By Louis Zatzman
March 18, 2018
With the season set in place, the Toronto Rush have finalized their roster. New to the team are several rookies: Nick Dacquisto, Dan LaFrance, Ben Pries, Phil Turner, and Drew Wilson.
The tryouts were hard-fought and well-attended. Every returning player was supposed to join, and late paperwork from stars Andrew Carroll and Jeff Lindquist resulted in their having to run the 800m in under 2:25 during the first practice; the team takes tryouts seriously, and it demands its veterans do the same (they finished in 2:22).
Over 70 players competed at tryouts for approximately 5 open roster spots, which meant Sachin Raina and other coaching staff were forced to work creatively to get eyes on every attendee. The team assigned its captains, coaching staff, and volunteers all across the stadium to evaluate players, and then they compiled their notes after tryouts. That way, players were ranked on “an objective score, rather than basing them all off that one time [the staff] looked over and saw them making a huck,” says Raina.
Ben Pries even mentioned that tryouts were so busy that he couldn’t keep track of his competition: "I feel like a lot of the other rookies, I know maybe 1-2 of them, but I feel like I didn't see any of them at the tryouts. There were that many guys."
Tryouts began with fitness testing, then controlled drills that allowed coaches to evaluate players’ skills in a variety of situations that may not arise during a scrimmage. Then players were divided into four different teams, and everyone had a chance to showcase their skills during game situations.
According to Raina, the tryouts were shockingly competitive; he attributes that to Elites Ultimate proprietors (and spouses) Evan ‘Dime’ Philips and Carla DiFilippo (who also shared Ultimate Canada’s Coach of the Year award for 2017):
"Off the top of my head, there were probably a half dozen [Elites Ultimate players], and there were probably more who I didn't even realize were TORO players... That was the best part of the tryout, is that the level of competition skill was higher than I had expected. We were sitting there theorizing as to whether or not this is basically the 'Dime-effect'. Now we have this whole wave of players...maybe not every year are we going to get four superstar rookies, but everyone who comes out [from Elites] is gonna be able to play. They're all gonna have those fundamental skills."
Though many of those trying out played Elites Ultimate, some have also competed against Elites teams. Nick Dacquisto needs no introduction to most GOAT or TORO players, as he’s informally introduced himself to a new teammate in Isaiah Masek-Kelly.
As a longtime Winnipeg resident, Dacquisto has played as a junior with MOFO and as an adult with General Strike. His baptism-by-air of new teammate, Masek-Kelly, took place during the 2017 Canadian Ultimate Club Championship Finals, when Toronto topped Winnipeg. However, Dacquisto was born in Toronto, and when he decided it was time to join a professional team, the Rush felt like a perfect fit. There’s no hard feelings between him and his former-opponents, current-teammates: "I don't dislike them. We've just had really good games against each other. They've beat us in the finals."
Dacquisto also recently played alongside some of the younger Rush players, such as Ben Burelle, Mike McKenzie, Bretton Tan, and Connor Armstrong, in Perth as a member of Canada’s Open U24 roster. Dacquisto is only 21 years old, but he’s already an experienced veteran when it comes to high-level competition. He’s well over 6 feet tall, and he’s confident in himself in the air against virtually any opponent (or teammate). Because of the combination of his physical skills and experience, Dacquisto will join the Rush roster despite not having been able to attend tryouts due to the cost of flights from Winnipeg.
Dan LaFrance, 22, could be by his own admission the least experienced of the new Rush rookies, but his monster frame and athleticism gave him a puncher’s chance at making the team. He came into the Rush tryouts after a difficult year for his Ultimate career: “2017 was a little bit disappointing for me in Frisbee. I had the opportunity to try out for U24s, and I didn't make it. My club team didn't make nationals, and my university team [McMaster] didn't make the top-8 of University series nationals, so I had come off of a lot of near-misses.”
Of all the rooks, LaFrance was least familiar with the Rush coaching staff. But he knew his tryouts were his chance to correct his relative unknown qualities: “It was sort of like I have nothing to lose but everything to gain. I was just going in there with as much energy as I possibly could, and with the mentality that every disc is mine… I was lucky enough to be in situations where it showed my attributes on the field.” Translation: tryout teammates threw him bad discs, and he got to jump over everyone to bring them down. He did (see pic above for exhibit A, which was actually taken during tryouts).
And LaFrance is more than willing to sacrifice his body in exchange for the disc: “I think my biggest assets on the field are my athleticism and just sort of my unrelenting ability to dive all over the field for the disc. I really love hitting the floor.” LaFrance, like all the rookies, has a difficult path to playing time, but don’t count against him leaping through or over any obstacle in his way.
Ben Pries is a rookie with Toronto juniors ties. He played for Overdrive (alongside fellow Rush and GOAT player, Jaret Meron) during the transition from Dirt to the newer program, but Dime and Carla weren’t the coaches of the junior program at the time. Regardless, Pries remembers them running a few practices and helping out at a few tournaments.
Pries is the oldest rookie, at 25 years old. Despite standing at only 5’10, his speed allows him to compete with anyone. Furthermore, his experience having played for a variety of teams in the United States and Canada, including club teams Maverick and GOAT (last season was his 1st with Toronto’s top club team), will hold him in good stead with the Rush.
