By Louis Zatzman
April 11, 2018
The Toronto Rush offence works like a symphony without a soloist, or a chocolate covered pretzel: greater than the sum of its parts. It starts with the veteran throwers, who are smarter and more capable than practically any handler defenders an opposing team can muster.
Thomson McKnight is as solid a possession handler as exists. Among lead handlers (semi-arbitrarily defined, in this case, as players with more than 350 completions in 2017), he was 6th in the league in throwing percentage, at 96.3% His decision-making is impeccable, and he knows every teammates’ and defenders’ tendencies. He’s never flustered and has seen every situation.
Adrian Yearwood complements him perfectly. They’ve played together for more than a decade, and they know exactly what the other is thinking. Yearwood’s favourite pass is a lofting, high-release, backhand pop, which works well as a metaphor for his role of working hard to allow others the highlight plays. Yearwood describes his important yet unflashy role in the offence:
“[I] put our cutters in good position to huck from. That involves them getting themselves open into a good space, but usually them getting open in a good space is usually not the easiest part of the field to throw to, so that's our responsibilities, to make sure that we have the skills and the abilities to get it to them when they get into good spots, so they can just turn and fire down the field without a mark impeding their throw.”
Together, the two starting handlers combined for 774 completed throws in 2017 and only 35 turnovers. That’s outrageous – for comparison, 2017 MVP candidate Bobby Ley was second in the league with 750 completions, and he posted 44 turnovers. The Rush handlers are as consistent as a daily sunrise. No defender can fluster them or force turns, and they can easily churn a defence to soup while moving the disc down the field.
Connor Armstrong has quickly become a solid and constant contributor from the handler position. When Armstrong sets up as a handler, Yearwood happily shifts into the stack. Though he was a rookie last year, Armstrong looked like a 10-year veteran. “He's very calm, very collected, confident too,” said McKnight when asked about Armstrong. Armstrong has long led Canada’s youth teams to success, and he’s already won Ultimate Canada’s Male Athlete of the Year for his international and junior success. He fits into Rush’s system like a chicken into a duck…into a turkey.
When the handlers relinquish possession to cutters downfield, Jeff Lindquist is a common recipient. He catches so many discs under that he appears to be a handler; he tossed 202 completions last year, which is remarkable for a cutter. In general, the team trusts anyone on the field to throw the disc: “We have a lot of faith in our cutters to handle the disc as much as our handlers… As a handler, I might just touch the disc one time, center it to Thomson, and then never see it again because our cutters are so proficient with the disc,” said coach Sachin Raina.
Cutters are not required to dump the disc if there isn’t an easy throw in the first moment after the catch. And giving Lindquist time with the disc almost always results in positives for the Rush. Lindquist is terrific in tight spaces, threading the disc around impossible angles for the score. He will practically only throw the disc if it results in a break throw. He’s wild and wacky, capable of any throw at any moment, but he knows when and when not to bust out the funk. Linq is Harper Garvey with a conscience (and less range).
Cam Harris is perhaps the most popular target downfield. Harris is the heart of the offence, and quietly the team’s best thrower (and best all-around player). Harris is 6’2 and one of the team’s more dangerous deep threats, so teams play him deep and allow the unders. Rush sets will often involve Harris receiving a short, 10-yard gainer, pivoting with momentum, and bombing the disc to a teammate flying deep. Harris led the team in regular-season assists in 2017 with 42.
How many Rush sets begin with Harris in the back of the stack, another threat in front of him, and Andrew Carroll third? Harris cuts in on the force side, with the other cutter taking space on the break side, while Carroll shoots deep. Harris threw 15 goals just to Carroll in 2017. The look is automatic, and it happens so often it’s practically the theme song of the Rush.
Andrew Carroll is another weapon entirely. If Harris is a Swiss Army Knife, Carroll is a longsword. He’s faster than anyone. The speed and commitment of every cut takes opponents by surprise, putting them on their heels. Defenders who know that Carroll is going deep will still sell out to take away the under, believing his set-up cuts. Carroll turns faster than anyone and accelerates into the distance before most defenders even realized they bought the fake.
Those are the guys who almost never change, and they know each other intimately. They’re close friends off the field, and any combination could undoubtedly win The Newlywed Game. Those six players rarely missed games, and they played 117 points together during the 2017 season. That’s a ridiculous number for six guys to play together in a year. For a point of comparison, the Madison Radicals will miss Ross Barker on the O-Line; however, Barker played only 113 points total in 2017, fewer than the points played together by Toronto’s main six. No other team approached that level of consistency in 2017. More than just AUDL reps, the veterans on Rush have played together forever; McKnight and Yearwood have played on the same teams for over a decade, whether recreational, club, national, or pro.
