Tuesday Toss: Stars Ready For Return

March 30, 2021
By Evan Lepler

Last summer, 2019 AUDL MVP Ben Jagt still managed to rediscover his love for the sport.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to play some mini,” Jagt recalled of his limited opportunities to get back on the field in the summer of 2020. 

“Just remembering how much fun it is to play frisbee for the sake of playing frisbee.”

The long break, extended uncertainty, and the familiar surroundings of his hometown in Minnesota were the right recipe to help rejuvenate the New York Empire superstar, who recorded 67 goals and 64 assists during his team’s 15-0 championship run back in 2019. As satisfying as the perfect season may have been, even the most successful players sometimes require a reset, a reminder why they grind through all the challenging workouts, practices, and weekends on the road.

“I really like playing frisbee, not because I want to win a championship, not because it’s a huge social group that’s fun to hang out with,” Jagt said.

“I like playing it because it’s fun to get together with a good group of dudes and compete and try to prove you’re better than them in the moment. [The break] made me miss it in some ways, and also scratched an itch and reminded me of why I wanted to play. Reminded me why I’m excited to get back to playing.”

While experiences differ, similar sentiments have been echoed by many of Jagt’s peers in recent weeks, ever since the league officially announced that a new season would begin the first weekend in June. Following a complete calendar year mired in this pandemic without a safe infrastructure to compete, many ultimate minds have inevitably wandered into a state of reflection, a natural process of re-examining and, in many cases, revitalizing the passion for chasing plastic.

Now that there’s a starting line in sight, the fiery engines of motivation are revving back up. Some, in fact, refused to ever pause at all.

“I never stopped,” said Pittsburgh’s Max Sheppard, who finished second to Jagt in MVP voting in 2019. “I went straight through 2019 into 2020, worked out every day. Missed one day for my brother’s wedding.”

Very few have embraced training over the past few years like Sheppard. The 25-year-old has evolved from a plucky teenage rookie in 2015 into a legit star, most recently developing an all-encompassing dedication to become the best version of himself. He showed glimpses of greatness in his first few AUDL seasons, with 56 goals and 41 assists in 29 games over three seasons from 2015-17, but absolutely blossomed into an all-around beast, boasting 95 goals and 137 assists in 29 games, in his last two campaigns. Sheppard might not have won the league MVP award in 2019, but on a night packed with star players, his excellent All-Star Game performance shone brightest in 2019, and earned him game MVP honors. 

The progression is neither an accident nor a fluke. It’s a target, one Sheppard has had his eyes on ever since he entered the league. 

“I saw that vision in 2015 of what the league had become and what I could become,” Sheppard said. “After 2017, I was sick of losing and not being the player that I was supposed to be. I went inside my own head and just became this workout freak and kinda tunnel visioned and really, really focused on myself and what I wanted to do. That’s what you have to do.”

Since then, he says, Sheppard has made ultimate the number one priority in his life.

“I happen to love ultimate,” Sheppard said, matter-of-factly. “There are times I like having fun, but the competitive bug to play the AUDL is my dream. I love it every year I play, every game I play, every point I play. I absolutely love it.”

For Sheppard—and some others like him who are currently in their athletic prime—the pandemic denied them a year of competition. But the time without ultimate also enabled a different type of training. Even without touching a disc all that often, the idea of building toward ultimate’s comeback remained a constantly inspiring presence, relentlessly fueling the unending grind. For this crew of workout warriors, the next two months leading up to the season feel like a culmination, the stretch they have been so eagerly waiting for. It’s time to once again get ready for games. 

But there are also a handful of AUDL standouts who have not exactly been on the Sheppard system over the past 600 days. Some, like the DC Breeze’s Rowan McDonnell, enter the spring with a completely different mindset.

McDonnell, who won the league’s MVP award in 2018—and finished third behind Jagt and Sheppard in 2019—is just beginning to build his body back up. After living with his brother in Maine for the past year, he moved back to Washington D.C. last week, hopeful he can rise back to his previous level. He acknowledges that playing ultimate has really not been part of his life for most of the pandemic, but the main reason he returned to The District was to begin getting ready for the Breeze’s 2021 season. 

He’s optimistic, but still slightly unsure. 

“Feels like a fresh start,” said McDonnell. “You have a year to reflect on yourself as a player, leader, organizer, and hopefully can make some adjustments and improvements on how you can have a good impact on a team. Last year, I really didn’t run, sprint, or play ultimate. It’s a fresh start, and I’m very excited.”

Prior to the pandemic, McDonnell was arguably in the best shape of his life, having just made the Team USA roster for the 2020 World Championships. In itself, that achievement inspires a special level of dedication and commitment to remain in peak condition, but when it became clear that Covid would cancel the international event, he largely cast playing aside, picking up disc golf as his primary athletic activity. While his full-time job remained teaching and coaching ultimate—he continued to lead virtual practices and hold online coaching sessions—it was the first time in a nearly a decade where his priorities veered away from improving himself as a player. 

So it’s natural to wonder if he’ll be able to athletically ascend back to, or at least get near, his pre-pandemic level. The process is further complicated by a lingering hamstring injury that he suffered at some point in his quarantine. 

“I would say I’m down physically, but I’ve always been able to work really hard and get that back,” said McDonnell, who will turn 32 on June 1. “We’ll see how that ramps up. I’d say I’m a little higher mentally, strategically, and hopefully at getting my teammates better. That’s kinda my deal with myself, like I may not be as good as I used to be, but I think I can now finally pass on some stuff to my teammates, whereas for the last eight years, I’ve been really focused on being as good as I can be. So I don’t know if I’ll be as good as I was, but I think I’ll be able to make a bigger impact. That’s kinda my outlook on the season.”

Countless questions still linger across the league regarding rosters, schedules, and all the logistics that will guide everyone through the summer, but McDonnell, just like Jagt and Sheppard, begins the journey hopeful of leading his team all the way to Championship Weekend. To sprinkle a bit more motivation on Rowan’s personal resurgence, he would undoubtedly love the opportunity to compete in the final four in his home stadium, as the AUDL’s semis and finals are slated to be held in DC this September. 

All three MVP candidates have taken varying paths and bring different perspectives, but are ultimately unified in their pursuit of excellence. 

“We’ve had a whole year off, and now it’s like, let’s crush this playing frisbee business,” said Jagt.