Henry Fisher catches a disc just milliseconds before a bidding Atlanta defender.
By Hugo Sowder
It’s finally here! After a long break, the 2021 Flyers season is set to kick off this Saturday in Atlanta. It’s been 22 months and change since the Flyers last took the field in a competitive game and 14 since the start of the pandemic. There’s no precedent in ultimate for such a long break in competitive play. For the Flyers, the Pandemic hit a month before the start of a new season within a new division. Needless to say a lot has changed for Raleigh since that last July playoff game in 2019 and it feels like a completely new stage has been set for the Flyers. While there will be familiar faces from previous Flyers teams cleating up against Atlanta the weekend, there will also be plenty of new players competing in their first ever AUDL game. It’s not possible to break down the entire Flyers roster coming into this season in a written format but there are some great players suiting up in red. Before jumping into any analysis of the upcoming game in Atlanta I want to give a run down of who I’m most excited to see on the field for Raleigh.
A masked David Richardson particpating in a Flyers practice this past spring.
An Impressive New Flyers Core Prepares Itself
It’s hard to pick a specific new player to highlight at the top of all of the great new competing for Raleigh, but no newcomer carries quite the same accolades across all competitive divisions like Matt Gouchoe-Hanas. While 2021 may be his first AUDL season, Gouchoe-Hanas is far from stranger to elite competition, having contributed significantly to UNC’s dominance in the college division and Ring of Fire’s recent spate of semi-final appearances since 2016. Topping it all off you find a Callahan award, multiple captaincies on very competitive teams and appearances on two U23 Worlds teams for the US. Gouchoe-Hanas will be joined by several former UNC teammates including the more defense-oriented Elijah Long. Downfield the Flyers will have UNC star Alex Davis whose break-away speed captured a lot of attention in the college and club divisions. Davis had a long 2020 offseason marred by a torn ACL and the COVID pandemic. While not quite back at 100 percent, Davis’ return to play will be an exciting personal story to follow as he competes in his first AUDL season. Davis, Long, and Gooch represent just three of the seven former and current UNC players joining the Flyers this year. It’s an impressive contingent and one that probably deserves a write up of its own at some point this year.
The Flyers will also have a duo of NC State players who featured heavily in a banner 2019 season for their college team. Trevor Lynch is an excellent hybrid player capable of thriving on the AUDL field with great size, breakaway speed and impressive throws. Bailey Laberteaux helmed NC State’s offensive line for several seasons. He adds more depth to Raleigh’s backfield this summer. Another notable addition joining his former Carleton CUT teammates on the Flyers is Ethan Bloodworth. Bloodworth was a defensive ace at Carleton, and someone who was very comfortable scoring downfield off of a turn or coming back to handle. Outside of the recently college graduates joining the Flyers, Raleigh also has an exciting veteran joining the squad from the Midwest. Seth Weaver competed in his first AUDL season in 2019 with the Chicago Wildfire (now Chicago Union) clocking 18 assists and 12 Ds. There is an abundance of great talent ready to burst onto the scene this year for Raleigh, and for many rookies on the Flyers, the game against Atlanta is the beginning of a stage of their ultimate careers.
Connor Russell adjusts to a double team in a Flyers scrimmage.
The Flyers also have a strong foundation of returners leading the team forward into 2021. The trio of Eric Taylor Henry Fisher, and Sol Yanuck headlined the contingent of players that joined the team in 2019. Eric Taylor will be stepping into a new leadership role as a captain this season and Sol Yanuck will have a much more expanded backfield role coming into 2021. Henry Fisher, who had a banner scoring season with the team in 2019, has fully embraced an identity as being an unstoppable deep in 2021, blending competitiveness with a lighthearted brand of training and camaraderie. Connor Russell, a former UNC Wilmington handler, will also be stepping into a larger role. Russell's greatest strength may be his big lefty throws but he also has the size and athleticism to compete in a hybrid style for Raleigh.
Terrence Mtichell continues his great pro career with the Flyers into 2021.
