December 8, 2020
By Evan Lepler
At this time a year ago, the sport of ultimate was jam packed with intriguing storylines at virtually every level. Professionally, the AUDL and Premier Ultimate League both possessed undefeated reigning champions, the New York Empire and Medellin Revolution, respectively. On the collegiate scene, the quality of play and depth of talent had never been higher, with a plethora of Callahan candidates poised to make their mark and tantalize viewers with their potential. Meanwhile, youth participation had reached an all-time high, and the next generation tended to feature a much better reflection of the world’s diversity than has traditionally been common in ultimate, an encouraging trend that many were very eager to build opon. Collectively, these dynamics, along with the anticipated 2020 World Ultimate Championships in The Netherlands, could have created an absolutely unforgettable 12 months for the most passionate disc devotees.
Of course, the pandemic abruptly shattered our sport as we knew it over the course of the past year, cancelling countless opportunities to compete and showcase the game’s continued development. Since getting paused in mid-March, ultimate in America has largely remained comatose, with Covid-19 rampaging coast to coast and impacting everyone in ways never previously fathomed. And while the disappearance of disc pales in comparison to the life and death realities that so many are dealing with, the absence of ultimate has certainly been a difficult downer for anyone who’s loyal enough to still be reading this.
Here’s the good news: when the calendar flips to January, this column will be entirely devoted towards looking ahead, and there is plenty to look forward to in 2021. With every drip of news about a potential vaccine, optimism grows around ultimate’s return, with the AUDL hopeful of launching a new season in May. But before completely turning the page on the recent painful past, it’s worth wondering what might have transpired if the 2020 AUDL season had been able to unfold as planned.
In no particular order, here are 10 things that would’ve, could’ve, or should’ve happened in the AUDL this past year.
The New York Empire would not have repeated as champions.
Getting right to the point, I believe New York would have have fallen just short of another championship. Garnering the glory in consecutive seasons requires exceptional talent, leadership, and also a good deal of luck when it comes to matchups and injuries, the latter being a relatively uncontrollable factor that has derailed many defending champs. Reflecting back, the Empire’s 2019 title over Dallas required a nearly perfect performance in the final. New York’s stars, to their utmost credit, shined remarkably bright, with Ben Jagt, Grant Lindsley, and Jeff Babbitt all coming up huge in critical moments. Moreover, precision throws from Harper Garvey and Ben Katz were indispensable resources, without which the Empire could have come up short. It’s not as simple as saying that the odds suggest one key member of the squad might experience an injury and change the team dynamic, but rather that maintaining excellence is continuous uphill climb, an endless pursuit of competitive respect. Consequently, a 2020 season most likely would not have produced the AUDL’s first back-to-back champion since the 2014 and 2015 San Jose Spiders
Dallas would finally regain its summit position atop the league.
Just to clarify, this is not a prediction that the Dallas Roughnecks will hoist the trophy again in 2021. To the contrary, this declaration of success might actually add more frustration to a Dallas franchise that has endured back-to-back second-place finishes at Championship Weekend. So why do I believe that the Roughnecks were poised to rise above the rest in 2020? For starters, we have already witnessed how Dallas can overcome a past disappointment, a testament to the organization’s strength and leadership. Furthermore, the Roughnecks have been victimized by atrocious injury luck in their last two title bids, losing key starters Kevin Richardson and Dan Emmons in the 2018 semifinals and then suffering through Jay Froude’s hamstring pull early in the 2019 championship game. Along with the presumed healthy return of this trio onto a team that expected most of its other standouts back—most notably the backfield tandem of Abe Coffin and Dalton Smith—the Roughnecks’ roster added even more firepower, stealing arguably the two top players from their Texas rival, and then signing two-time AUDL champ Kurt Gibson away from Chicago. With Carson Wilder and Connor Olson also poised to ascend into superstardom status, the Roughnecks were absolutely loaded with their deepest team since 2016. I think they would have narrowly edged the Empire in a riveting rematch, perhaps setting the stage for a titanic 2021 showdown. Instead, the future landscape feels way more wide open, with so many unknowns and reasonable questions concerning how players will adapt to the excruciatingly long absence of ultimate.
San Diego would have beaten Dallas once, but not when it counted most.
For the first time in AUDL history, two division winners from one year were ready to compete for a single final four berth in the next. We were all robbed of the budding San Diego Growlers-Roughnecks rivalry in 2020, a matchup that would have been featured early and often in the AUDL Game of the Week. San Diego and Dallas gave us three super competitive quarters in the 2019 semifinals before the Roughnecks pulled away late, but even in defeat the Growlers gained confidence. Behind the ageless Goose Helton, the superb Travis Dunn, and rising star Scott Radlauer, San Diego was well-positioned to deal Dallas a loss when the Roughnecks made their first trip to Southern California. Snagging a narrow triumph over Dallas would have given San Diego a validating signature moment, but it would not have mattered come the playoffs, when the Roughnecks, even in a new division, would deliver their annual Championship Weekend clincher in style.
