Disc In: A Chat with Kevin Quinlan

July 22, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive

Once upon a time, Kevin Quinlan was an 18-year-old college freshman who went with his teammates to the first Buffalo Hunters tryout. Illustrating his potential, he made the team and became one of the youngest competitors in the AUDL’s first season, where the novelty of being a professional ultimate frisbee player, especially as a teenager, felt like a landmark achievement. Then the Hunters lost their first 11 games, finished 3-13, and Quinlan registered a negative plus/minus for the year, a byproduct of his turnover totals (30) exceeding his aggregate goals, assists, and blocks (26). By the end of that season, it’s doubtful anyone would have forecast the ultimate fairy tale that his life has become.

Eight years later, he finds himself living in the great city of Montreal, a veteran leader on a respected Montreal Royal team, working full-time in the world of ultimate apparel, and marveling at the opportunities that his dedication to the disc has afforded him over the past decade. There’s no doubt that the AUDL has changed his life.

“Without the AUDL, I would have struggled to see what I was capable of in this sport,” reflected Quinlan during a conversation in April of 2019. “Club teams where I am from come and go, and D-III college ball doesn’t really give you a total glimpse at what this sport can be. It gave me an opportunity to show that small school, mid-level club team, no [USA National Team experience] players can compete. That is what it’s all about. Earning it on the field.”

Of course, the journey has been anything but smooth and easy.

The Hunters lasted one year in Buffalo before moving to Rochester and becoming the Dragons, with Quinlan suiting up double digit games for three more seasons without ever sniffing the playoffs. Individually, he remained a gunslinger, with assist numbers rising but completion rates dropping. In 2013, for instance, he tied for 17th in the league with 33 assists, yet no one else in the top 40 in the category had a completion percentage south of 80 percent. The next season progressed similarly, with Quinlan’s 31 assists ranking 32nd in the league in 2014, but every other player with at least 10 dimes that year—exactly 200 players—all registered a completion rate above 80. Quinlan’s percentages, undoubtedly inspired in part by the early spring weather in upstate New York, were in the 70s in each of those two seasons.

By far his best statistical season as a Dragon, with 49 assists (t-10th in the league) and an 86.2 percent completion rate, came in 2015, however the franchise went 1-13 and disbanded operations after that season. At a bit of a crossroads, he still wanted to play and he obviously still was very young, having turned 22 in August after his 2015 season had ended. He attended multiple tryouts and decided to join the Royal in Montreal, a move that has remade his career. In four seasons, Quinlan has accumulated 164 assists and 92 goals. Last year, he set career-highs with 57 assists—tied eighth in the league—and a 93.10 percent completion rate. At the moment, only three players in AUDL history can boast more assists than Quinlan, who now has 290 in 97 career games.

It was fun to catch up with Quinlan last week and learn a bit more about his perspectives on his journey, his greatest games, and his outlook on living as an American in Canada during the pandemic. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity. 

Evan Lepler: Firstly, what's the latest in your life? What has your everyday routine been lately as the pandemic has continued to roar and we've all somewhat accepted that this summer will be unlike any other in recent memory?

Kevin Quinlan: The latest in my life would be still working regularly for BE Ultimate. I’m super thankful to still have a job during the pandemic. I have, like many, been picking up disc golf. I’ve been able to transfer my flick huck to disc golf so that has been pretty nice. Other than that, I’ve been enjoying the time off. I’m able to play a lot more music so that’s made me quite happy. 

EL: As we discussed a bit several weeks back during a Wednesday night "Live with Lep!," you've been an American living in Canada throughout the pandemic without any real timeline in terms of when you'll be able to cross the border and visit family in the United States again. Is there any update to this uncertainty? What's it been like feeling relatively stuck, albeit in a great place like Montreal? 

KQ: The border closure actually just recently got extended again. To be honest, I don't see the borders opening up for a while. It’s definitely been hard for both me and my girlfriend as Americans with our families in the states. It’s super sad because they were just up in Lake Placid, which is close to Montreal. The toughest part of the border being closed was my grandfather passing and not being able to attend his funeral. It was really difficult to have to be on the sidelines while my family was dealing with this.

EL: So clearly you've grown and evolved quite a bit as a person and player from 2012 to 2020... As one of the six players to have competed in all eight AUDL seasons, what has this league meant to you in terms of shaping your life over the past eight years? 

 KQ: I owe the league a lot. I wouldn’t be living in Montreal if it weren't for the AUDL. I don’t see my growth as a player being as fast without the AUDL. Being a D-III college player without having elite club accessible to me, I doubt I would have been able to play at the highest level. Being able to play on an AUDL team with a “small school” chip on my shoulder has gotten me what little success I do have. 

EL: On the field, your completion percentage registered south of 80 percent in 2013 and 2014 for the Rochester Dragons, but last year with Montreal you finished the season at 93 percent, a career best, while tossing 309 completions, also a career-high. Obviously the overall caliber of play around you has improved dramatically from 2012-13 to the present, but how would you say you've changed as a player, particularly in terms of decision-making with the disc, over the past eight years?

KQ: Since I started playing ultimate, I have had the ability to put the ball in the end zone from a lot of different places. So, a lot of what I have been coached was decision making. I’ve come to rely on certain throws more—I think I’m a product of my teammates. I suppose one of the biggest things I’ve learned is how to throw high percentage throws to different types of players. I’ll be the first to admit that I am spoiled with Cebi (Quentin Bonnaud). It’s interesting to wonder if I had played for a big college program and a top club team, whether I would be the same player. I always take on the underdog role and feel that I need to prove myself every time I take the field. I like this about my game. 

Something I find super interesting from when I first started playing in Rochester to now in Montreal is the narrative and perception around me. When I was Rochester, I was seen as more of a D-line playmaker who would put my body on the line. In Montreal, I’m being seen as more of an O-line specialist who just hucks.

