April 19, 2022
By Evan Lepler
“A perfect night.”
Those were Rowan McDonnell’s words, spoken on the Medellin turf about 10 minutes after Saturday’s doubleheader showcase had wrapped up. Even though his DC Breeze had narrowly come up short in their preseason exhibition contest against the New York Empire, the overtime drama more than served its purpose, capturing the imagination of the Colombian fans, most of whom were witnessing the AUDL for the first time. Between the highlight-reel moments, the surreal setting, and the genuine late-game suspense, the pair of East Division powers had delivered a memorable, meaningful, and exciting disc display. Even in defeat, Rowan felt enriched by the experience.
Since the inaugural Torneo Eterna Primavera, or TEP, back in 2009, Colombian ultimate leaders have aggressively pursued top American players and teams to be a part of their annual marquee tournament. This past weekend’s event became the first edition that included AUDL franchises traveling to Medellin to participate. By competing against many of Latin America’s top teams and leading numerous youth clinics, members of the Breeze, Empire, and Los Angeles Aviators proudly displayed all of the dedication, ability, and passion that has made them ultimate pros. The American players gifted knowledge, training tips, and positive vibes to their counterparts, while also absorbing inspiration from the contagious enthusiasm, athleticism, and collective spirit of their opponents.
“It’s truly been a once in a lifetime experience,” said New York’s Ryan Osgar. “It’s been really special for us.”
The speedy Osgar hauled in John Lithio’s picturesque flick huck on the night’s final point to lift New York to the 16-15 overtime win, capping the thrilling Saturday showcase under the lights. Earlier in the evening, the Los Angeles Aviators overcame a 7-4 first-half deficit to defeat the Latin American All-Stars 17-13, using their savvy, skill, and experience to outlast the conglomeration of talent from Colombia and six other Central and South American countries.
But the final scores were far from the most important features on this particular occasion. Everyone competed hard, and there was plenty of high level ultimate, but unquestionably, the cultural exchange trumped all.
“Absolutely incredible,” said LA’s Michael Kiyoi, reflecting on the opportunity. “The whole week has been amazing…Colombia’s fantastic.”
In no particular order, here are 10 tales, notes, and nuggets from a magical 60 hours in Medellin.
1) Ultimate's Societal Impact
The sport’s growth across Colombia since the early 2000s has helped foster many important opportunities and provided structure for thousands of youth.
“We found that ultimate is a really powerful tool for teaching people and teaching kids about self-control [and] communication,” said Mauricio Moore, the mastermind behind many of Colombia’s ultimate initiatives. “We have a lot of kids from different public schools growing with this sport.”
Not only was the tournament a preseason warm-up for AUDL teams, pro players from all three squads acted as instructors and helped put on youth clinics throughout the week.
2) Colombia Is A Rising Power
Buoyed by institutional support from the local government, Colombia has risen up the international ultimate hierarchy in recent years. Since 2005, the USA has never failed to win gold at the World Games, and the American team certainly should be viewed as the favorite heading into the 2022 competition this July. But Colombia, who earned a silver medal in 2017, is absolutely the leading contender to dethrone the United States.
Having personally attended World Championship events every year from 2015 through 2019, it was rare to see top American teams get seriously tested early in those tournaments. Even if the score looked somewhat close on paper, games often featured the USA pouncing early, then relaxing late and trading back-and-forth to reach the victorious finish line. But after watching TEP pool play up close, it felt very different. Repeatedly, the Aviators, Breeze, and Empire had to really work hard and dig deep to dispatch their hungry, pesky, and surprisingly skilled opponent.
On Friday night, the Colombian World Games tryout squad handled a team of Chicago-area players by a margin of six, prevailing 15-9 over a group that included several AUDL standouts like Paul Arters and Jeff Weis from the Chicago Union and Kevin Pettit-Scantling, Victor Luo, and Jack Kelly from the Madison Radicals. Although Weis had a phenomenal game, controlling the skies against shorter defenders, the Colombian men mostly held their own. Concurrently, the Colombian women dominated their matchups.
The USA still deserves to be viewed as the favorite heading into a battle in Birmingham this summer, but I think it’s more likely than not that Colombia eventually gets a World Games gold sometime in the next two or three cycles. Perhaps as soon as 2025 in China.
