Tuesday Toss: The Favorites, Real and Fantasy

March 26, 2019
By Evan Lepler

We are just 10 days away from opening night of the 2019 AUDL season! Barring an unexpected blip, you can count on this column to be a consistent part of your Tuesday each and every week between now and mid-August, when an eighth AUDL champion will be crowned. The goal here is provide stories and context, insight and perspective. And while verbosity may occasionally get the better of me, the aim is to embrace brevity as much as possible while still delivering the in-depth weekly digest that loyal readers have come to expect.

On the verge of this new adventure—which will feature a 12-game team schedule and the first ever midseason AUDL All-Star Game on June 8 in Madison, WI—the competitive depth around the circuit looks to be as solid as it’s ever been. Of the 21 franchises set to take the field this year, at least 19 of them can make a compelling case for a playoff berth, and many of the league’s best teams have arguably taken a small step back toward the pack, creating the possibility of more parity and smaller margins between success and failure. Furthermore, at the top of each division, multiple teams appear to be in the mix for #1 seeds.

Though not unprecedented, it’s relatively uncommon in any professional sport to hoist ‘favorite’ status upon a team that has never before won a title or even appeared in a finals. In most cases, a rising team gains confidence as the underdog, eventually upends the existing champ, and then inevitably becomes the team to beat. The Madison Radicals, for example, were defeated as underdogs at five straight Championship Weekends before the stars aligned last August on their home field. Entering a new season, the Radicals certainly remain strong among the short list of title contenders, but even as defending champs, they are not the Toss’s preseason #1.

Instead, as the 2019 AUDL season begins, we find ourselves in the rare realm of anointing a favorite whose last several years, apart from one shocking win in Toronto last July, have generally been considered a disappointment. It is a franchise that has repeatedly received buckets of preseason hype, only to fall short of the lofty goals. But it’s also a team that enjoyed the best offseason in the league, maintaining its core, adding a pair of blue chip talents, complementing those stars with more solid role players, and picking up a coach with a pedigree of taking teams to the next level.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a new era for the New York Empire, who enter 2019 as the team to beat despite having registered a mediocre 21-21 record over the past three regular seasons combined. Together, we shall see if they are ready to handle the burden of being mentioned alongside past AUDL super-teams, most notably the 2016 Dallas Roughnecks, who went a perfect 17-0 en route to their championship in their inaugural season.

“It’s not an absurd question,” answered new Empire Head Coach Bryan Jones last week, when asked if it was an outrageous thought to compare this still evolving New York squad to previous juggernauts. “I think anytime you have a lot of talent, you feel really confident that you can win, and that belief that you can do it is really powerful. So there’s no question that adding Jack [Williams] and Grant [Lindsley] to that roster make people feel really good about our chances.”

Williams and Lindsley were easily the offseason’s headliners, each bringing considerable experience and big-game productivity to their new destination. From college stardom at UNC-Wilmington and Carleton, respectively, to Team USA gold at the junior and senior levels, each adds a versatile and explosive skillset that the Empire will try to fit into their returning core, which was already plenty potent.

Offensively, New York’s late-season surge a year ago revolved around handlers Harper Garvey and Ben Katz, cutters Ben Jagt and Jeff Babbitt, and an array of defensive weapons that all found their roles at the right time. Unquestionably, Beau Kittredge’s impact as a leader and on-field calming presence aided the Empire in some of the most important moments, even as Kittredge, the sport’s greatest champion this century, dealt with a nagging calf injury that bothered him most of the season.

Healthy again, Kittredge, who will turn 37 in June, will strive to win his fifth AUDL title by figuring out, alongside Jones and new Empire Assistant Coach David Blau, how the Empire can best employ their artillery to fulfill their immense potential.

“A lot of times, the thing that these teams need is someone out there on the field that’s just doing the basics,” Kittredge told me last month when asked about what role he might have on the 2019 Empire. “You can get a little too confident and a little too cocky when you have that much firepower on the field. I’ll find my role depending on where I think I can best help. I have no idea how the offense will look once we put all those pieces together, if they’ll need me or if they won’t need me. Playing defense, there’s something super enjoyable about having to win the disc from somebody and they have the advantage. I’m totally fine doing whatever’s required for the team to be successful.”

As for what preseason practices have looked like, Jones has been pleased with the intensity and tone.

