January 14, 2020
By Evan Lepler
In exactly 95 days, we will have a chance to watch Mark Lloyd again. For him, it will be an unprecedented opportunity to play a professional game in his hometown of Winnipeg.
“I’ve been a touring ultimate player for 14 years,” said Lloyd, a longtime Toronto Rush legend who will be suiting up for the Minnesota Wind Chill in 2020. “Some of my family and best friends have never seen me play in person.”
“So this game will mean a lot to me,” Lloyd said. “My friends and family have been extremely supportive of my playing career, so getting to play for them will be very special.”
Even if he never played another game in the AUDL, Lloyd’s legacy is secure, both on and off the field. At his best, he’s one of the 10 most dynamic players over the past decade, committing most of his 20s to his personal pursuit of frisbee excellence, along with the growth of this professional league that, frankly, might not exist without him.
Quite literally the son of the league’s founding father, the now 30-year-old Lloyd helped lead the Rush to an undefeated championship in 2013, which stands today as one of three perfect seasons in the AUDL’s eight-year history. He brought the Rush back to the finals in 2014 before missing all of 2015 with a frustrating knee injury that altered the course of his career. Whereas he played all 30 regular season games in his first two seasons, he has limited his exposure since the injury, competing in just 15 of 42 games for the Rush from 2016 to 2018 before deciding to take the entire 2019 season off—a choice necessitated by a mixture of physical and real-life reasons.
But despite the disappearance, diehard fans still rightfully consider him to be as frightening a big-game threat as the league has ever seen, evidenced by his multiple moments of individual brilliance at Championship Weekends in Madison (2016) and Montreal (2017).
Without the carrot of showcasing his skills in the place he lived for roughly 16 of the first 21 years of his life, Lloyd certainly would not have agreed to a new contract with a new team that he has never played with before. But the Wind Chill wisely imported a half-dozen Winnipeggers in 2019, bolstering their roster and broadening their potential fan base. By committing to holding a home game in Manitoba this April, the Wind Chill should cement their Canadian connection, and Lloyd could not miss out on the chance to compete on his home turf.
“[Wind Chill GM] Ben [Feldman] and I played against each other in high school, so we go back a bit,” explained Lloyd. “He has been keeping me updated on the possibility of a Winnipeg game for a while. I told him if it happened, there was a really good chance I would play, if they wanted me on the team.”
The contract was signed shortly after the game became official, which means Lloyd will take the field in Winnipeg on April 18 when the Minnesota Wind Chill host the Montreal Royal at the WSF Soccer North facility, an indoor stadium that will likely be jam-packed.
“I feel it’s going to be a loud and crazy environment,” added Lloyd, excited to take the field in an AUDL game for the first time since June 23, 2018. “Winnipeg sports fans are loud and with the venue already having sold 75 percent of its capacity, I think it will be a memorable game.”
Despite losing a home game in the Twin Cities, hosting a regular season contest in Winnipeg, about a seven and a half hour drive from Sea Foam Stadium in St. Paul, feels like a no-brainer for the Wind Chill. Similarly, adding a superstar like Lloyd is an easy call. He has some experience playing alongside the other Canadians on the roster, and the franchise is planning to hold a preseason practice weekend north of the border, which will provide reps and an introduction to many of his new teammates. It remains to be seen whether Lloyd will be a one-time addition or a potential postseason gamechanger.
“I know that no matter how many times I say that I am only playing the Winnipeg game, Ben and the other Winnipeg guys are going to keep insisting that I will play more,” Lloyd acknowledged. “This summer my main priority is Team Canada. I just can’t play as much ultimate as I used to for my body to be where I want it to be. My goal is to be perfectly healthy for WUGC 2020 [scheduled for July 11-July 18 in The Netherlands], so I will be managing my schedule to make that so, which right now means less ultimate, more training and throwing.”
Even with his on-the-record declaration that the plan is to participate in just one game—a determination that I believe is honest and genuine—it would not shock this author to see Lloyd on the field another time or two, especially in a potential postseason contest. But without any official further commitment, it would be wise to tune in on April 18.
Beyond Lloyd’s presence, there are countless other compelling storylines heading into the early stages of the 2020 AUDL season, headlined by the Winnipeg game, divisional realignment, the brand new Boston franchise, and other superstars who have found new homes.
Perhaps no team has made as much offseason noise as the aforementioned Wind Chill, who are hopeful of a return to the postseason after seeing their three-year playoff streak end in 2019. Stealing free agent Matt Rehder away from the Chicago Wildfire was a gigantic first step. By locking up the athletically explosive 28-year-old, Minnesota both raises its ceiling and removes a weapon from a rival contender.
For Rehder, the decision to join the Wind Chill was multi-faceted. As a commuting player who now lives in St. Louis, the veteran, who’s originally from Seattle, had plenty of regional options. In evaluating his situation from both an ultimate standpoint along with real-life considerations, Minnesota became the best landing spot.
“My girlfriend’s originally from Minneapolis,” Rehder explained to Chris McGlynn on the latest Stall Seven podcast. “She has family out there, so traveling out there to get to see them is one big reason...I don’t know how many more years I’m gonna be playing at this point. I’m looking year-to-year and kinda decided to join on with a team of guys that I felt like my skillset was better suited for.”
