The Tuesday Toss: 2017 AUDL Arms Race
December 13, 2016 — By Evan Lepler
The Tuesday Toss Archive
In case you have not noticed, we have just passed halftime of the AUDL offseason.
As of today, we are 128 days removed from the Dallas Roughnecks dominance in Madison. And we are yet another 110 days away from the first weekend of April, right around the time when the sixth AUDL season will begin. But make no mistake, the chase for the next championship is very much alive right here in December. Between tryout weekends, winter track workouts, and lengthy GroupMe message chains, this is the time of year when ambitious owners are planting seeds, seeking spring growth and summertime bloom.
Jack Hefferon gives his all on a disc at a Pittsburgh Thunderbirds tryout event.
Four teams around the league held tryouts this past weekend: the San Diego Growlers, Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, Nashville NightWatch, and the Roughnecks. Dallas is looking to repeat, as they presume to return MVP hopeful Jimmy Mickle as the club’s leader for another season, and who was at tryouts helping select the team. Although it’s looking like some of Mickle's superstar teammates might eschew the chance to pursue back-to-back titles in Dallas, much of Roughnecks’ powerful supporting cast is poised to return for the team in 2017. Patrick Eberle is back again as Head Coach, and he, along with returning standouts like Mickle, Matt Jackson, Chris Mazur, and Dan Emmons took charge of overseeing the competition for the handful of available slots on the full roster and practice squad.
Emmons, Mazur, and Jackson were all instrumental in helping the Roughnecks win the championship in 2016.
The most notable non-Roughneck to attend tryouts had to be Jay Froude, who has patrolled the Midwestern skies in a Madison Radicals jersey the past two seasons where he racked up 31 assists, 30 goals, and 31 blocks in just 12 regular season games. Once Mickle’s teammate on the Team USA U-23 squad in 2013, Froude possesses a well-rounded skillset that has allowed him to flourish in several different roles, along with his ability to author dynamic, jaw-dropping highlights. It remains to be seen where the Kansas City-based star will play in 2017—it’s worth remembering that, last year, former Chicago Wildfire handler Brett Matzuka attended tryouts in Dallas before signing to play with the DC Breeze for the 2016 season, an indication that playing at tryouts does not necessarily signify a firm commitment—but the decision of the young Mizzou alum is a weighty domino that would help the Roughnecks withstand the losses of some of their other major pieces.
After a historic first season with the Roughnecks and his league-record third straight title, Beau Kittredge is done in Dallas.
Beau Kittredge and Cassidy Rasmussen, for example, are one-and-done in Dallas, as all signs point to the Bay Area duo signing with San Francisco, a development that would add further depth and firepower to an already talented FlameThrowers roster. Meanwhile, Kurt Gibson and Dylan Freechild’s plans are still uncertain, though Steinbrenner-ian owner Jim Gerencser has said he is hoping to have them both back.
Regardless of what surprises Dallas will unveil in the weeks and months to come, it’s safe to say they will create another formidable squad that will be among the championship favorites heading into the spring. Gerencser is determined to build upon the team’s inaugural successes, and has the passion, resources, and community connections to prevent a major drop off in Dallas.
“We’re gonna get even better at throwing an awesome party and having an ultimate game break out,” Gerencser commented, outlining his mission to further grow the experience of Dallas home games.
Whereas Dallas is focusing on staying at the top, the other 23 teams in the league are honed in on the climb. Some squads are already well positioned, within view of the peak. Others are still in the woods, grinding upward step-by-step, ascending at their own speed and style.
A team like the Seattle Cascades, for instance, might only need a slight tweak, as the championship-runners-up incredible depth already has them poised for another deep push into the playoffs. Many other franchises—especially those who missed the playoffs last year altogether—are looking to make more of a significant splash. In the West Division, where I would argue the gap between the cellar and the ceiling is smaller than any other region, a couple key moves can trigger a prompt turnaround.
