The American Ultimate Disc League and the New York Empire's New Jersey Ties

The sport of Ultimate frisbee, or disc was invented at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey over 50 years ago. Today, three million people in the United States of America play ultimate and there is a professional ultimate league called the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) that is preparing to for its 11th season.

The AUDL began with just eight teams in 2012 and in the decade since has expanded to 25 teams from east to west coast. As a result, the league announced a "two-year renewal" with FOX Sports to air a Game of the Week throughout the 2022 season.

 The tri-state area's local team is the New York Empire, who won the Championship in 2019 and are looking to reclaim the throne under the guidance of co-head coaches, Charlie Hoppes and Anthony Nunez. Both have experience coaching at high levels of Ultimate, but Nunez is a New Jersey native who has done a lot for the sport during his coaching career. His career began in the 90s at Columbia High School where he was influential in getting the sport off the ground and running. He went on to become the varsity coach there and lead the program to over ten state championships. Nunez is also a founding member of the DEVYL program which has developed young players who are mostly from New Jersey so let's take a look at the Jersey ties this team has.

An In-Depth Look at the New York Empire

Heading into 2022, the New York Empire's coaching staff will be led by Since 2014, Hoppes has coached another AUDL team called the Philadelphia Phoenix. With his co-head coach, Anthony Nunez, Hoppes will work with rookies like Matt Ellis and Chris McLaughlin, the latter also comes from the DEVYL Program. However, one of the most key players on this year's team is Ben Jagt, who led the league in goal scoring in 2021 by eight goals more than the player who was ranked second. Since 2017, the Empire's top forward has won two consecutive Most Valuable Player awards. With a roster as talented as the Empire's, co-head coach Charlie Hoppes expressed his excitement at being able to hold a real preseason without the pandemic's interference.

It really has been nice to be able to have a real preseason incorporate new players on the field, integrating them into [our] culture as well as finding out what they’re bringing and making that a part of our culture. That’s always a fun part of any new season and we feel like we’ve been able to do that this year.

- Empire Co-Head coach, Charlie Hoppes

Anthony Nunez is the head coach of the DEVYL Program's U-20 team. Nunez describes the program as "an AAU team" which means DEVYL is made up of elite travel teams. The link it has with New Jersey is that the DEVYL team's including the U-20 team that Nunez is the head coach on. Seven players on the Empire's current roster have played in the DEVYL program before; Marques Brownlee, Scott Xu, Matt LaBar, Noriaki To, and Mark Lin as well as the two rookies, Chris McLaughlin and Matt Ellis. Coach Nunez reflected on the growth that the sport has seen 

It's really helped improve the growth of the youth scene and it gives them that first step of falling in love with Ultimate so that when they play in college or in the pros, they get that spark of wanting to develop and play at the highest levels.

- Empire Co- Coach Anthony Nunez

Marques Brownlee, who was described by Coach Hoppes as, "an excellent ultimate player who is the catalyst of the defensive line" is one of the biggest names on the Empire roster. Brownlee was raised in Maplewood in Essex County and also runs a YouTube channel called MKBHD that has millions of subscribers. While the tri-state area's top ultimate team has one of the world's biggest YouTube stars, there are other players who lack the notoriety but whose careers have been built upon great accomplishments.

A New Jersey, Grassroots Experience

During the cold winter of 2022 that was the AUDL offseason, the New York Empire acquired Scott Xu. Coach Hoppes described his team's new signing as a "very well-regarded veteran" who has spent the last eight years playing in the AUDL. Xu's career began at the same time that the American Ultimate Disc League did, so let's learn about the journey that brought the Empire player from casual high school frisbee to playing in North America's top professional league.

In 2007, Scott Xu started attending West Windsor-Plainsboro High School as a freshman. WWP is a decently sized school in Mercer County and was where he fell in love with what has become a lifelong passion.

We were a group of friends that just played together after school and we started going to tournaments to play against other schools, so it was throughout these years that I fell in love with Ultimate. - New York Empire player, Scott Xu

Four years later in 2011, Scott enrolled at Rutgers University where he joined the Scarlet Knight's ultimate team (commonly known as 'Rutgers machine). However, when Xu arrived Rutgers was "not even qualifying for the regional championships" so it would be some time before the team would weave its legacy into the fabric of Ultimate's founding state. Thanks to the DEVYL Program and the U-20 coach, Anthony Nunez, Scott and the Scarlet Knights began building the 'Rutgers Machine' into postseason contenders as that school's ultimate program calls itself.

One of the keys to turning around Rutgers ultimate team in the 2010s was the generosity shown by pro teams in New York and New Jersey towards that program. Scott explained that he and his teammates were given the chance to practice with the New Jersey Hammerheads and New York Rumble during the offseason to further enhance their strengths as individual players.

After getting reps playing with the most talented players in the game it would be like if you went to the NBA and then came back to the NCAA. Things are just a step-down in terms of competition and if you're forged in the fires of high-level play, then it does wonders for your growth as a player. 

Three years later, it was 2014 and the team had worked hard to prepare themselves for a great opportunity. The chance that lying there, waiting for them was to test their mettle in the College Finals, or Regionals for division one men's ultimate. When Xu had first arrived, the team was not qualifying for this level but over that time had progressed steadily.

Standing in the way of the Scarlet Knights was an Ivy league school, Cornell University, which Xu described as "the juggernaut of our region" who had not lost in regionals for nine years. However, Xu and the Scarlet Knights were up to the challenge and defeated Cornell thus taking over the summit for the Northeast region of College Ultimate. This was a monumental achievement for the Scarlet Knights' ultimate team because they made Nationals for the first time in program history.

Rutgers was able to become an elite team because of the hard work and dedication of people like Scott Xu and his co-head coach from Jersey, Anthony Nunez. The DEVYL program continues to give teenagers who want to play at the highest levels of Ultimate, the "first step of falling in love with Ultimate," as DEVYL founder and Nunez described. While the growth that Ultimate has seen as a professional sport in the United States has picked up steam, the sport's premier pro league, AUDL has not just expanded its array of teams. Here is how the Empire's newest player Scott Xu described the changes he has seen since beginning his career in 2013.

We were playing at a community college football stadium in front of maybe 150 people and to me, that was awesome... but now the stands are packed for the New York Empire, you have many more eyeballs watching us play virtually as well as in person and there's been incredible growth in terms of the exposure that we're getting. 

The Future for Ultimate Disc

One week ago, four teams including New York traveled to the South American country of Colombia for an exhibition tournament along with three other AUDL teams including the L.A. Aviators and D.C. Breeze. Before that unique showcase took place, coach Anthony Nunez explained what his team could expect from playing in different conditions over in Latin America.

“It's a different style of Ultimate than what we're used to in North America. In North America, [we take] longer strides and there's more defense than in the South American game and the players are getting to play against different players as opposed to playing against each other. - Coach Anthony Nunez

The team has played exceedingly well during the warm-up tournament in Colombia and looks like a strong force heading into their season opener, as Nunez elaborated "We're lucky that we have an extremely talented team [with] three first team ALL-AUDL players [in] our starting offense, one second teamer in Jeff Babbit and also all-stars in Antoine Davis."

New Jersey's own, Scott Xu is bringing eight years of AUDL experienced to New York this season and the veteran discussed the lofty aspirations that this team has it's eyes set on for this year.

Even though it could feel like a lot of pressure to set our goals for [a championship] I feel that the team is hungry for it. Last year a lot of [Empire] veterans feel like they came short of their goal a little bit and even though winning a championship is a [high standard] I feel like everyone on the team is hungry for it.

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Anthony graduated from Montclair State University, where he covered a variety of sports for three years. He co-hosts a sports-themed radio show on campus radio station, WMSC 90.3 FM, which was recently named #1 college radio station in the nation.