Containing Ultimate’s Greatest Throwers

March 15, 2023
By Evan Lepler

Across the AUDL, the game’s greatest quarterbacks can manipulate the disc with diabolical precision, angling it toward its desired destination with pace and purpose. But becoming a high-level handler involves more than just amazing throws. It’s the dual-threat dominance that can so thoroughly exasperate defensive masterminds who are tasked with slowing down opposing offenses. 

“The characteristic that makes a handler extremely difficult to plan against,” said Minnesota Wind Chill Head Coach Ben Feldman, “is one who always seems to find a way to provide an easy reset for his teammates or singlehandedly can propel the offense forward with quick disc facilitation and aggressive forward movement.”

Over the last half-decade, no one disrupted Minnesota’s defensive mindset quite like Chicago’s Pawel Janas, who produced an AUDL record 396 assists in his five seasons tormenting Central Division D-lines.

“We specifically addressed his tendencies and release points at our practices,” said Feldman, explaining how even focusing on these minute details may not be enough to prevent Janas from evading the Wind Chill’s pressure. “Our roller-pull sideline trap often times put him in really challenging high-stall situations the past few seasons. The one game that sticks out is our home game against them last year that had a heavy cross-wind. Janas was hitting widows and shots down the sideline that had little-to-no margin of error. Just when you think we have them pinned, he managed creative throws to bail them out in high-stall situations. He has an ability to hit short-range scoobers that he releases almost behind the head of the mark out of a double team.”

After signing an historic six-year deal with the Los Angeles Aviators this winter, Janas is no longer Feldman’s regular season problem, though there will be many other challenging matchups for Minnesota as the Wind Chill strive to make their first Championship Weekend in 2023. That focus may simply shift toward another powerful thrower who switched divisions in recent years, considering the Wind Chill have an interdivisional date at Colorado on June 24.

Jonathan Nethercutt won an AUDL MVP award at the helm of the Carolina Flyers offense in 2017, and he remains just as dynamic coming off a First-Team All-AUDL caliber campaign in his maiden voyage anchoring the Summit. 

“Nethercutt is probably the most dangerous with the disc at any point on the field,” said San Diego Growlers Head Coach Kevin Stuart, whose defense got cooked for 1,266 throwing yards and 10 assists courtesy of Nethercutt in just two regular season matchups last year. 

“You have to protect more areas of the field than normal when [Nethercutt] has the disc,” added veteran Growlers defender Steven Milardovich

Becoming a premier defender in the AUDL still features regular feelings of frustration, given the relentless talents of the very best disc distributors. Frankly, surviving as a pesky defender generally requires a fearless desire to match up with the most potent offensive threats, even though you’ll inevitably get burned. 

Owning that kind of confident mindset might be the thing that gives you a puncher’s chance. 

Jack Williams has to be the matchup I look forward to the most,” said Philadelphia’s Paul Owens, throwing caution to the wind and embracing this nearly impossible task. “I think Jack was categorized as a true hybrid, so I don’t know if he necessarily is a ‘handler’ to consider, but when he plays handler, he is easily one of the best. He consistently impacts from everywhere on the field.” 

Depending on how you look at it, Owens has either been blessed or haunted by the chance to compete against a superstar like Williams on a fairly regular basis as a divisional rival. For others who don’t get to face New York as often, it can be an even more humbling experience.

“Guarding Jack Williams at Championship Weekend [in 2021] was pretty rough,” said Milardovich. “I think he was at the top of his game, and no matter what I tried to take away, he was able to do something productive every time he touched the disc.”

Theoretically, familiarity can help a defender gain confidence, as they gain a greater understanding of the handler’s priorities. But, of course, that’s not always true either. 

“[Carolina’s Matt Gouchoe-Hanas] is the only player I feel like I get worse at guarding the more I guard him,” acknowledged Flyers teammate Suraj Madiraju. “He seems to pick up on my defensive tendencies better than I can pick up on his offensive tendencies.”

And then there’s the reality that superlative handling is often anchored around successful pairs or trios, and since we just mentioned Gouchoe-Hanas, you probably know where this article is going next. 