With that in mind, the Growlers made a couple noteworthy acquisitions to kick off their winter free agency. As I reported Monday on Twitter, the Growlers have secured the services of offensive specialists Kevin “Dollar” Smith and Sean Ham for the 2017 season. Smith served as player/coach for the San Jose Spiders since the 2014 season, which included a pair of AUDL championships in 2014 and 2015. His full arsenal of throws means Smith (42 assists in '16) could immediately become one of the Growlers’ headlining handlers. Almost a perfect cutting complement to Smith, Ham has risen from relative unknown at the beginning of the 2015 season to one of the league's most unstoppable receiving threats downfield, tallying 57 goals without a single drop during the 2016 season.
The connectivity of their signings is convenient, but more coincidental than it might appear. For Ham, it was an easy choice largely made by his other employer: the United States Navy. Following the completion of a graduate degree in the Bay Area this past summer, he was assigned to San Diego, where he is working as a dentist for the Navy.
Sean Ham has shown a remarkable ability to come up with the disc in the endzone in his two years in San Jose where he amassed 97 goals in 22 games as a Spider.
Meanwhile, Smith’s decision was more personal than practical. More than anything, he felt the tug of his college roots pulling him back to SoCal.
“There’s always been a draw to play with San Diego,” Smith explained. “I spent all of my college years playing for UC-San Diego and a few years of club after college. It was really last year when some of my old college buddies started saying, ‘Let’s get the gang back together.’”
Smith leaves the Spiders as their all-time leader in assists with 113 on all manner of throws.
Originally from San Jose, Smith matriculated to San Diego in 2002, where he developed his big throws and confident yet laid-back style. The youngest of three ultimate-playing brothers, he helped the SoCal scene to some of its biggest wins at both the college and club levels.
“Dollar and I were on the UCSD men’s teams that went to quarters [at collegiate nationals],” said Growlers player and Director of Marketing Matt Parisi. “I've played with him for a really long time and he fills a major hole for us. In San Diego, we've always had athletes; we've always had receivers. Dollar was one of our big guns, and he kind of connects the dots. We’ve got the horses to run; he brings the deep game.”
Smith’s southern migration reunites him with many of his old mates, including Kevin Stuart, who will return for his third year as San Diego’s head coach. They coached the Air Squids together from 2008 to 2010, twice helping UCSD reach Nationals. As co-coaches, Stuart said that he and Smith really balanced each other out, a fact that he thinks will allow their leadership styles to mesh well at the pro level too.
“I tend to be on the intense/disciplinarian side of things, while Kevin is a bit more laid back, but that dynamic seems to have worked,” Stuart explained. “Kevin sees the game very well, and he is a winner. He’s won a national championship with Mischief [in the Mixed Division in 2006], and we know his history with the Spiders. So I am very excited to work with him again and have him back in the fold in San Diego.”
While Smith probably won’t have an official role in the team’s leadership, everyone involved in the upper levels of the organization have heartily endorsed bringing aboard the veteran presence, a guy who is never shy to share his opinion on the field or in a huddle. Along with his ability to stretch the field, that experience is a valuable resource.
Smith looks to bring his championship pedigree to San Diego to help the Growlers reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
“He is and always will be a shooter,” said Stuart. “He will take his shots and will throw things that will make you wonder how he saw the field to get the disc into that area. I believe that’s been the part of his game that has come along the furthest as he has gotten older. He’s always been creative on offense and has great throws, but now he has great throws and sees the field better than most. That’s what makes him difficult to defend."
Smith has made a career of completing throws others wouldn't even consider attempting. His hammer is all but artillery grade, and he can utilize it from almost any position on the field. And it's one thing to make a defense respect your repertoire of throws, but to complete the number of audacious passes Smith does is demoralizing for any opponent.
“He was a pain to strategize against [the last two seasons]. When we played against San Jose, especially last year, he would figure out what I was trying to do to stop his offense, and most of the time he would figure it out quickly, forcing me to try something new," Stuart continued.
