May 19, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
After spending a couple weeks chatting with some of the greatest throwers in the league, it now feels fitting to delve into those valiant souls tasked with trying to stop them. And for anyone who scoffs and ignorantly claims that nobody plays defense in the AUDL, I pity your lack of understanding and appreciation for the unbelievable schemes, efforts, and athletes that are present throughout our league.
It’s a tad ironic to begin this new chapter of “Disc In” with a guy who played 22 offensive points in last year’s championship game, but Jeff Babbitt is first and foremost a defender. That’s how he will always view himself, even as his disc skills and cutting prowess have made him a valuable asset in virtually any role. And as New York Empire Head Coach Bryan Jones acknowledged at Championship Weekend last year, having an otherworldly defender on your O-line can be a crucial game-changer in preventing your team from getting broken. The strategy obviously paid off, with Babbitt registering one block and four goals, including a thrilling buzzer-beater to close the third quarter, as the Empire edged the Dallas Roughnecks 26-22 for the franchise’s first title.
For Babbitt, that game and the Empire’s perfect 2019 season capped a long and often arduous process of growth, both for himself and his team. He joined New York’s roster midway through the 2016 season, playing his first game in early June after his final college season at UMass concluded. Immediately, he became a first-class defender, recording multiple blocks in each of his first six games and averaging a ridiculous three blocks per game over the course of his first 13 games in the league. He’s one of just five players all-time to record 40 blocks in a season (Mike Drost, Peter Graffy, Goose Helton, and Anson Reppermund are the others), and he’s the only one in AUDL history to accumulate 40+ goals and 40+ blocks in a season, which he did with his 50-goal, 41-block outburst in 2017.
Since then, his reputation has been well-established, and consequently, teams have actively shied away from testing him. Certain opponents know Babbitt well enough that they’ll craft a game plan for the guy he’s guarding to try and get him out of the way, thus preventing him from wreaking too much havoc. Still, he’s managed to muster 45 blocks in 30 games over the past two seasons, including 12 in six Empire playoff games. And as he’ll explain, he’s continued to average more than a block a game without missing a game despite various ailments that have added pain and frustration to the otherwise impressive journey.
Beyond the field, Babbitt’s personality has been front and center in Empire marketing efforts over the past several seasons, humanizing the seemingly larger-than-life defensive dynamo with bits like ‘Lil Babbitt and the more recent “Baking with Babbitt” videos, in which he showcases his culinary charisma. In between training, cooking, and gaming, he also found a few minutes to answer my questions about his ultimate origins, his defensive mentality, and the impact that coaching has had on his playing career. The 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?
Jeff Babbitt: I’m doing as well as I can be during a time like this. Days have been relatively monotonous over the past few months, but I have still been able to find enjoyment in things while being stuck at home.
EL: From an ultimate standpoint, what types of things have you done to try and stay in shape during these bizarre times?
JB: Early on in the quarantine I realized that we would be here for a while, so I built myself some weights out of concrete that I had at the house the first week. So I have a set of dumbbells and a barbell. Lifting for me has been able to continue in an almost normal way. As far as conditioning, I run shuttle sprints three to four times a week at a local field and feel like I have maintained and probably improved on my conditioning.
EL: Having played in every game for the Empire since you signed midseason in 2016, you won your first championship with the Empire last August, and I'm curious how you'd characterize that whole experience? What are the aspects of the journey to the title and the recollections from the weekend in San Jose that you think about most all these months later?
JB: Since signing in 2016, the Empire has definitely been a roller coaster of a ride, both from a team and personal standpoint. Over this period we have had teams that weren’t expected to succeed and did and teams that had so much potential and fell way too short. Personally, I’ve spent quite a bit of that period injured. Mostly with lower back issues that continue to sideline me for portions of games and practices. Basically, the 2018 season for me was a wash. I was half of who I was physically before my back injury. However, 2018 is a season that sticks out so much to me as a season that helped the team grow immensely. We had an extremely talented team that had the pieces to win, but managed to have an uninspiring regular season. But as the season came to the final few games the team really rallied and found our stride as a cohesive unit. We were able to win our final regular season games and earn a spot in the Eastern Playoffs. In the playoffs, we beat DC in one of the most miserably conditioned games I have ever played in. In a battle all about mental fortitude, grit, and focus we were able to come together and find success. The following week we traveled to Canada and won our first game ever against Toronto and clinched a spot to Championship Weekend in Madison. In a lot of ways, that is where our 2018 season ended. We played a relatively close game against Dallas in the semifinals in Madison. But the season was a success regardless of what happened because we proved to ourselves we were a talented team, and we could fight through tough situations, that we could beat the best in the East, Toronto and DC. So many times since I have been in NY, the Empire had found leads against those two rival teams and then managed to let it slip away in the final quarter or in overtime. This past year, we knew we could compete with those two teams because of 2018, which set us up for success in 2019. As far as Championship Weekend, it’s a blur at this point, but I know we peaked in the most important game of the season. And that is really inspiring to think about, that everyone came together at the right time to deliver in the biggest game of the year.
