill, with Matzuka widely considered to be one of the craftiest throwers in the sport. Helton, of course, brings his own glittering ultimate resume, most recently topped by a gold medal with Team USA in London last summer.
The path to AUDL glory, as previously discussed, is complicated. But Raleigh’s road back to Championship Weekend, like several other teams in the stacked South, is dependent upon the buy-in of the entire roster. The good news is that Helton and Matzuka are both used to fitting in with new teams. If they can integrate smoothly, the Flyers will become an even more formidable threat to contend for the title that Raleigh, as an ultimate city, desperately desires.
11. Can Dallas’ role players handle even more responsibility?
There’s no question that Dallas is deep. In fact, one could argue that while the Roughnecks championship season was obviously impressive, the more amazing achievement was for last year’s team to go undefeated even when injuries and national team commitments impacted the roster.
Jimmy Mickle missed five games, Dylan Freechild missed six, Kurt Gibson missed seven, Beau and Cassidy each missed eight. Furthermore, Chris Mazur only saw action in five games after joining the team late in the season. But for the Roughnecks, missing firepower never seemed to matter.
Matt Jackson, Dan Emmons, Brandon Malacek, Thomas Slack, Matt Costello, Steven Darroh, Dillon Larberg, Kai Marshall, Matt Bennett, Chris Larberg, Jake Anderson, Ben Lohre, Reid Bacon, and Dalton Smith all bought in to being brilliant role players, and Head Coach Patrick Eberle pulled the right levers to always have his team in front. Remember, not only did the Roughnecks finish undefeated, ut they never trailed by multiple points even one time during the regular season. That remains absurd and probably will never be achieved again.
Dallas still has Mickle, Gibson, and Mazur. They have retained Stanley Peterson, who played eight games for the Roughnecks last year, and added Madison’s Jay Froude, unquestionably the signature signing of Dallas’ offseason. This franchise’s title defense will not lack star power.
But the heart and soul of the Roughnecks, and the foundation of their quest to stay perfect in the AUDL, is really the army of ‘role players.’ If that cavalry can stay healthy and hungry, Dallas certainly remains the team to beat in the South.
12. How important is Madison’s chemistry?
Barring something unexpected over the next few weeks, it appears that that Radicals will not make a major splash in free agency. Unfortunately, the biggest offseason news for the three-time Midwest champs was probably Froude deciding to ink a deal with Dallas. Beyond that, Abe Coffin and Scott Richgels are also not expected to return in 2017.
With that said, it still feels like the band is getting back together in Madison, and that immediately makes them contenders to compete for the title. With veteran handlers Tom Annen and Andrew Brown, young standouts like Kevin Brown and Logan Pruess, sturdy targets like Pat Shriwise, Dave Wiseman, and Colin Camp, and a barrage of fierce defenders like Peter Graffy, Andrew Meshnick, Matt Weber, Kevin Pettit-Scantling, and others, the Radicals orchestral arrangement still should be capable of playing many of their greatest hits.
And while the Radicals are not poised to add any game-changing out-of-town additions, there is obviously a robust ultimate pipeline in Madison, with a bunch of former Hodags aspiring to make the leap.
More than anything, however, the Radicals backbone will continue to be their system and overall chemistry. This is a team that practices regularly and works diligently on things that other teams often seem to take for granted. There’s not usually a ton of talk about situational ultimate, but Madison’s mindset is almost always focused on the next level of detail beyond the surface.
All of this adds up to guarantee that the Radicals will remain in the mix of Championship Weekend contenders. A year ago, they rolled through the Midwest with a perfect regular season record. This season, they have perhaps the most desirable cross-division game on their schedule, with Dallas poised to invade the Breese Stevens madhouse on June 4.
Even without a massive infusion of new blood, Madison’s main core of contributors are largely still in their primes, ready to prove that they remain one of the strongest organizations in the league. With a sour taste in their mouths after the dramatic end of last year’s quest, it goes without saying that this team will be hungrier than ever to finally fulfill the ultimate goal.
The full, legendary matchup between the Radicals and Cascades during the 2016 semifinals.