“It’s a lot of working on our offense, creating the right habits, creating the right looks, making sure that people are knowing the way we want to operate,” Jones explained. “Defensively, it’s been a little bit more teaching. I think there’s a different style of defense that I like to preach, and there’s a certain combination of factors that have to go out on the field for a team defense to work. So it’s about understanding the values of what we want to go for, how we want to be aggressive, what we’re actually taking away, and how are we gonna get beat? It’s gonna be hard to stop a lot of these talented players in the AUDL. It’s a challenge every week. You can’t stop everything. So how do you figure out how to make a team go into their weakest point. That’s what we’re trying to work on on defense…It’s gonna be a challenge to make sure we’re all ready to go at the start fo the season, and we got DC right away. Darryl [Stanley] is a great coach.”

It has not taken long for Williams, the former Raleigh Flyers standout, to impress his new teammates with his dynamic composition of skills. Lindsley, on the other hand, has not practiced yet with the Empire (as of last week). The word was he would join the team in late March and work toward getting prepared for the team’s April 13 opener vs. DC, which will mark his first AUDL game since scoring five goals and dishing five assists in the 2017 finals in Montreal, a narrow 30-29 win for Lindsley’s (and Kittredge’s) now-defunct San Francisco team.

Beyond the superstars, a team can only be collectively super if the rotation is filled out with a mixture of savvy experience and youthful exuberance. Look at the 2016 Roughnecks, with vets like Dan Emmons, Jake Anderson, and Brandon Malecek completing the emerging standouts like Matt Jackson, Thomas Slack, and Chris and Dillon Larberg. Who might fill those types of roles on the 2019 Empire? Their are plenty of candidates.

Certainly, Ryan and Mike Drost bring the telekinetic brotherly energy, and the twins each made significant plays throughout the team’s 2018 run (and throughout their careers). Marques Brownlee, Jibran Mieser, and Josh Alorro all remain capable of taking over a game, but also fit nicely into more complementary positions when the moment dictates as such. Meanwhile, Matt LeMar and Matt Stevens should continue as the Empire’s enduringly reliable ironmen, each approaching 100 career games played in the AUDL.

As for other dark horse contributors, Jones mentioned a couple additional possibilities.

“So far, I’ve been really impressed with TJ Stanton’s work ethic,” said Jones. “He’s learning positioning at a really high rate, so it’s going to be interesting to see what he can do over the course of the season. I’m really excited about Albert Alarcon, who played for [New York’s top club team] PoNY for several years, coming to the Empire because me and him have a really good relationship and he just really thrives on big matchups. He’s got really good length on the mark. He’s got a really good mind for the game.”

Overall, from stars to supplementary cogs, the New York Empire enter 2019 with a plethora of preseason hype. There even remains the possibility that New York could add a couple additional blue chippers, both with New York roots and championship pedigrees, but the status of Jimmy Mickle and Chris Kocher remains uncertain. Frankly, with or without them, this team has the look of a preseason favorite. Of course, that guarantees them nothing. The disc will take flight soon, and the Empire will look to back up the build-up.

According to Kittredge, it might all come down to buy-in.

“I think this team definitely has the potential to be better [than Dallas in 2016], but it’ll depend on the buy-in,” commented Kittredge. “The buy-in was absolute on the Roughnecks, whereas if you’re dealing with a bunch of people spread out across the New York area—getting buy-in is always the thing you have to figure out how to do the most in something like this.

“Somebody will have to step up and lead that charge.”

The Fantasy Outlook

A multi-billion dollar industry, fantasy sports are booming in our world, providing fans, novices, and diehards the same opportunity to become general managers in their favorite sport. Inevitably, this trend has transitioned to ultimate, with a variety of fantasy structures popping up over the past several years. The AUDL, with its steady schedule and dedicated stat-keeping, has become a perfect laboratory for fantasy ultimate.

The concept is simple. Pick players. Earn points. Compete.

Win or lose, it’s generally fun to root for your team, though it can be confusing if, say, Madison’s Peter Graffy and Chicago’s Kurt Gibson are both on your fantasy team and happen to be chasing after the same huck during a crucial Midwest matchup. Over the course of a long season, however, selecting players that will consistently produce for their teams, and consequently, your team, becomes a curious challenge.

Who to choose? Well, the Tuesday Toss is here to help you get ready for your upcoming AUDL fantasy draft.

Here is the preseason top 25, granting the presumption that the main categories for success are goals, assists, and blocks, while points are lost for turnovers. In other words, the AUDL’s plus/minus statistic (goals + assists + blocks - turnovers) serves as a pretty good barometer for fantasy success.

