Tuesday Toss: 2021 Mega Preview, Part 1

May 25, 2021
By Evan Lepler

We are so close.

After nearly 21 months spent rehashing the past and wondering about the future, we’re now just 10 days away from actually having new competition. The preseason preparation is almost complete. All 19 U.S. based teams are less than two weeks out from their 2021 openers. And with a massive mix of relief and anticipation, we are right on the precipice of the American Ultimate Disc League’s historic 10th season.

So, where are we with the league? What’s ahead for the 2021 AUDL season? How will the road to Championship Weekend 10 map out? 

Over the past many months, I’ve been judiciously digging for information, hunting perspective, and slowly generating insight on how the AUDL landscape will look when the 2021 opening pull is launched. Over the next two installments of the Toss, I’ll attempt to answer 21 defining questions that will shape the 2021 season.  

1) What will the quality of play be like as ultimate returns from extended hiatus?

Across our country, most of the league’s players have already been two weeks past their second vaccine dose for at least a month. From coast to coast, everyone realizes the opportunity for a new beginning, a dynamic that has generally fostered a level and length of preseason dedication that has been uncommon in the past. Teams located in cold-weather winter locales have had considerably more spring-time weeks to prepare outdoors. Add in the fact that early season games won’t be marred by brutal cold and wind that we often see in certain regions throughout April. 

“We’re definitely more prepared this season,” said Philadelphia Phoenix Head Coach David Hampson. “The time we’re putting into it on a weekly basis is more than we’ve put in the past.”

Most importantly, though, will be the skills, camaraderie, and passion of the athletes, and they are very confident that the ultimate will be superb. 

“I think people’s expectations are too low,” said Chicago’s Pawel Janas, when asked about his thoughts on what ultimate would look like upon its return. “All the people on the rosters across the AUDL, this is not their third or fourth year playing frisbee. We’re talking decades of [combined] frisbee experience across rosters.”

While team-wide chemistry, cohesion, and conditioning for a full 48-minute game are the main concerns, there’s a growing consensus that these hurdles can and will be cleared.

“I think people will probably be in pretty good shape,” said New York’s Ben Jagt, the reigning league MVP. “They’ll still be up-to-date on good strategies, maybe even moreso than they had been.”

And though there certainly will be hiccups in the first few weeks, that’s the same for any season in every sport. Just having ultimate back, however, should compel a refreshing emergence of passion and desire for each athlete and team to reach their peak performance.

“I’m most looking forward to playing games that matter,” said Raleigh’s Henry Fisher. “Having a group of guys that are committed to being the best team we can be and going and competing at the highest level is what makes the game fun for me.”

2) What are the impacts of the significant divisional realignment since 2019?

As a reminder, Dallas and Austin shifted from the South to the West. Pittsburgh moved from the Central to the Atlantic; ditto DC, Philly, New York, and the expansion franchise Boston, joining the league’s largest, 8-team division that will also include Atlanta, Raleigh, and Tampa Bay. 

In the West, Dallas and San Diego are like two congressional incumbents after post-census redistricting, forcing two established and respected leaders to fight over the same turf where only one can prevail. The Dallas Roughnecks are the consensus preseason favorite to win the West. However, an argument could be made that the San Diego Growlers have added more good players to their already quality team than any other franchise in the league. Suffice to say, there’s a reason the two regular season meetings between these two super teams—scheduled for June 26 and July 23—among the top three games I am most excited for this season league-wide. 

Meanwhile, the Atlantic will be a massively entertaining and turbulent free-for-all. There are four playoff berths up for grabs, and certainly all eight teams harbor ambitions of being among the quartet whose season will continue past the 12-week regular season. New York and Raleigh enter as the perceived favorites to win the division, but all six other franchises could make a compelling case why they’ll still be playing on a playoff weekend. More than anything, Atlantic Division coaches and athletes are giddy about the new opportunities to compete against unfamiliar foes. 

“We’re most excited about the games with teams we’ve never seen before,” said Tampa Bay Cannons Head Coach Andrew Roca.

The Cannons, who’ve been in the league since 2015, begin their season with a doubleheader road trip to Philadelphia and DC, two franchises who they have never previously faced in the AUDL. 

3) Most exciting matchups in the 2021 schedule

I mentioned the San Diego vs Dallas tilts as being in my top three, so here is my full personal list:

  1. Raleigh at New York — Week 10, August 7
  2. San Diego at Dallas — Week 8, July 23
  3. Dallas at San Diego — Week 4, June 26
  4. Chicago at Minnesota — Week 8, July 24
  5. Chicago at Madison — Week 6, July 10
  6. Atlanta at Boston — Week 2, June 11
  7. New York at Boston — Week 7, July 17

I originally unveiled this list with much more context and explanation during the fourth episode of AUDL Weekly, a new series that’s now eight episodes deep and has been an awesome outlet for ultimate news and conversation. If you have not yet seen it, new episodes air on the AUDL’s Facebook page on Wednesdays at 9:00 PM ET, and all past shows can be seen on AUDL.tv, the platform that will house every single game this upcoming season. A friendly suggestion: subscribe!

4) How will the New York Empire fare as defending champs?

Coming off an undefeated season and the organization’s first title, the Empire are well aware that the preseason target is on their back. Despite having fresh leadership in the coaching department and a handful of new stars, a large chunk of the championship core has returned, giving New York the opportunity/burden to defend their crown. Of course, there’s a slightly different wrinkle with the Empire’s success coming not last year, but way back in 2019. 

“It might be a little easier [to defend the title] given the amount of time we had between,” said Jagt. “It kinda feels like we’re not champions, even though we’re the reigning champions. It feels like we’re far enough removed where we’re building a new team. It also will help that we have a young group of dudes that are very talented and just love having fun together.”

Although New York lost the 2019 AUDL Coach of the Year Bryan Jones, along with handling standout Harper Garvey and superstar cutter Grant Lindsley, the team feels it has the pieces to replace each of those individuals. Charlie Hoppes and Anthony Nuñuz take the helm as Co-Coaches, while Elliott Chartock (former U-24 National Teamer and San Francisco FlameThrower) and Ryan Osgar (current USA National Team member and former Minnesota Wind Chill) appear to be excellent fits to potentially assume the primary responsibilities of the departed stars. Other additions like former Radical Ben Nelson, former Phoenix Ryan Weaver, former Royal Nasser Mbae Vogel, former Brown University college champion Solomon Rueschemeyer-Bailey all can help pick up the slack for a New York squad that’s still exceptionally stacked at the top. Along with Jagt, Jeff Babbitt and Jack Williams are bona fide All-AUDL candidates who can take over any game they play. Opposing coaches wish they had Ben Katz on their team. And dudes like Matt LeMar, Matt Stevens, and the Drost twins are AUDL lifers who know how to stay within themselves, execute their roles, and make clutch plays.

“This is shaping up to be the most collaborative team we’ve had,” said Stevens, who’s fourth on the league’s all-time goals chart with 259 and also now serves as the Empire’s Player/GM. 

“We’ve got pockets of players working together and holding each other accountable, not for the benefit of their pockets, but for the benefit of the whole team.”

In short, I fully expect the 2021 Empire to fare well and return to the final four. The talent is deep, the stars will shine, and the schedule is friendly, I think. New York is the only franchise in the league without a single doubleheader weekend, though the flip-side is they also have no weeks off during the 12-week grind. 

Carrying a 15-game winning streak into the season, the Empire will open their 2021 campaign at home against the rival Breeze on Friday, June 4. 

5) Which will end first: New York’s winning streak or Detroit’s losing streak?

Oh boy, what a topic. Let’s get the facts straight first.

New York has not lost since Championship Weekend in 2018 when they dropped a 32-30 shootout against Dallas in the semifinals. It’s been 15 consecutive victories since then, and when the Empire take the field a week from this Friday, against DC, they will be 1,028 days since their last loss.

Meanwhile, Detroit has not won since April 29, 2017, a 23-14 triumph over Chicago. It has been 38 consecutive losses since then, and when the Mechanix take the field a week from Friday against Indy, they will be 1,497 days since their last win. At the risk of bluntly stating the obvious: That’s an astounding amount of time between wins.