"What made it really frustrating was that he would come over between quarters and let me know when he figured things out. That’s what made it fun to compete against him, but I am happy to have him on our sideline.”
Aside from the emotional tug of many of his college buddies, the 33-year-old Smith remarked that two other significant factors played into his decision to depart San Jose. First, the Growlers also have agreed to sign his brother, Kyle, who quietly made several highlight reel plays in a limited role with Spiders last year; Kyle, the 36-year-old Smith brother, currently lives in Albuquerque, and San Diego is solid spot geographically for them to meet and compete together.
Kyle Smith splashed onto the Week 10 Top 10 plays with this huge layout score for the Spiders.
The other critical factor was unquestionably the direction of the San Jose franchise. About a month ago, Spiders owner Andrew Zill informed Smith that he wanted to have a full-time coach for the coming season, rather than the player/coach setup that Smith had steered the previous three years. Zill stressed to Smith that he wanted him back as a player, but his role would have been different if he chose to return.
“We didn’t tell Kevin to go away,” Zill affirmed. “This was a decision he made because he has a lot of friends on [San Diego]. He had a lot of people trying to recruit him to that team last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s [back] on the [Spiders] in 2018.”
San Jose has already announced three player signings for 2017: Matt Crawford (18 assists/9 goals/9 blocks in '16), Steven Chang (19/22/3), and Brandon Fein (12/21/10), all of whom were steady-if-not-stellar contributors for the Spiders a year ago. Zill added that three additional players are locked in, but he declined to reveal their identities quite yet. Beyond that, Zill is hopeful that the team’s tryout, scheduled for January 14 at Foothill College, will yield plenty of hungry Bay Area talent that, he hopes, will help the Spiders develop a new culture.
Crawford, Chang, and Fein were some of the most versatile and valuable members of the Spiders last season, contributing 49 assists, 52 goals, and 22 blocks combined in 2016.
San Jose remained competitive last year, despite losing a massive number of superstars from the 2015 championship squad. As the Spiders move forward without Smith and Ham, it’s reasonable to wonder who will deliver the production. Crawford, Chang, and Fein combined for 52 goals last year, five fewer than Ham had by himself.
The Growlers, meanwhile, are the fortuitous finders of Ham, who essentially fell in their laps thanks to his other professional responsibilities (similar to how Eli Friedman landed on the Los Angeles Aviators this past year). Now a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Ham followed up a 40-goal campaign in 2015 as an AUDL rookie with a 57-goal season last year, making 188 catches without a single drop.
“When we played them towards the end of the season, I had just recently found out I’d be going to San Diego [in 2017]," Ham recalled.
He sought out advice on where he should live and spent the next couple of days in the area looking for housing. The Growlers were eager to hear about his playing plans, and they quickly realized that the interest was mutual.
“He is obviously a goal-scoring machine,” said San Diego Captain Steven Milardovich, who was often tasked with guarding Ham. “He is the kind of cutter who can grind out lots of good quality cuts, and I think that is something that we were really lacking at times last season. Plus, he’s the king of the box out. When I heard that he had moved to San Diego, it seemed like a no-brainer that he should be cleating up with us.”
Ham seemed to come up with every disc during his tenure in San Jose the past two seasons.
Ham, like Smith, officially signed his contract with the Growlers last week, and there probably will be more significant moves to come for an organization that is committed to building a winner. San Diego’s ownership, determined to improve the overall talent on the squad that fizzled from 7-7 in 2015 to 2-12 last season, had had many conversations with players in several different communities about possibly joining the team.
But that may not necessarily mean that they will be looking to replicate their 2015 strategy, which centered largely on out-of-town superstars. Adding Jimmy Mickle, Kurt Gibson, Nick Lance, and Josh Ackley created plenty of hype before the Growlers’ inaugural season, but a slow start while integrating the big names into the San Diego system dug them into too deep of a hole. Even though San Diego closed the season 7-2, they finished out of the playoff picture, despite that preseason hype.
