Philadelphia is a city rich in tradition and history. On a cold and windy night in late February, a group of almost 70 Ultimate players are hoping to get in on the ground floor of a new tradition, and hopefully make some history along the way.
The Philadelphia Spinners, one of the eight inaugural American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) teams, hosted their first open tryout on the last weekend in February 2012. The crowd of handlers, cutters, deeps, and defenders showed up to strut their stuff, but only 20 will be making it to the Spinners’ first roster.
“I think this is a great opportunity. I wish it were around 10 years ago when I started playing!” said assistant coach Bill Maroon, a proponent of the sport and elite masters and grandmasters player. He was pleased with the tryout despite the trying weather. “It was great to see the high level talent that we knew were going to show up, but also young guys that were hungry who got to measure themselves to the top level in the region. I think they got to see what it was like to be on the field with those guys.”
The playing field was a little more even this night, in spite of the aforementioned “high level talent” in attendance, due to the inclement weather.
The man each attendee wanted to impress was Philly native Jeff Snader, head coach and general manager of the Spinners. “[There was] some great talent, some unexpected talent,” said Snader. “Some young guys that came out that had some really nice athleticism. I’m a little crazy in the passion [of Ultimate]; I like it when it’s cold and windy, just to see if guys really really want it. It was a great mix.
“Everybody was in there working their butts off and that’s motivating to me. So, just to see that the Philly atmosphere was that inspired. Great experience for me and the whole staff.”
Snader played for the club team AMP (originally known as Donkey Bomb) from 2000 to 2007, making four national showings. He also captained his last three years with that team, peaking with a third place finish in his last season. After taking a few years off, Snader returned to coach Southpaw in 2010 and 2011, earning a spot at nationals in both years. He’s definitely no stranger to the sport.
Snader and the other coaches had a fun but strenuous tryout scheduled. It was very well organized, too. At 7 p.m., a huddle was called and he let the players in on a little bit of what he expected from the guys that will end up filling the roster. A quick warm-up followed. A few prepared for the workout ahead by stretching in groups — most tried to stay focused by warming up solo. There were no complaints about the weather.
“I’m loving it,” mentioned Chris Vanni, West Philly resident and player for team Germ Circus. “It’s a little cold and windy, but that just means you have to work a little harder and I’m enjoying the chance to do that.”
After warm-ups, the coaches split everyone into four groups for station drills. Each of the four drills were meant to show the respective assistant coaches the players’ individual skill levels. Everything was being analyzed by them and head coach Snader, who visited each station.
The first drill, called the Baseball Drill, tested throwing accuracy and stamina. A single player was fed discs as they ran between three cones that were laid out in a triangle shape. At each wide cone they had to catch, turn, and hit a moving target; those were the rest of the players in that squad. First the cutters came under, then, when everybody had gone through, they immediately transitioned to deep cuts — all the while, the handler never stopped moving and throwing.
At the next station, the players were going head to head with one another. One line was designated offense and the other defense. The assistant coach either threw deep to the offensive player or signaled for them to fake deep and come under.
The third station was a simple game of mini-Ultimate, a three-on-three game with a scaled down field. This exercise emphasized quick cuts, pinpoint throwing accuracy, and cohesion between players.
The final drill, tucked back in the corner, was both the basic of all of them: The standard Go-To drill. During each round of the drill players concentrated on first force-side throws, then break throws, and finally trying to get around a straight-up mark.
Once all four of the groups had gone through every drill station, which took a little less than an hour and a half, there was a quick water break while the coaches set up an endurance test. During the explanation of “The Beep Drill,” it didn’t seem like much. Only after the trial started did everyone understand just how difficult it truly was.
“It was definitely the hardest part of the night,” admits Greg Owens, South Jersey resident and Southpaw team member. “I’m more of sprint type of guy than a long distance or endurance runner, so it was the hardest part for me.”
Stripped down, the concept of the Beep Drill is simple: Don’t make it to the line twice in a row or you’re out. Until then, keep running. One of the assistant coaches blew a whistle in increments just long enough for a person to run from one marker to the other, and players had that much time to get to reach the target side — a 20-meter distance — before hearing the next whistle and trying to make it back. During a single level, after a couple of jogs back and forth, the player moves to the next level, and at every one, the time between each whistle blasts gets shorter.
Overall, the Beep Drill lasted about 15 exhausting minutes. There were a huge number of dropouts around level nine. Only a couple players made it to level 12, which is considered pro-level fitness. That was doubly impressive to Snader, considering the colder conditions.
Another well-deserved break and then the real fun began; scrimmaging.
Snader made a point to mention that this could be the turning point for a lot of players that he was on the fence about making the cut.
Two fields were set up for play. For simplicity and space, they counted off standard 11th Edition-sized fields. In the AUDL, field size has been modified to 53 and one third yards across with 20 yard deep end zones. Between each end zone spans an increased 80 yards of pitch, which makes the field the same size as a football field.
“I think people think it’s going to change the game a little more than I think it is,” Snader argues. “If every game were indoor I think it would affect stuff a lot more, but throw some wind out there and it’s still hard to cross a 50-yard field. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to cut down [defensive D’s] either. Again; most of the games are outdoor, so I think it’s really going to be a similar game to what it was.”
Among other changes, a few apparent to players that night were active-call referees (that will be at every AUDL game) that handle everything from travel calls (which now result in a turn over), to stall count (which has been lowered from a “10 count” to seven seconds), to fouls. These particular changes were applied to the scrimmage that night, throwing some players slightly off their game.
“I felt that it [makes the game] more watchable,” said Maroon, “because we just stepped in and made the call instead of having people have these conversations on the field about what the rule is, what the rule isn’t, did I do this, did I not do that.”
Speaking with some guys after the tryouts wrapped up (around 10:30 PM) it seemed most are optimistic about the new league. Philadelphia local and Spinner hopeful Nick Hirannet opined “USA Ultimate has done a great job for the sport, but there is absolutely room for improvement. Having another league out there that pushes them is nothing but a great thing. Hopefully, it pushes them to make the sport better on their end and if [the AUDL] works out, hopefully they can both co-exist.”
The AUDL’s first set of games is scheduled for the April 14. The Spinners will play on their home turf at Franklin Field versus the Buffalo Hunters. Before that, though, Snader, Maroon, and second assistant coach Marc “Doc” Stachowski have to finalize the Spinners’ first roster which will be publicly announced on March 17, along with a press conference and player jersey presentation. Final tryouts are on March 10.
The coaching staff has lofty expectations for the season.
“Our hardcore goal is to win the championship,” said Snader. “I mean, the first season is only going to happen once and I am not a guy that wants to aim for second place … I want to win the championship, I want to have the best team in the AUDL, and I want to win it hands down. So, that’s the goal.”
Making history is not so far out of reach for this new team in the recently formed AUDL. In this City of Brotherly Love, every Spinners player, coach, and staff member is going to have to work together to see these goals through.