Looking forward, I think Detroit’s ignominious string will climb solidly over 1,500 days before it ends, as the Mechanix have not announced any personnel acquisitions that make you believe they are due for dramatic change in fortune. Two of Detroit’s first three games are against Indianapolis, who’s presumed to be the next weakest team in the Central Division, but both of those matchups are in Indy, and the AlleyCats still have more than a few guys who helped bring the franchise all the way to Championship Weekend in 2019. Frankly, the best chance for Detroit to snap the skid might be on July 24, when the Mechanix host the AlleyCats for the only time all season. 

As for the Empire, they have road trips to Philly, Pittsburgh, DC, Boston, and Atlanta prior to Detroit’s home opportunity against the AlleyCats, not to mention the opening day challenge at home against the Breeze, a team that nearly edged New York multiple times in 2019. Every single road game in the Atlantic will be a difficult test, and the Empire, who twice survived double overtime two years ago, are due for some late-game luck to go the other way.

Consequently, while it gives me little pleasure to forecast this for either side, I think New York will lose before Detroit will win. 

6) Wait, so what the heck is the deal with Detroit anyway?

Brent Steepe, owner of the Mechanix since the franchise’s inception, understands most the external skepticism. 

“We have a lot to prove to other people, and more importantly, we have a lot to prove to ourselves,” acknowledges Steepe.

As one of the league’s two remaining teams that competed in the league’s inaugural 2012 season, the Mechanix are the bewildering vagabond of the AUDL. They have never competed in a playoff game and only have five wins in the past six seasons. But unlike many other unsuccessful franchises who have disbanded operations, Detroit is still here, determined to keep battling and rewrite the narrative. 

It’s both curious, confusing, and somewhat inspiring, a tricky juxtaposition captured somewhat by this recent anecdote from Mechanix preseason practice. 

In honor of the franchise’s 10th season, Steepe, whose abundant energy typically exudes a positive tone that belies the team’s all-time record, wanted to create a new disc design for the 2021 season with the words, “Detroit Mechanix: 10 Years of Excellence” inked boldly on the plastic. He told idea to his players and encountered understandable resistance.

“Our win-loss record is rough,” Mechanix players said to their owner. “How can you claim excellence?”

Steepe understood the push-back and decided to momentarily table the new disc design, while still remaining hopeful that excellence is on the horizon. 

“We’re gonna be heard from this year,” he says.

Part of Steepe’s confidence stems from the fact that he will be returning to an active coaching role alongside Gerald Chizmadia, who will serve as his co-coach. Steepe last multi-tasked as owner and coach in 2016, and the team won four games that year, which isn’t exactly a championship resume but certainly stands out compared to the 1-39 record since. 

Furthermore, he feels the positive preseason momentum that surfaced at tryouts, which included over 100 attendees for the first time. Detroit has more than a dozen returners from 2019 and an array of relatively anonymous newcomers that Steepe believes will reshape the team’s depth. 

He claims the team culture has undergone a complete overhaul, but time, not to mention talent, will tell if things have really changed. With no marquee free agent additions publicly shared, it remains very relevant to wonder whether Detroit will have enough playmakers to earn wins against any of its divisional foes.

“Off the field, I honestly believe the Mechanix are excellent,” said Detroit’s 23-year-old Captain Joe Cubitt, remembering the conversation about the potential disc design. “On the field, we haven’t had the best record, and in that we can’t as an organization be inherently excellent.”

Asked about Steepe, though, Cubitt eagerly defended the leader of the franchise.

“I absolutely love being able to play for Brent,” said Cubitt. “He’s an owner who makes sure his players are taken care of. As a co-coach he makes sure practices are scheduled and everything is ready to go, that way all the players have to do is worry about becoming the best ultimate players we can be. And as a competitor, Brent wants us to win. Even though we have had four losing seasons, all that means is that the next wins we are going to get this season are going to feel great.”

7) What’s with the emergence of Co-Coaches?

In New York, it’s Hoppes and Nuñez. In Detroit, Steepe and Chizmadia. Seattle has a three-headed monster leading the team, with Tom Lasseter, Uly Rivera, and Cascades primary owner Xtehn Frame joining forces in the coaching department. Philadelphia has given David Hampson the Head Coach title this season, but he asserts that he and Nate Venditta are virtual co-coaches again, just like they were in 2019. 

Many of the league’s best and most experienced head coaches have long had top lieutenants capable of handling significant responsibility, however I cannot recall a previous AUDL season where this many teams had specifically announced partnerships for the head coaching position. It might matter and it might not, but there are a few reasons why this is happening.