“There is no stronger duo than Matt Gouchoe-Hanas and Sol Yanuck,” said Austin Sol Head Coach Steven Naji. “The Flyers offensive unit respect possession as well as anybody in the league, and it all starts with their backfield being as consistent as there is in the sport. Both routinely display a high-field IQ, which creates a lethal combination with their tall and athletic receiver core. The offensive chemistry between [Gouchoe-Hanas and Yanuck] is almost unparalleled in the league.”

Perhaps no opposing coach is more familiar with the skillsets of the Flyers’ accomplished backfield than Atlanta’s Miranda Knowles, who has studied their tendencies for hours in order to try and slow them down. 

“Yanuck’s smart, super skilled, great on D on the turn, and extremely mentally resilient,” said Knowles. “[He] has enough confidence/bravado that he doesn’t get rattled, but he’s not poor-spirited. He’s able to get open in the handler space against anyone, and the North Carolina systems have really been built in a way that showcases him well.

“Matt is the king of knowing his role. When we play Carolina, Matt is the most important player because he has so many completions, often at a 100 percent rate. Sure, they’re often short and/or backwards, but he is the anchor of that offense. Most handlers of his caliber are primary handlers, but he has chosen to take a backseat and be what his team needs, the champion of all roll-players and another all-around quality human, always has respectful conversations during and after the game.”

Six weeks from Saturday, the Flyers will open up their 2023 season with a huge interdivisional test against the DC Breeze, an opponent with no shortage of spectacular handlers. Rowan McDonnell and Jonny Malks have dazzled together for several years. On Tuesday, DC announced the return of brothers Zach and Gus Norrbom, who have each crafted multiple highlight-reel moments in recent seasons. And then there’s the external additions that the Breeze have added, including former Wind Chill standout Andrew Roy and ex-Pittsburgh Thunderbird Thomas Edmonds, either of whom could become a backfield game-changer this upcoming season.

This luxurious collection of backfield talent has inevitably created significant speculation about how Breeze Head Coach Darryl Stanley might utilize these weapons together in the months ahead. While no preseason lineup planning is 100 percent set in stone, you can be sure that opposing coaches are always searching for any tip they can get. 

“I heard on Jonny and Rowan’s podcast that Rowan is going to be playing D,” said New York Empire Co-Head Coach Charlie Hoppes. “Rowan is dominant at getting the disc in whatever spot he wants, and of course his throwing creativity and ability is well-documented. He is uniquely challenging to force into a position he doesn’t want to be in because he’s one of the best in the league at coming up with and executing a Plan B. That combination is extremely dangerous on a counter-attack, if he is indeed moving to the D-line. He can be a counter-attack all on his own.”

As for Malks, several opposing defenders mentioned how his size and length made him especially tough to guard, along with his steady presence as a decision-maker. 

“In 2021, I invented a whole new defense to combat his talent when we played DC in back-to-back games,” said Knowles. “He’s bigger than most handlers and thus a huge matchup problem; he’s not affected by most marks because he can just see over them. He has hucks and can also go deep, he has talented throws on both sides, and is an all-around great culture person for his teams.”

From escaping double-teams to destroying zones, the AUDL’s best handlers conquer opponents with speed, vision, and overall creativity. They can usually beat you both over the top and underneath, regardless of the defensive alignment or meteorological impediment. They protect possession, while also racking up stats. 

In order to try and contain them, the goal can often be to try and keep the disc out of their hands as much as possible.

“Make someone else on the team make the big throw,” said Stuart, sharing his defensive philosophy. “That’s easier said than done, especially with the [best in the league].”

Praising the Rest of the Best

Earlier this week, I asked several AUDL players and coaches the following question: “Who have been the toughest handlers you’ve had to tangle with over the past couple seasons?” 

Here are some of the other players who earned mentions, listed alphabetically.

Jakob Brissette, Montreal Royal

“He is young, he moves the disc well, and he is the cog that made the Royal’s offense go last year. He is a lengthy handler who is hard for most handler defenders to guard. He can huck, attack the break side, or just throw the easy throw to the open side. He has 520 completions of his 552 shows, and when we game plan for Montreal, he is one of the first names we discuss.” — Anthony Nuñez, New York Empire Co-Head Coach

Abe Coffin, Minnesota Wind Chill

“Coffin was a matchup problem. It was a combination of speed and his ability to stretch the field with his throws that was difficult to contain.” — Kevin Stuart, San Diego Growlers Head Coach

