Disc In: A Chat with Isaiah Masek-Kelly

August 13, 2020
By Evan Lepler  - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive

Typically, the home team determines basic gameday protocols in the AUDL, stuff like which locker room the visitor uses or where they warm up. But what happens when there’s not a home team? In these rare instances, it can become a bit like local summer league: whoever gets their stuff to the sideline first gets to claim territory.

The 2019 AUDL playoffs included this uncommon situation, with the Toronto Rush and DC Breeze agreeing to play their opening round contest in New York for everyone’s convenience, giving the winner the opportunity to already be on site for the following day’s East Division title game against the Empire. Considering that division leaders had settled on waging both postseason tilts on the same weekend, this was deemed to be the fairest option for all parties involved.

Consequently, that created a Saturday neutral site clash between the Rush and the Breeze, who had both finished the regular season with identical 7-5 records, including splitting their two matchups against one another. By every indication, the postseason battle would be just as close and competitive as any other first round playoff matchup across the league, which meant that any little edge could be the difference.

That morning, Rush veteran Isaiah Masek-Kelly flew from Toronto to New York, along with his coach, Sachin Raina. They went straight from the airport to the stadium, arriving about six hours before the scheduled opening pull, easily becoming the first two participants at the field. Raina had already planned to meet a friend for lunch nearby, while Masek-Kelly preferred to rest up for the elimination affair that was ahead. Consciously, he made the choice to set up on the shadier side of the field, put down his stuff, and took a two-hour nap. When the rest of his teammates arrived, they joined him on the slightly cooler section of turf.

“That may not sound like a big deal,” Raina explained to me last July, “but he did so strategically knowing that side of the field would be in the shade during the warmup. In one point games, every edge matters, and not having to warm up in the sun could have been the difference.”

There’s certainly an tinge of silliness in this story, but the Rush ended up winning that game 22-21 on a day when the mercury registered right around triple digits on the Fahrenheit scale, with a fresh and energized Masek-Kelly compiling a game-best plus-nine with five assists, three goals, and two blocks. It was the highest plus/minus he had ever produced in his 14 career playoff games and also the highest against any opponent that eventually made the playoffs throughout his entire seven-season career in the league. 

Regardless of his role or whether or not he’s warmed up in the sun or the shade, Masek-Kelly has excelled in virtually every facet of the game throughout his 99 game career, in which he’s filled a variety of roles for the Rush. As one of nine players in AUDL history with at least 100 goals, 100 assists, and 100 blocks, his greatest statistical season was easily 2015, when he produced 55 goals, 57 assists, and 26 blocks. Astonishingly, that’s the only instance in eight years of AUDL competition where a player generated at least 50 goals, 50 assists, and 25 blocks in a single season. If not for Beau Kittredge’s monster year with the San Jose Spiders and perhaps Tyler DeGirolamo’s incredible production for the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, Masek-Kelly would have been an easy choice for MVP that year. (The award went to Kittredge for the second consecutive season.

Masek-Kelly turned 29 this past May, and in our Q&A from last week, he shared plentiful insight into his entire career, from his rookie season beginning as a 21-year-old kid, to the 2019 campaign where the Rush were underdogs in their division for the very first time. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity. 

Evan Lepler: Firstly, how are you and what has your life been like over the past several months? 

Isaiah Masek-Kelly: My family and I have been doing well thankfully. It seems like so much has happened in the last few months. I quit my bartending/server job about March 14 and two days after that most of Canada shut down due to the virus. So the start of quarantine felt like a staycation, if I didn't read the news. Filled lots of my days with Netflix and video games—mostly Animal Crossing and Call of Duty Warzone with friends—but about two months ago I started a new job that I had quit my old bartending job for, so some normalcy started. More recently my brother got married last week with three-day notice for the wedding date at my family's off grid property north of Toronto. For such short notice my parents and brother pulled off a small, beautifully intimate ceremony in the woods. Other than that, I've been missing practices and my teammates, playing a lot of disc golf, and dabbling back into tennis and basketball. 

EL: What types of things have you done to continue training recently, and did the news of the AUDL season officially getting canceled impact your motivation levels at all? 

IMK: Recently I have let my training take a back seat while I have been starting my new job and am looking to invest in upping my home gym equipment from cement dumbbells to something more modern. Our team is lucky to be partnered with Mike Haddock, who pretty much adapted our training to the new home workout circumstances regardless of equipment and got us going from the start. Hearing the season was canceled was sad but didn't surprise me.

EL: Taking a trip down memory lane, what do you recall about originally learning that a professional ultimate team was coming to Toronto back in 2013? You were just 21 around that time, and I wonder what you remember most about the tryout experience, making the team, and then competing that first season en route to a title?

