Disc In: A Chat with Jimmy Kittlesen

May 20, 2020
By Evan Lepler

Every single week during the typical AUDL season, my Sunday nights and Monday mornings are spent reaching out to different players and coaches around the AUDL. The process can feel a tad tedious at times, but it helps keep me connected and informed about all the little subplots that I might have missed from the weekend. Obviously, I’m extraordinarily grateful that almost all are usually willing and eager to respond to my queries promptly, enlightening me about the relevant stories and sequences with generous color and perspective. For each of the past five years, this has been the routine for 20-plus weeks a year, and as you might imagine, certain patterns in these conversations have emerged over time. 

Some will critique my instincts, a much-appreciated journalistic check that I welcome as I try to render honest, revealing, and poignant coverage. Others will wax poetic about their recent experiences and share pointed off-the-record insight about a certain situation that will better my understanding and become valuable foundational background for future work. Occasionally, a response will include all of these things and more. 

But the reason I bring all this up is to enlighten you about one of the specific team-related trends I have noticed. It seems like every time I reach out to someone in the Midwest about a game involving the Minnesota Wind Chill, someone new will tell me how well Jimmy Kittlesen played defensively. 

Anecdotally, the 27-year-old Kittlesen has regularly gotten blocks against many of the best cutters in his division, and numerically, the stats absolutely back it up. In 2015, a then 22-year-old rookie out of D-I Minnesota-Duluth erupted for 32 blocks, tied with Madison’s Andrew Meshnick for the most in the league in the regular season. Then, last year, he topped the AUDL again in the blocks department, tallying 28 and crossing over the 100-block plateau for his career, a feat that’s only been achieved by 19 players in the history of the league. With 118 career Ds, Kittlesen ranks 10th on the all-time charts, and he’s played fewer games than everyone who’s above him on the list. 

Digging deeper, it’s evident why Kittlesen’s name gets mentioned so much. It’s his consistency, reliability, and pension for using his athletic 6’3” build to rise up high in big moments. Over his five-year career, he’s averaged nearly 13 games per season, having only missed one out of 41 possible Wind Chill games, including the playoffs, over the past three campaigns. Furthermore, he’s registered at least one block in 54 of the 64 games he’s played, recorded multiple blocks in a game 32 times, and had at least one four-block game in all five of his AUDL seasons. 

Why is Kittlesen so underrated, even after five years of weekly playmaking? Mostly, it’s because writers and broadcasters like myself have not given him enough credit, an oversight that hopefully ends now. With plenty of prime years left and an improving supporting cast around him, there’s no doubt that Kittlesen will remain a defensive pillar for the Minnesota Wind Chill when ultimate resumes. And when that happens, and the Sunday night/Monday morning interactions resume, it feels certain that every Wind Chill correspondence will include at least one Kittlesen mention, and deservedly so. He’s that good. 

I caught up with Kittlesen a couple days ago to inquire about his workout routine during the pandemic, the Wind Chill’s 2020 outlook, and how he’s approached defense throughout his career. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.

Evan Lepler:  Firstly, how are you and what has your everyday life been like over the course of the past couple of months?

Jimmy Kittlesen: Thankfully, everything is good. I was lucky enough to already be a work-at-home employee when the shutdown occurred. With everyone now online, i've actually re-connected with a number of old friends thanks to Zoom and [Call of Duty] game chat! 

EL: From an ultimate standpoint, what types of things have you done to try and stay in shape during these bizarre times?

JK: I almost exclusively get cardio from playing any type of sport imaginable, and the rest of my training is heavy weightlifting, so it's been quite a change with no groups and no weights.  I've used this time to focus on injury management. Starting yoga has improved my ankle flexibility that has been ailing me for years. Luckily, I just moved in with a teammate, Tate Halberg, so daily throwing sessions have been easy to come by. Perhaps an optimistic mindset, but its slightly thrilling to have the start of a summer free without every weekend booked for ultimate. First time in 10 years I've been this free in the short Minnesota summer. Just returned from visiting nearly every state park along the Lake Superior north shore and hiking up to all the waterfalls!

EL: With the Wind Chill making a bunch of noteworthy free agent signings in the offseason, what was your mindset and level of excitement heading into the season (prior to the pandemic pausing everything)? Any stories or perspective about early preseason practices that you can share?

JK: This is the most driven and committed team we've had by far. Early in my career, I had a lot of frustrations with how much club interfered with the AUDL. This year was all focused on full commitment from every player, and it is exciting to see. Matt Rehder has already improved my game mindset exponentially. He came in with a leader mentality, he's helped me focus on every cut, point, throw i make. It's pushed me out of my comfort zone and to not just go through the motions. 

EL: Before going further, can you quickly share your narrative about what sports you played growing up, how you discovered ultimate, and how long it took you to begin feeling fairly confident on the ultimate field?