1. Jay Froude, Dallas Roughnecks

After tying for third in the league in plus/minus in 2017, Jay Froude led the AUDL last year, a tribute to his versatility, consistency, and all-around brilliance. Surrounded by a great supporting cast on a winning franchise, choosing Froude first in your fantasy draft would be a safe and sensational pick. Even if he does not lead the circuit again, it’s hard to envision him dropping out of the top 10.

2. Rick Gross, Indianapolis AlleyCats

Along with Froude, Rick Gross finished in the top three in plus/minus each of the past two years: #1 in 2017 and #3 in 2018. Still just 24-years-old, the wildly athletic Gross combines dedication—he’s played in 68 of a possible 70 regular season games after the past five years—with defensive prowess. The Indianapolis AlleyCats would prefer that Gross had fewer chances for blocks while primarily playing O-line, but it’s still remarkable that Indy’s top offensive weapon also led the team, and the league, in Ds.

3. Antoine Davis, San Jose Spiders

One might argue that this ranking is a little high for a guy whose completion percentage is below 90 percent each of the past two years, but this is a ceiling selection based on the healthy hunch that Antoine Davis is about to have a huge year for the San Jose Spiders. Despite his propensity to throw the disc away, Davis ranked 11th in the league in plus/minus for the 2017 champs in San Francisco. He’ll have more depth around him this season, plus a new coach, which should help him find the right balance between risk-taking and resetting.

4. Mischa Freystaetter, Raleigh Flyers

In retrospect, considering that Mischa Freystaetter experienced some early growing pains in his first year with the Raleigh Flyers, it’s pretty incredible that he ended the 2018 season at +70, tied for 11th best in the league. In year two in North Carolina, the towering 6’7” cutter probably won’t replicate his single-season record of +121, achieved in 2016 for the Cannons, but odds are he’ll find his rhythm earlier, giving him a great chance to put up some massive numbers to match his stature.

5. Ben Jagt, New York Empire

Amongst players who have competed in at least 40 career games, only Freystaetter has a higher plus/minus per game rating than Ben Jagt, who finished fourth in the league at +91 a season ago. Unquestionably, the Empire are stacked with superstars, and that potentially could dilute some of the individual statistics. Jagt’s brilliance, however, has typically shined brightest when he’s flanked by greatness.

6. Travis Dunn, San Diego Growlers

Travis Dunn, a speedy 6”2” 28-year-old out of Arizona State, may have developed into the best offensive player in the West Division. In 2018, his +79 finished seventh in the league, and if he didn’t miss three regular season games, he surely would have been in the top five. Furthermore, the San Diego Growlers, by maintaining roster continuity and gradually improving every season, are poised to threaten for a berth at Championship Weekend in 2019.

7. Rowan McDonnell, DC Breeze

Last year’s MVP may be the most entertaining player in the league, in part because of Rowan McDonnell's creativity with the disc. Despite the occasional throw going astray, he still ranked fifth in the league in plus/minus in 2018. He may have slightly less talent around him in 2019, which should mean more goals, more assists, and also more turns.

8. Mark Burton, Seattle Cascades

The self-proclaimed “Peter Pan of ultimate,” Mark Burton, a 33-year-old handler, refuses to be slowed by Father Time. He finished second in plus/minus in 2016, third in 2017, and slipped to 11th in 2018, though it should be noted he played fewer games and his per-game numbers remained comparable to his previous years. He may not rise back into the top five, but he’s a safe bet to remain in the top 20, making him a reliable top 10 pick in any fantasy draft.

9. Sean Mott, Philadelphia Phoenix

Sean Mott registered a +71 last year, good for 11th in the league, while helping to revitalize the Philadelphia Phoenix. Furthermore, he’s the only player in the AUDL to accumulate at least 40 goals and 50 assists in each of the past two seasons. Considering he only just turned 25 in December, look for Mott to take another step forward in 2019.

10. Jack Williams, New York Empire

Greeted by fascinating and complex circumstances in his first year in New York, Jack Williams remains a potential alpha stat-stuffer on a team with plenty of go-to-targets. His leadership of the USA U-23 team in January of 2018 indicated his ability to take charge in big moments, even when accompanied by all-stars. Williams’ +69 last year as a member of the Flyers ranked t-13th in the league, and most agree that he’s just begun to scratch the surface of his ultimate ceiling.

11. Quentin Bonnaud, Montreal Royal

Two seasons ago, the young, then-21-year-old Frenchman put up a +85, fifth-best in the league in 2017. Quentin Bonnaud's springy style enabled him to routinely sky over taller players, often provoking a ‘where did this guy come from?’ sentiment from a victimized defender. Injuries hampered his stats in 2018, but the Montreal Royal will count on a healthy Bonnaud’s consistency and highlights in order to be back in the postseason in 2019.

