The Tuesday Toss: MVP Moves, Expansion Excitement, And A Rising Breeze
By Evan Lepler
The Tuesday Toss Archive
Twelves weeks ago, when the San Jose Spiders finished off the Madison Radicals 17-15 in the championship game, the Spiders’ hometown celebration capped a fascinating fourth year of the American Ultimate Disc League.
Anchored by some of ultimate’s quintessential stars—Ashlin Joye and Cassidy Rasmussen—along with many of the sport’s dynamic and ascending youth—Greg Cohen and Simon Higgins—and supported by two-time league MVP Beau Kittredge, whose presence remained weighty even if his injury-plagued performance lacked panache, the Spiders convincingly earned their second straight AUDL title.
Their trophy certainly felt deserved. Sure, right now the Bay Area guys have established themselves as the best. That is not in dispute.
But, at the same time, it was by no means inevitable.
Around the league, the depth of talented teams has reached a new peak. In every division, there were intriguing and competitive clubs that failed to make the postseason.
As the offseason percolates, momentum builds toward year five, which will commence in a little more than 150 days. The Tuesday Toss, dormant for nearly three months, returns today with news from every division and a theory about where we, as a sport, could be headed.
I heard that all through the Midwest, they have towns with teams.
And in some places, they’ll even find you a day job, so you can play ball nights and weekends.
It’s your lucky day, kid. We’re going someplace kind of like that.
- Archie Graham and Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams
Undoubtedly, you have already seen the biggest ultimate news of the day. On Skyd, the great Beau Kittredge shared that he has chosen to join the expansion Dallas Roughnecks rather than pursue a three-peat with the Spiders. This big South Division splash creates several substantial shifts of power, while also raising plenty of questions as to how the Beau domino will impact other premier talent from coast to coast.
His article outlines five different reasons why he is making the move, emphasizing that this adventure would not be possible without Jim Gerencser, the Roughnecks’ contagiously passionate owner.
Gerencser is a Dallas-native who started playing ultimate in the late 1970s and first competed at Club Nationals in 1980, when there were just five teams battling for the title. Today, his primary mission, aside from simply growing the sport, is to develop his charity E.R.I.C (Early Recognition is Critical) into a flourishing mechanism to integrate children with ultimate and cancer prevention.
Over the past few years, many of the nation’s finest players, including Kittredge and other stars like Kurt Gibson and Jimmy Mickle, have wholeheartedly bought into Gerencser’s ideals. This has led to an explosion of E.R.I.C apparel and signage at AUDL games and other ultimate events.
More than anything, Gerencser views the Dallas Roughnecks as an opportunity to further the growth and success of E.R.I.C., and he is planning to invest large chunks of his considerable resources in this venture.
More and more, I think some AUDL owners will aspire to foster a system like this. It’s not all that dissimilar from professional or semi-pro baseball in the early 1900s, with players eagerly engaging in any odd jobs on the side to enable and complement their competitive fires. With so many capable, versatile, and intelligent competitors in our sport, an owner can capitalize on a player’s abilities even beyond the field.
For Gerencser, signing Kittredge to both play and serve as an ambassador for E.R.I.C is the perfect fit. It fulfills an idea he had when he first committed to purchasing the team, all the way back in April of 2013. He knew that Dallas would not even field a team in 2014 or 2015, but he knew that he wanted the eccentric author, video-game creator, and unstoppable deep cutter on his side.
“I think the minute I committed to buying [the Dallas AUDL franchise], I talked to Beau about 2016,” said Gerencser. “I didn’t ever get a complete commitment from him, but he did give me some idea that he likes me and that it’d be a hell of a lot of fun to play.
“I’m trying to put together the team to spread the most awareness about ultimate and E.R.I.C. We want to [engage all of the] kids in Dallas. We want all kids to come to the games. We’re gonna make it a different type of event.”
Gerencser added that he expects to have five total commuting players, and immediately, speculation turns to whether or not some of Beau’s Bay Area buddies will be joining him in Texas. Gibson and Mickle also seem like obvious fits, though neither has committed to play for the Roughnecks yet.
