Max Sheppard turns 24 next week, and he picked up an early birthday present Saturday as he brought home Most Valuable Player honors at the inaugural American Ultimate Disc League all-star game in Madison, Wis.
The Fox Chapel and Edinboro graduate is making the most of his fifth season on his hometown Pittsburgh Thunderbirds squad in the national professional league, and the all-star experience, he said, just added to the confidence in his abilities.
“There were just a lot of amazing players on one field, most of the best players in the country,” Sheppard said. “I was picked pretty late in the (all-star) draft and was an underrated player going into the game. But that didn’t matter to me. To be named MVP was a complete dream come true. I was happy with the way I played.”
Sheppard played for Team KPS, named after captain Kevin Pettit-Scantling, a defender for the Madison Radicals, a rival of the Thunderbirds in the AUDL Midwest Division.
The game went into overtime tied 25-25, and each team scored twice in a five-minute extra session. Team KPS tied it with a score in the final seconds of the overtime.
That put the game into a sudden-death situation, and Team KPS got the winner for a 28-27 victory.
Regulation for AUDL games, including Saturday’s contest, is four 12-minute quarters.
“I had a feeling that it was going to be high scoring,” Sheppard said. “I felt that having a good start to the game was going to help us out. I wanted to set a precedent with strong play, and that’s what I was able to do.”
Sheppard finished with three goals, five assists and two blocks. He completed 22 of his 23 throws for 180 yards and added 218 receiving yards.
“Max played with a lot of confidence,” said all-star game organizer Tim Debyl, the owner of the Madison Radicals and the AUDL director of marketing. “He wasn’t one of the more recognizable players in the league coming in, but he quickly showed that he had another gear. He worked really well with a lot of the top players and opened a lot of eyes around the league. It was a really special night for him.”
In Ultimate, two teams of seven players attempt to advance a flying disc up the field through passing. Players are not permitted to run with the disc.
A point is scored by catching the disc in the opposing team’s end zone.
Sheppard said he first dreamed of an all-star game in the AUDL while riding a bus to an away game during the 2015 season.
His dreams came true when the AUDL announced the event before the start of the season in April.
Sheppard got the all-star call as the Thunderbirds’ representative in early May before a game against Chicago.
Through seven regular-season games this season, the Thunderbirds are 4-3 and tied for second with the Radicals in the division. They have won four in a row after an 0-3 start.
Sheppard has 26 goals, 21 assists and six blocks.
In 45 career games with Pittsburgh, he owns 110 goals and 121 assists.
Sheppard said that while he is happy to find success with the Thunderbirds again this season, he is equally pleased to share the field with fellow 2013 Fox Chapel graduate Jimmy Towle.
They helped the Foxes claim a state title as juniors in 2012 and were reunited as teammates on the Thunderbirds in 2017.
“We hadn’t played together a lot since high school, but we had a lot of chemistry on the field with each other,” said Towle, a 2017 Pitt graduate and member of the national power Panthers Ultimate squad.
“Last year was a rebuilding year (for the Thunderbirds). We lost a lot of guys on the O-line who were big contributors. The team needed people to step up. Max threw me a lot of assists, and we bonded over our point-scoring connection. It was a nostalgic feeling. It reminded me of our high school days.”
Towle has 13 goals, eight assists, four blocks, 89 completions and a 94.7 completion percentage this season.
Towle and Sheppard each scored a team-best four goals in a 17-12 victory over Detroit on June 1.
The Thunderbirds return to action against the Radicals at 6 p.m. on June 22 at JC Stone Field in North Park.