June 10, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
As the New York Empire capped their perfect 2019 season with a championship, it became easy to overlook the overall offensive performance from the Dallas Roughnecks, particularly considering the team’s very youthful O-line. The Empire may have won the title 26-22, but it’s worth remembering that the Roughnecks’ offense was statistically the crisper unit compared to its counterpart. For the full 48 minutes, Dallas’ O-line only gave New York’s D five chances to break, compared to the Roughnecks’ seven opportunities to convert against the Empire’s O. Obviously, Dallas did not take advantage or have much luck preventing New York from cashing in—the Empire went 4-for-5 capitalizing on their opponent’s O-line turns, the Roughnecks a costly 1-for-7, and that dynamic decided the game—but when it came to an O-line simply avoiding turning the disc at all, Dallas’ offense delivered more often than not.
This context is necessary as an introduction to understand exactly how brilliant Carson Wilder’s all-around effort was in last year’s championship tilt. Despite the narrow defeat, the 23-year-old Roughneck (who turned 24 in December) became just the second player in AUDL history to accumulate a double-digit plus/minus in a single game at Championship Weekend. In 25 points played against the Empire last August, Wilder completed every one of his 33 throws while collecting six assists and scoring four goals, good for a plus/minus of +10. Among all the Championship Weekend competition in the league’s eight seasons thus far, only New York’s Ben Jagt, who has remarkably done it twice, has also reached the double-digit plus/minus plateau in a game. (Jagt finished +11 in the 2019 finals and also produced +13 in the 2018 semis against Dallas.)
As if this incredible measure was not impressive enough in itself, let’s follow it up with a quick quiz: between Jagt and Wilder, who was responsible for more yardage in last year’s title match?
I’d presume that most would guess Jagt, who deservedly earned the league-wide MVP honor for his season-long excellence. But Wilder actually had more yards receiving (394 to 358), throwing (174 to 95), and overall (568 to 453), than Jagt in the 2019 championship game. Obviously, this is not meant to minimize Jagt’s otherworldly performance, but instead to emphasize just how special Wilder was on that particular Sunday afternoon in San Jose, even if his team fell just short of the ultimate prize for the second straight season.
Looking forward, Wilder’s certainly hopeful that, whenever it arrives, his third time in the finals will be the charm. Bracing for his fifth AUDL season, he will be a captain for first time in his professional career, a new challenge that has reinvigorated his energy as he awaits the league’s return. And unlike many of his fellow athletes who’ve struggled to find ways to stay in shape during the pandemic, Wilder has trained alongside his younger brother Collin, who’s currently a safety on the University of Wisconsin football team. These were just a few of the topics of conversation when I caught up with Wilder last week for this Disc In feature, which has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: Firstly, how's everything going and what has life been like for you since mid-March? Any particular highlights from the past few months?
Carson Wilder: Honestly life has been similar to a lot of pendulum swings back and forth, positive-negative and easy-difficult. A lot of change in my life, as well as around the country, can definitely be a lot to handle. However, I do have some highlights: I did graduate from Texas Tech in May and celebrated my one year anniversary with my wife on June 1st, so that has been really amazing. Now I am just job searching in the College Station area, our next home.
EL: Obviously, not too many (if any) AUDL players have a D-I college football player as a brother, so can you share what the typical day of training has been like for ya over the past month? If the season started tomorrow, what percentage of the best version of yourself would you estimate you'd be?
CW: Yes, I am super thankful that I have been on lockdown with my brother [Collin] on a small farm west of Houston. He is incredibly driven and hardworking so it really is inspiring to watch him work so hard, and that pushes me to work harder. He plays safety at Wisconsin, so his main targets are receivers and running backs. This was great for me because those positions translate really well into the footwork and timing of cutting and handling. A typical training day for us looks like the following: usually wake up around 7:30 and start by going to the weight-room, trading off upper body and lower body days. Over the 2 months, we have switched between less reps-heavier weight and high-reps and lighter weight, and simulate our in-game movements in lifts to build muscle. After the weight room, we usually head out to the pasture and try to do field drills while also avoiding piles of horse poop. These usually revolve around footwork, competing in routes and defense, and then conditioning drills. He will often time react off of my routes and I will have to beat him to the spot and gain position, so as much game-like situations as we possibly can get. It's been the best honestly, and I feel like I am in the best shape of my life, specifically in the strength department, which has always been a weakness of mine.
