March 22, 2023
By Evan Lepler
Admittedly, the terminology is a little weird. This is not an article about new-age cars.
Back when I was playing ultimate, when the discs were hand-carved from brontosaurus bone, we had handlers and cutters. The cutters were divided into mids and deeps. These labels were basically just a way of telling a player where they were supposed to start the point in our horizontal stack offense.
Of course, positions have always been malleable, never more than today. Even as ultimate roles have become more specialized, everyone is a hybrid. At the highest level, if you can’t throw, cut, and defend, you’re probably best suited to work the stat-keeping iPad on the sideline.
Consequently, we’ve embraced the term hybrid as a catch-all for players who often initiate from downfield, utilizing their quickness and speed to begin the possession. From there, most hybrids could take the easy reset and embark on the next cut, but they’ve already shown they can get open and gain yards with their legs; it’s now time to dissect the defense with their throws.
“A true hybrid player is someone who has a significant impact and is equally dangerous anywhere on the field,” said Toronto’s Phil Turner, who led the league in blocks in 2022. “Two guys that jump out right away in my mind are Jack Williams and Rowan McDonnell. Both of these guys have shifted to being in the handler space more over the past few seasons, but I think that just shows how versatile they are as players.”
The sport’s greatest dual-threat players are hybrids. They can do everything, and they are virtually impossible to stop.
“As good as I think I am, I can’t take away everything,” said Carolina’s David Richardson, who recently retired after producing 120 blocks over 85 career games. “What I have learned is to pick the one that is less lethal to your team and let them have the other. Most hybrids thrive off of being able to do both, so if you can keep them to doing just one and it’s not their strongest ability, they can sometimes get out of rhythm.”
Ryan Osgar, the AUDL’s 2022 MVP, epitomizes the hybrid ideal. He led the undefeated New York Empire in assists during the regular season, so opponents were determined to limit his underneath touches in the playoffs, where he proceeded to set a new postseason record with 17 goals in three games. The DC Breeze managed to disrupt his rhythm in the East Division final, but Osgar rediscovered his mojo by Championship Weekend.
“To put it simply, Ryan is the most accurate thrower I’ve ever played with or against,” said veteran Madison defender Andrew Meshnick. “When you factor in his ability to consistently get open anywhere on the field, his throwing prowess becomes that much more dangerous. Ryan’s also a superior decision-maker with the disc, and that is an element that separates him from his peers.”
Osgar led the AUDL in plus/minus last year, accumulating 72 assists and 43 goals in 15 games, producing scores with unprecedented efficiency for a player with such a high usage.
“I really enjoy guarding these types of players because it forces you to be locked in and focused for the entirety of a point,” said Colorado’s Alex Tatum. “When guarding hybrid players, I usually set some goals in terms of understanding what are they most comfortable/effective doing and pushing them away from that. If you try to take everything away, you’re bound to get beat.”
When a guy can truly punish your team repeatedly regardless of your defensive game plan, what can you even do? One young defender has a suggestion.
“I feel I limit [hybrids] best when I engage physically early, when they’re not actively cutting, to throw them off their rhythm and disengage right as they’re about to be actively cutting,” said Carolina’s Suraj Madiraju. “I think it works well because it makes planning their cuts a little more difficult because they’re expecting to need to fight through me, but then they have to quickly re-evaluate when I’m not in their way anymore. It’s not a super common way people play defense on hybrids, so I think it gives me a unique edge in that I’ve been in that situation more times than the offender has.”
Madiraju is quick to add that his strategy is far from fool-proof, mentioning how Colorado’s Alex Atkins and Austin’s Mark Evans have both given him fits on the field.
“‘Kins in college was my toughest matchup ever,” he said. “It felt like if they just put it up he would sky me every time, so I was often backing him. But he’s a really good thrower so just funneling him the disc doesn’t really work either.