Adding an experienced and dynamic big man should be significant for the Wind Chill, who played a ton of close games in 2019. Looking back at their 6-6 slate, they ended Madison’s 46-game home winning streak against Midwest foes and also saw the debut of a potential future superstar in Quinn Snider. But Minnesota also lost three games by two goals or fewer, ultimately costing the franchise a chance to compete in the playoffs.
Of course, just adding Rehder and Lloyd does not guarantee success in the crowded Midwest, now known as the Central Division, especially with the new playoff structure that will limit the field to just two teams from each division. Unlike past seasons where three teams qualified, the 2020 postseason will remove the divisional semifinal round, leaving just a division title game preceding Championship Weekend.
With Indianapolis determined to prove that 2019 was no fluke and Madison desperate to return to its usual glory atop the division, the Wind Chill will not have an easy road to the final four by any standard. However, as we sit here in mid-January, no team in the league has generated more offseason buzz, both raising Minnesota’s profile and adding to the pressure that will be squarely on their shoulders this April when the actual games begin.
The Dallas Roughnecks, probably the number two team in terms of creating 2020 winter sizzle, are obviously no stranger to success.
In four years, the franchise has gone 54-11 including the playoffs, with two of those 11 defeats coming in the past two AUDL Championship games, both four-goal losses. Consequently, there remains an understandable sense of urgency for an organization that set the bar absurdly high in its inaugural season.
For Dallas Owner Jim Gerencser, competing for titles is nice, but not enough. The Roughnecks’ legacy will be defined by raw the number of times they can actually hoist the trophy.
Of course, their 2020 chances increased dramatically with the additions of two significant pieces. On December 23, the Roughnecks announced that they had signed Kyle Henke, the 21-year-old wunderkind who made one spectacular highlight after another while playing for the Austin Sol over the past couple years. Then, on January 3, they also shared the news that veteran playmaker Kurt Gibson, who won a title with Dallas in 2016, would be returning to the Roughnecks in 2020.
“I was just down in Dallas not too long ago, and Jim and I talked, and a little while later, I was the newest [Roughnecks] signee,” explained Gibson, coyly. “For all intents and purposes I missed last season of the AUDL because of my injury. This just fits best for my work travel schedule.”
While Gibson still resides in Chicago, it’s undeniably true that no star player has more frequently functioned as a commuting player, piggybacking the travel necessitated by his primary job to jettison in and out of ultimate. From 2014 to 2017, Gibson lived in the city he was playing for only one of those four years. So after two often-frustrating and injury-marred seasons with the Wildfire, the now 34-year-old Gibson rejoins Dallas poised to fill an important complementary role on a team with clear championship ambitions.
It will be interesting to see a) if Kurt can stay healthy, and b) how committed he is to venturing to Texas and the west coast on a regular basis. Because of injuries and other commitments, he has only played in 10 regular season games over the past three years. But it’s still a win for Dallas to lock him in for as much as he can give. He may be a journeyman, but his track record for positively impacting winning speaks for itself.
With Henke’s defection from Sol, the big brother/little brother dynamic between Dallas and Austin as AUDL competitors only grows deeper. Henke helped surge the Sol past the Roughnecks for the first time ever in 2019, but that one result only boosted Dallas’ desire to re-establish its regional dominance. By stealing Henke, one of the most talented cornerstones of the Austin franchise, the Roughnecks disrupt the Sol’s long-term plans and further their status as the premier squad in Texas.
“It was not an easy decision to make as a kid who grew up in Austin,” admitted Henke, who snagged 66 goals and dished 56 assists over the past two seasons, leading the Sol in both categories.
Basically, it boiled down to the fact that Henke will have graduated from Texas Tech this spring and is no longer heading back home to Austin for the summer. Real life will keep him in Lubbock, where he plans to start a residency program at his church, limiting his availability to travel to Sol practices throughout the season. Furthermore, his friendship with Roughnecks Captain Carson Wilder, with whom Henke was college teammates at Texas Tech, makes it easier to depart for Dallas.
“With Carson being in Lubbock, we’ll take those road trips together,” said Henke. “Getting to train, play, and travel with Carson is going to make the next 6-7 months simply more fun…My family reassured me that they’ve love to see me play for Dallas and with Carson in a new environment. I really wanted them to be able to watch me play often, but I think they might make some trips to Dallas to watch.”
While the youthful Henke is still an unfinished product, his steady improvement along with his oozing raw potential create another tantalizing pickup for Dallas, who should have the majority of its 2019 core back, anchored by the trio of captains who were recently announced in Wilder, Dalton Smith, and Kaplan Maurer. And earlier this morning, Dallas also confirmed that Wes Nemec would return for his third season as the team’s head coach, adding further stability to the team’s winning foundation.
The Roughnecks’ transition to a new division offers new challenges, but nothing that should shift the expectation of Dallas being back at Championship Weekend this August. And after two years of not having quite enough firepower in the final, maybe Henke and Gibson will be the two key additions that surge the Roughnecks back on top.
The Tuesday Toss is published weekly on theAUDL.com during the season and occasionally during the offseason. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler