May 11, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
He’s not particularly flashy, his team has rarely received the national spotlight, and his role has evolved so significantly that we rarely see his first-cut quickness downfield anymore. Perhaps these are just a few of the reasons why Indianapolis AlleyCats legend Keenan Plew is one of the more under-appreciated stars in AUDL history.
I’ve actually had players tell me that they feel Plew deserved the league MVP honor back in 2012 and 2013, not meant as a swipe at Goose Helton’s credentials, but rather a tribute to Plew’s all-around production. In 2013, especially, Plew registered 61 goals and 58 assists for a 9-7 AlleyCats team. If the Ball State alum had gotten the nod in one of those years, there seems little doubt that he’d be viewed in a very different pantheon right now, as he continues to pile up goals, assists, and wins entering his ninth AUDL season.
With a career now bookended by trips to the Final Four—of course, Plew’s not done yet—it could be noted that his longevity is a primary factor in his wildly impressive aggregate statistics. But don’t be fooled; his talent, versatility, and dedication are far more meaningful. Heading into the 2020 season, he ranks first all-time in assists (358), second in goals (286), second in completions (3,584), and second in games played (116). He’s seen the field in all but five games in AlleyCats history.
But what’s most fascinating about Plew’s career is how he has shifted from being a guy who almost always started downfield in the stack to now becoming a steady center-handler, who enjoyed his career-best completion rate (97.7 percent) in 2019. Initially switching positions out of necessity when the AlleyCats were shorthanded, one of the great cutting dynamos of the league’s first half-decade has completely redefined himself as a stabilizing backfield anchor, the type of guy that can put the disc where he wants but still sting making a run deep if the defense falls asleep.
When he first entered the AUDL as a 25-year-old kid, few would have speculated that he would be one of just six players featured in the “Premier Throwers” section of this Disc In series. But in 2020, a few days shy of Plew’s 34th birthday, it feels like it would have been wrong to exclude him. Consequently, here’s my recent Q&A with the AUDL’s all-time assist king, who generously chatted about adjusting to life during the pandemic, his unorthodox evolution as a player, and favorite targets to connect with on the field. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: Firstly, how are you and what has your life been like over the course of the past month or two?
Keenan Plew: I've been doing pretty well, all things considered, during this pandemic. My family has been fortunate that nobody has been sick or if they have been sick they've been asymptomatic. Life has been very relaxing or at least as relaxing as it can be running around the house chasing after a one-year-old. My last day physically teaching at school was March 13th. My school corporation has been doing eLearning off and on since that date and that keeps me somewhat busy, but I really feel like a stay-at-home dad or I like to tell my wife I finally am a “trophy husband.” The pandemic and stay-at-home orders have altered my daily life like everybody else. When I'm in school I have a pretty set routine each morning and I quickly had to find new routines to get by. When the weather was cruddy here in Indiana it sucked. The weather in the past couple weeks has turned here and that has made life much easier on my family. I spend most of my days reading to my daughter, taking her on walks or going on bike rides with her. It's great being able to be with my daughter every day at such an important time in her life.
EL: Considering how life has changed over the past couple months, what types of things have you done to try and stay in shape and keep your throws sharp during these bizarre times?
KP: Honestly, I have found it easier getting in workouts since the pandemic hit than before. When I was teaching everyday my only chance to get in a workout was after school. I coach track at my school and when that begins in the spring it becomes even more difficult to find time to squeeze in a workout or time to throw. Now doing eLearning three days a week and being at home everyday I know I can get a workout done when my daughter goes down for one of her two naps. Nap time equals workout time. Since getting married in 2017, I have slowly accrued exercise equipment in my garage. I have my own personal gym in the corner with a rack, barbells, kettlebells and some free weights. I'm glad I've been picking up equipment over time because I would've been screwed if I hadn't. I generally go to a gym to workout but after all of this is over I think I'll be cancelling my gym membership. The downside to all of this is not having a throwing partner. I'm sure one of the guys on the team would be down to throw, but I have made due by going over to the practice fields at the school I work at and practicing throws there a few days a week. There are a few days each week where I feel like I'm doing two-a-day workouts. The days when I take my daughter on a bike ride that's like a second workout. We have a one of those bike trailers that kids can sit in. It weighs about ten pounds and Scout weighs 20. Dragging 30 extra pounds behind the bike gets the legs burning and the heart pumping.
EL: In regards to the label of handler vs. cutter, how do you prefer to characterize yourself and how has your role evolved over the course of your nearly decade-long career with the AlleyCats?