“The biggest benefit [of having co-coaches] is you have to put so much time into this,” said Hampson, who started coaching after an injury laden career in baseball and ultimate. “We really level out the responsibility of who’s doing what…We’ve also tried to promote really throughout the team and ourselves just being one unit. I don’t like saying I’m above Nate, and the captains are in on every decision that Nate and I make. We really make it a team-wide thing. If your team believes they’re helping to make the decisions, their buy-in then becomes that much greater.”

Beyond the divvying of responsibilities and added brainpower that multiple minds can provide, some partnerships can thrive based upon complementary skills. Sometimes it’s where one focuses on O and the other leads the D, but there’s also some duos who will strive to do it all together. 

“[Charlie and I] work really well together because his strengths are my weaknesses and vice-versa,” said Nuñez. “We both know that even if one of us has been labeled as an assistant on one of the other teams that we coached, it’s really always been a co-coach position. We always talk out what we’re thinking to one another, and then we’re able to bring it to the team…It’s an equal partnership.”

In Detroit, Steepe says that Chizmadia will claim the head coaching moniker on gameday solely because one person has to be designated as the sideline presence empowered to call timeouts, but beyond that they have broken up all the responsibilities into different spheres for each leader. In Seattle, it’s Lasseter coordinating the O, Frame organizing the D, and Rivera doing more one-on-one work in between points and such.

Each team has their own way of doing things, and over the course of the season we will see if any interesting trends emerge regarding the teams with one primary head coach versus the handful with multiple top level leaders. 

8) Enough with the Co-Coaches; who are the new Head Coaches and what can we expect from them?

Among the 19 U.S.-based teams, there are five led by individuals who will be first-time AUDL head coaches when their teams take the field in Week 1. This includes Boston’s Sam Rosenthal, who leads the lone 2021 expansion team and has pro ultimate coaching experience last decade in the MLU. 

The other four new coaches include two taking over franchises that made Championship Weekend in 2019: Jim Davis replacing Wes Nemec in Dallas and Will Drumright stepping in for Eric Leonard in Indy. Elsewhere, when Los Angeles and Austin reunite for the first time since their interdivisional buzzer-beating instant classic back in 2018, new coaches Jeff Landesman and Steven Naji will be in charge of the Aviators and Sol, respectively. 

In terms of résumés, Davis has been an AUDL assistant for two years, Drumright and Naji have both played in the league, and Landesman enjoyed a legendary playing career prior to the existence of pro ultimate. Every situation is different, with varying expectations and pressures, but there’s no doubt all of these individuals have spent considerable time contemplating what it will be like when they’re in charge on the sideline in Week 1.

“I perpetually think about it,” said Naji, the new coach of the Sol who played 25 games for the Indy AlleyCats from 2014-15. “I’ve perpetually thought about it since I’ve been a part of this league. Since I joined, I’ve loved the rules of this sport and I’ve constantly thought of ways how this sport can evolve and how we can use it to a competitive advantage, and I think the Austin Sol are gonna do that. I watch a lot of game film, not just of our team, of every team. And not just our division either. The Madison zone is incredible, the Toronto split-stack is incredible, the pace that Raleigh plays at is incredible, the shots that Seattle takes are great; I watch a lot of teams.

No matter how prepared each can and will be, there will inevitably be some gameday nerves.

“I’ve tried to develop a philosophy of what we’re trying to do within each quarter to help keep myself on task and deal with certain situations,” said Drumright, who was teammates with Naji on the AlleyCats in 2014 and works professionally outside of ultimate as a Mental Conditioning Coach. “It’s gonna be chaotic just as it is in any other sideline. This is obviously the highest level that I’ve coached at, but it’s also gonna be a lot of fun. I’m really glad that the show “Ted Lasso” came out when it did because that kinda helped remind me what’s important, which is just believing in players, believing in strategy, and being able to know what’s best for players on the sidelines and making sure they know I’m there for them [...] You can be as prepared as you want, but until you’re in the moment, you never know how it’s gonna go. It’s gonna be an exciting challenge, that’s for sure.”

9) Any players you’re expecting especially big seasons from?

Let’s deal with known commodities this week and feature some relatively unknown newcomers next week.