The Cascades would have been the league’s biggest surprise.
While the Roughnecks and Growlers would represent the West in the postseason, the Seattle Cascades could have genuinely challenged the favorites with their interesting mix of experienced returning youth and comeback vets. In Ben Snell, Joe Sefton, and Sam Harkness, Seattle had signed three potential stabilizing anchors, all of whom had been part of the Cascades’ last playoff runs in 2015 and 2016. They also had picked up an accomplished goal scorer in former Madison Radical Tarik Akyuz, who would have pared well downfield opposite Jay Boychuk, the productive goal-getter who was set for his second Seattle season following three years in Toronto. When you factor in Mark Burton delaying his previously declared retirement yet again, the Cascades finally had a foundation built for the week-in, week-out West Division grind. Consequently, they were set to triple their win total from a disappointing 2-10 campaign in 2019. They might have even gotten to 7-5 as one of the feel-good stories of the league, not to mention a popular pick to rise into contender status in 2021. This could all still be true, but the lost season leaves Seattle as more of a wild card than a sure thing.
The newly renamed Central Division would have mimicked the Midwest’s chaos from 2019, but with a more shocking conclusion.
As a reminder, the Indianapolis AlleyCats went 8-4 in 2019 to win the Midwest, despite a season-long point differential that ranked fifth in their six team race. Meanwhile, the Madison Radicals and Minnesota Wind Chill both finished 6-6 and missed the playoffs entirely, which felt especially noteworthy for Madison considering the Radicals had reigned atop the division since 2013 and celebrated the franchise’s first championship in 2018. So what would all this have meant in 2020? There’s no question that Minnesota added the most firepower and was ready to make a leap, so pencil them in at 9-3. The Detroit Mechanix might have been more competitive the last time we saw them, but they remained winless in 2019 and I think that would have disappointingly continued for another year. That leaves the Chicago Union, Indy, and Madison, who inevitably would have finished in a three-way tie at 7-5. But here’s the twist: The complicated tiebreaker would have lifted Madison into the postseason, where the Radicals would have traveled to the Twin Cities for the Central Division final. While Minnesota was superior throughout the season, the Wind Chill have zero postseason pedigree, and the Radicals, relying on their handful of remaining veterans from the 2018 championship, would pull off the upset in St. Paul and earn the right to again play in front of their home fans in Madison at Championship Weekend.
The Flyers would have snapped their Championship Weekend drought, only to fall to a familiar foe.
Since the franchise’s inception in 2015, the Raleigh Flyers have been a regular season juggernaut, going 53-15 with five straight playoff berths. In the postseason, however, Raleigh has only earned one win in regulation, a ho-hum 26-23 win over a .500 Austin team in 2018. Overall, the Flyers have gone 2-5 in seven playoff games, with the other win coming over the Cannons in controversial double-overtime fashion in their inaugural 2015 season. But there is no denying Raleigh’s talent, depth, and ability to develop new contributors. Perhaps even more importantly for their 2020 Championship Weekend pursuit, their primary impediment since 2016, the Dallas Roughnecks, are no longer part of the Flyers’ divisional journey. Consequently, Raleigh would have prevailed in the Atlantic, and the 2020 Flyers could have been the first team in AUDL history with three different 50-goal scorers; Jacob Fairfax, Henry Fisher, and Terrence Mitchell all possessed the skills and situation to collectively conquer that plateau. Then we would have gotten another Flyers-Roughnecks classic, as tantalizing a Final Four matchup as the league has ever seen. This matchup would have felt a bit different, however, with Dallas entering as a clear favorite. The Flyers would battle valiantly, but yet again the Roughnecks would survive and advance against their long-time North Carolina rivals.
Boston would have beaten New York once, but still missed the playoffs.
It’s been 370 days since the AUDL announced a new Boston expansion team, and we’re still awaiting the Boston Glory’s first pull. With a slew of former collegiate stars and a handful of solid New England ultimate veterans, Boston’s inaugural season would have been an adventurous expedition, with peaks and valleys befitting a team with admirable talent and AUDL inexperience. Even before their first game, they naturally entered a gripping rivalry, perpetuating the Boston-New York battles that have been waged in other sports for over a century. There’s no question that the Glory would have been gunning for the Empire, and considering the caliber of their personnel, it’s fair to say we would have seen Boston end New York’s quest for another undefeated season at some point. Triumphantly, the Glory would have pocketed a signature moment for their first season, but one great moment cannot completely characterize a season, and the 2020 Glory would not have enjoyed completely smooth sailing the rest of the way. Actually, Boston would have been the rare squad capable of victory or defeat against any of their opponents, a dynamic that also would have relegated them into the middle of the pack in the East. Indeed, the Toronto Rush would have finished second in the division behind the Empire, with the Glory a game back in third place. In some years, third place would have been enough to earn a postseason berth, but not in 2020, with the preseason decision that only the top two in each quadrant would qualify.
The 2020 AUDL MVP was Max Sheppard's to lose.
This really could have been Max Sheppard’s year. The Pittsburgh Thunderbirds star earned All-Star MVP honors in 2019 and finished second to Ben Jagt for the ultimate award. He entered 2020 very much in the conversation to take another step forward as a versatile 25-year-old beast. But then Sheppard made the National Team, a phenomenal and deserved achievement, but also a hamstringing factor in his pursuit of becoming the AUDL’s Most Valuable Player. The explanation as to why this is the case can be traced back to 2016, the last time that a WUGC coincided with a professional season. Between the men’s and mixed USA rosters, there were 25 individuals that also competed in the AUDL that year, unquestionably a who’s who of the greatest players in the league. But the reality is that each of those players missed substantial time with their pro teams to participate in National Team practice weekends, not to mention the Worlds event itself. Consequently, it was Atlanta’s Dylan Tunnell, a former USA World Games competitor in 2009 and 2013, who earned MVP honors for his illustrious contributions to the only Hustle team that has ever won a playoff game. So what does that mean for 2020’s MVP? It likely takes the reigning winner Ben Jagt out of the running, and 2018 MVP Rowan McDonnell too. Tampa Bay’s Andrew Roney had played his way into the picture in 2019, but like Sheppard, Roney also earned a spot representing the Red, White, and Blue, as did Chicago’s Pawel Janas and Nate Goff, Raleigh’s Eric Taylor, Allan Laviolette, and Sol Yanuck, New York’s Grant Lindsley and Jack Williams, and Atlanta’s Christian Olsen. If you thought Boston’s Tannor Johnson might take the league by storm, well, he made Team USA too, as did Minnesota’s marquee signee Matt Rehder. Consequently, the 2020 AUDL MVP would have been New York’s Jeff Babbitt, who would have assumed more responsibility when Jagt and Lindsley were away and delivered the type of iconic, season-defining moments that often lend toward winning the league’s most prestigious individual award. Dallas’s Jay Froude, another highlight factory and past contender, would have finished second.
Minnesota’s Josh Klane would have led the league in assists.
Chicago’s Pawel Janas entered 2020 on an unprecedented streak of topping the league’s assist chart for three consecutive seasons, a ridiculous level of production that cemented his status as one of the great handlers of the decade. Furthermore, even beyond his disc distribution, his commitment and dedication were exemplary, appearing in every single game since signing with the Wildfire—now known as the Union—in 2017. But similar to the MVP discussion, Janas would have missed time for National Team responsibilities in 2020, likely resulting in the slim decrease of his overall numbers. Meanwhile, Josh Klane has been one of the league’s steadiest handlers over the past three years, averaging 60 assists per season in this stretch, and he’s never had more weapons to utilize than he would have had in 2020. With the Wind Chill expected to be the class of the Central in the regular season, he would have mustered every opportunity to dial up dimes at an even rate than last year, when he averaged a career-best 5.2 assists per game. And it’s also worth a mention that Klane’s consistent availability through the years nearly has him in Janas’s ironman department; the Minnesota handler has only missed one game in his past three seasons.
The AUDL would have reached more viewers, fans, and sponsors than ever before.
Hopefully this will be true again in 2021, but there’s no question that 2020 would have been a breakout year for the league. With Deschutes Brewery on board as the league’s presenting sponsor, the other amazing partnerships with great companies like Highfive and Tiger Balm, and especially the AUDL’s new national television deal with Fox Sports, the stage was well set for more eyeballs than ever to engage with our thrilling game. The race for the championship would have been a suspense-laden drama, with the base-line competitive level continuing to rise. That’s in part thanks to the continued commitment and dedication of so many players, but also a byproduct of the unbelievable coaches around the league, who selflessly give endless time and effort to studying, preparing, and inspiring their teams to reach new heights. On the broadcasting front, audl.tv, the league’s streaming platform that exceeded expectations in its initial unveiling in 2019, would have continued to host live coverage of every single AUDL game, with improved production quality, commentary, and special features to provide an unprecedented viewer experience. And I’m confident that our Game of the Week crew would have also ascended to a new level, with ambitious plans for additional content and coverage, a mission that had to be momentarily shelved last March when the pandemic brought everything to a halt.
Suffice to say, the 2020 ultimate year has been a slew of canceled memories and opportunities lost. We’ve lacked layouts and greatests, and there have been minimal skies and scoobers. We’ve had few spirited sideline conversations, and even fewer postgame beers. We’ve been forced to completely change our lives, many of which were anchored, at least in part, around chasing 175 grams of plastic.
Where does that leave us? Hopefully, we are collectively determined to transform the dwelling into passion, to realize that each of these 2020 possibilities still exist as potential realities in 2021. Massive and unwavering uncertainty remains, however there is reason to believe that we have entered the fourth quarter of this brutal pandemic. If that is indeed the case, then the AUDL will definitely be back sometime in the spring, anxious to begin the highly anticipated post-Covid era of ultimate.
Until then, I hope you stay safe and healthy, and I thank you for reading the Tuesday Toss throughout this trying year.