July 23, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
When he finished his college career at Miami (OH), Matt Stevens never really expected to play ultimate again. A decade later, not only does his family own the franchise that won the most recent AUDL championship, but Stevens is one of just 10 players who’s competed in 100 games in the history of the league. Even more impressively, the speedy cutter ranks fourth all-time in goals scored, an amazing reality for a guy that claims he had never run a ‘vertical stack’ prior to playing frisbee professionally.
Stevens’ emergence with the New York Empire came first as the unknown player who found a role and ran with it, and then his influence grew when his family purchased ownership and took over the operation of an organization that had significant unfulfilled potential. The Stevens family officially seized control of the Empire around the time of Championship Weekend in 2017, and two years later they became the marquee franchise in the league by completing an undefeated season and winning the title for the first time.
It was a remarkable transformation for a franchise that had gone 6-8 and missed the playoffs just two years prior. In fact, over a three-year span before the Empire’s perfect 2019 campaign launched, New York had been decidedly average, going 21-21 in the regular season from 2016 to 2018. It was obviously more than just an ownership change that vaulted the Empire into the elite—individuals like Bryan Jones, Grant Lindsley, Beau Kittredge, and Jack Williams also had a lot to do with it—but the Empire had reached the holy grail while maintaining a sizable core of their original crew that had been grinding since 2013. With a satisfied smile on his face while sitting on the AUDL Championship Gameday Live set shortly after the final buzzer in San Jose, Stevens soaked it all in alongside Matt LeMar, Mike Drost, Matt Auletta, and CJ Ouelette, the group of original Empires that had endured disappointments aplenty and survived to realize the glorious championship feeling.
Although Stevens was not active for the final at Championship Weekend, he did play in all 12 regular season games for the Empire in 2019, scoring 34 goals (third on the team) and completing 98.7 percent of his passes (tops on the team among players with at least 15 throws on the year). It was his sixth different season scoring at least 30 goals, a feat only achieved by one other player in AUDL history, Indy’s goal-scoring king, Cameron Brock. Furthermore, Stevens has always been a reliable O-line cutter in large part because of his aversion to turnovers. Among the 84 players all-time who have caught at least 100 goals, Stevens’ 95.8 percent completion rate ranks sixth, a testament to his poise and decision-making ability to maintain possession throughout his career.
I caught up with Stevens last week to learn a little bit more about his goal-scoring mentality, his family’s journey into ultimate ownership, and his other top memories from his seven seasons in the AUDL. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: Firstly, what's the latest in your life? What has your everyday routine been lately as the pandemic has continued to roar and we've all somewhat accepted that this summer will be unlike any other in recent memory?
Matt Stevens: When the pandemic set in, I committed fully to being as prepared as possible for the season, if we had one. I was training with Jeff Babbitt almost every day; sprints, agility, throwing and weights—the concrete ones you’ve seen on YouTube. I was in the best shape I’d been in, perhaps the only exception would be 2014. I’m sure that’s not instilling fear in our East Division foes, but Jeff is probably in a similar boat and that certainly will. With the end of the 2020 season, the workouts have moved to more cross training along with Ben Katz; tennis, baseball and I’m sure some pickleball in the near future.
Amongst all of the turmoil, a bright spot of life in the pandemic would be my girlfriend Victoria and I’s puppy. Finley is a miniature golden and the best, but I’ve been adamant to keep discs away from her which might seem counterintuitive.
EL: Back in mid-March, when much of America abruptly came to a halt, no region of the country was dealing with the impacts of the pandemic as much as New York City and its surrounding areas. I specifically remember hearing that things were especially dire in New Rochelle, where the Empire have played their home games for several years. What was it like being adjacent to all of this four months ago, and how has the feeling in the area evolved as New York cases have gradually gone done more recently?
MS: We had our usual practice at Fosina Field and there was a sense that things were different. At every practice we have a spread of snacks, drinks, fruit etc… and we took precautions so the items could be grabbed individually and players washed their hands before and after practice. What I recall most though from this practice was on my way home saying this was the best team we have ever had. That would be our last practice for the 2020 AUDL season.
As you alluded to, New York and the surrounding area was hit hard right off the bat, but with strong local leadership we have tackled the pandemic better than anywhere else in the country. I have been filled with a sense of pride for months as I drive through New Rochelle and everyone is wearing a mask. The sense of community here is strong and people are willing to sacrifice for each other. Perhaps the realness and breadth of immediate impact has stuck with the metro area and aided in our reaction to the pandemic, you just hope that others will recognize this can happen where they live too. You can take some simple precautions that make a huge difference. Like, just wear a mask.
EL: I feel like I know bits and pieces of the story from a bunch of past conversations, but I'm wondering if you can share the story about how and when you and your family assumed ownership responsibilities for the Empire? What was the process of taking over the team and what have been your primary responsibilities in the time since?