There are variety of player options beyond the main six.
Ben Burelle quickly earned a reputation as one of the Rush’s most dangerous weapons last year. He’s scary fast, with pinpoint throwing and decision-making. Burelle had some huge games in 2017, when opponents simply couldn’t account for him on the field. With opponents focussing on devastating threats in Harris and Carroll, Burelle led the Rush in assists against Dallas on championship weekend and then in goals against San Francisco. Burelle describes his playing style as similar to Carroll’s, though he knows he isn’t quite as fast. Carroll is frequently the target of Burelle’s trash-talking, and the two have as competitive a rivalry as possible for teammates very much in love.
Coach Sachin Raina even guesses that Burelle could lead the team in some statistical categories in 2018; the dude gets goals and plays with an unabashed joy and swagger.
Burelle’s goofiness is intentional. “I used to be that guy,” Burelle explained, “I'd spike it towards someone, or I'd be really intense. Then I just figured it's better to be goofy and have fun.” He’s a happy killer, who will trash talk constantly and then dance all over you after he catches the goal. Coach Raina confirms that Burelle will have a consistent starting role on the Rush offence in 2018.
Nate Hirst will also be a handler getting minutes on both lines for the Rush in 2018. He was with the team in 2016, and his ridiculous speed allows the Rush to fly down the field with short passes. When Hirst and Burelle play together, the offensive style can shift from a team that thrives on hucks, to a team that dices opponents in small spaces, running handler-heavy dominator sets. “The endzone is where I'm really successful, cuz people have a hard time keeping up with me. If you add Nate in there too, good luck,” explained Burelle.
All the pieces are interchangeable. Cutters have to be able to throw, and handlers are comfortable setting up in the stack. Numbers are spread evenly across the team, with cutters throwing an unexpected number of assists and handlers collecting oodles of goals. Yearwood in particular is dangerous if teams are lulled into believing he’s only going to dawdle in the backfield. When he was young, he could jump with anyone in the world, and he still has that latent killer-cutter-mindset.
Though leading the Rush in 2017, Harris only ranked 17th in the AUDL in points per game. The Rush player with the most touches per game was McKnight, who averaged only 40.4, or a modest 35th-most in the league. The Rush offence never prioritizes one player, which means gameplanning for the Rush is near impossible. The Dallas Roughnecks were able to beat the Raleigh Flyers in the playoffs last year by forcing Jonathan Nethercutt to huck into tight coverage; the Roughnecks lost to the Rush in part because there was no solution to the Toronto offence. If you take Carroll out of the equation with double coverage, the Rush will cycle to option 2 (or Carroll will just beat you deep anyway). Carroll will run past defenders who back him, as if they aren’t there. “Settling for what the defence gives you is a win for the defence... Carroll never wants the defence to win,” explained Raina, reverently.
Even though the Rush offence doesn’t depend on any single contributor, there are superstars who can take over when necessary. Isaiah Masek-Kelly finished 2017 by spending most of his time as a defender, but when games require it, he is happy to switch back onto the offence. He began his career as a monster athlete, who could fly downfield in the blink of an eye and leap over smaller buildings en route to the disc. He’s now a quarterback thrower, able to float a disc anywhere on the field with ease. Guys back Masek-Kelly, afraid of his deep strikes, and he’s content gaining a few yards and distributing the disc all over the field. “When Izzy's out there, he's gonna be a cutter, but it sometimes has the appearance of these guys handling, because they go back and get the disc so much,” said Raina. He also mentioned that Masek-Kelly will spend more time on the O-Line this year, as the offence had trouble in 2017 getting the disc back if they turned it over.
When Masek-Kelly played alongside the offensive stars, the Rush were unbeatable. With him alongside Lindquist, McKnight, Yearwood, Carroll, Harris, and Armstrong, the Rush boasted a ridiculous point spread of 56-23 in only 79 possessions. Their offensive conversion rate was a solid 69%, but their defensive conversion rate was an ungodly (small sample size theatre be damned) 89%. That number is clearly unsustainable, but the point remains that when the Rush combine their best talent onto one line, they can beat anyone.
Toronto considers itself flexible. They won’t be pigeonholed, like the offensive wizards in San Francisco or the defensive monsters in Madison. They can grind out wins with their D-Line, and they were one of six teams with 200 Ds or more in 2017. They can win shoot-‘em-up barnburners, where points last less than 30 seconds. The offence still has to be pristine, according to Coach Raina: “I think if you're gonna be good, you have to be an offensive team. You can't win with just defence.” If Toronto is going to repeat, or even improve on, their 2017 success, the offence needs to remain elite. That’s as safe a bet as a Harris huck to Carroll.