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?
JB: Growing up, I played literally every sport I could. The one that became my favorite sport early on was football. I played for 10 years up until my sophomore year of high school, when I became too burnt out with it. Too many years straight of summer practices and extremely long seasons. Around that time my oldest brother was attending college at Davidson and had started to play some ultimate there. Over the summer he brought the sport home to us and I began to play a bit. By my junior year of high school, I was pretty into it and was having a good time. I played on the same brother’s club team with his college teammates prepping for their fall season and got exposed to many of the great club teams in the Boston area: Ironside, Bodhi, Sons of Liberty, etc. As far as feeling confident in ultimate, I think the second I step on any field I have confidence, maybe not in the specifics of the game I am playing, but in general, game, field and court sense. I see sports well, so I understood the flow of Ultimate early, especially as a defender, and knew how to move in that space to be successful.
EL: While everyone who steps on an ultimate field needs to throw, catch, and defend, your playing style and abilities have certainly labeled you as a defender (despite the fact that you were playing O-line at Championship Weekend). When do you think you first gained that distinction from your teammates and/or opponents on the field and how has that characterization impacted you as a player?
JB: I have always been a defender. That’s how my mind works. Maybe from having older brothers, and knowing I was at a disadvantage in anything we played because I was smaller and younger. Early in my ultimate career, I played a lot of offense, but defense is more important. It is where games are won and lost in every sport. Everyone knows that. In college, I transitioned to the D-line because our team knew we could secure games on the back of our defense and our O-line was very solid so we could hold any lead the defense could earn us. Since then, I have always played defense, I still play some offense here and there, I can do it. I hate it though, offense is boring. Less of a challenge. I don’t think I have been impacted much by being considered a defender in ultimate because I was a defender in every sport I ever played, every game I ever played.
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?
JB: I wouldn’t call it a little thing. Obviously speed and athleticism are standard requirements for being a defender. But the most important part of being a defender is your mind. Game sense, understanding the field, and the flow of a game. As I have played more and more, and coached over the past five years, I have grown a better understanding of both sides of the field. I think that has helped me fully understand the flow of the game and understand why and how people will be moving around the field, which has made me better at patrolling the field and better able to set up for help and still limit my player.
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?' Generally, how complex are the Empire's defensive schemes, and how long did it take you to feel comfortable and instinctive playing in that system? How does the system help you as an individual defender?
JB: Over the course of the game, I like to switch up who I am guarding. If a particular player is finding success I usually will switch onto them. But I change who I am covering quite often. Mostly so I can switch around when I am poaching off my cutter and set up more to help the team cover different portions of the field. My goals when playing defense other than preventing a score are one of two things, depending on the point: either make the offense exhaust themselves this point or help my teammates cover their players and increase our chance of getting a block. The defensive schemes on the Empire are semi-complex, however they are extremely tailored to the likes of Ben Katz, the Drosts and I. We are heads up defenders who patrol the field at all times, having smart defenders on the field makes any scheme work if everyone is playing heads up.
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?
JB: The toughest matchups in the AUDL… I deal with them every week. Ben Jagt, Grant Lindsley, Jack Williams. The New York offense. Guys that are impossible to guard. I’m proud when Bryan Jones walks on the field after he tells me to guard a specific player and says I did a good job.
EL: When you're not playing ultimate, you've done a fair amount of coaching, and I'm curious to ask what your experiences have been like coaching ultimate? What have been the most satisfying aspects and the toughest challenges about coaching, and is there a coach that you've played for in your career that you specifically try and emulate?
JB: Coaching for me has been such a great experience. I have been coaching two teams in New York since I moved here in 2017. New York Bent, the top Womxn’s club team in New York, and City and Country Middle School. The most satisfying aspect of coaching for the middle school team is seeing the young kids start to understand the game and start to really enjoy it. Bringing the sport to these children and seeing their excitement to play everyday is awesome. For Bent, my favorite aspect is seeing these Womxn put in hours of work and then having them come together in a big game or moment and put all of our systems and work into place at the right time to find success. Our best tournament last year was in Chicago, when we made the semis of a high level club event and everything was clicking. And the team knew it. Everyone was happy with the way we were playing and played over the course of the tournament. And everyone was hungry for more. The biggest challenges of coaching come at the end of any season. Whether the season ends in a win or not. Success or not. Knowing that the group you just spent that last year with will be different the following year is tough.
EL: Finishing with a couple of life questions, what's the most delicious thing you've cooked during the pandemic?
JB: The best thing I have baked is donuts. Cinnamon sugar, fresh out of the fryer. A great crunch, consistency and taste. Perfect.
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?