EL: I’m curious to ask how you felt about yourself as a player back in 2016, when you first joined the Austin Sol at age 20. Your first game was a 12-goal loss to the stacked Roughnecks, and then you experienced two more one-goal losses with the Sol before getting your first win... It's just a striking contrast to the present, considering you've helped lead your team to the last two AUDL championship games, and I wonder how you'd characterize your confidence as a player and outlook about what you were experiencing very early on? Did you think from the start that you'd be able to become a difference-maker and leader for one of the top teams in the league?
CW: Yes, 2016 was an amazing year but a tough year for me. I was one year into a college ultimate career, aka one year into a career in anything pertaining to ultimate. I was a very basketball-minded athlete with very little frisbee IQ at 20, and I was just trying to drink out of the firehose as best I could. I had incredible teachers and mentors on the Sol, like [Michael] Natenburg at the helm, Jeff Loskorn and Jerrod Wolfe yelling at me on the field to be better (in the best way), and Mitch Bennett really supporting me as a young player and encouraging me to keep learning. The only time my confidence was high on the field is when the disc was floating and we weren't playing Dallas. After that first year, I gained an enormous amount of confidence going into my second year—probably too much, looking back at my turnovers. It was always a goal for me to be a playmaker and difference maker on a team, but I have learned from so many men and women how to do that well, and I’m still learning. Since then, my confidence has been refined along with my skills, and I am very happy with where I am mentally, emotionally, and physically right now.
EL: Before going further, can you quickly share your narrative about what sports you played growing up, how you discovered ultimate, and when your passion for frisbee really took flight?
CW: Growing up, I played every sport I possibly could. I am so thankful to my parents for giving us the opportunity to play anything, but with that came the responsibility to do it well. My father very much expected us to be successful on the field or court, and provided us with the tools we needed to be successful. Early on it was baseball, basketball and football, which I believe developed my hand-eye coordination immensely. My brother and I were never not playing. We would wake up before school and either go to practice, or throw/play with each other in the driveway. After school, we would have practice, and then have some sort of personal training session with a coach after that. This was the routine no matter the time of year or sport. I never really had friends that were not my teammates. From traveling around the country playing tournament baseball or AAU basketball, we were just always playing. Sports have always been such a focal point of my life. As I got into high school, football and baseball started to fade from burnout (and being 5’4” as a freshman trying to play football). As these faded, basketball emerged as my passion. I ran track, cross country, and played basketball in my last three years of high school. After not playing basketball in college and collegiate track also falling through at Texas Tech, I found frisbee. I had no idea what the sport was, even after my first college tournament. I had begun to really enjoy it, but I had no sense of what was going to come from playing. There was no "shoot for the stars" mindset, until I went to USAU Nationals in Frisco in 2014 to watch with a few of my older teammates. After seeing the ESPN coverage of the semis, the crazy-high level of play, and quite honestly the super fun and engaging crowd made of primarily fellow players who had lost, I was hooked.
EL: There’s a saying that goes, “If you're good enough to come in second place, you're good enough to be disappointed in it.” There's also the reality that making it to back-to-back championship games is a great accomplishment in itself. You've certainly been very, very close to experiencing an AUDL championship, but the Roughnecks have fallen just short two years in a row, and I'm curious how you'd compare and contrast each of those two title games? What are your primary memories from each, and did you feel any differently after one relative to the other?
CW: What a saying that is… I can certainly say with full confidence I have been disappointed at the end of the last two seasons. in 2018, we felt so good going into the weekend. We felt like we were prepared, both mentally and physically, and felt that we were the best team there. After beating New York on Saturday, I felt like we had all the tools to finish strong, even with Dan [Emmons] and K-Rich [Kevin Richardson] going down in the semis. I barely remember anything from that title game; it was all a blur. I just remember it was really hot on the turf, a lot of our guys were not 100 percent, and we were wildly unprepared as far as knowing and understanding Madison's personnel and tendencies. Fast forward to 2019, again I felt like we had all the tools necessary to leave a champion. We had prepared scouting-wise so well for San Diego and New York, we had put in the work all year to play four full quarters; it was all there. [The Madison game in] 2018 was not near as clean of a game as [the New York game in] 2019. What I remember from 2019 was how well we played all game. It was probably our most complete game all year. When comparing, I would say I was very confident we were going to bring it home going into both games. Both years were so tough walking off that field knowing we had a long trip home empty handed. Each year, the fire and desire for that win grows and grows, so hopefully we get a chance soon to see if we can bring it home. Third time's the charm?
EL: How has becoming a captain for the 2020 Roughnecks shifted your offseason mindset or altered your approach heading into the new season? And is there any interesting story about learning that you were nominated and/or named a captain?