MS: I’ve been very fortunate to always have the support of my parents, Barbara and Paul, and my sister Melissa. In college at Miami University (of Ohio), they would often fly out to the Midwest to watch me play, and that was theirs and really my first exposure to the sport. This continued with the Empire, and I’d say my mom in particular has been at more Empire games than anyone with the exception of Matt LeMar, Mike Drost and myself.
Simply put, prior to the 2017 offseason and after a few disappointing seasons for the Empire both on and off the field, we felt that we could be successful operating the team. We took control right around Championship Weekend 2017, and upon returning home that week from Montreal we got to work. The restructuring of the Empire began a few nights later when my mom purchased a packet of jumbo sticky notes and we broke down the operations of the team into categories with a list of everything we could think of that would fall under them. As we stuck them to the walls of the room to see the laundry lists, it soon became clear we were going to need a bigger room.
As in my day job, I am a bit of a utility employee who does some of everything. I have done every task related to running the Empire. We have built up a strong back office, and although I still am involved all over, it gives me the ability to focus my energies on some specific areas. My favorite would be the Ultimate Operations; things related to coaching, rosters, practices, scheduling, equipment, etc... I am in an enviable position where the wealth of knowledge on our team is vast. Part of being successful, this goes for cutting too, is knowing when to defer. There is no doubt in my mind that Bryan Jones and David Blau make up the best coaching staff. We’ve got a thousand of games of AUDL experience with our veterans and some of the most decorated players in the sport. There is always someone to bounce ideas off of. Another area would be travel, although I do not do the actual bookings, with seven years of experience I’d like to think we travel in a way that is conducive to being successful on the field.
EL: The Empire have usually been among the annual contenders since the team was founded, but your inability to beat the Toronto Rush kept the franchise shy of the championship game for a long time. With that lens as a backdrop, what's it been like for you, both as a player and member of the ownership family, to see this team get over that hump and go 18-1 in the last 19 games, including an undefeated 2019 season?
MS: Toronto was consistently a better team than we were, but our winless record was not indicative of how close many of those games were. One thing I think it indicates was they thought they were going to win every game and perhaps we only wanted to win and sometimes maybe we just wanted to not lose. They were often better conditioned and more consistent with the disc over that period of time as well, both keys to being a successful ultimate team. Since that win over Toronto, there has been a fundamental shift and we’re now carrying that confidence.
Winning the championship in 2019 was a culmination of years of hard work and persistence, but the most emotional moment in my ultimate career was beating Toronto for the first time in the 2018 East Division Championship Game.
From the ownership side, this was a defining win that validated our “Empire Philosophy” could be successful and if we stuck to our plan we would continue to grow and develop.
EL: Aside from the administrative and organizing side, you have remained a player who snagged 35 goals last year and sits fourth in AUDL history with 259 catches in the end zone. No one else who's played their entire AUDL career with the Empire has more than 135. When you joined the team in 2013, did you envision yourself being a primary goal scorer that could have this type of sustained success on the field?
MS: The answer to that is no. When I tried out for the Empire, I had never played high level ultimate. I didn’t know what the AUDL or club ultimate was. I knew one person at tryouts, excellent AUDL defender Ben Ivers, who invited me to go with him two days prior. I saw myself as a D-Line player who loved to score after a turn. The weather was awful that day, a staple of early year Empire tryouts, and I excelled while others struggled. A few weeks later, the Empire hosted a pickup game during the tryout process and I must have scored 80 percent of the time I was on the field that night. Then Head Coach Aaron Bell pulled me aside and said “you are now an O-Line Cutter” and I haven’t been back over since. Other than scoring and not turning the disc over, I had no idea what I was doing, I had never heard of a vertical stack. I could not have foreseen the career I’ve had so far.
I would like to note that my sustained success is directly correlated to the talent that I have been surrounded by, both offensively and defensively. It is a luxury to practice against the best defense in the league each week—the Empire has been a top three defense every year except one. On the O-line, I have been fortunate enough to step on the field with an expanse of great players, from Noah Saul and Taylor Brooks to anyone who played offense in 2019.
EL: Do you remember the first goal you ever caught in the AUDL? Among the other 258, do you have a favorite goal scoring moment or two?
MS: I remember my first goal as my only AUDL Top 10 appearance. My game is far from flashy and I catch a lot of boring goals. It was a buzzer beater, I was behind the pile and I snagged it without much conflict. This would be somewhat of a trend for me over the next few years where I was on the end of quarter lines. I had a knack for “picking up the trash” and must have a few dozen of those to my name. CJ Ouellette has affectionately used the nickname ‘Trash Cat’ when I bring one of those down.
As far as favorites go; I scored the tying goal in the first overtime of our double OT game last year vs DC. I started the point catching a break side around from Harper [Garvey], usually a cut I see Jack [Williams] make, and ended up taking off for the end zone. [Ben] Jagt caught the disc and I kept cutting towards the sideline. Rowan [McDonnell] rolled off to cover the around throw and I ended up catching an easy goal, completely unguarded. Certainly on brand for me.
