April 2, 2019
By Evan Lepler
Seven years ago, absolutely no one knew what to expect of the AUDL. A new league was starting, but what exactly would it be? Could professional ultimate really be a thing? The concept was greeted with simultaneous intrigue and skepticism.
“In some cases, some people thought it was a hoax,” recalls Jonathan “Goose” Helton, who who won the league’s inaugural MVP award as a member of the Indianapolis AlleyCats in 2012. “I talked to just enough people to become convinced that they were actually holding a tryout.”
Helton, who was far from a household name at the time, made the three-hour drive from Chicago to Indianapolis to attend Indy’s first combine in the fall of 2011. He learned quickly that the league was real, or at least, attempting to become real. Nearly 200 people across the midwest sought a spot on the initial AlleyCats roster, including a couple of Ball State products who enter 2019 as the league’s all-time leading scorers.
“I almost didn’t even go to tryouts,” said Cameron Brock, 463 goals later. “I didn’t think I was gonna be good enough. I was still pretty new to the sport. But when I first heard about it, it was at a practice for Ball State. Someone just mentioned that there was gonna be a pro ultimate league. I thought, ‘good joke, man.’”
Keenan Plew, Brock’s college teammate, was more confident in his abilities heading into tryouts. The star of their Ball State team, Plew entered the AUDL with a bit more moxie, but quickly realized he was entering a very different realm of ultimate.
“It really started to catch on to me that ‘oh, wow, this is gonna be a little bit bigger’ when we had our first scrimmage with the Bluegrass Revolution,” remembered Plew. “They came up and scrimmaged us at the U-Indy indoor bubble facility, and we had hundreds of fans come out to that. And I didn’t even know that the public was allowed to come when I showed up. That was the first time [social media superstar and two-time college champion] Brodie [Smith] came out to anything. It was much bigger than I anticipated because so many people were just there to watch. Having Brodie was a big portion of that, being a spectacle to see him. But I think, in the back of my mind at that point, it was like ‘wow, this is something a little bit different than I had anticipated.’”
Kyle Cox, who would become one of the first AlleyCats captains, echoed Plew’s impressions of that initial scrimmage, which helped set the tone for the season.
“The experience was really cool,” said Cox. “We were at ‘The Dome’ on [campus of the] University of Indianapolis, which was built that year for the Super Bowl as a practice facility.”
As the league’s inaugural season approached, players remained curious and cautious about how things would unfold, but even the chance to utilize a stadium associated with Super Bowl XLVI, played a couple months before the AlleyCats’ debut, made the whole venture feel bigger.
Elsewhere, in a bunch of places that were not necessarily considered mainstream hotbeds for the sport, young and energetic ultimate players embraced their own hopeful curiosities to see if this new league was legit.
“I remember I was a freshman at college [at SUNY-Fredonia] and I was hanging out at the frisbee house when we saw the announcement that there was a team in Buffalo,” recalled Kevin Quinlan, who’s now a captain for the Montreal Royal. “We were all kind of confused about what it was and how ‘professional’ it would be, but of course, we were going to go to the tryout. It was only a 40-minute drive. Being young and not really knowing the extent of my abilities, I loved the opportunity to test myself at a ‘professional’ tryout. I remember getting a handful of blocks and thinking that I should have a decent shot of making this team.”
Though Quinlan was just 18 years old, he did indeed earn a roster spot with the Buffalo Hunters, a franchise that would become the Rochester Dragons a year later. He still was a relative novice when it came to high-level ultimate, but he looked at it as a great chance to compete and have valuable reps that would help him improve.
Of course, that was the mindset of many young players, including 18-year-old Travis Carpenter, who made his AUDL debut on April 14, 2012, the day of the AlleyCats’ first game against the Columbus Cranes, which happened to be the day before Carpenter’s 19th birthday. Despite some high school ultimate experience, Carpenter was a fringy choice to make Indy’s roster, with ownership needing to be convinced by coach Mike Potter that he was a prospect with substantial upside. And as several of the AlleyCats’ projected starters were unavailable for the season opener against Columbus, Carpenter found himself active for that game, despite being considered, at the time, as the last guy on the roster.
“Travis was confronted by the fact that there were players that were many years better than him, but he was super athletic,” shared Helton. “Everyone knew that he was gonna be good. He had that attitude for it.”
Carpenter went on to play in 10 games that year, showing glimpses of his future highlight reels along the way. Helton took the field in every game and quickly became a star, leading the league in assists and blocks en route to his first of back-to-back MVPs. Brock transformed himself from a relatively unknown college senior into a lethal downfield striker, quickly earning his teammates’ trust to rack up the second most goals in the league. Plew promptly found a home as an indispensable mid, finishing the season in the top 15 league-wide in both goals and assists. Cox suffered a preseason PCL injury that hampered his overall production, but still saw the field in 10 games. And the AlleyCats, despite an 8-8 regular season that was plagued by inconsistency and injury, found themselves competing in the league’s first championship game on August 11, 2012, a 29-22 loss to the Philadelphia Spinners inside the SilverDome in Detroit, where the NFL’s Lions had played from 1975 to 2001.