“The addition of Beau is exciting, and Dallas is definitely a team I will be strongly considering,” acknowledged Mickle, who commuted from Colorado to play with the San Diego Growlers in 2015. “I will use the next few weeks to talk to teams around the AUDL and decide what is best [for me].”
Beau’s former employer, Spiders’ owner Andrew Zill, described Kittredge as “the Jupiter of the ultimate solar system,” a fact that leads one to believe that Dallas won’t have any trouble signing more great players.
“[Beau’s] gravitational pull helped bring in the players that turned our team into a team of superstars,” said Zill, who offered genuine excitement over the fact that Kittredge is getting this opportunity in Dallas. “I think this is a watershed moment for the league. Beau will be the first truly professional ultimate player in history, and I think that’s a big deal.”
“I also have a lot of confidence that the 2016 Spiders will be as strong as ever,” Zill added. “Beau played a lesser role in the championship game because of his injury and the youth on the team really stepped up. That’s going to be the question in 2016 without Beau. Can we play the way we did in the championship game for an entire season?”
Zill has not officially signed any players for next season yet, but he does expect many of his two-time champions to return. It will be fascinating to see if the collection of talented sidekicks can successfully assume more responsibility to maintain the Spiders’ standard of the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, Kittredge begins his new adventure while also focusing on his video-game project, a tower-defense puzzle creation called, “Jack Nimble and the Boredom Bugs.” For a guy who is used to enormous success on the field, the electronic voyage has been a humbling experience.
“[Making a] video game is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Kittredge admitted. “In ultimate, it doesn’t matter what the world thinks about you or your team; winning is winning. In video games, you are at the mercy of the world’s opinion and how to win is not so clear.”
One thing that is clear is Kittredge’s life will be changing. Although he is not moving permanently, he is leaving the comfort zone of the Bay Area ultimate scene. This includes a possible departure from his club team, Revolver, which has won four of the last six USA Ultimate national titles.
“I will not be focusing on club at this moment,” Kittredge said. “My future with Revolver is kind of up in the air. The program is everything I ever wanted. I think I’ve proved what I wanted: that you can build a program around players who are willing to buy in and that, in the long run, it’s building the program that is more important than any player. And in turn, those players who put the team first have become superstars.
“Not sure Revolver even needs me anymore. Might be time to find a new quarterfinals team that could use a little help. On the other side, of course, is that my best friends play on Revolver and it would be hard for me to say no to Cassidy [Rasmussen]. Also, this new venture into Texas should be more than enough of a challenge for me.”
The ultimate hot stove has just begun. Many players will resign with their teams; some will throw curveballs and sign elsewhere. A few top talents might even take the season off, adding another wrinkle to next year and beyond.
While one two-time AUDL MVP has turned his attention to the Dallas Roughnecks and his creative kickstarter campaign, another two-time winner of the league’s top award is also at a bit of a crossroads.
Jonathan “Goose” Helton, a dominant competitor with the Indianapolis AlleyCats in 2012 and the Chicago Wildfire from 2013-15, is unsure about his AUDL future for next season. He is on the verge of moving away from Chicago. Whether that is a temporary or permanent move remains to be determined.
Helton has recently spent a good deal of time in Ocean City, Maryland, working and training alongside Tim Morrill and his company Morrill Performance. The proximity to Washington, D.C. prompted him to attend Breeze tryouts this past Sunday, but it remains unclear if Helton would make a season-long commitment to stay in the nation’s capital.
“It’s not to be dramatic,” said Helton about the indecision. “I just really don’t know.”
Soon, he plans to move back to his hometown outside of Jacksonville, Florida, which also raises the possibility that he could join the Cannons in 2016. He also has not closed the door on a return to the Wildfire organization, either as a commuting player or as a local if he decided to return to the Windy City come springtime. He still has a small minority ownership stake in the Chicago AUDL team.
“We’ll see [what happens] as time unfolds,” said Helton. “My big focus right now is the tryout for Worlds in January. I want to make that team. I’ll be just a few weeks shy of 32 at that time, so this is probably my only opportunity.”
One obvious benefit of attending Breeze tryouts this past Sunday was the opportunity to be around Alex Ghesquiere, the man who is entering his third year as D.C.’s leader. Perhaps more importantly for someone like Helton, the incredibly accomplished coach, better known in ultimate circles simply as “Dutchy,” will be making the key personnel decisions for the next U.S. national team as coach for the upcoming WUGC—World Ultimate and Guts Championships—a quadrennial event that is coming up in London next summer.
