May 28, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
When the Madison Radicals first took the field in 2013, Andrew Meshnick began to quickly establish himself as a unique AUDL star, with a personal style seemingly full of contrasts. He’s obsessively dedicated and committed, yet relatively soft-spoken and humble. In a league where skeptics ignorantly question the value of defense, Meshnick has been at the forefront of Madison’s innovative schemes, making him one of the most consistent and reliable D-line anchors in the sport. Through a carefully crafted mix of instinct and intelligence, very few if any defenders have better anticipatory actions on an AUDL field. His presence and effectiveness seem so natural, it may become habit to take him for granted, but any sentiment like that should immediately be rejected. Seven years into his Radicals career, he possesses an invaluable combination of priceless experience and sustained athleticism that Madison needs now more than ever.
“I have had the distinct honor and privilege to get to play with Meshnick over the past five years,” teammate Peter Graffy wrote in the fall of 2018 following Madison’s first championship, “and enough cannot be said about the contribution he has provided to the ultimate community in Madison and on the Radicals. He is the epitome of humility, leadership, and being a teammate.”
Like most players, the stats only tell a fraction of the story; however, here’s a good way to characterize the consistency and excellence that Meshnick has brought to his Madison career: he’s the ONLY player in AUDL history with five consecutive seasons reaching 20 or more blocks, a stretch that he maintained from 2014 to 2018. And considering how offenses are improving—AUDL analyst Daniel Cohen astutely pointed out on Twitter recently that blocks are at a record low and completion percentage is at a record high—it's entirely possible that this streak of defensive production will never again be matched.
He’s still just 30, turning 31 in August, and very capable of being a difference-maker for a Radicals’ team that has undergone a massive makeover since the 2018 title. During the magical championship run, 10 players who had been on the team since 2013 saw action in the semis or the finals. Now, more than half of those pillars are gone, with only Meshnick, Kevin Brown, Kevin Pettit-Scantling, Thomas Coolidge, Josh Wilson, and Tom Annen remaining as the original Rads. But even with so much change, Madison ultimate fans undoubtedly expect that Meshnick will remain a Breeze Stevens Field constant, with perhaps even more responsibility added to his shoulders than years past.
I caught up with Meshnick earlier this week to see how he’s surviving during the pandemic, to inquire about the innovative role he’s mastered in Madison’s zone, and to seek his reflections on perhaps the toughest single moment in his career, when his last minute forehand huck against Seattle got blocked in 2016, capping the craziest comeback in AUDL history. As always, this conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: Firstly, how are you and what has your everyday life been like over the course of the past couple of months?
Andrew Meshnick: I feel fortunate that my life has been minimally impacted outside of ultimate and social events. I've thankfully been able to work from home, so that keeps me busy during the days. In the evenings/weekends, it's a combination of disc golf, projects around the house/yard, and working out.
EL: From an ultimate standpoint, what types of things have you done to try and stay in shape during these bizarre times? If the season started tomorrow, what percentage of the best version of yourself would you estimate you'd be?
AM: I’ve been running, doing yoga, completing various home workouts, and watching game film. When all of this started, I didn't have many lifting weights, so I borrowed a big rock from a nearby field that I've incorporated into my squat lifts. I think if the season started tomorrow, I'd be around 85 percent. The Radicals team Slack channel is helpful in dissecting specific plays & games, so I would say I'm farther along with mental preparedness compared to previous years.
EL: While everyone who steps on an ultimate field needs to throw, catch, and defend, your primary role with the Radicals has certainly labeled you as a defender. When in your career do you think you first gained the distinction as a defender from your teammates and/or opponents on the field and how has that characterization impacted you as a player?
AM: I think that I formally gained the distinction as a defender when I joined the Radicals. I credit [Head Coach] Tim DeByl for helping me identify and develop that persona. Prior to joining the Radicals, I had always played defense. In my mind I figured I'd eventually move to offense, because that was the typical progression on most of the teams I previously played for. I remember trying out for the Radicals; Tim told me that he wanted to run a zone defense, and that I was going to be in the cup. At first I kind of laughed it off and was a bit offended. During that time in ultimate, the cup players were usually drudges who couldn't be successful in more meaningful defensive positions. That was the first and last time I ever second-guessed Tim's coaching decisions. After I realized I was going to be playing defense for the foreseeable future, I embraced it and it's been a fun ride ever since.
EL: Before going further, can you quickly share your narrative about what sports you played growing up, how you discovered ultimate, and how long it took you to begin feeling fairly confident on the ultimate field?
AM: I grew up in a small town in rural Wisconsin, so it was expected that kids would play multiple sports. I played football, basketball, and baseball through high school. When I was 12 years old, some of my friends began disc golfing. They would try to get me to join them, and I would try to get them to play traditional sports. I finally caved and went disc golfing with them. I loved it, and bought my first disc golf disc the very next day. My high school didn't have any organized ultimate, so we'd just play pickup on the random weekends with however many people showed up. I didn't start to get "serious" about ultimate until college, and shortly afterwards, the club season. I went to a smaller college, UW-Stevens Point, and I was able to go through my growing pains on uneven intramural fields without any fans watching. I have a lot of respect for players today that develop in the league and in the spotlight of the AUDL. I think that's more difficult to do than other ultimate players realize. My advice to younger kids and players would be to play multiple sports from a young age. There are instincts and habits that you learn from other sports that can be applied to ultimate that will give you an advantage long-term.
EL: Obviously your speed and athleticism are key factors in your ability to play defense and get blocks in the AUDL, but what are some of the little things that you focus on every day in order to have success playing defense at the professional level? How have you improved with these 'little things' through the years to become a better all-around player?