KP: As for now, I would label myself primarily a handler due to the fact that in our schemes/plays for the AlleyCats I'm designated as a handler. I think if you asked any of our coaches or my teammates they would say handler first. I can easily do both when I think it's necessary for me to move into a cutting role or asked by a coach to switch to a cutter. I enjoy handling because it's a completely different position and you can see the entire field as the play/point unfolds. As a cutter, there are times where I had no idea where a teammate might be because I was cutting. I may not be as big of a factor in our offense that I may have been three or four years ago, but there are many times that I feel like I have more control over how our offense flows and plays based on how myself and the other handler play. I do love getting downfield and cutting in a game. For example, in our semifinals match up against New York this past season, I found myself pushing up the field many times. I noticed my defender wouldn't stick right to me as I cleared into the stack and I started to use this against them and break up the field going deep. I think I scored two or three goals in the game because I caught my defender napping. I figured my defender thought I'd stay close to the stack and wait to get back to the handler spot. My biggest asset to my team in that game became my cutting up field.
My role with the AlleyCats has been nearly a complete 180 from 2012. In the first AUDL season, I was only a cutter. If I found myself in a handler spot it was my job to clear out ASAP. I wasn't a bad thrower by any means, but I was much more useful as a cutter who never stopped running. I did continue to work on my throws and understand the game from both a cutter and handler position. As the season went on I found that I felt incredibly comfortable falling into a handler spot during points, if needed. I knew where and how to move the disc. I knew where I needed to be positioned as a handler too. I believe I officially became a handler during the 2017 season when we were playing at Minnesota. Coach [Eric] Leonard came up to me while warming up before the game and asked how I felt about handling. Whatever it took for us to win the game was my response. I believe we had two other handlers injured and maybe another possible handler that hadn't traveled with us. We were in a tricky situation and I had even heard Nick Hutton's name brought up to handle for the offense. Hutton can hold his own as a handler, but he was (and still is) such an valuable defender to our team I felt it would be a bad idea to pull him over to handle on offense and not have him running our defense. All in all, we lost the game but I must've shown Leonard that I was capable enough to be a handler because he spoke with me after the game and at following practices about staying a handler. I agreed with the move and did what would make our team better in the long run. I do want to thank Leonard for moving me to handler because I think it made me a better player. I got to learn from Leonard who was a great handler in his own. I always get a good laugh when I talk about how I became a handler because the running joke between Leonard and myself through this process was that I was in the "twilight of my career." Looking back now, he was probably right.
EL: While everyone who steps on an ultimate field needs to throw, catch, and defend, your playing style and abilities, at least in the past couple years, have certainly put you in the thrower category. 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?
KP: I'd say my teammates saw me more as a handler right away when I moved to becoming a handler full time. It may have taken awhile for other teams to see that I had moved positions. I would say it's safe to say that since 2017, I've gradually cut less and less each season. I think since becoming a handler the biggest change characteristically for me has been how conservative I've become while playing. Everyone on our offensive line can throw (some better than others) and in the past seasons our turnover percentage was astonishingly high. As I grew into the handler role and with Leonard's help, I became the handler that was more about possession than bombing the disc down the field. We have plenty of guys that can do that but I knew we needed someone to reign the o-line in from time to time. Don't get me wrong, I will take my chances on some throws but I have to feel very confident that it'll be a good decision. I enjoy watching old games or highlights from previous years and watching myself toss up a throw and I think now "What the hell was I thinking?"
EL: To understand your origins, can you quickly share the story of how and when you began playing ultimate, and along with that, how long into your playing days did it take for you to begin to feel fairly confident as a thrower?
KP: I began playing ultimate in the summer of 2004. I had finished up my junior year of high school and a history teacher at CG [Center Grove High School], Eric Howe, was setting up a frisbee league for high schoolers. I had only played in P.E. class and let’s get real, that was the furthest thing from ultimate. I played that summer and had fun more from the social aspect but was awful. To be completely honest, I didn't really enjoy playing ultimate because I wasn't good at playing. Over time I kept playing in pick-up games and learned some of the rules. I like to tell younger players my start in ultimate because it's pretty pathetic how long it took me to learn to throw a proper forehand. I'm not kidding when I say it may have taken a year. I teach ultimate in my P.E. class, and I have some kids who learn to throw in less than a week. Anyway, I played in the CG summer league after my senior year in 2005 and Howe urged me to sign up and play in the Indy Summer League. Playing in the Indy Summer League was a bit of a eye opener to me of how ultimate was really played. I'm grateful for playing in the Indy Summer League because many of the older guys in the league took me under their wing and helped me hone my skills and learn the game. My interest was piqued in ultimate due to the Indy league during the summer of 2005. Well, I went on to Ball State and played a lot more than I ever would and can thank guys like Toine, Heath Shanahan and Thomas Vittetau for pushing me to keep coming out to practices and tournaments. They saw talent in me that I didn't at the time.
EL: Aside from the simple reply, "I practiced a lot," what types of things did you do early in your career to develop your throwing skill? Were there any key coaches or other mentors who helped mold your abilities with the disc, or were there any high-level throwers (on your team or on a top team that you watched) that you viewed as role models and aimed to emulate?
