February 7, 2018
The Toronto Rush are taking the long road in their quest to repeat as AUDL champions. The only championship for the Toronto franchise came in its inaugural 2013 season, when the AUDL was a vastly different beast. Departed were dominant franchises such as the Philadelphia Spinners, and not-yet-arrived were the powerhouses of the West, such as the San Francisco Flamethrowers and San Jose Spiders. The league boasted twelve teams, and Toronto’s wealth of talent assured it an undefeated season.
Five years later, and the AUDL is far improved. Talent leaked back into the AUDL, and superstars such as Dylan Freechild, Jimmy Mickle, and Jonathan Nethercutt joined the league out of college. The Rush fell 28-18 in the 2014 finals to the newly formed San Jose Spiders, who boasted three all-world players in Beau Kittridge, Ashlin Joye, and Kurt Gibson. Following that loss – and the continued improvement of AUDL rivals – the Rush were unable to return to the finals until 2017, when they faced the San Francisco Flamethrowers (sporting Kittridge, among other stars) and lost a heartbreaker by one point. The game was phenomenal.
Though Toronto failed to re-capture the ultimate prize, the team knew that its best Ultimate was ahead of it. Nathan Jesson of Ultiworld.com understood perfectly Toronto’s many successes during championship weekend: “in many ways it felt like Toronto had the best weekend. The Rush took out the defending champions [Dallas, in the semi-finals,] and played another great game against San Francisco. While many were dismissive of their chances, their young players stepped up in a way they didn’t last year and brought the team to another level.” Even Evan Lepler had nothing but praise for the Rush’s youth.
The youth talent populating Toronto’s roster is the team’s secret weapon. While more heralded stars – such as Callahan winners – join Toronto’s American rivals between seasons, Toronto boasts a bevy of its own future stars joining its squad each winter. The secret to this influx of ability lies in Toronto’s Elites Ultimate program, run by Rush’s former coach, Evan Philips.
Philips was the original coach of the Toronto Rush for two-and-a-half years, and after leaving Rush, he founded Elites Ultimate with his wife, Carla DiFilippo. Together, they’ve run Elites for five years, creating a national powerhouse junior program for boys and girls, in the form of TORO. They recently shared Ultimate Canada’s award for 2017 coach of the year, and both coaches are beloved by Toronto’s Ultimate community.
Elites offers several competitive junior teams. Havoc is for children aged 14 or younger, and the older children are divided into tiers of teams based on ability. TORO is the highest tier, and the team is a dynasty. While Ultimate Frisbee in Canada at the junior and open levels was until recently dominated by teams from the West Coast, TORO has staked a claim to being one of the most successful junior programs in the country. Within the last four years, TORO boys have two national championships, while TORO girls have won one.
Philips acknowledges his players are likely to dominate Canadian Ultimate after graduating TORO: “I would assume that’s where most of the players on [Rush] will come from, from our club.” At the moment, there is so much talent already on Rush that even incredibly skilled TORO players might be unable to make the jump to the professional circuit. Regardless, four Elites players have recently joined Rush: Connor Armstrong, Jason Hyunh, Mike MacKenzie, and Bretton Tan.
Philips believes more could easily have joined the professional ranks: “I think those guys specifically were very good and sort of got in at the right time when there was a bit of a transition on the teams [GOAT and Rush]. There was some turnover, so I think the timing was right for those guys as well, to get on the team. I think there are guys that are just as good that have been on the last couple of TORO teams, that haven’t gotten there, and I think it just, you know, there’s no space. So that was sort of part of it, you know, a lot of stuff is timing.”
For Mike MacKenzie, the transition to Rush was made much easier by his coaching tree. Todd Melville coached him in high school at Lakefield, and Melville convinced MacKenzie to come play for Evan Philips at Elites Ultimate. Melville was an assistant coach for TORO. Philips, for his part, used to coach the Rush. MacKenzie felt like he already knew the playbook at each stop on his path from team to team. But the transition wasn’t always an easy one.
He remembers a play during his first AUDL game against Montreal, in which the athleticism of the open division took him by surprise: “I remember [my teammate] putting up a deep strike, and it was just sitting perfectly in front of me, or above me, and I was like ‘oh, this is easy’. And I jumped a little bit, just to bring it down, and I remember getting skied quite badly actually, over the top… I had the ability to jump and get that disc, but I didn’t think it was necessary, again because I had no prior concept to how athletic these guys were. That was the point where I was like, ‘wow, I just got **** on’.”