This past season, the Growlers’ leadership did not land the same caliber of out-of-town talent, instead aiming to develop their local core. Even against the best in the West, they felt they were very competitive at the top of their roster. But overall, they lacked the depth to win games in the fourth quarter, especially when injuries piled up as the season progressed.
“We’ve taken two pretty distinct paths in our two years so far,” Parisi said. “I think we’re going to carve out a middle path [in 2017.]”
Adding Smith and Ham is a good start for a Growlers team that needed a boost. They are two players that are equally comfortable alternating as the focal point of the game plan on one point and as a complementary pawn on the next, a byproduct of their varying roles and supporting casts over the past couple of years in San Jose.
Considering that Smith has split his past decade between Northern California and Southern California, he has a unique perspective how the two regions compare when it comes to the subtle stylistic differences of high level ultimate.
“There’s definitely differences,” Smith began. “But I think it stems from the fact that there’s more talent [in Northern California]. This is a big part of my frisbee theory: the better players you have, the more conservative you can be. You’re supposed to win the games, so you don’t have to do anything fancy. But if you have a few really good players and you need to upset the better roster, you need to kind of increase your variance. That usually means trying to minimize passes per point and bigger throws, and trusting your playmakers. I know from my days in SoCal, we went to Nationals in 2009 and 2010, and we ended up upsetting [Boston] Ironside just with this mentality of ‘we only have one chance and we’re not gonna dunk and dink. If there’s a way to try and score, you try and do it.’ The mentality [in the Bay Area] is ‘don’t screw up.’”
Asked how ambitious he thought San Diego would have to be in 2017, he suggested that there’s a balance that any team should embrace.
“I think there’s a good way to mix the two [mentalities],” Smith explained. “You need a standard that everybody needs to meet, of completion percentage and technical skills. It’s still a professional team, and you’re not gonna make it if you’re not good at ultimate. But I think if you’re realistically gonna stand up to San Francisco or Seattle, you have to be honest about what your resources are and what theirs are and try to increase the variance as much as you can. I think the consistency comes through practice and training and chemistry, but you have to have the mindset of ‘we’re not gonna take 20 passes to score this point; we’re gonna score in four or five.’”
It’s convenient that Smith has the arsenal of hucks to embody this quick-strike strategy, especially since very few other players in San Diego have the same consistency on their big throws.
“It was always fun hearing the old guard on Streetgang reminisce about how the D line used to get its breaks: Dump it to Dollar and he launches it to Forge [aka Josh Nickerson],” said Milardovich, whose rookie season on San Diego’s top club team came a year after Smith had moved back to the Bay Area. “As a defender who makes his living by baiting deep shots and making up ground, he is one of those throwers who forces you to recalibrate how much deep space you give your man. He throws his hucks with speed and authority so defenders like me don’t have time to make a play. I can’t wait to step on the field with him [as a teammate].”
Smith and Ham will not transform the Growlers into true championship contenders on their own, but with a few more additions and superior health in 2017, San Diego envisions itself very much in the hunt for the first postseason berth in franchise history.
After a last-place finish a year ago, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Seven on the Line
1. Aside from Dallas and San Diego, Pittsburgh and Nashville were the two other organizations that publicized their tryouts this past weekend. The Philadelphia Phoenix, bolstered by the recent signings of Team USA member Nicky Spiva as well as emerging stars Marques Brownlee, Quinn Hunziker, Sean Mott, and Scott Xu, are the only other team in the league with a tryout scheduled before the calendar flips to January. With Spiva as the centerpiece and a chunk of the supporting cast already assembled, the Phoenix are hoping that Saturday afternoon’s combine at the Robbinsville Fieldhouse in Trenton, NJ will help them flesh out their roster with complementary talent that will help change the culture in Philly. Leading the way will be Eileen Murray, whom the Phoenix have hired as their head coach for the 2017 season. Just the second female to be named the head coach of an AUDL franchise (after Montreal’s Guylaine Girard), Murray brings immense playing and coaching experience. But in order to find their first win since the 2015 season, the Phoenix will need to upgrade their overall talent. The process has begun, and this week ahead will serve as a critical checkpoint in the journey toward competitive relevancy.
