Making The Cut
By Adam Ruffner & Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen
Just before midnight on a cold January night, more than 80 players from five states crammed into the confines of an indoor soccer complex on the outskirts of Madison, Wis. They ran 40-meter dashes, underwent a jump test and measured their vertical reach before breaking into scrimmages. Under dim fluorescent lights, players shouted, trash talked and dogged one another on the field, hoping to stand out and claim an open roster spot for the Madison Radicals.
University of Missouri standout Jay Froude, sporting a cumbersome knee brace and fresh off of his 400-mile trek to the combine, pushed himself during his first serious ultimate playing time since injuring his PCL in the fall. AUDL rookie Chris Wilen impressed with a 4.57 in the 40, well ahead of the pack. And two hours into the scrimmages, Radicals returner, defensive specialist and impressively blond bearded Kevin Pettit-Scantling, smiling through the sweat, added some much needed spark as players began to drag on the field from fatigue. On the sidelines, team owners, captains and coaches took notes furiously.
“We’re looking for those outliers,” said Tim DeByl, Madison Radicals coach and general manager, as returners and rookies ran sprints behind him. “I’m looking for some older players who aren’t as athletic, but can still throw really well, and some of those younger guys who played in college and who can come out, play hard defense and catch some goals for us.”
For every AUDL franchise, the combine marks the first step toward Championship Weekend. And for the Radicals, an immensely talented team with high expectations for 2015, it’s another opportunity to retool and add the talent that will hopefully bring home the championship trophy. For two years, they’ve fallen short. The Radicals lost to the Toronto Rush 16-14 in the 2013 championship, and couldn’t close against the eventual champion San Jose Spiders in a thrilling semifinal match up last season.
The Radicals’ team philosophy is simple and straightforward. It relies on a solid core of returning players and DeByl’s system of well-defined roles. DeByl developed three lines—one for offense and two on defense, a zone and a man scheme—designed to allow players to specialize in their skills. And it’s produced excellent results. In two seasons, the Radicals have lost six games combined, and never by more than three goals. Heading into the combine, questions about what elements keep, what to leave behind, and how to fill any gaps were top of mind for a team whose playing consistency and roster stability are two of its biggest assets.
“That’s the struggle—when things are going right and you miss out just short,” Radicals Captain Andrew Brown said, quite matter-of-factly. “It’s disappointing and it’s difficult to know what to do—what to keep, what to throw out, whether what we have is successful and we just came up short, or whether we need to make sweeping changes.”
It’s a tall order to attempt to figure that out over the course of a four-hour tryout, but the combine is a start. There’s no set recipe for a successful ultimate team. Ask any captain, owner or general manager in the AUDL and they’re likely to repeat the same elements—balance, chemistry and a deep bench—but the specific amount varies.
“I think for us the key to long term success will be to find ways to attract athletic kids and finding ways to develop more well-rounded players,” Ottawa Outlaw General Manager and Captain Karl Loiseau said.
The Outlaws’ goal was to get the 45 best ultimate players in Ottawa to attend the combine. The first tryout attracted 61 players from across the province, including one who drove nine hours, and a number of players from the Canadian juniors team. For
Ottawa, success will rest on balancing a strong youth contingent with older players, like the recently signed Derek Alexander, and uniting a geographically disparate player base.
“In the short term, focusing on elements that are immediately controllable will hopefully help us achieve success,” Loiseau added. “Chemistry and strategy are things we can improve on very quickly. My hope for us in the short term is that we can have the most cohesive team, in terms of everyone being on the same page in terms of strategy and execution.”
Out West, the Los Angeles Aviators looked for what Coach Franklin Rho calls “tentpole players”—the standout individuals on offense and defense that the team can build around. The team used a rigorous, multi-stage tryout process to vet potential players from the greater Los Angeles area. Part of the reason was to attract as many talented athletes as possible. The other part fit the Aviators owners’ goal to centralize the otherwise far flung Los Angeles ultimate scene. It worked—the first round had 85 people, and nearly 60 attended the follow-up event. The team also used seven evaluators throughout the process to assess talent, including coaching veterans like the legendary Steve Dugan, as well as those unfamiliar with the L.A. open scene who could provide a fresh perspective on players.
“The number of evaluators helps establish consensus,” Rho said. “It was an ongoing process, and having seven different pairs of eyes definitely helps, since it’s impossible for one person to really get an overall view.”
The effort to keep preconceived notions in check speaks largely to the issue of balance that teams try to achieve. For Loiseau and the Outlaw captains, it was important to make the tryout process as transparent as possible and attract top talent and worry about roles later on. In Madison, the team leadership will look to fill out its roster with players known in the local ultimate community, as well as the unknowns who offer a tremendous upside. Defensive stalwarts Matt Weber and the aforementioned Pettit-Scantling seemed to come out of nowhere at the Radicals combine two years ago (they herald from Iowa and southeastern Wisconsin, respectively).
Last year, after the Radicals combine wrapped, the captains and DeByl retired to a corner booth at a nearby Perkins to discuss potential rosters. This year, and with more at stake, discussions spanned several days. While the roster has yet to be announced, expect the 2015 Radicals to favor experience over flash and to make subtle adjustments to their formula.
“Success comes from experience. More often than not, teams get to a game and lose before they win,” Brown said. “More often than not, it’s having been there, lost and learned.”
Co-captain Pat Shriwise agreed: “We’ve built a really strong base in the first two seasons, and for us it’s going to be about crossing our Ts and dotting our Is and doing everything right.”
“So, if I had to pick a sports movie that describes the 2015 Radicals, I’m going The Sandlot," Brown said, laughing. “I dunno, we gotta get over the hump to get to the championship, and for us that hump is retrieving the ball from the other side of the fence with the scary dog.”
“Is the dog the Western division?” Shriwise joked.
For the latest in roster announcements and player signings, make sure to check out The Dish from the AUDL.