April 27, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
Winning just three games in 2019, the San Jose Spiders franchise certainly feels far removed from the glory days of 2014 and 2015. In those two years, the first two seasons of the organization’s existence, the overwhelming Bay Area talent consolidated on the Spiders, making them clear championship favorites. Both times, the star players fulfilled the team’s potential, living up to the hype and earning titles in impressive fashion.
Now, the Spiders are rebuilding around a core of committed prospects, none of whom are as important or exciting as Keenan Laurence, the athletic defender who made a tremendous first impression across the West Division in 2019. As a 19-year-old kid, Laurence recorded three blocks on the road in his AUDL debut and progressed into arguably San Jose’s most productive all-around player, finishing the season with a five-assist, four-goal eruption against the first-place San Diego Growlers. Overall, Laurence completed his rookie campaign with 19 assists, 21 goals, nine blocks, and the top plus/minus on his team (+45). Beyond the numbers are buckets of optimism for his future growth.
“Start the hype train now,” San Jose’s Jackson Stearns proclaimed last April. “This kid is gonna be special…He’s a big dude, good closing speed, and has a monster flick.”
And then there’s what veteran Spider Justin Norden expressed to me about Laurence last May, saying, “I haven’t seen this talent in high school since Matt Rehder.”
The San Jose Spiders organization named Laurence as the team’s 2019 MVP following his debut season, a remarkable nod for a kid who didn’t even turn 20 until this past February. Looking ahead, Laurence will undoubtedly be one of the centerpieces to the franchise’s rebuild, the type of young talent that can help accelerate the process. With an established and informed fan base that has already cheered for champions, the Spiders clearly hope that Laurence can develop into a star and a leader alongside the rest of the Bay Area prospects that are coming up the pipeline.
Eager to commence his second AUDL season, Laurence is waiting like the rest of us, hopeful that ultimate will return at some point this summer. Last week, he kindly took some time to reflect on his 2019 memories and share how he’s handled the current circumstances that have paused much of life as we know it. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: Starting fairly simply, how are you, where are you, and what's life been like in your current hometown over the past month?
Keenan Laurence: I am good. Been hunkering down in Tahoe, CA for the last 6 weeks. Life’s been pretty mellow. Snowshoeing is my new cross-training for frisbee now that the ski resorts have closed shop. I am fortunate to have access to beautiful Mother Nature when I am getting out of the condo.
EL: For those who aren't familiar with your background, can you share a bit about your everyday life and how its been impacted by the bizarre circumstances that the entire world is dealing with right now?
KL: Under normal circumstances, I’d be wrapping up my winter seasonal job at my local ski shop in the Bay Area, full-time coaching my old high school team, Gunn Control, and playing AUDL games every weekend. With the world on pause, I am thankful for this quality time I get to spend with my family.
EL: Ultimate obviously feels somewhat secondary to everything, but I'm definitely curious to ask how your life as an ultimate player has been impacted? How have you continued to train and prepare for the 2020 season amidst the restrictions that are in place?
KL: Early on in this ever-evolving situation, I decided to ride out the quarantine up in the mountains. When I was packing up a couple of essentials from my room in the bay, I made sure all my frisbees were coming with me. Although I haven’t done much with them yet, mainly because of all the snow that has been falling, I have been able to stay in excellent shape. Snowshoeing up to the summit with my snowboard on my back made for some really fun workouts. As the snow continues to melt away, and the hiking trails start to clear, I will be doing a lot of walking. The nice thing about training up here is… no matter what I do, I will be training at altitude.
EL: Before going further, can you enlighten me about your overall athletic background and explain how you got your start playing ultimate?
KL: Growing up, I played many sports, including baseball, football, soccer, volleyball, and lacrosse. But a severe, season-ending concussion on the high school lacrosse field ended my dreams of playing contact sports in college. Ultimate came as a surprise because I had never heard anything about it before. Three and half years ago, when I was a junior at Palo Alto High School, I played my first season of ultimate with Gunn Control for coach John Ortberg. From then until now, I have been playing ultimate pretty much non-stop.
EL: It sure has become more and more common for teenagers to make an impact on professional ultimate teams, but I still think it's noteworthy every time it occurs. What are your primary memories from trying out for the Spiders and then learning that you made the team? Were you confident or did you surprise yourself through the process?
KL: I had a lot of success at both the youth and YCC level when I was in high school. I was confident I’d be able to transition my strengths to a larger field with tougher opponents. In 2019, the Spiders held two open tryouts, of which I could only attend one. There was one play that I believe sealed my fate of becoming a Spider. An 80-yard cross-field huck for a goal that caught the attention of everyone on the sideline. I was one of three rookies that made the team last year, a result I was over the moon about.
EL: You made your AUDL debut for the Spiders on April 6, 2019 against Seattle and recorded three blocks in San Jose's wild overtime win on the road; what was that experience like? Were you nervous going into the game? Any memories from that game you're especially proud of or humbling "Welcome to the AUDL" moments that stand out?
KL: I had been excited from the moment I stepped on the plane that morning. The nerves hit me when I was putting on my jersey for the first time in the locker room. During warm-ups I was focused on harnessing the anxiousness and getting excited in the moment. I knew with my role on the second defensive line, I would not be seeing much playing time and that I wanted to make the most of the points I got. As the game got rolling, the nerves vanished and my legs kicked in. I was having the time of my life running around chasing discs. Finishing off the game with three blocks through 11 points made me hungry for more AUDL games. I knew what it felt like to get a block, but I wanted that first goal feeling.
EL: I’m curious if you were at all aware that you did not have a single throwaway on the official stats through your first nine games? Obviously, turnovers happen for everyone, and you had a couple in your last two games, but how did you maintain your 100 percent completion rate so deep into the season? Was it a very intentional mindset did it just happen somewhat naturally and you didn't focus on it too much?
KL: I had a couple teammates remind me of my completion rate throughout the season, but it never really crossed my mind. Through the first nine games of the season, I was playing a lot more defense than offense. The rarity of break chances moved me to make very smart decisions when handling the disc. Take what they gave me, and throw to the open receiver. I threw my first turn in the game my coach [Dan Silverstein] started me on offense with the green light to shoot deep.
EL: At the end of the season, the Spiders recognized you as the team's MVP for the 2019 campaign. Were you surprised to receive that honor and what was it like to learn that you had achieved that distinction? What about your rookie year were you most proud of?
KL: I was very surprised. It’s not often you see the youngest player on the team receive the award of MVP in their rookie season. My rookie year was filled with so many highs, and being named MVP topped it all off for me. I am very grateful for the veterans on the team that were invested in my growth from the beginning and throughout the season. They wanted me to succeed and were essential in helping me gain my confidence on the field.
EL: Aside from ultimate, what's something else that you're especially interested in or passionate about?
KL: I am a big snowboarder. Playing ultimate at a high-level for nine months out of the year is tiring. Snowboarding gives me a break from ultimate in the offseason. I continue snowboarding until the snow melts which usually overlaps with ultimate preseason. I joke about it being my cross-training, but I take it seriously as my way of gearing up for the season.
EL: Lastly, what are you reading or watching at the moment? Any recommendations of a book, tv show, or movie that others would enjoy?
KL: I want to recommend this awesome three part ski documentary series on Youtube called Endless Winter. If you are interested in your environmental impact on Earth, appreciate amazing story telling, and like watching skiers and snowboarders flying down Norwegian chutes, then let Nikolai Schirmer tell you about his Endless Winter.