IMK: 2013 is one of those years that has really stuck out for me in my ultimate career. It was both the start of professional ultimate frisbee in Toronto and my U23 Team Canada year, which was also held in Toronto at my own university. So I took this year pretty seriously as it was a chance for my family to watch me play for the first time at an elite level. The tryout was rather large, drawing players from all over the area, and had a lot of hype around it and the scrimmages day of; all players were going all out. The Rush organization also brought a scope of professionalism and really tried to make the players feel appreciated, especially during the season. That season we just kept getting more confident in our abilities after each game. Adjusting to the different rules was weird at the start, but our chemistry helped a lot early in the season since many of the core players had previous experience playing together. Honestly, going undefeated wasn't really a thought in my mind until about two games from the end of the regular season. That year, I was really focused on learning and playing each Rush game at my highest level. So approaching playoffs you could feel the players really buy in and believe that we could win the championship and perhaps do it undefeated. The league was definitely a bit different, some of the teams have folded and new ones have come in. But drinking from the giant AUDL Championship trophy and playing mini sticks in the high school parking lot in Chicago with my comrades is definitely one of the top memories in my whole career.

EL: After two very solid seasons in 2013 and 2014, it felt like you took a huge step forward in 2015, perhaps coinciding with Mark Lloyd's injury opening up more responsibility for you to seize, or perhaps as a result of it. Which is closer to true? How do you remember that 2015 in terms of becoming much more of a go-to-guy on the Rush's offense? Any specific games in particular stand out in your recollection as being among the best games you've played in your career?

IMK: Losing Mark that year did create a lot more opportunities for everyone on the team. Mark is such an amazing and skilled player; losing someone like that takes not just one person to step up but multiple players. That said, 2015 was a year where I felt confident doing anything on the field, offensively or defensively. I had the mindset that no matter what team or player I was matched up against I was going to leave a lasting memory of how hard I play, and how difficult I can make it for the opposition. Every movement I did was at 100 percent effort. I think my teammates saw that and were not afraid to throw some more risky flatballs my way because they knew that I was putting it all on the line every point. Having an O-line of Thomson [McKnight], Cam [Harris], Adrian [Yearwood], Steve [Armitage], Linq [Jeff Lindquist]—I’m sure I’m missing some people—makes it extremely easy since all have the ability to break any mark. This was also the year where I started to have a great belief in my throwing ability and am lucky enough to have tons of talented teammates that make offensive movement extremely fluid and easy. To be honest, I can't really remember many games that year except for the playoffs, I have played nearly 100 games for the Rush and seasons are starting to bleed together, but silencing an away crowd with a sweet defensive play is probably my favorite thing over the years.

EL: Having played seven full AUDL seasons and another full 14-game season worth of playoff games, your experience speaks for itself. I'm curious how your mindset has shifted, if at all, considering the changing of the guard in the East Division. For your first five seasons, the Rush either dominated their outclassed opponent or took care of business well enough to remain atop the East. And obviously that dynamic has changed with New York not only beating Toronto for the first time in the 2018 playoffs, but also going undefeated and winning the title in 2019. So how has your perspective as a player and leader changed with the Rush now becoming a bit more of an underdog after a half-decade where you were expected to win virtually every game?

IMK: Frankly, we always kind of had an underdog mentality in my mind. We never looked past any team, and I think that shows. Probably due to the fact that no one really talked about the Toronto ultimate scene much before or during those years. Yes, the first few years we had some lopsided scores, but it takes a mental toughness to not play down to opponents and keep pressing hard every game. Having more parity in the league has been great though; makes each game more satisfying knowing that you are playing against some of the best players each city has to offer. It’s easy to get complacent when you're winning and having, in my opinion, one of the toughest divisions. The last couple years has been great to challenge ourselves as a team. But overall, my expectations for our team have always been the same: win another championship. Especially seeing the young talent coming through the Toronto system always gives me optimistic hope for the present and the future when I have hung up my cleats to watch the new talent thrive.

EL: Before going further, can you briefly share your narrative regarding how you entered into ultimate? What sports did you play growing up, how did you discover ultimate, and when did your passion for frisbee really begin to blossom?