Here are five guys that I would eagerly draft on my AUDL fantasy team.

Rick Gross, Indianapolis AlleyCats  
He played through injury in 2019, meaning that his season-ending plus/minus was just 12th best in the league. Obviously that’s still excellent, but pales in comparison to finishing first and third in league-wide plus/minus in 2017 and 2018. He’s only 26—turning 27 in July—and a healthy Gross should be a weekly difference-maker for the AlleyCats.

Ryan Osgar, New York Empire
Back in 2017 while playing with Minnesota, Osgar finished +77, the seventh-best plus/minus in the league. His production dipped a little bit in 2018, and he did not play in 2019, but he enters an absolutely perfect situation in New York, and I fully expect him to thrive. “I’m a super competitive person, so I feel like I have a lot to prove, honestly,” Osgar said on the Empire podcast earlier this spring. “These dudes just won a championship without me, so they clearly don’t need me, but that’s not how I want it to feel at the end of the year. I want to make a difference.”

Khalif El-Salaam, San Diego Growlers
The former Seattle star has a change of scenery, and San Diego should be a perfect fit. El-Salaam went 1-9 in the 10 games he played with the Cascades in 2019, but should be emotionally rejuvenated by his new surroundings. “With the Growlers, I’m excited to win games and be competitive and set ourselves for am opportunity to win an AUDL Championship,” said El-Salaam. The 27-year-old has never lacked confidence and will certainly bring some swagger and explosiveness to whatever line he joins. A bit more on Khalif coming next week.

Elijah Jaime, Atlanta Hustle
He may not yet be a household name nationally, but Jaime’s hustle did not go unnoticed here. In 2019, he scored 52 goals in just 10 games, the only player in the past three seasons that’s crossed the half-century scoring mark in that few appearances. “He cuts hard and with a quiet intensity which is fun to watch,” teammate Matt Smith told me a couple years back. “He’s definitely a player to keep an eye on in the future, as he’s got all the tools to really make a big splash in the league.”

Carson Wilder, Dallas Roughnecks
He’s improved gradually every single year, progressing from +13 and  +25 with Austin in 2016 and 2017 to +35 to +54 in his two most recent seasons with the Roughnecks. It’s not an especially bold prediction, but the upcoming campaign should be his best season yet. Not only will he play an important role for the league’s perennial contender, but he’s also surrounded by great players and tremendous depth. His brother plays Big 10 football for the Wisconsin Badgers, and the two trained together for a large chunk of the pandemic, making it highly likely that Wilder will be just as explosive as he was in the past, if not even moreso. 

10) Do you trust the new and improved Union to take care of business in the Central?

To answer a question with a question: Is it paradoxical of me to think that the Union will win their division while also not entirely trusting them? 

Look, there’s no denying their talent, and snagging Peter Graffy, Pat Shriwise, and Keegan North from their divisional rivals is significant. Beyond that trio, Pawel Janas and Nate Goff are National Teamers, Kurt Gibson’s an all-time great, and Joe White has all the ability to fully belong in this sentence with the previous three names. Furthermore, Michael Pardo’s an accomplished AUDL scorer, Ross Barker’s social media energy suggests this could be his biggest season yet, and everyone with a brain wants to watch Van Alanguilan play defense. I could go on.

And yet, we also live in a reality where Chicago has gone 19-36 since the start of 2016. The rest of the division, even Detroit, has experience beating Chicago. The Union may be different from the Wildfire, but it is reasonable to wonder how the new pieces will fit together. There are plenty of big personalities, and any early adversity will be a fascinating test to see if they can remain composed and together. 

In the end, I think Chicago’s talent will prevail over challengers Madison and Minnesota in the Central Division, but I also think it could take some time for the Union to look like a juggernaut. They may very well resemble the 2018 New York Empire, which were loaded with talent but spent a good portion of the season scuffling—remember, that Empire team only won four of their first nine games—before a magical run vaulted them to the final four and set the stage for the perfect record the following year. 

Like the ’18 Empire, I do believe Chicago’s ’21 squad will qualify for the final four as the last team standing in their division, however I think they will still be underdogs at Championship Weekend. A title for the Union in 2021 is certainly possible, but it would be ahead of schedule. 

Part II, with 11 more questions answered, including the rest of my preseason picks, coming next Tuesday!