March 16, 2021
By Evan Lepler
To a certain extent, every new season is full of mysteries. But following a pandemic and the year-long disappearance of the sport, the competitive AUDL landscape of the 2021 AUDL season is murkier than ever heading towards the June 5 opener. Sure, we may think that returning juggernauts like the New York Empire and Dallas Roughnecks will be really good again, but it’s virtually impossible to confidently know whether these established powers will pick up where they left off in 2019. Some stars may be out of shape. Others could opt out. Consequently, there’s never been a better chance for a team to completely shatter preseason expectations, just because those premonitions are mainly based on beliefs from a totally different time.
But at least 21 of the AUDL’s 22 teams have some professional history and track record to reflect upon. It’s a stark contrast for the lone outlier, the league’s first expansion team since 2016.
The Boston Glory’s delayed entry is as anticipated as it is mysterious, considering the AUDL’s newest franchise is representing a proud frisbee community with a rich and illustrious winning tradition, but also a city that has undeniably lost some of its mens’ ultimate mystique over the past few years. These dueling narratives, combined with the league-wide post-pandemic unpredictability, make it impractical to have any real sense what kind of team the Glory will be in 2021.
“I love it; let’s keep it that way,” said Sam Rosenthal. The man tabbed as Boston’s head coach, Rosenthal is fully embracing the foggy reality that no one knows what to expect, himself included.
“We’ll be deep, don’t get me wrong,” Rosenthal said. “I have no clue exactly who’s gonna be there, but I can tell ya, in most games, the other team’s gonna have the worst player rostered.”
Rosenthal—who coached Major League Ultimate’s Boston Whitecaps to championships in 2013 and 2015—was not just being cagey when we chatted last week. He shared that the Glory have around 45 players on their radar that are welcome to come to practices, but as of our conversation only about a third of that group had committed to attending the team’s first official training session. It’s actually scheduled for this Saturday, capping a nearly 15-month wait for Rosenthal to lead the team he was hired to coach in January of 2020.
“Everybody who made the team last year, the owners decided to give them a spot this year,” he explained. “That said, I’m not sure everyone who was announced on the initial roster will be back. A couple of big names are on the fence.”
Nothing is too urgent quite yet, as opening weekend of the 2021 season is still 80 days away, but Rosenthal is still eager to get started with whoever is available, hopeful to build a team that can be competitive immediately. Over the course of the past year, he watched dozens of hours of game film from 2019, studying personnel and tendencies of his anticipated East divisional rivals. Unfortunately, that meticulous prep was partially undone when news broke that three of the four teams he focused on would no longer be matching up against Boston this summer. The Glory, along with the New York Empire, have latched onto the league’s new Atlantic Division, joining Atlanta, DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, and Tampa Bay for the upcoming season with the league’s three Canadian franchises set to battle amongst themselves due to Covid travel restrictions.
In the Atlantic Division, four of the eight franchises will advance to the postseason, giving Rosenthal and the Glory an immediate and obvious benchmark.
“We certainly want to be in the playoffs,” he asserted. “That’s top four, and from there, anything can happen, right? If New York on paper beats us eight out of 10, that gives us a shot. I think we can beat anybody.”
Until there is a better sense of what all rosters will look like, it’s a fool’s errand to try and put accurate odds on Boston’s postseason chances, let alone their potential to upend the league’s defending champs from the Big Apple, but Rosenthal’s optimism is couched on the belief that his team will be organized to exhaust its opponents. While his assistant coaches Rosie Año and Mike Miller will primarily focus on the offense, he will coordinate and handle the defense, with a goal of utilizing his anticipated deep bench to flummox and frustrate opposing O’s.
“I want us to be a very tiring team to play against,” declared Rosenthal, when asked about his primary beliefs and strategies. “The emphasis is gonna be on subbing deep, and of course, how the game is going dictates some of that. If we fall down three breaks in the first quarter, and the O-line’s playing a lot and you gotta load up the D-line a little bit more, the whole strategy of wearing teams down gets a little tougher.
“It sounds cliché, but we’re gonna try and cover every pass as best we can. We might have to give some up at times, but I’m not a believer in saggy defense that give up free resets as a man-to-man principle. Obviously, you have to throw out other things that give a different look, but generally, we don’t want to give up free passes. We want to get the stall high, and if we can win one of every three instances where we get the stall to five, we’ll crush teams.”
