April 20, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
In the Atlanta Hustle’s first season without an MVP candidate, outside expectations for the team were low. Atlanta lost All-AUDL caliber players Dylan Tunnell - who was the league MVP in 2016 - and Nathan Vickroy coming into the 2018 AUDL season, and it was clear that the team’s bedrock identity would need to shift beneath it. Thus far, the team is off to a blazing 2-0 start with its sights set on another win against the Tampa Bay Cannons this weekend. The team’s identity may be mutating, but all the moving parts seemed to have aligned into a potentially better team.
Miranda Knowles has shifted from the team’s Director of Coaching to Head Coach, which gives her more direct control over the team’s day-to-day direction. Greg Swanson was the team’s head coach in previous years, and he was used to coaching elite talents with the highly talented club team, Chain Lightning. Coach Knowles was asked to develop a plan for Atlanta that would allow the team to thrive without star power equal to the rosters in Raleigh or Dallas.
“Miranda's very good at coming in and creating a system so that the system's better than its individual parts,” explained Hustle handler Kyle Stapleton. “Greg was very good at managing personalities, and making sure highly talented players could play together, whereas Miranda's good at taking players who aren't as skilled and then making them play above themselves.”
Knowles has crafted a unique-to-the-AUDL system in Atlanta that prioritizes the depth of the team. The Hustle have three lines of players that rotate on and off the field, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, like the beat of a jazz drummer. Some players are swing players, who can plug into multiple lines, but for the most part everyone plays relatively equal minutes. The team disincentives its players from relying on the stars, and there are no offensive or defensive players.
“My thinking is that if I empower every player to play both ways, then I think that they will rise to that challenge, and that they'll feel more confident and valued by their coach and their team and may even produce more as a result,” said Knowles.
“And, it also feels much more like a team. You know, it's not seven or 14 guys playing most of the points. It's everybody playing about equal numbers of points when our subbing philosophy is working properly, and that feels really good. That's the type of team that I want to be a part of, is one where everyone feels good and valued.”
An easy question might be this: how do the team’s best players feel about playing so few minutes? Matt Smith has been a devastating weapon for the Hustle in the past, averaging 57.7 goals per year since 2015. He’s been a lightning-quick jitterbug cutter, as comfortable in the air as he is striking deep to rein in a huck.
“I'm a runner,” said Smith. “I'm a downfield guy. I never stop moving, and I'm just trying to yam on people. In the air. Wherever. That was the kind of relentless style that I was trying to play.”
In perhaps one of the most important signals of success for Knowles’ early-season project, Smith is fully accepting of the split-time project. His total number of points played in 2017 numbered in the high-20s per game. That’s dropped by almost 10 points played per game in 2018. Regardless, he’s happy.
“I know for me personally, it's a weird thing, because stats are very important to me, and obviously if you play O Line you get a lot more chances at stats,” said Smith. “But I've been begging Greg to let me play defense for years. I believe I can contribute at a pretty high level on defense, and just never got those opportunities, and so I'm pretty excited, even if it means a little less playing time, or a little less stats.”
“To me the season feels different because one, it's a better community on the team,” agreed Stapleton. “Two, people understand that if we're gonna have a successful season, it's a team effort… People off the field are more valued and more respected because, indeed, everyone has a role on this team, and everyone has to do their job, otherwise we will not be successful.”
If that sounds like a hard pill to swallow for professional competitive athletes, it’s because it is. Stapleton summed up the team’s feelings in regards to the new system succinctly: “At times I love it. At times I hate it.” The team can’t complain as long as it’s working.
Against Tampa Bay in Atlanta’s first game, Smith – a downfield cutter – notched five assists and zero goals. He couldn’t explain it, but Knowles would have no trouble justifying the strange turn of events. Smith is asked to do more with less. He offers more skills and, ironically, shoulders more responsibility in less playing time. Whereas Smith was asked only to cut in the past, he’s absorbed more difficult throwing duties in 2018.
Parker Bray is a player who could compete for MVP with maximal playing time and total control over the Hustle offense. His silky throws can stretch across the entire field, and everyone on Atlanta emphasizes his sneaky athleticism. Instead of giving Bray carte blanche, however, Coach Knowles is focusing on developing his broad range of talents. She is trying to get Bray the disc in active, rather than stagnant, positions on the field. She’s trying to get him the disc on the move, with active body position. Instead of pushing for 70 assists in a season, Bray will limit his throwaways to as low a number as possible. Though Bray could play Hamlet in any Frisbee cast in the world, he’ll instead be asked to play Tree #2 on Atlanta, which paradoxically rosters fewer stars than most AUDL teams.
So what is the offense that features the Hustle’s depth? Knowles calls it “simple and elegant,” and the principles are understandable to any amateur ultimate player in the world; the team has no complex cuts or stacks.