As a coach, Ghesquiere’s championship resume obviously speaks for itself. And when D.C. Breeze owner Don Grage locked up Ghesquiere’s services for another season, it helped ensure that the Breeze would be on the rise in 2016.
Before the Beau news broke, the most significant player transactions for the upcoming season were made public back all the way back in July. When the Breeze announced that Alan Kolick and Markham Shofner had each signed two-year contracts to join the team for 2016 and 2017, it signaled a major shift in both the DC ultimate community and, more than likely, the entire East Division of the AUDL.
“It all started with my conversations with [Breeze Owner] Don [Grage],” said Kolick, graduate of William & Mary and has been a part of the D.C. club ultimate community for the past several seasons. “A group of us met with Don before the 2015 season, and I honestly was expecting to get a free meal out of it and not much else…After the meeting, I became very interested in joining the Breeze organization, largely because of the ability to direct and influence the team and franchise decisions…Dutchy’s presence is obviously huge. Any opportunity to play for someone with his pedigree and proven record is great.”
More than any other team in the league, the DC Breeze have publicly proclaimed their 2016 presence by already announcing nine signings for the upcoming season. They have re-upped their top pieces from last year like Matt Kerrigan, Brad Scott, David Boylan-Kolchin, and Ben Feng, while mixing an established cadre of ultimate veterans that will immediately raise the team’s level of play. Kolick, Shofner, David Cranston, Nicky Spiva, and Jeff Wodatch are all AUDL rookies, but it is easy to imagine them seamlessly elevating the Breeze toward the top of the East Division.
Together, Don and Dutchy are building a squad to contend.
“I talked to Alan [Kolick] and Markham [Shofner] a few times before last season about team philosophy and coaching style,” Ghesquiere explained. “In those conversations, I talked about the team mentality I try to create, the underdog billing the Breeze was going to get that I would enjoy having, and a bit about open-field offensive strategy.”
Ghesquiere added that Grage should receive a large chunk of the credit for adding the new pieces. In fact, six of the nine players currently lined up for the 2016 roster signed before the coach committed. Without Grage’s efforts, message, and presence, Ghesquiere likely would not have returned as head coach.
“I’ve been involved with lots of startups,” Grage explained, “and it’s always about the quality of the people that make it fun and prepare the situation for success…Tryouts [this past Sunday] were amazing. We had a very strong turnout from pre-registration and then lucked out on November weather with a partly cloudy, high 60s afternoon!”
Eight of the nine players who have already signed competed at tryouts, running through Ghesquiere’s gauntlet of challenging drills and scrimmages. For Helton and perhaps a handful of others who dream of being selected for the USA team, it was a firsthand chance to see how the coach conducts a high-stakes tryout.
“[Dutchy] really wants to expose players by putting them in massive field spaces with too few players,” Helton shared, explaining how 3-on-3 games might be played on a full-size field to test both conditioning and disc skills. “You just can’t hide.”
Heading into 2016, the Breeze will look to improve upon their 7-7 record from last season. The three-time division champs from Toronto should be as strong as ever and rumors of an AUDL expansion into Boston continues to simmer. But the District’s ultimate scene has risen to a place where, when unified, it expects to compete with any of the other top cities in the country.
With undeniable talent and Ghesquiere’s wits, the Breeze are a club to focus on.
“People have told me [Ghesquiere’s] not an Xs and Os guy; he’s a team mentality guy,” Shofner said. “He keeps the team on track on a spiritual Phil Jackson type level. I dig that. I’ve always been more of an intuition and emotion player, so it’ll be cool to cleat up for someone who speaks fluently to that mindset.”
Kittredge joining Dallas may overshadow the Austin Sol’s major move, but the new team in the Texas capital also hit a home run recently by naming Michael “Tank” Natenberg as its first head coach. A teammate of Kittredge’s on the 2013 gold-medal winning World Games team, Natenberg brings immediate credibility and experience to a club that otherwise might have been viewed as “that other Texas team.”