The mindset seems strong, but as for who will be actually be on the field executing Rosenthal’s blueprint, the Glory are still very much figuring that part out. While many of the expected 2020 players are still contemplating their 2021 desires, the organization has locked in two interesting pieces that were not part of their plans a year ago. One is Ethan Fortin, the former Philly handler who led the 2019 Phoenix with 408 completions in just nine games. Another is Alex Kapinos, a tall and speedy downfield threat who will be making his AUDL debut but is no stranger to high level ultimate, having won a club national championship in Boston five years ago.
There are plenty of other former collegiate stars—particularly UMass alums—and other prominent New England talents on the Glory’s radar, but it’s still premature to state who will be on the field when the franchise finally makes its debut in June. In other words, less than three months prior to the first pull, the team remains a tantalizing mystery as to what it can be.
“I don’t even have a good image of it yet,” said Rosenthal. “Let’s see who shows up, and we’ll have a much better feeling for who we’re gonna be.”
Seven On The Line
- The Boston Glory are not alone in their uncertainty. Several teams are still unsure who their head coach will be. The most notable of this group is definitely the Dallas Roughnecks, who are looking to lock in a new leader after Wes Nemec informed the franchise that he will not be returning in 2021. “I couldn’t make it work this year,” said Nemec, who led the Roughnecks to the AUDL championship game in each of his two seasons at the helm, “but I still love the team, players, ownership, and the league.” After Patrick Eberle piloted the Roughnecks in their first two seasons, Nemec took over in 2018 as a relatively unknown ultimate leader, but provided a steady hand in helping to reshape the culture and identity of the organization, earning considerable respect for his team’s performances in big games. The list of AUDL head coaches that have won games at consecutive Championship Weekends includes just two names: Evan Phillips with the Toronto Rush back in 2013 and 2014, and Nemec, who steered the Roughnecks to semifinal victories over the Empire and Growlers in 2018 and 2019, respectively. On Monday, Dallas Owner Jim Gerencser shared that the Roughnecks were close to hiring Nemec’s replacement, but nothing was finalized and ready to be revealed quite yet.
- Though the Dallas Roughnecks are still presumed to be the favorite entering their first year in the West Division, the reigning west coast champion San Diego Growlers are quietly loading up to try and keep their crown. Khalif El-Salaam, the former Seattle star who signed with the Growlers for the 2020 season, is still planning on suiting up for San Diego in 2021. And then there’s this sizable news: Greg Cohen, a three-time AUDL champion with San Jose in 2014-15 and San Francisco in 2017, has also signed with the Growlers for the upcoming season, bringing with him a bevy of big game experience and playmaking prowess. Cohen has not played in the league since 2018, but he’s still only 29 years old and should fit in nicely as an important energy defender. Remember, while often serving as a role player during his five-year Bay Area career, Cohen did earn Second Team All-AUDL honors in 2016, when he recorded 38 goals, 29 assists, and 26 blocks in his first year with San Francisco. He also possesses 13 blocks in 10 career postseason games, something that we very well could be focusing on this September if the Growlers are able to fend off the Roughnecks for the West title. Feeling a dash of ultimate burnout following his 2018 season, Cohen stepped away from the sport in 2019 before the pandemic derailed all disc in 2020. Consequently, he’s super excited to get back on the field. “Legs are as fresh as ever,” joked Cohen.
- Back in 2019, there were six players in the league who had competed in every AUDL season since 2012. But now that Cameron Brock, Keenan Plew, and Kyle Cox have all retired from the Indianapolis AlleyCats, the list of remaining originals is down to three: Travis Carpenter, Goose Helton, and Kevin Quinlan. And you can’t help but notice the crazy disparity between Goose and the other two. Carpenter and Quinlan were teenagers nine years ago when the league began and will be 28 and 27, respectively, when the 2021 season begins. Helton, on the other hand, was already 28 when professional ultimate debuted, but the two-time MVP who’s made the playoffs in four different divisions remains passionate and focused on his upcoming challenge, captaining the Growlers back into the league’s elite. “I wanna play as long as I can play meaningful points,” said Helton, who turned 37 in February but was chosen, along with 26-year-old returner Michael Tran, to be a San Diego Captain this summer. “I feel like I’ve played long enough and been fortunate enough to play under some really good coaches to where I have a lot to give to the team in terms of strategy and just trying to build the team. There are a lot of raw, talented players, but SoCal isn’t known for being a powerhouse by any stretch, and I’ve been investing in this community here hoping that we can subtly change that. I don’t know how much I’ll be downfield versus behind the disc; it might be a little of both, but I feel great [physically]. I’m ready to be chased around by the 25-year-olds.” Helton’s teams have qualified for the postseason in each of his eight seasons in the league, but the veteran is still in pursuit of his first AUDL title.