JK: I first found the love of sports through hockey. I participated in soccer, track, baseball, and skateboarding. Every one has talked about the similarities of soccer to ultimate, but I've found hockey taught me the skills to body out in the air and know how use my frame to keep my defender boxed out. Skateboarding really just taught me how to constantly roll out of falls and layouts safely. I found ultimate in college while walking through a club fair [at University of Minnesota-Duluth. One of the captains just yelled, ‘You're tall! Come sign up for this now!’ And that was one of the luckiest things to happen to me. As many players know, that's almost entirely my friend group now! I first felt comfortable on the ultimate field my sophomore year at [D-I] Nationals. Didn't get to play a point at Sectionals or Regionals, but due to an injury i became starting D-line at Nationals, played surprisingly well, and haven't looked back since!

EL: While everyone who steps on an ultimate field needs to throw, catch, and defend, your playing style and abilities have certainly labeled you as a defender. When do you think you first gained that distinction from your teammates and/or opponents on the field and how has that characterization impacted you as a player?

JK: In college, I was very much a play-every-point type of player with athleticism but without much direction. My first experience with a coach was my first year on Wind Chill. Lou Abramowski, our coach at the time, saw my ability to be able to scan the entire field and helped direct me into using that to my advantage with poaches and help defense. He drilled in the need to take chances, as blocks are harder to come by in the AUDL. This, I believe, is what sculpted my unique defensive style where i nearly always play over top of the individual I'm guarding. This allows me to have a view of the disc at all times and to utilize my length on unders to get layout blocks. I also, perhaps more than i should, bait deep throws and let my man get two steps on me deep before I chase. The huge size of the AUDL field gives me time to use my speed to catch up and contest it if the throw isn't 100 percent. This is only possible thanks to my teammates having faith in me that there will always be over the top help so they can play tight on unders and make the other team make riskier throws.

EL: Obviously your speed and athleticism are key factors in your ability to play defense and get blocks in the AUDL, but what are some of the little things that you focus on every day in order to have success playing defense at the professional level? How have you improved with these 'little things' through the years to become a better all-around player?

JK: Defense is all about positioning and communication. Talking after every point about where the breakdown occurred and if a switch would have been feasible has been my approach to always improving. Aside from hours of jumping and sprinting exercises, I train hand-eye coordination endlessly usually with a tennis ball and a wall. Also, grip strength I've found to be a great attribute. Being able to not just get the block but catch it so there are no second chances is key.  

EL: If possible, I'd like to delve into your mindset as a defensive player over the course of a game. Do you prefer to guard the same person the entire game? What are your specific goals defensively, aside from the obvious 'let's prevent them from scoring?' Generally, how complex are the Chills's defensive schemes, and how long did it take you to feel comfortable and instinctive playing in that system? How does the system help you as an individual defender?

JK: We rarely have the same matchups for the entire game. We like to keep matchups and our system ever-evolving throughout a game to avoid the offense ever feeling comfortable. At this level, defensive systems are pretty easy to get comfortable with, learning how to play with different individuals and let them play to their strengths is essential to a well run defense.

EL: Who are some of the toughest matchups that you've had to deal with in your AUDL career, and why? Any particularly proud individual moments that you'd care to share?

JK: My toughest matchups that come to mind are usually the throwers. Notably from last year, [Madison’s] Kevin Brown threw two inside-out flick hucks that caught me off guard and made me completely change up my positioning. 

I haven't guarded [Indy’s] Travis Carpenter much since our early years, but he's always played with such tenacity I've always had a competitive rivalry to give everything I have when he's on the field.

[Madison’s] KPS [Kevin Pettit-Scantling] is the same way. He's the heart of the Radicals lately, so it's a huge goal to keep his impact quiet to hopefully never let them get in their flow.  

EL: I asked you about this last year and discussed it again recently during the AUDL Rewind Re-watch of last year's Minnesota at Indy game with Josh Klane and Travis Carpenter, but curious to again get your recollections and perspective from the key sequences that culminated with you making the Integrity call on yourself on a key play late in a tie game? 

JK: Firstly, I can't thank Carpenter enough for his kind words about the game and the play. Having the respect of the top athletes in the sport is quite meaningful. As far as the call, as a high level athlete in any sport you cant live and reminisce about one play or you wont last very long. My team was supportive of the call, and that's all i really cared about.

The Alleycats have always been a highly competitive but respectful team to play against, so it was easy to not get too fired up and have a clear head. Honestly, it's hugely a reflection of my father’s guidance to always play fair and have fun while playing. That mindset is likely why ultimate was such a good fit for me!

EL: Finishing with a couple of life questions, what's the most delicious thing you've cooked during the pandemic? 

JK: Juicy Lucy. Easily the best type of burger.

EL: And lastly, aside from ultimate, what's something that you haven't been able to do during the quarantine that you're most looking forward to doing again when (if?) life returns back to normal?

JK: The gym. It's a great stress reliever. And my upper body is the leanest its been since i was probably 16.