12. Pawel Janas, Chicago Wildfire

The high-volume handler would be higher on this ranking list if not for the Windy City conditions conspiring to create bonus turnovers in the season’s first couple months. Despite that, Pawel Janas, who still set an AUDL record with 97 assists during the 2018 season, should have more dynamic Wildfire weapons around him than ever before with the addition of uber-athletic receiving targets Matt Rehder and Zane Rankin.

13. Cameron Brock, Indianapolis AlleyCats

Reliable, dedicated, and painfully underrated, Cameron Brock remains a guarantee to produce for the AlleyCats just like he always has. He has registered a plus/minus above +70 in three of the last four years, including +72 in 2018 that ranked him ninth in the league. In fact, his all-time stats have virtually lapped the field; he has 463 goals, 200 more than any other player, and his career plus/minus is more than a 100 beyond the next best. He just turned 30 last November, but Brock’s perennial goal-scoring savvy shows little sign of waning.

14. Peter Graffy, Madison Radicals

Long a fixture on the Madison Radicals’ dominant D-line—he still has the highest blocks-per-game average (2.39) all-time among qualified players—Peter Graffy flipped over to offense more frequently in 2018, leading to the sixth-best plus/minus in the league. Of course, he also tallied the league’s third-ranked plus/minus in 2016, so regardless of his role, he’s proven capable of quarterbacking his teammates to tremendous production. With a championship to defend, Madison will require Graffy to play with added purpose and precision to help the Radicals repeat.

15. Alec Arsenault, Ottawa Outlaws

Perhaps just the diehard AUDL fans are familiar with Ottawa Outlaws’ top scorer, but Alec Arsenault and Indy’s Rick Gross are the only players in the entire league who have caught more than 50 goals in each of the past two years. In this context, Arsenault, who will turn 28 in June, should reprise his role as one of the premier strikers in ultimate. If the Outlaws can surprise people in the East, Arsenault would undoubtedly gain more attention to accompany his steady and spectacular numbers.

16. Sean McDougall, Los Angeles Aviators

For several years, his Los Angeles Aviators teammates have raved about his energy, athleticism, and production, but Sean McDougall’s stylings wandered into superstar status in 2018, when he finished a remarkable +93, 2nd in the league behind only Dallas’ Froude. He would be hard pressed to duplicate his magical from a season ago, but he should assume an even larger role on the 2019 Aviators, giving him opportunity and the accompanying pressure to prove that last year was not a statistical aberration and instead the new norm.

17. Matt Rehder, Chicago Wildfire

Aside from anything Empire-related, the most fascinating hot stove storyline boiled in Chicago, where Matt Rehder headlined the Wildfire’s strong offseason. Though he has not played in the AUDL since 2016, the former Seattle Cascades playmaker registered consistent and superb production when he was on the field. In 2015, his per-game plus/minus ranked third in the league (among players with at least 10 games played). With jaw-dropping hops and an intimidating presence, Rehder, who is still just 27 years old, could have a monstrous season catching goals from Pawel Janas and Kurt Gibson.

18. Marcelo Sanchez, San Jose Spiders

In each the last two odd years, Marcelo Sanchez finished among the top three plus/minus leaders on his team that went on to win the championship, the San Jose Spiders in 2015 and San Francisco in 2017. And in each of those seasons—along with last year as well—Sanchez has found himself in the top 20 in plus/minus league-wide. Suffice to say, Sanchez, who rarely misses games and constantly amazes with his fundamental steadiness, is a guy that anyone would enjoy rooting for on their fantasy team.

19. Jonathan Nethercutt, Raleigh Flyers

The 2017 AUDL MVP is a high-volume handler when he plays, which produces plenty of scores but also a fair number of turnovers. Furthermore, his inconsistent availability prevents him from being a top 10 or top 15 fantasy pick. One thing about Jonathan Nethercutt, though, even if he misses a game here and there, he always makes his presence felt when he’s on the field, gracefully orchestrating the Flyers’ high-octane offense. He also has a knack for taking charge in the red zone, adding to his all-around stats via an array of short-field give-and-gos that often punctuate points.