- The defending champion New York Empire have not made many roster announcements for the 2021 season yet, but with the general expectation that many of 2019’s standouts will return, the news of their first addition should provoke some fear from the rest of the league. Five days ago, the Empire officially tweeted welcoming former Minnesota Wind Chill hybrid Ryan Osgar into the fold, a pickup that will give New York yet another dynamic and versatile weapon to add to their already intimidating mix. Osgar collected 66 goals, 88 assists, and 19 blocks in his two seasons with the Wind Chill (2017-18), leading the Twin Cities into the playoffs both years. He was considered the best player in the state of Minnesota during his time leading the Wind Chill, and he arrives in New York as an explosive 28-year-old who could easily slot into any number of roles on the Empire. As crazy as this may seem, there’s a case to be made that this addition could be even more meaningful that the Empire re-signing their former World Games star Chris Kocher, which they did prior to the canceled 2020 season.
- Meanwhile, Osgar’s former team may have been one of the big winners of the pre-2020 offseason, but the overflowing optimism surrounding last year’s Wind Chill has dimmed considerably as a result of multiple developments. Firstly, Matt Rehder, their signature signee after the 2019 season, was set to be a primary travel player despite residing in St. Louis. But Rehder has recently moved back to Seattle, his original home, and is unsure of what commitment level he’ll be able to make to playing for Minnesota in 2021. It’s still possible that we see Rehder get blocks for the Wind Chill this summer, but at the moment there is no certainty of that whatsoever. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, are the travel restrictions that could prevent Minnesota from bringing back the half-dozen Winnipeg-based players who gave the organization a critical boost in 2019. Quinn Snider looked like a potential superstar, while Cam Burden, Jesse Greenberg, and Mathew Ladyman all played key roles on the Wind Chill offense. Without these Canadian imports, the Wind Chill would suddenly be far less imposing, particularly from a depth standpoint. “Cautiously optimistic” is how Greenberg described his current mindset, hopeful that border restrictions will ease by some point in the summer, enabling he and his fellow Winnipeggers to at least compete in part of the season.
- Elsewhere, it was hard not to be impressed by the Atlanta Hustle’s opening announcement sharing their first 10 signees for the 2021 season, a group that includes veteran stalwarts like Matt Smith, Christian Olsen, and Kelvin Williams and also boasts a slew of big names who are hopeful to make their mark this year, like oft-injured former University of Georgia star Parker Bray, former Team USA U-24 representatives Tyler Kunsa and Michael Fairley, and former AUDL All-Star Antoine Davis. The Hustle then followed that up by inking Eli Jaime, who finished tied for fifth in the league with 52 goals in 2019, back for his second season on the Hustle. It’s still too early to have a great sense of whether the Hustle will be able to challenge the best the Atlantic Division has to offer, but these signings certainly launch Atlanta back into the postseason conversation, a place the franchise has not been since Dylan Tunnell’s MVP year in 2016.
- Signing season across the AUDL has really just begun, but two other early ones that particularly caught my eye were the DC Breeze re-upping Garrett Braun and Jacques Nissen, both of whom were rookies in 2019. Teammates raved about Braun and Nissen a couple years ago, as each stepped into a significant role on the O-line and looked super comfortable in moving the disc down the field. Braun was named to the league’s All-Rookie Second Team after snagging 24 goals, 15 assists, and five blocks in 11 games, while Nissen completed all 94 passes in the five games he was able to play after he celebrated his 18th birthday and became eligible to compete in mid-May. The Breeze are shaping up to be another fascinating Atlantic Division contender, and bringing back both Braun and Nissen will increase DC’s chances of potentially getting to be a host competitor at Championship Weekend, something that’s only happened once in the last three seasons.