Over the past seven seasons, as the AUDL has expanded, evolved, and exceeded the vast majority of the world’s quizzical expectations, Helton, Brock, Plew, Cox, Carpenter, and Quinlan now reside as the only members of the league’s most exclusive club. They are the six players who have been involved in every AUDL season, a streak that will continue for each of them as they begin their eighth professional ultimate seasons over the course of the next month. A year ago, I dubbed this group the “Original Six,” poaching the iconic moniker that also refers to the six pro hockey teams that constituted the NHL for 25 seasons before the league grew in 1967.
While many other players, coaches, and owners have been instrumental to the league’s development throughout the decade, the five original AlleyCats and Quinlan merit special distinction for their continued dedication. Brock, Plew, Cox, and Carpenter all will be entering year eight with the same franchise they started with, while Helton is set to join the San Diego Growlers in 2019, earning acclaim as the first player in the history of the league to compete as a member of all four divisions, two of which did not exist during the league’s maiden voyage. Quinlan, who enters his fourth season with Montreal after three with Rochester and one with Buffalo, still won’t turn 26 until a few days after the next AUDL championship game this August.
“I think we all just loved the idea of getting to play with the best in our area,” said Quinlan, commenting on his first chance to compete in the league with Buffalo. “There wasn’t really a centralized club team in western New York, and this was a cool opportunity to finally bring everyone together. For me, I was just along for the ride, 18-years-old, and I get to play this sport I love even more? Sure!”
Seven years later, the enthusiasm remains.
“Personally, when I look back, I am extremely grateful. Without the AUDL, I would have struggled to see what I was capable of in this sport,” Quinlan added. “Club teams where I am from come and go. And D3 college ball doesn’t really give you a total glimpse of what this sport can be. It gave me an opportunity to show that small school, mid-level club team, [non-Team USA] players can compete. That is what it’s all about. Earning it on the field.”
Obviously, the AUDL has made gradual strides through the years, improving in a variety of ways that are not lost on the long-time players.
“The league has gotten so much more organized since the first year, with the league expanding and more investors coming into the league,” Cox pointed out. “The difference in the venues we play in, the attendance, the overall coverage of the league with ESPN and Stadium have been things I would have never thought to happen while I still played.”
Brock, who just turned 30 in November, feels a special kinship with the AUDL, endlessly appreciative of the platform he’s enjoyed to develop and excel as a player.
“I take a lot of pride [in being one of the “Original Six”], said Brock. “The AUDL to me is kinda like my baby. I’ve been there since it was born. I’ve watched it grow and change and evolve. I take a lot of pride in being a part of the league and take a lot of ownership of the things that happen in the league. And I think that will continue even as I age out of the AUDL. I think I’ll always take a lot of pride and ownership over the fact that I was there when it started. It’s really hard to explain to people who just haven’t started playing AUDL until very recently what it was really like for those first two or three years. It was the wild west of ultimate. It was so different that what we deal with now.”
Though widespread, mainstream fame related to ultimate still feels very far away, these six players, along with many other standouts across the league, have gradually emerged as quasi-celebrities in ultimate circles, not just locally in the U.S. and Canada, but all around the world.
“Really it hit me the first time I went to the Philippines, and like they all knew who I was because internationally, the AUDL has gotten so many games in front of the public,” explained Helton. “Like I showed up to play Manila Spirits and they were asking me to sign things and trade jerseys and they’d call you ‘idol’ and stuff like that. And you’re like, ‘whoa, that’s weird.’… It is commonly viewed in pockets of the world as the best ultimate that’s out there. Props to the AUDL for becoming the marketing machine that it has become.”
Of the “Original Six,” Carpenter and Quinlan are the two most likely to continue in the league for the longest duration. After all, they are both just entering their primes, set to turn 26 in April and August, respectively. If the AUDL is still around in 2030, one could easily imagine Carpenter and Quinlan suiting up for their 19th seasons at age 37. Heck, that’s how old Beau Kittredge will be in June, and he’s still going strong. Meanwhile, Helton, Brock, Plew, and Cox are all already in their 30s as 2019 begins, but still cherishing the chance to keep playing the sport they love.