20. Andrew Roney, Tampa Bay Cannons

There are five players in the AUDL who have had at least 50 assists in each of the past two seasons: Seattle’s Burton, Chicago’s Janas, Raleigh’s Nethercutt, Minnesota’s Josh Klane, and Tampa's Andrew Roney. (Note: Roney’s backfield-mate with the Cannons, Bobby Ley, finished with 49 assists last year; otherwise he would be in the club too.) Among this entire group, Roney is probably the best all-around player capable of putting up a wide variety of numbers, a claim backed by the fact that he also registered 21 goals and 22 blocks a season ago. Just 25 years old—he will be 26 in late June—Roney is only now entering his prime.

21. Grant Lindsley, New York Empire

Certainly, Grant Lindsley’s reputation in the sport speaks for itself, from helping the FlameThrowers win an AUDL championship a couple years ago to leading Team USA to a gold medal at the most recent World Games in Poland. As speedy and slippery of a cutter as you’re ever gonna see, Lindsley joins the cavalcade of talent in New York, making it tough to predict exactly how he’ll fit in amongst the other superstars. But if Lindsley remains available in your fantasy draft after the first 20 picks have been made, you would be wise to snatch him up, as he could definitely outpace Jagt, Williams, the rest of the Empire, and maybe everyone else on this list if he decides to take charge.

22. Matt Smith, Atlanta Hustle

Matt Smith may not have an AUDL championship or World Games gold on his résumé, but his style is similar to Lindsley, a shifty cutter whose hops can catch you off guard. He ranked in the top 11 in plus/minus three straight seasons from 2015-2017 before dipping to 22nd last year, a drop that can largely be explained by the Hustle’s slower pace of play. Despite Head Coach Miranda Roth Knowles’ strategy of lengthening points, Smith’s track record of production speaks for itself, and the Atlanta captain joins Burton and Brock as 30+ year-old stat stuffers in this top 25.

23. Jacob Fairfax, Raleigh Flyers

A 6’2” human pogo stick, Jacob Fairfax possesses a youthful bounce and growing all-around game. He scored 42 goals in each of the last two seasons, and he won’t even turn 23 until the 2019 playoffs roll around. Limited a bit by collegiate obligations the past couple years, Fairfax should be a featured player throughout the 2019 campaign. His plus/minus ranked t-25th in 2017 and t-26th in 2018; it very easily could rise into the top 20, or higher, this summer.

24. Kurt Gibson, Chicago Wildfire

Another veteran who’s now in his 30s—33, to be specific—Kurt Gibson is a tricky fantasy prospect because he’s another guy who will almost certainly rack up the stats when he’s on the field, but when will he be on the field? He’s been plagued by injuries on and off through the past five years, playing an average of 6.4 games per year throughout his career. Of course, when he suits up, he’s brilliant. In 2018, his plus/minus per game was top five league-wide, and he impressively collected 32 goals and 31 assists in just eight games. Again, the midwestern weather of April and May provides some slight pause in slotting him here, but Gibson is just too good to fall out of the top 25 completely. If he remains healthy, he very well could be an MVP candidate. (The postscript fine print: After writing this column, I learned that Gibson suffered an offseason rotator cuff injury that required surgery, and his availability for the 2019 season is very much up in the air. Draft Gibson at your own risk.)

25. Jeff Babbitt, New York Empire

After finishing second in the entire league in plus/minus in 2017 with a sensational +92, Jeff Babbitt’s stats dipped dramatically in 2018. His presence remained invaluable for an Empire team that advanced to Championship Weekend, but opposing coaches would acknowledge his greatness by often refusing to throw it in his vicinity. Consequently, his blocks dropped from 41 in 2017 to 16 in 2018. Odds are, new coach Bryan Jones will find a way to help Babbitt get more blocks, and the other stats will follow.

Five More Names to Watch (listed alphabetically)

Abe Coffin, Dallas Roughnecks

A wrist injury kept him off the field all of last year, but Abe Coffin was 16th in the league in plus/minus two years ago.

Henry Fisher, Raleigh Flyers

The Carleton alum makes his AUDL debut in 2019, and it shouldn’t take long for the rangy Henry Fisher to become an impact contributor in the high octane Flyers offense.

Jordan Huston, Tampa Bay Cannons

Even though his insane, AUDL record 22-goal-game from 2017 skews the stats a bit, Jordan Huston is still a guy who’s averaged more than four goals a game throughout his 32-game career.

Nathan Vickroy, Tampa Bay Cannons

After registering a +67 season with Atlanta in 2017, Nathan Vickroy appeared on pace for a similar statistical effort last year until a midseason injury ended the quest prematurely.

Carson Wilder, Dallas Roughnecks

The toolsy Carson Wilder has repeatedly shown glimpses of greatness throughout his first three years in the league, and a breakout statistical campaign would fit the profile for young Texas Tech-alum.