Next would be scoring the first offensive point of the 2018 season, which was meaningful for a few reasons. What sticks out the most is it was a dishy assist from Beau [Kittredge], who I consider to be the greatest ultimate player of all time. This was the first AUDL point I played with him.
EL: Having caught at least 33 goals in six of your seven seasons--the list of AUDL players all-time with six seasons of 33 or more goals is just you and Cameron Brock--I want to ask the simple question you've been surely asked many times: what's been your mindset in terms of being a consistent striker downfield and in the end zone? And I'm also curious to ask, what do you remember about 2017, when you finished with just 10 goals in 10 games, coinciding--or perhaps correlating--with the Empire's only below .500 regular season record. Was it a nagging injury that limited you, just the way your role was that year, or something else you remember that slowed you down?
MS: My mindset revolves around not turning the disc over and scoring easy goals. For me, I feel they are intertwined and have led to my consistent ability to find the end zone and stay on the O-line. Most obviously, if you turn the disc over you cannot score. Catching “easy” goals, which many of mine have been, is something I pride myself on. This is perhaps less about ease of catching the goal and more about making the throw easy. It’s a combination of anticipation, timing and knowing your thrower. You aren’t going to see these goals on the highlight reel, but I’d like to think the analytics would say they are efficient.
The 2017 season seemed like a bit of a perfect storm. We had talent, but no one to bring it all together. We went through a number of coaches. We left a lot of potential on the field that year. This was the Empire team that had the lowest chemistry and subsequently our worst record. I was managing an injury, but that only held me out of a few games. Personally, I felt that I was never able to find my role that year.
EL: Can you quickly share your general narrative about what sports you played growing up, how you discovered ultimate, and when your passion for frisbee really took flight?
MS: I played everything growing up, from cricket to paintball. I participated in town sports year round; baseball, basketball, soccer. I love games and competition, so I’ll play pretty much anything.
Aside from a handful of informal games at summer camp and a few pickup games in high school, I found ultimate through the club sports fair my sophomore year of college. After going over to the track and soccer booths, I was approached by a student who asked if I’d ran track and played soccer in high school. I responded yes, and they invited me to join the ultimate team. So I went to the first tryout/pickup game and I remember the first huck I saw. The flight of the disc was beautiful. I was hooked. The group of players on the team seemed like a fun bunch and the rest is history.
As a side note, when I graduated I never thought I’d play ultimate again. Not necessarily because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t know there were playing options outside of college. I hadn’t played for a year and half when stumbled upon a Facebook ad for a summer league in 2012. It was through that league that I met Ben Ivers.
EL: In seven seasons of AUDL travel, I'm sure you've experienced your fair share of adventures, both amusing moments with teammates and frustrating journeys that did not go according to plan. What are the top one or two AUDL travel stories that come to mind, either positively or negatively?
MS: We have certainly run the travel gambit; from the early years driving our own cars to Toronto and driving back to New York through the night to last year when we flew to Raleigh a day early to prepare at our hotel for the game.
We always have road games on or around July 4th, often times it’s a northern trip to Canada. In 2015, we had a game on July 3rd vs the Dragons. We were only traveling with 17 players, and if I recall correctly, no coach. My dad heard we were going up short handed and he had these t-shirts made to pass out before the game. They were simple, the American Flag and Empire est. 2013. The only people who have those shirts were at that game and they’ve become the prized piece of Empire memorabilia. It has become tradition since, for those who have them, to wear them on our July 4th trips each year. We were shorthanded, coachless, it was hot and we had driven all day to get to Rochester; but we all pulled together and won handily. I have a soft spot for that travel weekend each year.
The epitome of travel during the early years was a game against Toronto in 2013. We couldn’t have been traveling with more than 20 players and about a half hour before game time we looked around and noticed we were missing a car full of players; we didn’t have Elly [Ouelette] running logistics back then. The car, containing some of our top players, Billy Katz and Husayn Carnegie to name a few, had gotten a flat tire and showed up closer to halftime. We probably got whooped that day and then drove back the 10-plus hours to New York with eight of us packed into Nic Dacey’s minivan. I wouldn’t trade those trips, but we weren’t in a position to succeed on the field.
EL: If we remove all current and former Empire from consideration, who have been a few of your favorite players to watch in the AUDL during your seven years in the league?
MS: The player who sticks out simply for the ‘wow’ factor would be Tyler DeGirolamo, specifically on the Breeze in 2014. He was physically the best player on the field and dominated. He torched us early on, so late in the season our defensive strategy pivoted specifically to stopping him from beating us. It worked, and we moved on to the playoffs.
Someone I haven’t played against, but have always enjoyed watching is Marcelo Sanchez. In the early years, thinking ‘14/’15 Spiders, he may have been overshadowed by the myriad of great players surrounding him. I’ve admired his engine and the way he plays his role. His layout form is pretty distinct too.
Coolest person to watch: Stanley Peterson.