He’s not at all nervous going up against AUDL stars, though he acknowledges he may have to make some changes to his game: "I would say I almost never bid for a disc, but I probably will a lot more now that I'm playing at the highest level and I need to."
Pries didn’t think he impressed during tryouts, but he admitted that he usually only sees the negatives of his play. As a GOAT player, Pries was something of a known commodity coming into tryouts. As to the upcoming season, he’s most excited for his family to attend games and cheer on the team from the sidelines.
Turner is another physical marvel, standing 6’3 and dominant in the air. Turner, 22, made the Grand Trunk roster a few years ago as one of the final cuts and was able to contribute to GT’s surprise 2016 CUC victory (neither GOAT nor Furious attended the tournament). The tournament remains one of his fondest sports memories: "That was when I got into the Ultimate community. I met so many people through the Toronto system. I really started [thinking of] Ultimate like, ‘this is my sport. This is what I want to keep doing for a long time.’ That was one of the greatest summers I ever had.”
This is Turner’s first time cracking Frisbee’s highest level, having tried out for Team Canada and the Rush in previous years without any success. This was the first year that he felt like he belonged: “I didn't feel outmatched, really. I felt like I could keep up. Obviously, I've got a lot to learn still.”
Turner has more than a fair amount of respect for Rush’s veterans: “The big thing for me, I guess, with playing against a lot of these guys, is some of the older Rush players, like Bomber, when I started playing against them, they're so intimidating. They're just big figures in the Canadian Ultimate scene. So you play against them, and you think, ‘wow, these guys are way above my level, and I could never compete with them.’ But as you progress, it's cool being able to see, ‘wow, I can actually play against these guys.’”
Though veterans can be scary (especially for a rookie), Turner is most excited to play with Masek-Kelly: “He's a big guy like I am... He went from being such a big scary defender who could sky everyone to running the D-Line and just being a really consistent handler.”
Another Toronto juniors player, Drew Wilson played for TORO in the 2016 season, and coach Patrick Mooney made a lasting impression as the team’s assistant coach: “[Mooney and I] developed a really good relationship over the last few years. He's helped me through a lot, where I can message him any time, and he'll talk to me and kind of help me out through whatever I need. Mooney's become more of a life coach and a friend.”
At 21, Wilson is joining the Rush relatively new to the highest level of competition, though he did crack Canada’s U24 mixed roster at Perth. Regardless, he’s confident his teammates will help him through any learning curve. Mike McKenzie – himself a rookie last year – told Wilson to keep his head high after a misthrow during tryouts, and the small kindness mattered to Wilson: “From day one, you know there's gonna be someone there for you. And then Isaiah [Masek-Kelly], he's always good about everything. He kind of kept me on the prowl on defence. He was talking on the sidelines - he's a really great guy.”
During tryouts, Wilson matched up against the best players he could to prove he could hold his own on defence. He didn’t record a layout D, but his positioning allowed him to keep players like Bomber Powell in check. Wilson will be one of the shorter players on the team, but don’t let that fool you; he can get up with the best of them.
Among all the Rush players, it’s Tan whom Wilson is most excited to play with. His talent and poise on and off the field makes Tan one of Wilson’s role models.
Between the five new rookies, the Rush are adding athleticism galore, according to Coach Raina: “There's a couple guys that I was aware of, young guys, who kind of literally jumped off the page. Just, freak athletes who, you kind of look at them and say, ‘ok, let's give them a chance and see if we can mold the rest of their games, cuz you can't teach all those freakish abilities that they have, but we can teach them to make some throws and read the game’.” Between Wilson and Pries’ speed, combined with Dacquisto, LaFrance, and Turner’s vertical, the rookies certainly fulfill Raina’s description of ‘freak athletes’.
The team’s already existing youth core was also incredibly athletic (Wilson considers Mike McKenzie the best in-air athlete and Tan the fastest of the young guns), and they contributed above and beyond any reasonable expectations. All four of McKenzie, Tan (not a rookie last year, but still quite young), Jason Huynh, and Connor Armstrong finished in the top-10 for goals received on the Rush in 2017. McKenzie and Tan finished 1-2 in Ds. Interestingly, almost every 2018 rookie mentioned those young players as inspirations, particularly Tan.
If I had to offer the likelihood of the incoming rookies contributing to the Rush in 2018, Dacquisto is most likely to get a chance. He’s played high-level club disc (as has Pries, for GOAT), and he is the only rookie to have played for Canada’s U24 Open team in Perth. That Wilson played for TORO and Pries for GOAT gives them advantages as well, already knowing many of Rush’s plays.
Every rookie plays the same position – D-Line cutter – and they’ll have tough roads to the starting D-Line, with fixtures like Masek-Kelly, McKenzie, and Tan entrenched ahead of them. But playing time is always in flux, and every player on an AUDL team will need to contribute at some point over a long season.
Raina knows it’s unlikely that this year’s rookie crop is able to crack the team’s consistent rotations this year, but that doesn’t stop him from dreaming about their potential: "It would probably be putting too much pressure on them [to expect big contributions]. Last year we weren't expecting huge contributions from our rookies, and we were pleasantly surprised by what we got. While we don't necessarily expect [the new rookies] to carry the team, the reason they're on the team is because they can do great things."