2. In western Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the Thunderbirds are actively trying to add some size to their roster for 2017. Coach David Hogan is back, but big, athletic defenders like James Highsmith, Rob Dulabon, and Aaron Watson are not expected to return and need to be replaced. Consequently, they adapted their tryout in the hope of fostering some development in this area. “We spent more time playing full field and less time doing small field 4v4 and 5v5 in order to see who could excel defensively in large spaces,” Hogan explained. “One thing that was very exciting about this year was having more players try out from Alloy, our club nationals mixed team. Last year, we had four try out and took three, and this year we had six try out, all of them near the top end of their roster. I really like unifying different groups, and the team is looking to be a good mix of Pittsburgh open, Pittsburgh mixed, and northeast Ohio players.” Heading into the spring, the big question for the Thunderbirds remains identical to each of the past two years: will they be able to seriously threaten Madison in the Midwest? Much of that will depend on the health of superstar Tyler DeGirolamo, whose injury-riddled 2016 journey I chronicled in the Tuesday Toss in late October.
Photo from the Thunderbirds invite-only tryout from Sunday.
3. In the Music City, tryouts bred great enthusiasm with 70 or so players showing up to audition for the next edition of the NightWatch. Like Dallas, San Diego, and Pittsburgh, Nashville will benefit from continuity at the coaching position, with Ryan Balch set to return for another year. “Overall, I’d say that the depth of talent was impressive,” Balch remarked about the team’s tryout. “One thing I realized in my first year coaching in the AUDL last year was how essential depth was due to injury, conflicts, etc. You never really get to field your top 20 on paper.” The NightWatch were also pleased by the emergence of a younger generation of players looking to make their mark on the Nashville scene. “At the end of the tryout, I asked those under 23 to raise their hand,” Balch explained. “I’d say it was about 75%. I think Nashville has been knocking on the door of an elite open team for years, but the energy surrounding the NightWatch and this strong youth base is what will provide the foundation of a competitive men’s team for years to come.”
The NightWatch are looking to capitalize on their infusion of youth to improve on their 3-11 record during the 2016 season.
4. Overall, AUDL tryouts are fascinating exhibitions. You have a mix of returning veterans and unknown mysteries, battling together to make their impressions in a variety of ways. You also have some guys who are in tremendous shape and others still mired in the normal offseason funk. Sean Ham may have moved to San Diego by the end of the summer, but a busy fall at his new job prevented him from playing much ultimate prior to tryouts. Like many others surely have experienced, the first day back on the field can be a little bumpy. “It was good to get out and run, for sure,” Ham said. “It’s always tough getting back into it. You’re sorer than you should be after a light tryout. You don’t run that much in the scrimmages because there are so many people, but you’re sorer than you think you should be because you haven’t done it in a few months.” Ham was one of the fortunate few who entered tryouts with a contract already inked, allowing him to ease his way back into it. Surely, like any tryout, there were many other players who were giving everything they had, hoping they would get the chance to play in the AUDL.
5. Believe it or not, I attended the first ever Raleigh Flyers combine two years ago. To be honest, it feels like 10 years ago, especially when I think about how much better shape I was in in 2014 compared to now. In fact, it has been about a decade since I last played super competitively. With that said, I still remember the experience very fondly. I suppose that my mentality, one of investigation more than determination, prevented me from putting too much pressure on myself. To say I trained maniacally for the mid-December tryout would simply not be an accurate characterization. But I tried to show up in decent enough shape and hoped that my throwing ability, the calling card of my game during my heyday, would not overly betray me. By the end of the day, I was sore and satisfied. More than anything, it was a fun day of ultimate with a bunch of very good players, and I was proud of how I held my own while shaking off a bunch of years’ rust. A week or so later, I was delightfully surprised to learn that I had earned an invitation to the next round of tryouts. Amazingly, I had made the cut! Realistically, however, I had minimal ambition to actually make the roster, and a work conflict prevented me from traveling back to Raleigh a month later. Nonetheless, I would encourage any ultimate player, whether you’re just beginning your career or you’re fading into your twilight years, to take a chance and give your local AUDL tryout a shot. The greatest way to improve is by challenging yourself against the best. And by putting yourself out there, the worst thing you’ll experience is humility, far from a disastrous outcome. Odds are, you’ll have quite a bit of fun along the way.