“Mark Evans is a tricky one to explain why he’s hard to guard. He’s definitely the toughest matchup I’ve had in the AUDL. He isn’t crazy athletic, but he has a really good motor and just seems to always make the right play. He’s just so solid at everything. He times his cuts well to take advantage of lapses of focus. He’ll cut deep at good times and comes down with it if it’s a reasonable throw. He’s a good thrower as well. I felt I was able to limit him when I aggressively front him, but it took a lot of focus and was hard to do for a whole game. He always seemed to get open if I slipped up for even a second.”
Even the fiercest defenders across the AUDL have stories about getting burned.
“I distinctly remember the first time I matched up with [Ben] Jagt,” said Antoine Davis, a two-time AUDL champion who’s played on four different teams during his career. “I knew of him, but didn’t know how athletic he was. I assumed he wasn’t that agile given his stature, but as soon as he cut, I found myself on the ground and him cutting deep. Luckily, the disc didn’t get thrown; more importantly, the camera did not capture that moment.”
Now Jagt’s teammate in New York, Davis has a daily glimpse into the two-time MVPs arsenal of abilities. When you’re consistently matching up against a teammate in practices or scrimmages, it can be especially humbling.
“Anders [Juengst] is a guy I hate guarding, which is why I usually didn’t guard him or I tried to switch off as soon as possible,” said Richardson. “I remember back when he was on [University of North Carolina] Darkside and I didn’t know who he was. The Flyers would scrimmage them and I switched onto him and gave him some room deep because he was short and thought surely they wouldn’t throw a deep ball against me to a short person. That was when I learned how fast he is and how much confidence his teammates have in him. I got burned deep that time, tried to guard him again a little closer [while] still forcing him deep, and he burned me again. Finally, decided to get behind him and let him handle and he did that throw-and-go weave thing and I just couldn’t keep up with all the changes in direction. He’s dangerous.”
Finding ways to embrace the challenge is the only way defenders have a chance, along with seeking out little victories along the way.
“With me being just 5’11”, I gotta respect the grind from anyone my height or shorter,” said Indianapolis’ Nick Hutton. “I often get matched up with players taller than me, but [Minnesota’s] Bryan Vohnoutka is a beast. He reminds me a lot of Keenan Plew, and he rarely slows down. He plays a lot bigger than his height and has incredible game sense. I’ve had a lot of really good matchups with BVon over the years and I enjoy watching him play a lot. He’s probably gotten me quite a few times, but I have a couple on him as well.”
There’s also the relatively common dynamic of feeling like you did a half-decent job even when your matchup ultimately scored with ease.
“[Abe] Coffin always seemed to know what I was doing on defense before I did,” said Austin’s Elliott Moore. “I feel like I’d walk off the field after he’d score on me and coaches would tell me that’s good defense by game-plan; Coffin is just too good.”
Praising the Rest of the Best
Earlier this week, I asked several AUDL players and coaches the following question: “Who have been the toughest hybrids you’ve had to tangle with over the past couple seasons?”
Here are some of the other players who earned mentions, listed alphabetically.