13. Will Toronto’s rookies be game-changers?
Much like Madison, the Toronto Rush are returning most of the team’s core that has been good enough to emerge from the East Division in all four years since the franchise’s 2013 inception. But to further the parallel to the Radicals, Toronto has not been quite great enough to win the whole thing ever since Beau joined the AUDL in 2014.
The Rush’s greatest hits are a bunch of catchy tunes. Mark Lloyd hopes to finally put the 2015 injury behind him, and Cam Harris, Isaiah Masek-Kelly, Jeff Lindquist, Adrian Yearwood, Andrew Carroll, Thomson McKnight, Remy Ojo, Steve Armitage, Gord Harrison, Jacky Hau, and Geoff Powell form a professional core that any team would enjoy having as its foundation. Last year, young Bretton Tan showed glimpses of perhaps becoming the next big star from the Toronto ultimate scene.
Career highlights from Mark Lloyd.
Toronto has added a couple notable names in Jeremy Norden and Ben Burelle, both who have proven their abilities to reliably throw and catch goals on the pro and world stage. It is easy to imagine them fitting in seamlessly with the Rush’s polished space-creating offense.
Benjamin Burelle led the Vancouver Riptide in 2016 with 38 goals during the regular season.
But the ultimate verdict on whether Toronto can hold off improved challengers like New York and D.C., not to mention whether they can be taken seriously as legit contenders to prevail on Championship Weekend, will probably boil down to what kind of contributions they can get from their highly anticipated rookie class.
Former Rush Coach Evan Phillips stepped away from stewarding the pro team before 2016 to primarily focus on mentoring the best youth players in Toronto and throughout Canada, and it’s very possible that the seeds of that feeder system could pay huge dividends this season. The two most notable names to know are Mike Mackenzie and Connor Armstrong.
“Mike Mackenzie would have made the Rush last year if he tried out,” Lloyd said. “He has a full season with [our top local club team] under his belt and will be a good addition for us. Connor Armstrong really developed last summer playing on [our local developmental club team] and won the Canada Male Athlete of the Year award, so I think the hope is he will continue to develop and improve, and as his confidence grows, he will be a really strong offensive weapon.”
Both Mackenzie—the younger brother of 2015 Rush rookie Iain—and Armstrong won silver medals in Poland last summer at the World Junior Championships. Jeffrey Woo and Paul Tatulea are other young rookies that the Rush are hoping can make a serious impact this season.
It’s very possible that Toronto’s season could be defined by how quickly and ably these new pieces adapt to the AUDL game and bolster the Rush’s returning core. This factor could dictate not only Toronto’s fate, but perhaps New York’s and D.C.’s too.
14. What teams will most feel the sting of World Championships in June AND July?
This seems like a good time to bring up the enduring elephant in any roster construction discussion. As long as the AUDL is not handing out million dollar contracts, there will be inevitable conflicts that teams will have to manage. As if work and life were not enough, this year, many clubs will have to hurdle a pair of world events that will each take a handful of top AUDL players away from their pro obligations.
This summer, the World Championships of Beach Ultimate (WCBU) will occur from June 18-24 in Royan, France. Then, the World Games, a much smaller but perhaps even more prestigious championship, takes place in Wroclaw Poland from July 20-23. Participating in one of these events is hardly a one-week journey, of course, considering that most countries hold anywhere from one to a half-dozen minicamp weekends leading up to the competitions.
While the U.S. World Games roster won’t be determined until after a tryout in Dallas on the weekend of March 11-12, the WCBU rosters for both the U.S. and Canada, along with Canada’s already announced 10-man World Games squad, include a bunch of AUDL talent.
A quick rundown: San Francisco’s Cassidy Rasmussen, Mac Taylor, and Nathan White are all headed to France. So are Raleigh’s Brett Matzuka, Jonathan Helton, and Jon Nethercutt. New York will be without Chris Kocher during Beach Worlds, and Pittsburgh will lose Tyler DeGirolamo. Jimmy Mickle and Ben Lohre will miss time with the Roughnecks, while Markham Shofner and Nicky Spiva will be away from D.C. and Phily, respectively. Madison’s Andrew Brown, Seattle’s Will Chen, and San Jose Head Coach Tyler Grant are also set to represent their countries.