CW: I was very honored and also a little surprised when asked by last year's leadership to consider becoming a captain this year. I have always seen myself as a leader on the team, but now that I have a title of leadership, it has really thrown me into investing even more time into the team and the league. When it comes to preparation—both physically and mentally— promotion of the team, being a vocal leader at practices, etc, I feel more confident being involved in each of those areas of the team. How I became captain was fairly humorous. I was in school in Lubbock in October, and actually was about to play pickup with people who have never played ultimate before. Dalton [Smith] called me and asked me if I would consider being a captain, and I said absolutely. We discussed the responsibilities, I took a few days to think about it, and I called him back saying I was in. After he told me the other captains would be him and Kaplan [Maurer], I was incredibly pumped to lead with those two studs.
EL: Who were the players you most looked up to as mentors in your first couple seasons in the AUDL, and why?
CW: The list of players I looked up to the most the first few years in the league could go on for a while. I already talked about Tank, he as incredibly instrumental in developing a foundation for my frisbee skills. Edith Teng, my second year Sol coach, was one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject of ultimate I have ever met and gave me such a respect for women in the sport. From the Sol, Chase Cunningham, Mitch Bennett, Michael Matthis, and Andrew Walch all helped me tremendously. On Dallas, Dam Emmons is someone I looked up to and continue to look up to as a teammate and a player. Dalton Smith has really taken me under his wing and let me into his process on how he sees the game, which is unlike anyone I have ever met. Those two guys are probably the most significant mentors I have had throughout my time in the league.
EL: Is there anything specific about your game or skillset that you've targeted to improve in the offseason, and if so, how have you gone about pursuing that goal?
CW: This offseason, I focused on building strength. I have always hated the weight room, but I know I have lost positioning too many times when going body-to-body with other guys. I have put on as much muscle as I could in the offseason so I can hold my positioning more and be aggressive.
EL: Having played a mix of O and D throughout your career, I'm curious to ask you who have been the toughest matchups you've ever had to guard and also who have been the toughest matchups when they've guarded you?
CW: Toughest matchups, great question. One of my toughest defensive matchups ever has to be Matt Jackson (both guarding him in games on Sol or in practice on Dallas). He is so quick and just never stops moving; it's exhausting. I never guarded anyone in games that was worse than guarding someone in practice. So probably when I matchup with Dalton, Kap, Suds [Sam Ward] or Gabe [Hernandez] in the backfield, and Jay [Froude], Kai [Marshall] and Kyle [Henke] downfield are always so tough. Outside of my own team, I would have to say my least favorite matchup ever is Nathan Vickroy. I have nightmares of when we played Atlanta in 2017 and my job was to guard him, and I just got roasted. Also, I would imagine guarding Cameron Brock would be awful as well. Offensively, I hate being guarded by Alex Brouwer on our team. That dude sticks to me better than anyone I have ever played against.
EL: What was your first reaction to the offseason news about AUDL realignment, particularly with your divisional opponents changing so significantly?
CW: When we played the [NFL] halftime [exhibition] game in Philly, there were rumors of the division realignment and I heard we were going out West. My first reaction was that of excitement, I am a guy who loves change and when things get shaken up, I get pumped. Since then, I have realized how much I will miss the South, and wish all the teams the best of luck in the Atlantic. I always felt that every team in the South would make playoffs if we didn't have to play each other, and I guess we will see. I am super excited to play against teams like San Jose and Seattle for the first time, and get some rematches against San Diego and LA. I played like trash in the semis against San Diego, so I have to get some revenge in that sense.
EL: And lastly, aside from ultimate, what's something else about yourself--a hobby or passion or mindset--that's important to you?
CW: As easy as it is to let the beauty of ultimate engulf your whole time, energy, money and life, I actually have quite a bit of me that does not reside on the field. My faith for sure plays the biggest role in my life on and off the field, and that drives so much of the person, brother, son, husband and even teammate I strive to be. I believe if you want to see a person’s true colors, put them in a competitive atmosphere and watch those colors show, and that helps me remember to hold strong to my values even in the midst of anger, joy, frustration, confusion, victory and losing. This transcends the ultimate field for me and helps me in my career, in my home with my family, in my preparation for being a father one day, in my relationships with my friends—especially those that are different from me—and in so many other areas of life. My goal of my life is to live a life worthy of imitating, and look more like Jesus. Having a platform like the AUDL to not only showcase talent, but also how to love others, speak up, and be good teammate is something I am forever thankful for.