KP: I feel like I have a different path into ultimate than most people do these days. Maybe some of the older guys in the AUDL may have the same/similar way into ultimate but I grew up in ultimate at a slow pace and there wasn't much ultimate media that we have today. When I started playing nobody in my town knew much if anything about ultimate. The only person who knew more was Eric Howe. Even today he admits that he wasn't a very good player. In my first few years in ultimate there was very little video footage of ultimate or websites with helpful tips. I learned how to become a better thrower through watching local players in summer league, listening what the older Indy guys were telling me about throwing, and trying different throws in pick-up or summer league games. I figured pick-up and summer league was a good place to try out throws because there was absolutely nothing on the line. I never had an ultimate coach until my first AUDL season so I basically just picked up stuff that I saw other people doing in games. At the time, I think the best throwers I could watch were Toine and Brett Egger at Ball State. Toine in his heyday was fun to watch, so graceful. His throws were fluid and smooth. Brett Egger on the other hand had one of the best backhands I'd seen. He would always teach the younger players to grip it and rip it. Maybe not the best teacher, but I learned through watching him how to add distance to my backhands.
EL: Between the backhand, forehand, hammer, and scoober, which do you think is your best throw and which is your favorite throw?
KP: I would say my best throw is my inside out forehand. I've always felt like I've had the most touch with that throw and with my size I can release it from positions that are difficult to block. My favorite throw is a tie. I'm most confident in throwing a I/O backhand deep but I love throwing hammers. I don't throw many hammers in games unless my target is wide open. I love the feeling of when you release a great hammer how it snaps off your fingers and slices perfectly down to its target.
EL: Putting you on the spot--not intending to get the rest of your teammates mad at you, though it may be inevitable--who are your three favorite receivers to throw to, and why?
KP: Each season I inevitably piss someone off on the team so its bound to happen, I'll even rank them for you number one being my most favorite target.
- Cameron Brock—Minds blown! Cam and I have played together for nearly 12 years. With all those reps together whether at Ball State or in the AUDL, I just know where and when he will cut. Although I don't throw to him nearly as often as I used to when I was cutting there are still instances in games now where we still are on the same wavelength. It's a good feeling thinking I hope Cam is cutting there when I get this disc...sure enough he's there.
- Rick Gross—Rick is easily one of the most outstanding athletes I've played with during my tenure in the AUDL. Rick possesses speed, hops, and is great at reading the disc and his defender. There have been many times in games where I've made a bad toss to him deep and he's like a vacuum there to clean it all up. It's great having him as a security blanket downfield. Also, his dad is my favorite photographer!
- Brett Matzuka—Even though he left us for one of those teams up north, hands down Brett is my favorite receiver. I know he's another handler but he made my life much easier on countless situations on the field. If I found myself in a double team or caught on a sideline, if Brett was handling with me I would find him in waiting in the best position all the time. Brett has incredible agility and can get open in any situation. He's like having a security blanket in the backfield with you. There were two times this past season where I think, if [we were] told to, Brett and I could've run minutes off of the clock near the end of a a game just playing keep away. It was a privilege playing with him. We don't hate him too much for leaving us.
EL: If a younger ultimate player asks you for advice, what's your typical response, aside from the obvious "practice a lot"? Can you share one trick/suggestion about either footwork or grip or release-point or mentality that you've used to be successful, something others aspiring to 'throw like Keenan' may be able to learn?
KP: I think my go-to lines for younger players are telling them to find their strengths. I explain to them that I can't throw the farthest or jump the highest, but starting out I used my endurance to assist me to becoming a difficult player to physically stop. Be coachable and be open to accepting criticism. Lastly, learn from defeat and pain. Don't forget about getting your head kicked in by an opponent and remember how it felt. Use those thoughts and memories to drive you to become a better player physically and mentally.
EL: Finishing with a couple of life questions, what's the most delicious thing you've cooked during the pandemic?
KP: I'm an incredibly lucky guy. My wife loves to cook and she's good at it. I don't cook a ton and if I do it's because my wife isn't home. I would say the best meal I prepared was a lunch, and it was a tasty tuna salad sandwich. Add mayo, pepper, spicy mustard and top it with kale and that's good enough for me. During the pandemic, I'd say my favorite dish my wife has made was pretzel crusted chicken fingers with homemade loaded potato soup.
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?
KP: I would've responded differently last week, but I was able to get out and golf two rounds with Travis Carpenter and new AlleyCat, Carter Rae. Carter is much better than Travis and I, but let it be known that Travis has never beaten me and we've probably played 15 times.
Honestly, I think I'd like to be able to go out for a meal in a restaurant or hang out at a bar with friends. I'd die to be able to get out to a Pacers game too! It's funny how normal and everyday these sound but we are living in crazy times. Maybe someday soon we can all get back to normalcy.