6. One of the questions I get asked most often by folks in the ultimate community is which AUDL city I enjoy traveling to the most. And to be perfectly honest, I am extraordinarily lucky, because I have gotten to visit so many spectacular places during my three years in the league. Each destination has its own character, and visiting places like San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Madison, Toronto, and DC never gets old. But there is an actual answer to the question, and I was overjoyed to learn that the 2017 AUDL Championship Weekend is heading to my favorite city in the league. Montreal is a breathtaking place in many different ways, both in terms of its ultimate community and unique French Canadian culture. For years, I would say that when you’re walking around Montreal, it feels like you’re exploring Europe. Now, I must admit that until traveling to London this past June, I had actually never been to Europe. But between the language, the architecture, and the overall charm, it was very much what I imagined parts of Europe to be. Without question, Montreal has a tall task to try and outdo Madison’s impeccable performance in hosting a world-class championship event this past season. But I am certain that Team President Jean-Levy Champagne and his other Royal co-owners will be overly prepared to dazzle their spectators next August. I hope ultimate fans from around the world will consider a journey to the province of Quebec to experience the mystique themselves on August 26-27, 2017 for the AUDL Championship Weekend.
Promo for the 2017 AUDL Championship in Montreal, QC.
7. Lastly, if you have not already done so, check out the engaging rabbit hole that is the new statistical index on theaudl.com. The webmasters have made significant advances to make everything way more accessible and user-friendly than years past, and there are buckets of data for the those of you who, like the great ultimate blogger Sludge Brown, are intrigued by such maniacal minutiae. The launching point to the stat portal includes a particularly interesting chart that offers a snapshot of the five-year history of the AUDL. It’s really a who’s who of the greatest players in the league through the first half-decade. As ultimate continues to grow and evolve, the year-by-year build up of these numbers will help create a historical context that, hopefully, we’re still looking back upon decades down the road.
AUDL League Index
|2012||Philadelphia Spinners||Jonathan Helton||Jonathan Helton (64)||John Korber (72)||Jonathan Helton (46)||Link|
|2013||Toronto Rush||Jonathan Helton||Chris Powers (74)||Cameron Brock (94)||Mike Drost (46)||Link|
|2014||San Jose Spiders||Beau Kittredge||Derek Fenton (64)||Cameron Brock (76)||Peter Graffy (49)||Link|
|2015||San Jose Spiders||Beau Kittredge||Tyler Degirolamo (86)||Ethan Beardsley (69)||Andrew Meshnick & James Kittelsen (32)||Link|
|2016||Dallas Roughnecks||Dylan Tunnell||Cole Sullivan (81)||Mischa Freystaetter (95)||Peter Graffy (41)||Link|
As a bonus, I am launching the way-too-soon Tuesday Toss Prediction Contest, with the jackpot of a $500 personal check from me to one participant who possesses clairvoyant perfection!
Here’s the challenge: You must predict every category from the above chart for 2017. E-mail me at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com with your selections for next year’s AUDL Champion, MVP, scoring leader, assist leader, and blocks leader. If you prognosticate all five categories correctly, I will send you a check for $500. (If multiple people get all five right, I will divide the prize.) If no one gets it right, as a consolation, I will still send $50 to the person with the most correct picks.
In order to be eligible for the prize, I must receive your e-mail by December 31, 2016 at 11:59 PM.
Best of luck! It may be a long shot, but you’ve got nothing to lose!
The Tuesday Toss is published weekly during the AUDL regular season and will be monthly staple during the offseason. 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