3) Joc’s Leveled Up
Joc Jimenez was an AUDL revelation in 2019, joining the Los Angeles Aviators and immediately becoming an impact contributor to their O-line. He caught 42 goals that season, along with winning the fan vote to take the final spot in the inaugural AUDL All-Star Game. He was only 24 years old at the time.
Three years later, Jimenez has certainly elevated his game to an even higher level. He looks bigger, stronger, and faster, and he was arguably the toughest matchup for his former LA teammates to try and contain in Saturday’s exhibition. Mauricio Moore, who coaches the Colombian World Games team, was coy when I asked if Jimenez would make the final roster of 14 players that compete in Alabama, but personally I would be very surprised if Joc does not earn his spot on that squad. The former Aviator is absolutely in his prime, and he’ll be a beast to deal with for years to come.
4) LA's Young Playmakers
The Aviators have lost so many standout players over the past several seasons, but LA continues to find rising stars to replace them. While AUDL veterans like Mitchell Steiner, Sam Cook, and Marcel Osborne were all very good in Medellin, the performances from their three young Cal Poly-SLO students significantly shifts the team’s ceiling in 2022 and beyond. Specifically, KJ Koo, Matt Miller, and Seamus Robinson all earned plays that were prominently featured on the Saturday night highlight reel.
Koo’s collegiate career has already earned him multiple accolades. In a tribute to his versatility, he was named the runner-up for Ultiworld’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2020, and then one year later was the runner-up for the same publication’s Offensive Player of the Year honor. Miller and Robinson are lesser known prospects, but both delivered big plays in the Aviators’ comeback win over the Latin American All-Stars.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, the three Cal Poly-SLO Standouts are expected to focus on pursuing a college championship through Memorial Day Weekend. The silver lining, however, is that the Aviators only have three contests in the first month of the season, meaning that Koo, Miller, and Robinson should be available for the final three-quarters of the upcoming season. With early home games against Salt Lake and Seattle, the Aviators are in a decent position to pick up a win or two without that trio, and they’re hoping everything will come together for a playoff push in June and July.
5) Lithio's Clutch Confidence
New York’s John Lithio enjoyed a tremendous rookie season in 2021, showcasing excellent instincts and effectiveness as a cutter. From a distribution standpoint, he was also steady and reliable, but rarely did he take over a point with his throws. Over 14 games, including the playoffs, Lithio dished just 10 assists, with only two coming in the Empire’s final six games.
So that’s the context and explanation for the tone of surprise in my voice when Lithio unleashed a magnificent 50-yard flick for the overtime winner on Saturday night. He received the disc just shy of midfield, saw Osgar bolting toward the end zone, and let fly a beauty. While statistics were not officially kept for the exhibition contest, the approximately 50-yard scoring toss surpassed the length of any of Lithio’s 2021 assists. Last year, his longest assist was 40 yards, and his 10 assists averaged 28.7 yards per toss.
Osgar, who also caught the walk-off winner in the playoffs against Atlanta last September, claimed he was not surprised by seeing Lithio put it perfectly.
“John’s a baller,” answered Osgar, when asked if he expected Lithio to launch the half-field throw. “So yeah, I expected him to throw the disc there.”
Let’s be honest: Future opponents would presumably prefer Lithio to be a distributor rather than a striker. But if he can consistently put 50-yard missiles on the money, the Empire O-line could be even more lethal in the season ahead.
6) Another Thrilling Chapter to the Rivalry
Even though it didn’t even count, the Breeze and the Empire just cannot help it. Time and time again, they bring the best out of each other and offer riveting roller-coasters to their fans.
Saturday night’s preseason showcase was the 12th time in the last 23 matchups that DC and New York delivered a one-goal game. All but five of those games have been decided by four or fewer. Of course, the drama is also amplified by the fact that both teams have been super strong during this stretch relative to the rest of the league. Over the past seven seasons, the Empire and Breeze have each missed the playoffs only once.
“People just take it personally and have a lot of pride in their team,” said Osgar, when asked about the nature of the Breeze/Empire rivalry. “Like this is a game that, for the season, really means nothing, but both teams were trying their hardest.”