Obviously, the impact is widespread, directly connecting with just about every U.S.-based contender in the league. And frankly, the Canadian teams may be hit even harder by the national team honors/duties.
Nearly every Canadian male player heading for France or contending for one of the coveted seven slots for Poland comes from either the Rush, Riptide, Royal or Outlaws. The Rush and Riptide each have 8-10 different players who could be heading to compete in one of the events in Europe, while a handful of Montreal and Ottawa guys are also poised to compete overseas this summer.
Obviously, this is why having depth in the AUDL is so massively important. Sustaining success even without key players is a huge challenge, and the organizations that possess the cultures to keep winning when they are undermanned are the ones who have the best chance to succeed in 2017.
Consequently, it’s very likely that the Canadian teams, especially Toronto and Vancouver, will feel the sting the most. If the Rush fail to prevail in the East for the first time or the Riptide cannot rise toward the postseason in the West, the national team ramifications of the summer will be a significant sidebar in the stories.
15. What under-the-radar signing deserves more attention?
It’s a bit of news that did not receive much coverage, but I really think that Paul Lally deciding to sign with the Atlanta Hustle will be pretty big deal for the Hustle in their mission to return to the postseason. After scoring 70 goals and dishing 59 assists over the past two seasons for Nashville, Lally will bolster Atlanta’s cutting core, giving Dylan Tunnell another big target and providing Matt Smith with more space to roam downfield.
Paul Lally intercepts the floaty pass and fires a perfect assist in one fell swoop.
Lally described the process of deciding to join Atlanta as ‘one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make, even if it’s just over a game at the end of the day.’
“I had an amazing time my first two seasons in Nashville, have family there, and loved my teammates, leadership, and ownership there,” Lally said. “Some of my best friends are still on the team, and even in the ownership. I know for sure I’ll continue to play with those friends in some form throughout my playing career.”
Despite his genuine passion for Nashville ultimate, the intrigue to join Atlanta proved too much too ignore. He’s currently living in grad school for physical therapy in Chattanooga, TN, roughly halfway between Atlanta and Nashville. He also expects to be living in Charlotte during the second half of the season, which is geographically closer to the Hustle than the NightWatch.
When it was go time to decide, Lally said the decision was primarily based on “playing the most games and practices with minimal travel time, a huge emphasis on experiencing a new scene and system and maximizing my learning potential, having the challenge of trying to earn a spot on a new team, and there’s a chance I’ll end up close by there after graduating.”
Overall, Atlanta is building another formidable squad to compete against the giants of the South. With Greg Swanson, Miranda Knowles, and Stu Downs all returning, there’s great continuity in the coaching staff. Most of last year’s core is also expected back, and it’s huge that Tunnell, who still is unsure if he will move away from Atlanta at some point before the season is over, at least is planning to begin the year on the team.
Atlanta has seemingly specialized in the art of the under-the-radar signing for several years, adding players without huge profiles that end up being difference makers. A guy like Evan Boecking from last year fits this description.
In 2017, that guy might be Lally, who will play a critical role as Atlanta hopes that its postseason steak won’t end at one.
16. Why is a thrower’s travel no longer a turnover?
Two Tuesdays ago, the AUDL released the official 2017 rulebook. There were a handful of alterations and tweaks, mostly covering up loopholes or redefining certain terms. But there was one big rule change that will alter things considerably from past years.
The rules committee recommended, and the league’s council approved, that a thrower’s travel would no longer be a turnover. Now, like a common contact foul, it will be assessed as a 10-yard penalty.
“At the end of the 2015 season, especially with the championship, there were some travel calls that, some on video were correct and some on video were not correct,” admitted Josh Cooper, who serves as a referee and the AUDL’s Director of Officials. “But the fact was that travel calls have a huge impact on the game because they were a possession penalty. So, there was talk about how to address that issue because it seemed to be an unreasonable penalty for the violation.
“The goal was to move more slowly rather than too fast. So instead of last year going immediately to a 10-yard penalty instead of a turnover, we decided what we would do is simply try to instruct refs to essentially be more lenient about thrower travel calls. For the most part, I think most people were happy with the way that was being done. The idea was, ‘let’s see how that goes, and if it’s not good enough, we’ll make it a yardage penalty.’