Ross Barker, Chicago Union
“I remember setting myself up for an under block a couple years ago on Ross, only for him to be pump faked and take me out the back door with a deep cut that’s hard to guard when you’ve got a great thrower like Pawel [Janas] that can put it deep with some shape. He’s also elite at getting his body in the way of a deep disc and letting it float to his outside shoulder for a catch the defender can’t make a play on.” - Dylan DeClerck, Minnesota Wind Chill
Jacob Fairfax, Carolina Flyers
“When it comes to Fairfax, you don’t know whether he’s hucking or cutting deep on that point, plus he has a very quick first step and sometimes he double cuts and sometimes he just takes off and keeps going. Fairfax is better than me in the air, so I never let him go deep except for the times he would just run past me. A lot of times I would have to physically and aggressively back him to prevent him from going deep. He was especially difficult to guard because I felt like he didn’t care where I was. If he wanted to go deep, he would just go deep. Incredibly damaging to my self esteem. If he gets the disc and throws a hammer, I consider it a small win. When guarding him, the most difficult thing is staying close and the second is making sure I don’t get embarrassed.” - David Richardson, Carolina Flyers
Jay Froude, Colorado Summit
“He has a killer instinct to win. I could tell he loved going deep and scoring, but was able to move the ball if that is what was needed by the O-line. That made him tricky to keep up with because he could do both so well. What made him especially difficult is that he never stopped moving. I used to let him go deep on me because then I knew I would only have to make one cut. Trying to guard him for an entire point was very tiring whether he’s around the disc or not.” - David Richardson, Carolina Flyers
Jonathan “Goose” Helton, San Diego Growlers
“He has had a big influence on me throughout my career. I was lucky enough to watch him in Indy and play against him for two seasons. His work ethic is incredible and his explosiveness is second to none.” - Nick Hutton, Indianapolis AlleyCats
Levi Jacobs, Indianapolis AlleyCats
“Especially with their indoor environment at home, his willingness to come under and launch it deep on a dime has made it very difficult for us as a team to cover. Outside there’s a bit more you can do to limit his progression, but indoors Levi and Indy are killer with the deep game and don’t turn it over much, leading to some frustration as an opposing defense tasked with generating takeaways and breaks. - Dylan DeClerck, Minnesota Wind Chill
Jordan Kerr, Salt Lake Shred
“His lefty around flick is virtually unstoppable. We try to force backhand so at least his flick is not a break throw, and that sometimes works, but his inside left backhand is killer too.” - Jeff Landesman, Los Angeles Aviators Head Coach
Leandro Marx, Portland Nitro
“You always have to be aware of him going deep, but can’t let him touch the disc under.” - Jeff Landesman, Los Angeles Aviators Head Coach
Rowan McDonnell, DC Breeze
“I remember getting switched on to Rowan in one of our games and thought to myself, ‘ok, I know he has me in the handler space, so I just have to force him out of there,’ but because of his versatility and intelligence on the field he knew he could keep having an impact in the cutter space by reading what was happening and being available at the right times for continues, even if he wasn’t able to go every-other like he does at times. From what I remember, he had a very well-timed break cut and ended up throwing the assist on that point anyway! The seamless transition from handler to cutter within the same point based on what the defense is giving you is really what it means to be a hybrid in my eyes.” - Phil Turner, Toronto Rush
Keegan North, Indianapolis AlleyCats
“Another guy whose versatility makes him a matchup nightmare. Push him underneath and he beats you with weapon throws. Push him upfield and he uses his athleticism and playmaking to hurt you. You just know you’re in for a track meet if that’s your assignment.” - Brandon Matis, Minnesota Wind Chill
Evan Swiatek, Austin Sol
“Evan Swiatek has been one of my hardest matchups over the past few years. He is the most ‘grinder’ hybrid I’ve had to guard. He rarely stops moving. I would describe my defensive game as putting a large focus on positionally being correct; he is so hard to continue to adjust my position [against] because he is always moving through throwing lanes and gives handlers several open options in just a few seconds. - Elliott Moore, Austin Sol
Eric Taylor, Carolina Flyers
“Eric is a little bigger and a little more athletic than me while being a significantly better jumper, so he poses similar problems to [Alex Atkins]. Can’t front him because he’ll sky me and can’t back him because he’s a great thrower.” - Suraj Madiraju, Carolina Flyers
Jack Williams, New York Empire
“I can’t keep up with him anywhere he goes, which is why I never guarded him. Jack is Houdini. Jack handled pretty much the whole game in the 2021 Championship Game. Osgar throws it deep, I get [John] Lithio perfectly boxed out, and Jack just comes out of nowhere to roof me [...] Houdini. I feel confident saying this now that I’m retired. I couldn’t prevent him from doing anything.” - David Richardson, Carolina Flyers