It remains to be scene how the vast amount of talent from the Lone Star State and the surrounding region will be divided. But with Natenberg—whose greatests on the grandest stage at the World Games still resonate as some of the most spectacular clutch highlights I have ever seen—the Sol are in steady hands.
When Natenberg first learned that Patrick Christmas, his former teammate at the University of Texas, had purchased the franchise rights in Austin, he did not give the team or his potential involvement in it much thought at all. Fast-forward to six months ago, and Natenberg found himself on the verge of an important decision.
“I learned that the team was going to happen for sure sometime last spring,” he explained, “and [I] was approached by Patrick to head the team. I was immediately interested, but took the summer months to consider my options because [my wife] Cara and I are expecting our first child in January, a girl! In late September, I agreed to become the head coach with the understanding that my family time would be a top priority. Cara and I realize that passions outside of family and school are important for us to be healthy and happy, but I’m still more concerned that I can be the MVD—most valuable dad—at home than the MVP on the field.”
Although the Sol officially announced Natenberg as coach, it was fairly vague as to whether he would be a player/coach or simply stay on the sidelines. One week after his 35th birthday, he revealed that he’s not yet sure whether he’ll find himself in a jersey this spring.
“It is a possibility that I will be a player/coach,” Natenberg said. “I’m going to set our roster to ensure we have skilled athletic talent. If there is a role for me, I’ll consider taking it, but I don’t want to take a spot that could be filled by a young player with lots of potential. I think this team and the AUDL provides an awesome stage to showcase the upcoming talent around the nation. So, playing is TBD.”
In any young league, teams will come and go. Even in the more established pro sports across the U.S., franchises change hands, move, and sometimes fold. This is often healthy and productive evolution, even if it is also a little sad.
Last week, it was announced that the Rochester Dragons have been contracted. While this team never contended for a title or rose to prominence with any nationally known stars, they quietly were pretty competitive in 2013, going 6-6 in their final 12 games after an 0-4 start.
In 2014, I saw the Dragons in person during an ESPN3 telecast in Toronto. Clearly overmatched over the course of 48 minutes, there were several bright spots along the way.
Bryan Jones, a respected voice in the sport, coached the club with energy and dedication during the 2013 & 2014 seasons. Despite being undermanned from a talent perspective, he passionately led the club into battle with a purpose every week. In the aftermath of the news, I asked Bryan what Dragons memory made him the most proud.
“Proudest moment was our OT home victory over the New York Empire,” Jones said. “Joe Thompson, who was just 19 at the time, was one of our handlers. He was getting shoved around by Sean Childers, I believe, and just took the abuse while executing for the winning score. The Empire showed a little bit of hubris by not starting Husayn Carnegie until the 2nd half when they were down. It was all celebration when the Empire’s ‘hail mary’ went up. I know for a fact that every time they play us, they tell the story how they came up to Rochester and didn’t come prepared to fight.”
Several former Dragons (and Buffalo Hunters) have emerged in other cities in the league. Last year, Rob Dulabon and Mike Pannone, both former Hunters, were regulars for the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds. Zack Smith suited up with Seattle, Mitch Steiner rostered with LA, CJ Colicchio with Raleigh, and Harrison Schwarzer with Ottawa.
Suffice to say, even with the Dragons franchise gone, the team’s history will live on through these players.
“My favorite recollections are some of the games we had against Toronto,” Jones elaborated. “In 2013, we were pretty good with Eric Dixon throwing deep a lot to Rob Smith and David Wheeler. We had some close games, one where we were tied at half, another where we came back from seven points down in the fourth to tie it at 22 with a couple minutes to go. We had some moments where it looked like Rochester was close to pulling it together.
“Western New York was a second home to me, after going to college in Buffalo. It was great to see some of the programs come together and work hard. Joe Becker, Kevin Quinlan, and others have done a great job helping lead a consistent club team in the area, and they used the Dragons as an opportunity to keep fighting and improve against top competition.”
Like the Kentucky Colonels, the Carolina Cougars, and the Spirits of St. Louis, the Rochester Dragons are history. If you can get your hands on a Dragons jersey, hang on to that thing. Twenty years from now, it will be an amazing antique.
The Tuesday Toss will be published monthly during the winter months. 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