IMK: I was introduced to ultimate frisbee when I was in high school completing my mandatory volunteer hours. I was in grade 11, I believe, and volunteered at my sister’s elementary school to help “coach”—more of a glorified helper—that was about a 10 minute walk from my high school. Watching the kids play this strange but mesmerizing game got me hooked right away. I had been tossing a disc in the park with my best friend for a while before this and already had a strong backhand, but these kids in grades 4-6 were busting out hammers and flicks that blew my mind and could rival some top handlers in the AUDL today. So the coach taught me the basic rules and introduced me to the Toronto Ultimate Club to start playing league, and these young kids taught me how to throw flicks, hammers, scoobers, chicken wings, etc. Pretty much after that my passion for ultimate started, it was like none of the other sports I played before and gave such freedom to the players. You could do it all if you were good enough; no set position, just a beautiful flow of movement. I came from a diverse background of sports playing mainly hockey, soccer, rugby, track/cross country, basketball and volleyball during my high school and elementary sports career. I also dabbled a while in tennis, skateboarding, and golf. I think having a diverse background in sport helped me quickly gain ultimate skills, since it draws aspects from many sports. I come from a family that was not into athletics, which is why I gravitated into trying them all, but they always supported me no matter what sport I chose. But after getting cut from my first tryout for DIRT, the old Toronto junior touring team, it really fueled me to up my game. I did redeem myself the next year, making the team and earning a bronze medal at CUCs [Canadian Ultimate Championships].

EL: So, this chapter of the "Disc In" series is featuring players who have registered at least 20 goals, 20 assists, and 20 blocks in a season. Over the course of your career, how have you balanced the desire to be as well-rounded of a player as possible while also trying to emphasize or specialize in a certain area? Between cutting/receiving, throwing, and defending, which is the category that you still feel you can improve the most in? 

IMK: I was always a cutter, tall and quick led me to naturally gravitate to that position. I came into playing with the mentality of focusing on what I was good at already, to showcase my strengths on the field when tryout season came around. Throwing a disc is something I always enjoyed; I had the power but not the touch at the start of my career. I knew that not taking high risks and dominating the lanes were my best chance of being noticed when trying out for teams. Luckily, my high school team that I started in grade 11 allowed me to get lots of touches as a handler, while DIRT practices allowed me to focus on cutting. I continued this practice through my first few years of playing [with the top Toronto club team] GOAT, but with trying to throw more in league and practice until I was confident about throwing more. I would say that my defense could use some more work; until I'm shutting down [Andrew] Carroll all practice long, I think my defense could use work. Throwing is a close second; after watching Derek Alexander play up close, you will always think of yourself as a bad thrower.

EL: I know stats aren't always the most important thing, but after your goals and assists dipped considerably in 2019, you erupted in the Rush's first playoff game last year against DC, with five assists, three goals, and two blocks in a high-volume, turnover-free 35-for-35 passing performance on the road. What clicked for you in this game, and what do you most remember about that presumably exhausting weekend of playing two playoff games in New York in the span of about 24 hours?

IMK: Well, it could have been the two hour pregame nap in 40 degrees Celsius weather [about 104 degrees Fahrenheit] waiting for my team to arrive after eating a big reuben sandwich from some deli down the street on the shaded side of the field. But over the course of playing I learned that my offensive game is suited best when I play in the flow of the game and take what is given. Not forcing throws but still play aggressively with hitting open receivers deep. I tend to now give space for my teammates to make plays in the cutting lanes, but I have been playing with this team for a while and I have a good read on when I need to step up and make a few plays. It was extremely hot those two days in New York, and playing two games definitely did not help our chances. But we always preach not to worry about the things you cannot control and focus on playing our best no matter the circumstances. Obviously, it didn't go our way, but we will be just as hungry to win back the East Division in the future.

EL: Considering you've played plenty of offense and plenty of defense throughout your career, I'll ask you both: who are the toughest players you've had to guard when you've been on D? And who are the most difficult defenders that you've had to deal with when you've been on offense?

IMK: I would have to say that the hardest player I had to guard is probably a tie between Kurt Gibson or Jimmy Mickle. Both are great cutters and throwers so it's extremely hard to limit them and shut them down. I feel the need to say that my teammates are some of the best defenders I have played against, especially since they really know my tendencies. But that is the classic sports answer so I would say either [Jeff] Babbit or Ben Lohre. Both make you work extremely hard to get open, and if you let up at all they will make you pay.

EL: Finishing with a couple non-ultimate questions: outside of ultimate, who's your favorite athlete, and why? What's your favorite team, and why?

IMK: Well, I would say my favorite team is the Toronto Raptors; growing up watching Vince Carter sparked my interest in basketball, and about six or seven years ago I really got into fantasy basketball and watching the Raptors games again. I never really focused on one athlete as my role model growing up, but I would say that my favorite athlete now is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Watching him dominate the court is always fun.

EL: What’s the best tv show or movie you've watched at some point during the quarantine?

IMK: I really just went back and watched a bunch of old sitcoms I never got into like Friends, Scrubs, and Modern Family. I also binge watched about four or five seasons of The Great British Bake Off. Highly recommend.