The clash in Colombia only adds more juice to the actual season opener, when New York travels to DC on Saturday, April 30 for the first "AUDL Game Of The Week" of the 2022 season. That’s just 11 days away.
7) The Exceptional “No-Names”
Please don’t take this the wrong way. It may appear disrespectful to refer to any AUDL player as a “no-name,” but one of my main takeaways from Colombia was being reminded that guys who fill space near the bottom of AUDL rosters are still really damn good!
Sure, we all know that Ben Jagt, Jack Williams, Rowan McDonnell, and Jonny Malks are world class. But it’s sometimes tough to discern the abilities of the guys that struggle to consistently crack their team’s top 20. Coaches often harp on how difficult the decisions are to leave certain players on the bench, and seeing that depth on display in Colombia was really refreshing.
Jeremy Knopf and Dane Warner only played three games combined for the Breeze in 2021, but both were super solid playmakers for DC down in Medellin. New York’s Elias Griffin, who saw the field just one time last year, delivered a massive D along with a splendid dime to create an Empire break on Saturday night, firing the score to Connor Fortin, who had not appeared in an AUDL game since 2014 with the now-defunct Rochester Dragons. New Empire signee Mike Kobyra, who last experienced AUDL action three years ago during a forgettable four-game stint with the Madison Radicals, looked like an explosive block-hunter for New York throughout the tournament. For the entirety of TEP, only Osgar, Jagt, Lithio, and Williams registered more Empire scores than Kobyra, who tallied five goals and four assists across the Empire’s seven TEP contests, not including the Breeze exhibition.
The point is this: a lot of guys can play this game but don’t always get the opportunity to show their stuff under the lights. The depth of American ultimate talent still reigns supreme, and there are surely plenty of second or third-teamers that are grinding every single day, waiting for the chance to prove it on a big stage.
8) The TeleMedellin Collaboration
This may sound obvious, but broadcasting in a foreign country is never simple and easy. Between language barriers, unfamiliar equipment, and varying expectations, creating steady and solid television productions are always an adventure.
But I felt in amazingly competent hands on Saturday night, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Luke Johnson, who’s helped produce AUDL games since 2013, along with all the folks at TeleMedellin, the local network that undertook most of the responsibility for setting up and executing our coverage. Staying on the air for three-plus hours without a commercial break is not the norm, but I still felt super grateful for all the behind-the-scenes folks who helped deliver these pair of AUDL exhibitions to fans around the world.
When viewers see and hear me, they may not think too much about everyone else who has devoted dozens of hours to the product. But Luke and the TeleMedellin folks were on point this past weekend, with the former going above and beyond to orchestrate our live coverage, and the latter giving our sport a local platform to shine.
Hopefully, the partnership can continue in the years ahead.
9) Bandeja Paisa
A fun aspect of every international experience includes partaking in the local cuisine. Through the years, I’ve made plenty of mistakes ordering things when I didn’t fully understand what I was getting, but there’s almost a sense of obligation to give mystery meals a try.
Of course, it helps to see someone else order it first.
The bandeja paisa, or paisa platter, is one of the standard dishes in Medellin. Rice, beans, plantains, beef, sausage, bacon, avocado, and a fried egg, with an arepa, which is basically a fancy fried corn tortilla, on the side. Though nutritionists may disagree, it was an excellent lunch.
10) The Universal Feelings of Gratitude
For the Aviators, Breeze, and Empire, the entire experience was special. Everyone felt fortunate to have this unique opportunity to compete, bond with teammates, and participate in the local Colombian cultures.
As Empire Coach Charlie Hoppes wrote on twitter, “an absolutely all-time ultimate experience for me. Colombia was stunningly beautiful, TEP was spectacular, and the final was wonderful to be a part of. There were fans asking us to trade jerseys, take pictures, and sign autographs for over an hour.”
The gratitude went both ways.
American players also felt a steady barrage of thanks from the Latin American teams, who were relentlessly appreciative that these AUDL franchises were willing to make the long journey. Lessons are learned by battling the best, and tough losses generally double as the most enlightening educations.
Over the course of the weekend, friendships were formed, strategies were shared, and perhaps even new rivalries were created. For everyone involved, it was a tournament they will never forget.