In 2019 Jacob Fairfax became a key do-it-all cog in Raleigh’s offense. On an AUDL field Fairfax has nearly free reign to score deep or unleash a wealth of excellent throws. He’s one of the best all around returners coming back to the team in 2021 and will potentially have even more freedom to go downfield with a deep roster of handlers on the team this season. Rounding out the downfield receivers from past seasons is Terrence Mitchell. Mitchell will be familiar player to anyone who has watched the Flyers compete during the last five season. He’s missed only one Flyers game in his entire playing career which spans all the way back to the inaugural match against Atlanta in April 2015. Mitchell has a storied pro career, delivering jaw dropping plays with incredible consistency no matter the opponent. He has a great presence about him in big games and has been an important spark for the team in adverse situations. Fairfax and Mitchell are some of the best returners coming back to the Flyers this year and they will be helming an offensive unit that plenty of exciting challenges ahead in the Atlantic Division.
New Star Power Increases Atlanta's Depth
Former Flyers defender Jakeem Polk pulls at an Atlanta scrimmage.
Raleigh is far from the only team that has benefited from a long off-season in the personnel department. There have been many exciting moves by the players in the new Atlantic Division. Atlanta has specifically benefited from the movement of a longstanding West Division superstar, and a former Flyers defender. Antoine Davis is one of the single most intriguing adds in the Atlantic division this year. Davis has been a long time presence on teams in the Bay Area. He worked hard during 2020 to maintain his impressive fitness and seems poised to fill an exciting new role with Atlanta. How Davis will be used remains to be seen, but if the Hustle were hoping for more star power, they’ve certainly got it now. Former Flyers and Cannons defensive ace Jakeem Polk will also be suiting up with Hustle for the first time this season. Rounding out the newcomers for the Hustle are two former Cannons players, Tyler Kunsa and Michael Fairley. Farley’s movement into Hustle ranks was anticipated back in 2020 after competing for several seasons with the Atlanta club team Chain Lightning. Fairley is another great player to add for the Hustle downfield while Kunsa strengthens the Hustle’s throwing core. Amongst the Atlanta returners, Parker Bray will be cleating up again for the Hustle after missing the 2019 season. Bray will likely be Atlanta's primary thrower on their O line this season. His return strengthens an offensive unit that needed more handlers in 2019.
All of these newcomers to the Hustle add more depth to an Atlanta team that has needed some extra star powe. This year’s iteration of the Flyers is no stranger to starting the season on the road. But Raleigh hasn’t faced an Atlanta team this deep since playing Hustle teams helmed by Dylan Tunnell in 2015 and 2016. Atlanta has much better footing to contend for a playoff spot than at other time since Tunnell’s retirement. On the other hand Raleigh has only gotten deeper in its own right, with a larger throwing core than 2019 when the Flyers clearly asserted themselves the better offensive team. Can Atlanta mitigate those gains with their defense? With players like Davis and Polk, Atlanta can certainly challenge bigger throws and test the Flyers deep on a turn. In the past, Atlanta has often thrown zones at Raleigh to stifle the Flyersl offensive advantages. The Flyers responded well to that tactic in 2019, chiseling through Atlanta’s marks or throwing over the top with a variety of hammers and hucks. Down the stretch of four quarters in 2019, Raleigh’s offense was more consistent. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to think that the Flyers still hold onto that offensive advantage, but Atlanta seems more capable of challenging that assumption now, than at any point in the last three seasons.
By The Numbers:
5: The number of seasons new Flyers coach Eric Martin coached NC State Women’s club team Jäga.
9: The number of combined semi-final appearances that Matt Gouchoe-Hanas has made with UNC and Raleigh Ring of Fire.
10: The combined number of College Championships won by rookies on the Flyers this season.
41: The number of assists Jacob Fairfax threw in 2019
42: Combined Goals and Assists for Antoine Davis in 2019 for San Jose.
43: The number of goals Henry Fisher scored in 2019.
0: The number of times I have to revisit Flyers stats from 2019 after Saturday. That’s all I ask.