Even though the transition has been hard, MacKenzie and his fellow former TORO teammates have performed admirably. How has Toronto Ultimate reached the point where there is such a wealth of talent? A decade ago, Rush’s current stars were also playing on junior clubs in the city. The disparity between then and now is almost laughable. Before Elites Ultimate, Toronto boasted several competitive junior teams, though none were as successful as TORO.
Current Rush star, Isaiah Masek-Kelly, played on Dirt, one of TORO’s spiritual ancestors. He describes how bush league was the junior competition in 2009: “When I played [on Dirt] 2009, we went to Winnipeg, and we tied for Bronze. Just because there were some really bad rain storms, and the fields were just getting destroyed, so they didn’t let us play our bronze medal game. They were saving it for the adult divisions the next two days.”
Not only has the junior program in general improved since 2009 (in 2017, a bronze medal game actually, you know, took place between competitors from Quebec and Ottawa), but Toronto has become a national junior powerhouse. Masek-Kelly describes the improvement:
“It definitely would have helped if I had Evan and Carla coaching [when I played juniors]. They’ve done an amazing job with the program. [Toronto junior Ultimate] used to be like, kind of a middle of the pack, but now [Toronto is] contending, every year we’re in contention for gold in the junior division at Nationals. So it’s a testament to how far the program has come.”
Mike MacKenzie doubled down on the incredible coaching ability of Evan Philips: “Evan is a world class Frisbee coach, obviously. He’s got lists and lists of achievements and reasons for people to respect his coaching ability.”
Yet there’s more to glean from Elites Ultimate than its incredible coaching at all levels. A simple yet important aspect is that for an individual to improve his game, he has to play against the best possible competition. Elites provides that for juniors. But for adults in Toronto who wants to improve his or her game, there is no better place than Rush tryouts, which take place on February 17th. Become better by playing with the best.
For the Rush, it’s clear that the formula is paying dividends. Each of the four previous TORO players that have joined the team contributes massively; all were in the top 10 on the team for goals received in 2017. MacKenzie is a major member of the Rush D line, leading the team in D’s in the 2017 season and playoffs with 27 (Tan was second with 23). The youth contribute on a veteran-laden squad, led by superstars Mark Lloyd, Isaiah Masek-Kelly, and Andrew Carroll. Even as Toronto ages, the team knows it is only improving.
Masek-Kelly leads the defensive line on which Tan and MacKenzie play. He trusts them:
“From a skill aspect and understanding systems, they were quite advanced… It’s pretty nice to have a few 20-year-olds walk in, and you’re confident when they’re on the line… I’m pretty impressed with their athletic ability. I was very confident that they could get open, and I could huck deep throws to them, and they would have a good shot on it…. I keep trying to add to their game, but that’s just with time, and age.”
Even though Masek-Kelly may be the seasoned vet – and dominant handler – on the defensive line, he still takes competition with the rookies seriously. I mentioned that MacKenzie led the team in blocks last season, and Masek Kelly was quick to doubt the statistics themselves: “I don’t know who actually won with the stats [on blocks]… There can be asterisks on the D’s sometimes, you know, there are some situations where you just touch the disc or something, or the scorekeeper might have messed up. So it’s not always 100% accurate.”
Despite his fiery competition, Masek-Kelly admitted only a moment later that the statistics are secondary, and he cares far more about his line’s – and team’s – success than which player records a D or a goal.
The Rush have invested in becoming better slowly. There is always another option: The Rush could make like the Yankees and buy talent, importing players to Toronto, looking for quick victories. Rush owner Jim Lloyd acknowledges that possibility while denying it would actually help his team. Importing talent doesn’t help develop the future of Ultimate in Toronto, which is firmly on the minds of Toronto decision-makers. Instead, talent throughout the city develops on elite youth programs, and from there joins Rush’s own roster. High school coaches like Todd Melville at Lakefield are an important part of the process, helping young athletes be captivated by Ultimate, and convincing them to continue developing their talent. He even drove players, including MacKenzie, from Peterborough to Toronto twice a week for Elites Ultimate practice, which he also helped coach. These seemingly-tiny efforts pay off in the long run. The process is working for the Rush, and more importantly, the future of Ultimate in Toronto at large has never shone brighter.
This is part one of a two-part piece about youth talent in Toronto Ultimate. The next piece will be publicized in the middle of February, directly after Rush open tryouts.