“In all honesty, it means a lot [to be among the “Original Six”],” shared Cox, “especially being one of the lesser known players out of all those guys. It seems I have a large impact as far as leadership goes, but my role on this team has always been the center handler type, so I’m never a key component of the big plays. I do, however, appreciate the fact that I’m still strongly sought after to play. I was actually going to retire this year and help coach the Cats, but was strongly encouraged to stay if I felt like I could. As a lot of these guys have developed a primary role, I’ve become more of the utility man on our team. I just play where the team needs me at the time, O-1, D-3, doesn’t matter to me.”
Individual roles, much like the league, naturally evolve, but the passion to play still fuels the “Original Six.” That, and the fact that none of them have yet won the whole thing, encourage the continued sacrifice and commitment.
“It will take someone, sometime, telling me, ‘Cam, you’re just not quite quick enough, not quite fast enough, just not in good enough shape to do this anymore,’ and once that happens, I’ll gladly step away,” said Brock, explaining his desire to keep playing as long as he can. “But I don’t see that happening anytime in the next couple of years. I’d love to keep going.”
Around the AUDL, everyone is getting ready. Frankly, with the league moving to a shorter 12-game schedule, there’s a greater sense of urgency than ever before.
“With such a short season, if you drop two or three in the beginning, that’s a helluva hole to climb your way out of,” remarked San Jose Spiders Head Coach Tyler Grant, whose team opens its 2019 slate in Seattle on Saturday night. “You [likely] have to get above 50 percent [wins], and it’s probably in the seven-to-nine win range, which means there’s no margin for error if you drop three and it requires nine.”
The lone member of the “Original Six” in action this weekend is Helton, whose San Diego Growlers debut comes against SoCal rival and defending West Division champion Los Angeles Aviators. Asked about becoming the first player in league history to compete in all four divisions, Helton shared an interesting response.
“Every division has a pretty different feel,” Helton explained to AUDL.TV in a subscriber-only preseason interview. “Midwest is gonna be like a battle with the elements; East coast is like a battle of energy and attitude. South is big ball sort of ultimate. And the West is gonna be very technical. I think, like, there’s gonna be a high variability between Seattle’s style of play and the [Bay Area] and SoCal.”
From the Growlers perspective, they are looking to build on their first playoff appearance from a year ago, and veterans on the team are hoping they can become a more composed, polished squad.
“I want us to play with more discipline,” San Diego vet Steven Milardovich told AUDL.TV. “I feel like every game we lost last year was because we went through a stretch where we started to fall apart and play really sloppy. I want to eliminate that completely. It may not be realistic to completely eliminate it, but play as clean as we can all the time. That’s my goal.”
In the South, it feels like early opening weekend will send significant messages about where teams stack up, as the Raleigh Flyers travel to Texas to face the Dallas Roughnecks and Austin Sol for a difficult doubleheader, while the Atlanta Hustle visit the Tampa Bay Cannons in a critical early-season statement games for two teams who were on the outside of the playoff picture a year ago. Obviously, the Flyers journey to Texas with a slew of unfinished business after their heartbreaking 20-19 loss to the Roughnecks in last year’s South Division championship game.
Here are a few additional early-season headlines that will help shape the races in three other divisions. All three happen to involve University of Florida alums who will not be having the types of springs and summers that they originally envisioned in the offseason.
Skiing Accident to Sideline Gibson
The first thing he said after the crash: “My season’s over.”
Kurt Gibson had been through a myriad of injuries before, endured both on and off the field. Remember, he missed the first 13 games in 2017 for Dallas after suffering a pectoral injury during a preseason cliff dive in The Philippines. He has experienced a variety of bruises, muscle pulls, and everything in between, so when he lost an edge on his skis, awkwardly flipped, and then promptly slammed into the powder on a rather elementary slope in Park City, Utah in late February, he knew immediately that something was wrong.
On March 8, Gibson, the two-time AUDL champion and also an experienced skier who had cruised through several double black diamonds without a scratch earlier in the day, underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff on his right shoulder, a procedure that has rendered his throwing arm in a sling for several weeks and will likely end his 2019 Chicago Wildfire season before it starts. Ironically, even before the skiing injury occurred, Gibson had an appointment set for rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder to remedy damage that occurred during the quarterfinals of the USA Ultimate club championships last October. In the aftermath of the most recent ailment, he chose to delay surgery on his left shoulder and prioritize the right. Either way, he is far away from putting a team on his shoulders.
It’s a blow to the Chicago Wildfire, certainly, though Chicago’s improved depth and added star-power from established playmakers like Matt Rehder, Zane Rankin, and Von Alanguilan leave the team better able to handle Gibson’s absence than last year, when Kurt also missed six regular season games and Chicago struggled, eventually missing the playoffs. Along with veteran returning standouts like Pawel Janas and Ross Barker, the Wildfire should still be in the race for a Midwest playoff spot, but the margin for error is obviously much smaller, especially in regard to overcoming additional injuries.