Instead, the Hustle rely on quick decision-making and solid self-awareness from all of its players. Players must throw to an open teammate as soon as the window presents itself, regardless of the teammates’ skill level. Players must throw off the sideline immediately. An open swing pass is considered far preferable to waiting for a cutter to free himself deep. For the offense to work well, teammates must implicitly trust each other with the disc. If the team keeps possession forever on offense, so the thinking goes, then it will score eventually. A point is worth the same after 50 throws as it is after a highlight huck traveling 100 yards.
“My goal is to craft an offense that is playable by everyone,” explained Knowles. “Not only on our 20-person game roster, but also on our 35-person practice roster.”
It can be difficult to trust your teammates to hold an offensive possession with Bray and Smith on the sidelines; however, that’s the culture that Miranda Knowles is building. Atlanta can’t compete with Dallas or Raleigh’s talent while fostering a traditional AUDL culture, so they’re trying another way.
Atlanta ran into difficulty against the Nashville NightWatch. They were winning late, but the team was crumbling. Multiple lines failed to hold on offense, and Nashville had fought their way back into the game. Nashville had the disc and a tied game with the clock ticking towards termination. Coach Knowles wasn’t with the team, and the culture showed signs of fraying. By some accounts, the team felt restless, and it was clear that players were internally questioning the rotation pattern. That is, until the system asserted its dominance in the form of team rookie Taylor Minch.
Minch – who has never been an AUDL star – intercepted a disc on defense and immediately broke free in the endzone for the game-winning goal.
“Apparently Minch called it two points earlier. Apparently he went up to our assistant coach who was there, Will Sloan, and told him, 'man, [Stephen] Poulos always throws this one pass, and we're just giving it to him, and I'm gonna jump the lane.' And he did it. He just did it,” remembered Smith, reverently.
That a member of the team’s middle class, talent-wise, sealed the Nashville game for Atlanta was yet more evidence that Coach Knowles might be onto something.
Atlanta’s defense mimics the offense, in that it prioritizes skill, quick decision-making, and above all, trust: “The way we look at our division and kind of the league in general, is that we are not the most athletic team, so we need to find a different niche, and we are trying to carve out a smart, strategic niche. We're just very calculated,” said Knowles.
A zone is a common defense that – when played smartly – covers up for a lack of top-tier athleticism. The Hustle have occasionally run a zone in the past, but like everything for the team in 2018, it too has changed. Atlanta’s zone looks nothing like Madison’s, which empowers giant humans with long arms and longer verticals to shrink the field and leap for blocks on skipped swing passes. Instead, Atlanta runs a conservative zone, preventing easy, up-field throws. They want their opponents to mimic their own offense, throwing lots of passes. If the game becomes a battle of patience instead of skill, Atlanta likes its odds.
If opponents do force throws over Atlanta’s zone, Kelvin Williams is ready and waiting. He stands 6’3, and he’s always been close to untouchable in the air. Team broadcaster Tucker Warner has noticed a change in Williams, in that his athleticism has improved further. His footspeed in straight lines has improved dramatically, and his motor is capable of running in the red for entire points. He knows when to gamble on overthrows and collect blocks. He’s been working hard over the years to improve his body and game, and the 2018 version of Williams is shining bright. He leads the league thus far in total blocks, with nine in only two games.
Despite all the positive signs for the brand-new Hustle, any excitement must be tempered. The team has beaten two teams expected to miss the playoffs in the Southern division, and its five games against powerhouses Dallas and Raleigh won’t come until the final eight games of the season. What’s important is that they’ve stayed competitive despite changing every aspect of how they play. Regardless, Knowles is looking beyond the box score in determining her team’s success.
“I don't really think a lot in terms of wins and losses. That's not how I measure success. Now, I hate losing and love winning more than anyone, but I don't find it useful to set those as goals, or to measure my outcomes in that way. So a successful season to me is one where we got better as individuals and as a team, and we competed at our highest level when it matters the most, which is honestly, like we said, every game, and we had a good time,” explained Knowles.
Over the first few weeks of the season, the Hustle have succeeded by any measure. Perhaps no player better represents their victories than Karl Ekwurtzel. Ekwurtzel is one of Atlanta’s only players who’s won a National Championship in his Ultimate career, having won with Boston Slow White. He’s certainly no star, but instead fits solidly into the depth of the Hustle.
Ekwurtzel is a character. He’s a giant human, both in size and personality. He used to write scripts for the WWE.
“I feel like that right there pretty much sums him up,” laughed Matt Smith.
Ekwurtzel dances on and off the field, and he keeps long bus trips light with his sense of humour. When it comes to the games, he would be happy to throw his body in the way of a bus to intercept the disc. Ekwurtzel, like all of his teammates, has been empowered on the field. In 19 total points played – 9 on offense and 10 on defense – he’s already caught three goals.
Karl Ekwurtzel is a name few AUDL fans will recognize, but he’s precisely the type of player upon whom Atlanta will rely. In 2016, the Hustle were defined by MVP Dylan Tunnell. In 2017, Nathan Vickroy best represented the team’s narratives. In 2018, a former WWE script-writer could well serve as a metaphorical face to the franchise. The team’s identity has surely shifted, but for Miranda Knowles, that’s already evidence of her plan’s success.