Luc Comiré, Toronto Rush

Luc Comiré was a more traditional stay-at-home handler, but his quick release points and throwing range made him a tough person to mark. He wouldn’t necessarily be the most difficult matchup without the disc, but I maybe never had the chance at a hand block when he did.” — Paul Owens, Philadelphia Phoenix

Thomas Edmonds, DC Breeze

“He’s elite in small spaces and Pittsburgh ultimate [allowed] him the freedom to go get the ball back and move it however he feels he can best continue or counter momentum. Pair that with his motor and that Plinko style of offense is tough to defend, especially in the red zone. Because he’s also good at operating downfield, plays to balance his teammates’ styles well, and has big throws, you have to consistently change how you defend him.” — Brandon Matis, Minnesota Wind Chill

Paul Lally, San Diego Growlers

“Lally played well against us. HIs size was a bit challenging. We actually moved [Cody] Spicer off him to go with Sten Larson, who has more length.” — Tim Kefalas, Colorado Summit Co-Head Coach

Victor Luo, Madison Radicals

“He’s explosive and he opens up the field a lot with his throwing ability, but there’s like a quiet nature to his game that’s almost more difficult to cope with sometimes. He’d be one of those guys who you talk about in the locker room, about how you successfully kept him quiet that day, and then check the stat sheet and he’d somehow thrown five assists and had 500 total yards.” — Brandon Matis, Minnesota Wind Chill

Brett Matzuka, Indianapolis AlleyCats

“Brett is the most creative thrower I’ve ever played against. For that reason, it’s always a fun matchup when we play each other. He continually varies his release points, which makes it very difficult as a marker to hand block or even impact the downfield space that he’s intending to throw to. He mixes in more no look passes than anyone I’ve ever played against, and that’s another way he keeps the marker guessing in the ‘game within the game’ that is the thrower vs. marker.” — Andrew Meshnick, Madison Radicals

Justin Norden, Oakland Spiders

Justin Norden is underrated with how active he is and can really punish you with the overhead throws.” — Steven Milardovich, San Diego Growlers

Andrew Roy, Minnesota Wind Chill

“He definitely has a lot more length than you’d expect. It’s actually a running joke that because of his dink-and-dunk Spurs offense style of play that no one ever believes he’s six-feet tall. [But he possesses] unmarkable break throws. I think it’s a combo of his length, wide base, and precision in throw shape. He’s also got great over the top throws—one might say ‘pillowy scoobers.’ Having to respect those makes his fakes more realistic and opens up a lot too.” — Brandon Matis, Minnesota Wind Chill

Jordan Rhyne, Philadelphia Phoenix

“Jordan Rhyne has the quickest draw in our division. He goes from just standing upright to effortlessly rocketing flicks wherever he wants them delivered. [He had] 33 hucks and a 76 percent huck percentage last year, with most of those hucks coming from the backfield. It’s challenging to huck that efficiently from the backfield when teams are keyed in on the deep shot that we know Philly wants. So teams know it’s coming, he’s throwing from 10-15 yards further back than downfield huckers throw from, and he’s still letting them fly and dropping them into the bread basket. That’s the other thing, his hucks aren’t floating shots. They are precise throws with edge to them, meaning that most of his flicks leave the defender with no chance at the disc.” — Charlie Hoppes, New York Empire Co-Head Coach

Ben Sadok, Boston Glory

“He is squirrelly, creative, and one of the top handlers in the league. In order for Boston’s offense to work, Ben needs to have a good game. He has a 95 percent completion percentage, which is incredible with the amount of usage he gets. He had a great first year in the AUDL and somehow played even better his second year. He is quick in the handler space, it’s very hard to stop him from getting an upline throw into power position. Also, it’s like a cheat code that he is a lefty with that type of throwing ability.” — Anthony Nuñez, New York Empire Co-Head Coach

Austin Taylor, Atlanta Hustle

Austin Taylor has been a top player in the league for years now and Atlanta has a chance to win in every game that Taylor plays well.” — Steven Naji, Austin Sol Head Coach

Alex Thorne, Philadelphia Phoenix

Alex Thorne has one of the quickest release forehands. It makes setting a mark on him very difficult. If you aren’t already directly next to his flick, he will be able to get it off and put the defense in a bad spot.” -Ben Katz, New York Empire