“It wasn’t an overwhelming vote either in the subcommittee or the counsel to make the change to the yardage penalty rather than the possession penalty, but there were enough people that were still unhappy with the consistency of it that we decided to move to the yardage penalty.”
Beyond the basic rationale, Cooper added that he was a fan of the change for a couple reasons. Firstly, he liked that moving to the yardage penalty will more resemble youth and college ultimate, where traveling violations are adjudicated only with a stoppage and not as a turnover. Secondly, he personally felt that it was inconsistent that traveling was the only offensive penalty not involving a play on the disc or a stall that was a turnover.
“In basketball, anytime the offense commits a penalty, it’s a turnover,” Cooper explained. “In ultimate, it makes no sense to me that if the thrower pushes the marker out of the way and then throws, it’s just yardage. But if the thrower moves their foot three inches, it’s a turnover. That doesn’t make sense to me.
“A lot of the travel calls, it’s either someone who moves their foot when they’re not even making a throw and it has very little to do with the play or they’re toe-dragging on a huck, and on a lot of these you really have to watch it in slow motion to see if the drag was before or after the release of the throw. It seemed totally inconsistent and too powerful of a penalty to keep it that way. Now, the only time you lose possession on offense is if it’s offensive pass interference, which is a foul when trying to establish possession of the disc [when no one currently has possession], or a stall, where there’s no way around it because if you run out of time, you can’t give them more time back. Otherwise, they could just eat time off the clock, and that doesn’t make any sense.”
Moving forward, I agree that this was the right move for the league. In some ways, I found the dramatic shift of a pivotal travel call to be very entertaining and suspenseful, but the reality is it was probably an excessive penalty for the violation.
With that said, I would personally encourage all referees to be very aggressive in their usage of the unsportsmanlike conduct call. Anything that sniffs of being a purposeful violation of the rules—an absurd pivot, an intentional shove, etc.—should immediately merit an unsportsmanlike foul, which functions a lot like a technical foul in basketball or a yellow card in soccer. Get two of those and you’re promptly tossed.
I know there’s plenty of chatter in ultimate circles about referees vs. self-officiation, and I believe there are venues of competition where each style is appropriate. Regardless of the system, the integrity always lies with the players, and hopefully the vast majority of our community will continue to value competing in a way that makes us all proud to be associated with the greatest sport in the world.
17. Can Montreal surpass Madison as the top site yet for an AUDL Championship Weekend?
The AUDL is not immune from being critiqued, and I will jab the league I work for when I see fit. But one thing the AUDL knows how to do well is put on a big-time championship event. As the league has grown, so has the magnitude of Championship Weekend.
The Final Four in Chicago in 2013 surpassed what the league had done in 2012. When Toronto hosted in 2014, AUDL fans experienced another level of growth.
At San Jose’s majestic Avaya Stadium in 2015, the league raised a ton of money for charity and served as an unprecedented beacon for what could be done in the future. Last August, in Madison, the weekend, especially during the Cascades-Radicals thriller, morphed even further into being a spectacle unlike anything the sport has seen. I’ll never forget the roar of the Radicals crowd when Madison seized momentum, only to eventually be completely stunned at the improbable conclusion.
Yes, the city of Montreal has a high bar to clear, but the Royal organization, led by Jean-Levy Champagne, is uniquely suited to soar above and beyond our reasonable expectations. Many times, I have stated that Montreal is my favorite destination in the league to visit. The city itself—especially in the month of August—is a world-class beauty, full of history, culture, and scenery. As an ultimate locale, the Quebec province has developed into a hotbed of passionate players and fans, and the Royal have done an unbelievable job of turning every one of their games, regardless of the opponent, into a major event.
The destination is Montreal in 2017.
Six months from now, when the 2017 AUDL Champion is crowned in Montreal, I am pretty confident we will look back at it as another sizable step forward for the growth of the six-year-old league.
If you’re an ultimate fan who has never experienced Montreal before, this seems like the perfect late-summer vacation. I feel incredibly lucky to already know that I will be there.
Maybe we can revisit some of these questions then.
The Tuesday Toss is published weekly during the AUDL regular season and will be monthly staple during the offseason. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler