The three-year plan. It was the theme of the 2016 season for the Washington D.C. Current.
In three seasons the team wants to be competing for the MLU Championship. Not only do they want to win but be in a position where they are nearly unbeatable and be in the best position that an ultimate franchise can be in.
“Think about this, three years is almost like high school or college. How much different were you at the beginning and end of those experiences,” head coach Will Smolinski said to conclude tryouts back in February. “I expect this team to just as much a part of who you are as where you went to high school or where you went to college.”
Going 3-7, with technically only two on the field wins for D.C., was not the result that the team expected for their first season into the plan. The team knew they were going to struggle with the team’s highest roster turnover in the four year history of the team. The Current were going to be without 2014 East MVP Alan Kolick, 2014 Championship Game MVP Markham Shofner, and many other players that help build up the franchise as one of the top organizations in the MLU.
“We didn’t have as many big names or big personalities as we had in years past. That had an impact on the field and in the locker room,” O-line handler Lloyd Blake said. “This team had a surprisingly good vibe despite our record. I was surprised the positivity stuck around the entire season.”
Accepting a season to be a rebuilding season is never easy for any franchise. Players do not want to be losing a valuable year of competition and a team never wants to lose. Finding the right pieces to be a part of a team’s revival is imperative. By doing so the team welcomed their largest MLU rookie class of 17 players to the squad. A team full of positivity and a group of guys that bought into a year of professional ultimate, the three year plan, and the DC Current organization.
Using a year to rebuild, the coaching staff which consisted of two new faces, Sam McClellan and Jacob Nuxoll, looked to take the opportunity to implement a new offense. A style meant specifically for the pro field, utilizing the entire field space and focused on cut timing. Different facets would be added to the scheme as the seasons went on and as the team developed more chemistry.
Despite the odds set against the team, they were hoping that by the end of the season the Current was winning games and battling for one of the two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. To be in a position to accomplish that goal, D.C. needed to get some important wins in the first half of the season to be within striking range.
Early on the team was surprisingly competitive especially against the teams that they would be battling against for a playoff spot, the Boston Whitecaps and the Philadelphia Spinners. However the team dropped their first three matches at home and did not get a victory until their first road trip. The squad dropped one on the road at Boston and finally won in New York, avenging a loss a week before to the New York Rumble.
“The biggest moment [for the team], I believe, was that first road trip,” Blake said. “After that weekend, I had a handful of new friends, not just new teammates.”
Blake was stepping into the biggest role on the team. He was to replace Kolick as the primary handler and be the biggest facilitator for the new offense, essentially the O-line’s quarterback. With over a 90% completion percentage, nine goals, 23 assists, seven blocks, and averaging 1.446 touches per offensive possession (TPOP), Blake was one of the quickest to fill into his new role.
Delrico Johnson and Erik Salmi would both move over from the D-line and join Blake on the offensive side of the disc. Johnson (22 goals, 12 assists, and 10 blocks) as the team’s first cut and deep option, with Salmi (eight assists, 87.9 completion percentage, 1.081 TPOP) as a rest handler/ hybrid. With his new transition, Johnson proved his prowess on both sides of the disc and was named 2016 Eastern Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
As the season went on the team developed a goal to set the bar on how they progressed and would be prepared for upcoming seasons. The team was hoping to get a win in every city in the Eastern Conference. The Current had already claimed their first one in New York and followed it up with a home victory the week after.
Injuries though prevented a late end of season push for D.C. In a span of two games the team lost three of their offensive starters, Blake, Zach Norrbom, and Joe Freund, ending the hope of a postseason berth.
Even with those starters in the lineup the team’s offense struggled with the new style throughout the season, primarily in the fourth quarter. The Current were outscored 52-31 in the final ten minutes of each game and had a lead heading into the fourth in three of their seven losses. If those leads held this would be a 6-4 team, still out of the playoffs but with a different mindset. In the other three quarters of play the team’s point differential was +0.
“Within the last two games we were getting more consistent. We still have some individual skills we need to sharpen to be able to use more of it, or add on different looks, but they did a good job of testing new theory,” Smolinski said. “We are in a good position to come in next year with some more specific and precise changes.”
With the team’s final 19-18 loss to the Spinners at home, the whole season had come to a disappointing end for the team. The year ended on a three match losing streak (although the team technically got a win in a cancelled game), not the way the team wanted to finish 2016 with a 3-7 record.
“Our performance does not define us and what we are trying to build,” Keven Moldenhauer said. “I hoped that we would mature ahead of the three year plan. I’m happy because I got to play with guys that were 100% committed to working out, practice, pods, and most importantly to each other.”
While it may not be reflected in the team’s record, they drastically improved from the beginning to end of the season. The coaching staff will be able to take away a lot of positives.
Rookies stepped into larger roles as the season went on. Four players were consistently starting on the O-line at season’s end with Mark Flores (11 goals, 12 assists), Kyle Khalifa (19 goals, six blocks), Andrew Ferraro (11 assists, 93.4 completion percentage) and Justin Solis (nine goals, eight assists). This will leave the team with a strong base on offense to start 2017, if the team is able to resign all of these rookies.
Joining them with another impressive rookie campaign was Antoine Davis (11 goals, 10 blocks), who played on both lines throughout the season. Davis quickly broke-out in Week 1 with four goals and three blocks against the defending champs and dominated the skies for the Current this season. Unfortunately Davis is moving to California during the offseason and will not be back with the squad next year.
“We have a much better understanding of ourselves and our teammates. Week 1 we were looking at players saying, “I didn’t know they could that” or “They were supposed to be already good at this”. It was much easier to make adjustments in week 11 with more confidence because we just knew each other better,” Smolinski said.
It is difficult to gauge how this season set the team up in terms of their three year plan. The record and performances in late game situations is not where the team wanted to be at looking into the next phase. Keeping the organization on track for the championship in 2018 will be the goal for this offseason.
The Current already have three players coming back next season; the team’s leading scorer Johnson, Norrbom, and Moldenhauer will each be in the second year of their two year contracts.
“We have targeted a core group from this year’s team that we hope to bring back and sign before tryouts,” Current general manager Matt Dewhurst said. “I’d love to have the whole team back, but we know that’s not realistic in any sport, let alone ultimate. We know that a huge key to success is retention.”
Retention, or lack of retention of players, led to the team creating the three year plan. Accepting that the team is building for the future, the Current knew that this season was going to be rough one.
“We’re never satisfied with losing, that’s just the nature of sports, but we are happy with the direction the team is headed in and we certainly can take a lot of positives away from this year,” Dewhurst said. “I believe that in 2, 3, 5 years down the road we’ll look back at 2016 and say that it was the most important season in Current history because we helped lay a foundation for the future. And that future is a very bright one.”