May 26, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
Seven years of professional ultimate has been a wild journey for Mike Drost, who joined the New York Empire for the franchise’s inaugural season in 2013, less than two years after graduating from Georgetown University. In his first three seasons, the Empire went 32-12, often looking like a bona fide championship contender. The next three years saw New York go 21-21, an underachieving stretch that, despite only missing the postseason one time, provoked plenty of questions about whether the Empire were truly capable of rising into the league’s elite.
Perspective certainly shifted considerably in the 2018 postseason, when the Empire rewrote their disappointing narrative by winning back-to-back road playoff games in DC and Toronto, the latter of which marked their first win over the Rush in 18 tries. This triumph, while meaningful and significant for everyone involved in the organization, was especially momentous for Mike Drost, Matt LeMar, and Matt Stevens, the only three players who have suited up for New York in all seven seasons since 2013. And retrospectively, we can definitely look at that late July 2018 victory over Toronto as a critical turningpoint in Empire history. Since then, New York has won 15 of its last 16 games, including all 15 contests in 2019 en route to an undefeated championship.
Undoubtedly, the team’s recent achievement ranks number one for Drost among his greatest AUDL experiences, but he’s had plenty of individual prestige to reflect upon too. As a 23-year-old rookie in 2013, he led the entire league with 46 blocks. He’ll certainly acknowledge that offenses were much looser with the disc in those early years compared to now, but his propensity to make plays for his team on defense has been a constant throughout his career. Incredibly, he’s ranked among the top seven in the league in blocks in four different seasons. And with an aggregate of 171 Ds throughout his career by the end of 2019, Drost is currently the AUDL’s blocks king, six ahead of Madison’s Peter Graffy, who sits second in the category all-time. And, it’s worth mentioning, Mike’s twin brother Ryan Drost, who joined the Empire in 2014, is fourth on that all-time blocks list, with 153 in his six-year career. Combined, the Drosts’ 324 Ds is more than 200 clear of the next brotherly duo on the chart; together, Dallas’ Chris and Dillon Larberg have 110.
Despite these eye-popping numbers, it’s also fair to say that all the wins, losses, and statistical superiority do not completely capture the essence of Mike Drost’s professional ultimate experience, which has been an emotional roller coaster of satisfying wins and heartbreaking, head-scratching losses. Now, at age 30, Drost is eager to be back with his teammates and defend the Empire’s championship, a new challenge that New York will try and conquer when ultimate can safely return to competition.
In the meantime, I caught up with Drost last week to inquire about his life during the pandemic, his defensive philosophies, and his reflections on finally becoming a champion. 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?
Mike Drost: I’ve been doing pretty well, all things considered. Thankfully I still have my full-time job, so that takes up the bulk of my weekdays like usual. My family lives nearby so I was able to spend a couple weeks with them in Connecticut at the start of the shutdown. I'm back in the city now though and putting most of my added free time into my Animal Crossing island—I’ve even designed an Empire field/stadium on my island.
EL: From an ultimate standpoint, what types of things have you done to try and stay in shape during these bizarre times?
MD: I haven't been able to do any throwing, and I don't really have any equipment to work out with in my small apartment, so I've been spending some time each day doing some body weight workouts. It's not ideal, but I'm doing the best I can considering the circumstances.
EL: After battling for seven seasons and playing over 100 games in the AUDL, 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?
MD: It was an amazing experience that's hard to put into words. There are definitely some notable memories from the championship game itself, and there are plenty of memories from the seven years leading up to it, but what comes to mind first is celebrating with my teammates afterward. I love seeing the video of myself and the other long time players—Ryan [Drost], Matt [Lemar], Cat [Matt Stevens], Pippin [Matt Auletta], CJ [Ouelette)—who put so much time into this team hanging out on the couch on the field afterwards and enjoying the championship moment together.
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?
MD: I played a number of sports as a kid but by the time I was in high school, I only did track and field and then cross country. I started playing ultimate in college after Ryan suggested it to me; he had started playing freshman year, and I remember him teaching me the basics over the summer before I started playing my sophomore year. I felt confident in my athletic and defensive ability pretty quickly, but it took a long time for me to gain any confidence throwing. My flick was a long work-in-progress.
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. 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?
MD: I think, like a lot of people who didn't play in high school or before, I started out my ultimate career as an athlete who couldn't throw, so I was pretty quickly labeled a defensive player. My college team was not playing at the highest level of competition, so I was able to play both ways for them eventually, but for any other team I have always been a defensive player. I don't think the characterization has impacted me much as a player because it's accurate and meets with my strengths. The main impact is as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that I end up playing more defense, which makes me more and more comfortable with that as opposed to offense.
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?
MD: There is kind of a baseline of speed and athleticism that are necessary to play defense well, but the little things like positioning and awareness are equally important to being a successful defensive player. The offensive players in the league are too good to beat them just by being an athlete. When I'm playing defense, I'm trying to take in as much information as possible and constantly making adjustments to my positioning, etc in reaction to that. I haven't really done anything specific to improve that over the years other than playing a lot of ultimate, which I think is the best way to work on it. It helps having great coaches and teammates to work with and bounce ideas off of as well.
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?
MD: I don't generally have a preference for a matchup. Sometimes in a game I may feel really locked in against a certain player, but I usually don't mind mixing it up or staying on the same person. I'm generally looking to help and switch anyways, so the person I start on is not necessarily the one I'll stay on for the whole point.
The primary goal of defense is to make the offense do something they don't want to do—take away their first and second options and put them in an uncomfortable position, which increases the chance of a mistake or contested throw. As far as the Empire's schemes, BJ [Bryan Jones] is definitely always experimenting with new ideas, but he does a great job of suiting the schemes to the strengths of his players. I trust BJ a lot and am comfortable working with whatever strategy he's come up with. Sometimes it's more about general concepts that he trusts us to execute and communicate with each other on the field. The hardest part is building the chemistry with teammates each season regardless of what the specific schemes are.
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?
MD: When I first started playing in the AUDL, Mark Lloyd was a really tough matchup. Tyler DeGirolamo was incredible when he played in the East with the Breeze in 2014. Rowan [McDonnell] was an MVP for a reason and is so dangerous no matter what position he's in on the field.
EL: Just curious if you're even aware that, at the moment, you are #1 all-time in blocks in AUDL history, with 171, including 21 in the playoffs? Is this something that's at all on your radar and a source of pride? Of the 171 blocks, is there one or two that stands out as the play or plays that you're most proud of from your entire career?
MD: Yeah I am aware of that and it is something that I'm proud of. It's more a testament to being able to play in the league for so long than anything else though. I can only imagine how many blocks Jeff [Babbitt] would have if he got to play against the 2013 level competition. I don't have any one play that really stands out, but one that comes to mind is the Callahan against Dallas in the semifinal in 2018. A Callahan at this level is always pretty special and it tied the game for us at the time.
EL: Finishing with a couple of life questions, what's the most delicious thing you've cooked during the pandemic?
MD: That’s a tough question to answer because I don't really cook. The other night I made some brownies from a boxed mix that came out really well.
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?
MD: Regardless of if it's through playing ultimate or not, I'm looking forward to being able to see my friends and teammates again. I remember when we were at practice on Wednesday night in March and [Empire Assistant Coach] Dave Blau told us that [Utah Jazz Center Rudy] Gobert had tested positive and the NBA season was being put on hold. That was the moment where it really felt like things weren't going to be normal for a while. I usually see my teammates multiple times a week for hours at a time and now I haven't seen any of them other than Ryan in person for two months.