If I have any advice for younger players coming up, it’s to be your number one fan and to trust your instincts. You shape how people see you, so play confident and stay hungry.

EL: I know you started playing ultimate before college. Can you briefly share your ultimate origin story along with what other sports you played growing up? When would you say your passion for chasing plastic really blossomed?

KQ: I started playing sophomore year of high school with some of my best friends, who are still close to me to this day. I came from a lot of individual sports. I was a gymnast for eight years—I reached level nine (out of 10), and I would say gymnastics shaped me as an athlete. I also wrestled all through high school back in my 135 pound days. I learned a lot about discipline and work ethic from this. Nothing I have done in ultimate has compared to eating only a Nature Valley bar and not drinking any water for a day, and having both a 5:00 AM workout and 4:00 PM practice. 

What drew me to ultimate was two things. I loved the people and the fact I could throw far without really knowing what I was doing. A funny tangent: I had no idea that you could throw 50/50’s and let the receiver go up and get it because I played with a shorter team, until I went to college and my teammate at the time was getting annoyed that I was throwing blades at him. He said, “just throw it up and I’ll go get it.” In retrospect, that might have been the biggest turning point in my career

EL: In 2016, your first year with Montreal was a bit of a statistical roller-coaster. Let's initially focus on your plus/minus through eight games, which was +32. That included games where you were +8, +10, +14. In the other five games in that group you were a combined +0, including three games where you finished with a negative plus/minus. What do you remember about that topsy-turvy couple of months? Were the wild disparities more about the weather or who joined you on O-line that game or the opponent or what?

KQ: The 2016 season was a lot of me just trying to find a role. I would go back and forth between trying to take space and trying to not take space. As for my low plus/minuses, I really don’t know. I was pushing a lot more downfield—because I am a hybrid, Evan—and I wasn’t getting as many touches, so when I missed a few shots it stands out a lot more. 

EL: The obvious next question is about your ninth game with the Royal, in which you caught 10 goals, dished nine assists, and recorded two blocks. Factoring in two throwaways, you finished +19, which at that point was the highest plus/minus ever recorded in a single game. Did you see that type of insane production coming that particular day? What do you most remember about that experience of contributing to 19 scores against the Outlaws, albeit in a game the Royal lost 30-27?

KQ: I think that game had a couple factors - I wasn’t really known by Ottawa and it was beautiful weather. The focus of the Outlaws defense was to limit Yoland Cabot, and I was left poached a lot. Then, it’s just about taking advantage. If you watch the game, I don’t think I do anything spectacular. I was playing offense with Kev Groulx that game and he was hitting too, so it made the field pretty small. I will definitely say that when I start hitting and gain confidence, I lean into it a little. The biggest takeaway from that game was the L though.

EL: Since then, you've only recorded a double-digit plus/minus in a game once, but that came in a memorable one-goal win over Toronto in 2019 when you and Quentin Bonnaud each finished +15. You had 12 assists and three goals, while he had 11 goals, three assists, and one block, and neither of you had a turnover. How would you compare this game to your +19 game from three years earlier, and what was working so well this day for you, Quentin, and the Royal offense?

KQ: To be completely honest, I never really look at my plus/minus. I would say this game was our offense finally settling in. Every year we have a lot of player turnover and it takes a while to sort things out. My focus has been very different from 2016 because I was one of the leaders every following year. This really changed my mindset as a player to more on-field strategy. I was usually the one calling the plays on the line. Because I’m more focused on what’s working offensively, I have the tendency to lean into what is working. That Toronto game, Cebi (Quentin Bonnaud) couldn’t be stopped and my teammates recognized what was working, so we rode it to the finish.

EL: In seven seasons of AUDL travel, I'm sure you've experienced your fair share of adventures, both amusing moments with teammates and frustrating journeys that did not go according to plan. What are the top one or two AUDL travel stories that come to mind, either positively or negatively?

 KQ: My whole experience of coming to play for the Royal stands out. When I was first recruited, the team didn’t know that I would need a Professional Ultimate work permit. So, in the fall of 2016, I was refused entry into Canada. The border agent Googled me and showed me a bunch of documents proving I was a professional athlete and that I would need a permit to re-enter. I had just played a tournament in Vermont where I dislocated my shoulder. I told the guys to leave and I would call a cab from the border into Burlington. The next day, I took a flight back to Rochester and started the paperwork for the first work permit in any country for professional ultimate frisbee. Pretty cool that this exists now! Now, a lot of the French guys apply for this permit to be able to play here in Montreal.

EL: Perhaps it's one of the games we've already mentioned, but what's your favorite game you've ever played?

KQ: Taking down New York in the 2017 season, which sent us to the playoffs. The 2017 season was the first year of the French imports and my first year captaining the Royal. The beginning of the season was super rough and our strategy was to use the French and Boston boys as supplements to our already established lines. About three or four games in, we weren't playing the best we could. Giving the keys of the offense to the French guys—Stève Bonneau, Quentin Bonneaud and Nasser Mbae Vogel— and having Big Mike (Voepel), Mig (Miguel Goderre), Max (Rick) and I take on more support roles really allowed our team to hit its stride. These kinds of strategy changes are some of my favorite things about ultimate; solving the puzzle each year.

 EL: Lastly, what are your three favorite books? Realizing this may be a challenging question--I've enjoyed reading many books but not sure what I'd say are my all-time favorites--feel free to amend the question to: what's something interesting and/or enjoyable that you've read relatively recently?

KQ: I am not that big of a reader to be honest.. I spend most of my time playing guitar and writing music. I will say, I started Into the Wild again, which I always enjoy. My girlfriend is always tearing through books and makes me feel like a bum (laughs).