AM: When I started playing cup in the zone, I realized that I needed to put an emphasis on improving my marking skills. I think most ultimate players are satisfied with their mark if they tried hard and shuffled their feet a couple times. I look at it more like a game within the game. If you can make the thrower uncomfortable and get that throw to be a few inches off target, or hang in the air for just an extra half-second, then your team is going to be successful defensively. I'll play games with the thrower and bait areas of the mark that I want them to try to attack. One of my favorite aspects of the AUDL is playing teams within the division more than once per year. It's enjoyable to compete against the same handlers a couple times each season, and it grows the friendly rivalries and camaraderie amongst players.
EL: If possible, I'd like to delve into your mindset as a defensive player over the course of a game. Do you prefer to guard the same person the entire game? What are your specific goals defensively, aside from the obvious 'let's prevent them from scoring?'
AM: I think it's easier to guard the same player the entire game, so that would be my preference. Our coaching staff always does a tremendous job of coming up with defensive game plans, so we're also flexible and willing to make adjustments throughout the game. We get our matchups a few days in advance of the game, which allows additional game film study of the specific player you'll be guarding. This might be obvious to other defenders and irritating to offensive players, but there aren't that many tricks in the bag for offensive players, especially in high stakes games. If you study your opponent well, have a good defensive scheme, and account for the opponent's strengths, then you'll be pretty successful. Similar to my sentiments on marking, I'm always trying to help my defensive teammates as much as possible. That's a big mantra on the Radicals: help your teammates whenever the person you're guarding is not a threat.
EL: While it feels like the Radicals have played their zone defense far less in the past couple seasons, I'm interested in hearing your recollections and insights about what it was like learning and executing the zone in the past? What was your reaction when you were initially told that you'd pretty consistently be one of the double-teaming markers in the alignment, and how long did it take you to feel comfortable and excel in that role?
AM: As stated earlier, I was pretty surprised when I learned that we'd be playing zone defense and I was going to be in the cup. I remember traveling to Chicago to play in a scrimmage against the Wildfire players in the spring prior to our first AUDL season. Matt Weber and I were playing cup, and we double-teamed one of their handlers on the sideline. The handler emphatically yelled "double-team!" at the referees, to which they replied "yes, it's legal in the AUDL." That was one of my first "Aha!" moments. If you've only played club ultimate, then the double-team is very uncomfortable. Even though I initially felt uncomfortable playing cup, that was an indication that the handlers were even more uncomfortable. I think it probably took one or two seasons to fully understand where the vulnerable spots were in the zone, when to take risks on the mark, how to adjust to your fellow cup player, etc. After a couple seasons of playing zone defense together it felt natural, and we could tell that our zone was frustrating to opponents.
EL: Who are some of the toughest matchups that you've had to deal with in your AUDL career, and why? Any particularly proud individual moments that you'd care to share?
AM: The best handlers were Ashlin Joye and Jonathan Nethercutt, and the best cutters were Jay Froude and Max Sheppard. There aren't many throwers in the game that have the ability to attack every part of the field with finesse or power depending on the specific throw that's needed. Both of those throwers are able to do that, which makes it difficult for opposing defenses to impose a defensive strategy against them. Froude and Sheppard are some of the most athletic and aggressive cutters out there, a dangerous combination for offensive players.
One moment that stands out: I'm proud of how I played individually, and also our team's defensive efforts, during our 2018 Championship weekend. We really put the vice grip on some strong offenses that weekend, and it was a great team effort where we were able to impose our game plan and will.
EL: With the game debuting on FS2 last week, I hesitantly feel inclined to ask you about the famous/infamous Seattle game. Because you've won an AUDL Championship since them, I imagine that maybe it's easier to revisit this memory? Obviously, there were so many wild moments from that night in August of 2016, but on the game's final point, you found yourself wide open near midfield and then launched what looked like the game-tying throw... What do you remember about standing on the line at the start of that point? And what do you recall thinking as you realized you were completely uncovered once the point began? From there, can you take me through your recollections of the rest of that point? How'd you feel when the disc left your hands intended for Coolidge? How did you manage the emotions in the aftermath of that point and that night?
AM: Yes, it's certainly easier to revisit that memory after having won the AUDL Championship in 2018. The atmosphere in Breese while we were standing on the line during that final point was so amped. I was pretty surprised when I somehow ended up uncovered and tried to milk my catch for as much yardage as possible. After I turned upfield, I saw Tom Coolidge a few steps ahead of Donnie Clark and thought it was a pretty safe throw to make. I purposely didn't lead the throw more than I did. I figured if Clark was gaining ground on Coolidge, then it could get blocked without Tom being able to make a play on it. Obviously, Donnie made a tremendous play on the disc, so you have to give credit to him for that. The aftermath of that game was pretty crazy. It was almost surreal, and I remember feeling blindsided and dazed as we talked with fans after the game. Our team re-watched that game during a recent film session, and it was incredible to be reminded of the talent level that our roster had that season. It's unfortunate that it ended the way it did, but that's how it goes sometimes in sports.
EL: Finishing with a couple of life questions, what's the most delicious thing you've cooked during the pandemic?
AM: My wife gets credit for making the delicious foods but I always try to help her out. Some of my favorites were chicken cordon bleu, Stromboli, and the Hilton DoubleTree chocolate chip cookies—the secret recipe was released during the pandemic!
EL: And lastly, aside from ultimate, what's something that you haven't been able to do during the quarantine that you're most looking forward to doing again when (if?) life returns back to normal?
AM: I'm looking forward to being able to attend church in a building again, because that's something I've missed doing during the quarantine. Besides that, just hanging out in larger groups with teammates again because my teammates are truly some of my best friends.