April 17, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
A relatively unknown 19-year-old when he made his AUDL debut in 2015, Max Sheppard immediately flashed glimpses of uncanny athleticism and big play ability. He had a knack for coming up huge in the air for the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, often rising up in a way that made him look like a skinny 6’8”, rather than his actual 5’8”. But even these spurts of brilliance throughout his first three years in the league hardly foreshadowed the epic explosiveness that would arrive in 2018.
Over the past two seasons, no one in the entire league has been more statistically prolific than Sheppard. Indeed, he’s first in total scores over the past two years, registering 207 combined assists and goals in 26 regular season games since the start of 2018. No one else across the AUDL has more than 200 scores in that span. But his individual evolution over these couple seasons is especially noteworthy too; after completing just 86 percent of his passes for a 4-10 Thunderbirds team in 2018, Sheppard upped his decision-making significantly a year later, completing 91.4 percent of his passes for a much-improved Pittsburgh squad that went 8-4 and made its return to the postseason after a one-year absence.
Now a five-year pro ultimate veteran who will turn 25 in June, Sheppard’s signature AUDL moment was undoubtedly last year’s inaugural All-Star Game, in which the Edinboro-alum represented the Thunderbirds and delivered a marvelous all-around performance under the bright lights at Breese Stevens Field in Madison. Although he was picked 20th out of 30 selections in the pre-game draft, Sheppard finished with a game-best +8, accumulating five assists, three goals, and two blocks in Team KPS’s thrilling double overtime triumph over Team Rowan. On a night when so many of the league’s spectacular talents illustrated their greatness on the field, it was Sheppard who earned the distinction of being named the very first AUDL All-Star Game MVP.
Though he fell just short and finished in second place behind New York’s Ben Jagt in the full-season MVP vote, Sheppard certainly has cemented himself among the top stars in the AUDL. As a fan, it’s super intriguing to wonder how he can continue to improve as he truly reaches his prime over the next couple seasons. If you’re a Thunderbirds opponent, perhaps it’s less intriguing and just downright scary.
To cap this Q&A series with former AUDL MVPs, I caught up with the enthusiastic Thunderbird to see how he’s handling these bizarre times and to reflect on his recent success on the field. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: For starters, how are you and what's it been like in your current hometown over the past couple weeks?
Max Sheppard: I am great! I live in Fox Chapel, a suburb just outside of Pittsburgh, with nothing but some weights and a couple of open fields nearby I use for my workouts. I've adjusted my schedule based on the quarantine in my area despite there not being as many cases compared to other cities. In my county, there are about 760 confirmed cases of Coronavirus as of April 9th 2020. This is certainly unlike anything I've ever experienced but I am still training everyday because I know there will be a season.
EL: What are the biggest changes you've had to make to your everyday life amidst the current circumstances?
MS: The biggest change I've had to make is definitely my profession. I work in two different elementary schools and since schools have been shut down indefinitely, let’s just say I have a lot of free time. I have even more time to train, throw, and to watch game footage for the upcoming season. I have successfully adapted my everyday life to revolve around ultimate and to stay positive during these tough times.
EL: From an ultimate perspective, how have you continued to train and maintain your physical condition in the hope that there will be a season to compete in at some point this spring or summer?
MS: The one adjustment to my training I've had to make is not having access to a gym. I still have access to enough weights and equipment to maintain a weight training program. In terms of running, I am fortunate to have a couple of open fields near my house to do all my conditioning workouts. Overall, I am very lucky to have everything I need to continue preparing for the upcoming season. I honestly think there will be a season this year; it will probably be in the late summer or even fall.
EL: Is there anything in particular about your ultimate skillset or mentality that you've sought to improve throughout this offseason, and how have you gone about making the necessary strides to achieve improvement in that area?
MS: Mental toughness. Mental fortitude is a major part of any sport and I believe having a strong and disciplined mindset is what separates the great players from the elite. Everybody playing at a high level of ultimate has the physical capabilities but the better players know how to handle their mental game. I have been experimenting with different workouts every day to push my mental game to the next level.
EL: Obviously, preseason practice was interrupted by these unprecedented circumstances, but how were you feeling about your team overall based upon tryouts and early practices? Any insights about your team's mindset, approach, or ambitions heading into the season that you'd be willing to share?
MS: I was very optimistic and confident in our preseason preparation. The Thunderbirds’ leadership have put in a lot of work to formulate a successful receipt to take on the new Atlantic Division. I wouldn't want to give my opponents any further information, but the T-Birds will be ready when the season starts up. Overall, I think everyone is looking forward to playing in a new division and willing to prove that the Thunderbirds will break into the final four.
EL: Now shifting to a slightly different style of questions: what's your favorite game you've ever played in and why?
MS: I really want to say the entire 2019 AUDL season because of how successful a year it was, but it's a tough question to pick out one single game. I have played in a bunch of exciting and important games over the years, but the 2019 AUDL All-Star games sticks out the most in my head. The All-Star game was highly competitive, extremely fun, and unlike any other game I've played in.
EL: You’ve played with many other great players throughout your career. Can you pick one current or former teammate and share something that surprised you either in terms of the way they prepared or led or competed or handled a certain situation?
MS: I would have to say Max Thorne. Max and I have been playing together since the summer of 2011 and his style of play has impacted me. I played on the [local Pittsburgh club team] Temper O-line for the first time last year and the way Max is always composed during every single point amazes me. I noticed it over the years but never really until we played on a line together. I would say in any situation Max is calm, consistent, and positive which is why he is such a fantastic player and teammate. Lastly, we can't forget about his smile!
EL: What’s one thing you're interested in that has nothing to do with ultimate?
MS: Settlers of Catan, [Super] Smash Brothers, puzzles, and music.
EL: What’s one place in the world you've never been before that you hope to travel to sometime when we're on the other side of this pandemic?
MS: The one place in the world I would love to travel to would be Hawaii! I have family out there and from what I hear it's absolutely spectacular. I hope to find myself on Waikiki relaxing and enjoying the sun.
EL: Finally, what are you reading or watching at the moment? Could you recommend a book, a tv show, and a movie that you'd suggest others enjoy?
MS: I would recommend reading “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote. I have recently reread it again and it still shocks me. In terms of television, I watched David Blaine's new special called “The Magic Way” and I highly recommend it.