Though demoralized by the injury, Gibson will still find himself in the public spotlight throughout the AUDL season. He will continue his weekly studio analysis hits from the official Stadium headquarters adjacent to the United Center in Chicago. Additionally, Gibson will also serve as an AUDL Game of the Week analyst on Stadium on a few occasions, giving ultimate fans the chance to hear his insight and perspective that has amassed over the course of his tremendous playing career.
Along with Gibson, Charlie Eisenhood, editor of ultiworld.com, will also be joining the crew of familiar voices—Megan Tormey, Chuck Kindred, and Ian Toner—as game analysts alongside yours truly throughout the season during the AUDL Game of the Week. Personally, I’m grateful and excited for the opportunities to work with each of them.
Ley Becomes The Latest Cannon To Fly
It is almost becoming routine for the Raleigh Flyers to snatch one of the best Florida-based players each season. A few years back, it was Chris LaRocque, the former Florida State star, who signed on with Raleigh. A year ago, Mischa Freystaetter, the towering Central Florida alum, moved to North Carolina and brought his goal-scoring prowess with him. And last week the trend continued when news broke that former University of Florida standout Bobby Ley had been inked to a deal with the Flyers, a move that potentially bolsters Raleigh’s handling core while also dealing another blow to a division rival.
There is a significant catch, however. While Ley is hopeful that he can boost the Flyers’ Championship Weekend chances, he is very unsure about how much of an impact he will be able to make. Not only did he just take a new job in medical device sales that has him exceedingly busy, he also is dealing with a nagging preseason knee injury that has prevented him from practicing with his new team.
“Right now, my knee’s busted, so I’m trying to get back into shape,” Ley explained. “I need to get an MRI to make sure I’m not messing with something bigger than I think it is.”
The move to North Carolina was also fairly sudden, as he fully expected to be back with the Cannons throughout the winter. In fact, he initially banged up his knee while laying out for a disc at the official Cannons’ Combine. But when the new job opportunity popped up that necessitated a northward relocation, Ley reached out to LaRcoque, also his former Cannons teammate, to ask about getting a phone number for Raleigh Coach Mike DeNardis.
Of course, word can get around fast in the ultimate world. Before Ley could reach out to the Flyers, they were initiating contact with him.
“Chris is a little loose-lipped,” said Ley, mentioning that LaRocque had tipped off DeNardis and some other Flyers. “Within a day, Tim [McAllister] texted me saying, ‘I hear you’re moving to North Carolina.’”
Ley has no ambitions to be the same type of team leader or volume thrower with the Flyers that he was with the Cannons, but considering who Raleigh’s offense lost in the offseason, it is easy to envision the All-AUDL First Team member from two years ago finding a way to make a difference.
New Jobs Giveth, Taketh
Cole Sullivan, another former University of Florida star who set the then AUDL single-season record with 82 assists in 2016, was very much looking forward to joining the DC Breeze in 2019. Throughout the preseason, he raved about how he well he clicked with Coach Darryl Stanley and many of the returning Breeze players, and, as previously written about in this space, his combination of size and power-throwing ability figured to fit in well with the DC team that is hoping to be back in the postseason for the fourth year in a row.
Unfortunately, for completely different reasons than Gibson, Sullivan’s season is also done before it began. Sometimes, real life gets in the way.
“I got a sick new job in Maryland, but unfortunately that means giving up frisbee,” said Sullivan. “I’ve been working non-stop and just can’t make it work.”
When he initially moved to the DC-area, Sullivan had continued to work remotely for his Florida-based law firm, giving him more freedom to make his own schedule to accommodate workouts, practices, and games. The new job, conversely, immediately sentenced him to working 12-14 hour days and staying at work until 10 or 11 PM, while also working on weekends. The new demands compelled him to make the tough decision, which he then had to explain to his new teammates in an email.
“I was even pumped about coming to practice tonight and was telling myself I was going to make it work, but I literally have meetings on my calendar until 8:30 PM, and there is no way I’m getting out of the office before 9 PM,” Sullivan wrote. “I see this as a trend, which will lead to me missing practices, possibly having to miss games, and not being able to put in the effort to train and get in shape for high level competition. At most, I would be a fat, out-of-shape guy who isn’t practicing his throws, so the second I have one or two turns in a game because I haven’t practiced all week or get roasted by 10 yards in a 50-yard spring, I’ll immediately know I’m letting my team down, and it won’t sit well with me.”
Sullivan proceeded to express his appreciation for how welcomed he felt by everyone on the Breeze, while apologizing that he could no longer contribute this season. Without Sullivan, the Breeze will be even more reliant on returning handlers like Max Cassell, Nathan Prior, and Xavier Maxstedt in their quest to compete in the East.
The Tuesday Toss is published weekly on theAUDL.com during the season. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler