Photo by Trent Erickson

Thursday Thoughts: Pittsburgh at Minnesota — AUDL Playoffs, Round 1

August 3, 2017

1. Can either Pittsburgh or Minnesota seriously challenge Madison?

The Midwest Division playoffs begin tomorrow night at 8:30 PM Eastern on AUDL.TV/Live, and while the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds and Minnesota Wind Chill hope to reframe the narrative in their matchup, there remains a lingering feeling that the perennial division champion Madison Radicals will be more than ready for whoever moves on. Since the start of 2015, both Pittsburgh and Minnesota have one win apiece against Madison. Pitt prevailed at home against the Radicals in 2015, but has lost six straight to the perennial Midwest champs, including a pair of postseason elimination games. Minnesota got its win over Madison this year on April 29, though that was nearly 100 days ago, and it feels more like 10 seasons ago considering the Breese Stevens beatdown the Wind Chill experienced on July 1.

Even with the ascendance of Pittsburgh and Minnesota in recent years, Madison continues to hold the top spot in the Midwest at the end of each season. Photo by Trent Erickson

As I’ve contemplated this Pitt-Minnesota matchup throughout the week, I’ve been befuddled by the following paradox: I think that Pittsburgh has a better chance of challenging Madison next week, but I think Minnesota is still the favorite at home against the Thunderbirds this week. Pittsburgh may have the taller ceiling, but it’s harder to be confident in the Thunderbirds playing to their full potential on the road this week.

Ultiworld AUDL Analyst Nathan Jesson has wisely characterized Pittsburgh’s predicament on several occasions. In the Thunderbirds’ franchise history, they are 14-1 with an average goal differential of +8 when superstar Tyler DeGirolamo is healthy and available. Without him, Pitt is 19-12 with an average goal differential of +2.2. Those statistics, when juxtaposed, are striking. The team still wins 61% of their games without their Team USA anchor, but that success rate rises to 93% when DeGirolamo is out there.

What does this all mean for Friday night at Sea Foam Stadium? Well, it really could boil down to the mindsets of the two teams. The Minnesota Wind Chill have already enjoyed their best year ever in the AUDL, with an 11-3 record, including victories over both Madison and Pittsburgh. If they are anything close to being overly satisfied with their regular season success, than that could be their death knell. Similarly, Pittsburgh’s destination will probably parallel the team’s overall commitment and purpose. If the Thunderbirds are not fully bought in, they will find themselves eliminated eight days before another rematch with the Radicals.

2. Which gunslinger can limit his mistakes more?

Neither Minnesota nor Pittsburgh were in the top half of the league in terms of completion percentage during the regular season. The Wind Chill were 14th at 91.8%, while the Thunderbirds were 16th at 91.5%. Montreal and San Francisco were the only other playoffs teams that weren’t in the top 12 in this category.

Looking at the matchup, Friday’s outcome could very well come down to which ambitious handler has fewer turnovers: Minnesota’s Josh Klane or Pittsburgh’s Pat Earles.

Pat Earles has made a name for himself by never fearing an opportunity to attack deep space with his limitless range.

Both are bold throwers, but their throwaways can add up. They were two of the 11 players in the league with at least 50 assists in 2017, but they also both resided among the top 10 in the turnover department.

Josh Klane's presence on the Minnesota offense has reinvigorated the team's scoring in 2017.

In their head-to-head matchups, Klane and Earles each had completion percentages that left something to be desired, 87% and 85%, respectively. These numbers represented a drop-off for both players compared to their full-season rates of 92% and 89%.

All of this may be coming off as overly negative, but to view it in that context is not the primary purpose. Klane and Earles are both fantastic throwers, creative, exciting, and kinda similar despite the fact that one’s a righty and the other’s a lefty. Their teams have put loads of faith in them to make the right decision most of the time and to take some chances throughout a lengthy 48-minute battle. If they changed their mindsets to be incredibly conservative, that would limit their effectiveness and prevent them from being the proud playmakers that they are.

But with their seasons on the line, don’t be surprised if Klane and Earles hold their team’s fates in their hands. They have plenty of capable teammates, but as the team leaders in both assists and turnovers, massive amounts of responsibility are on their respective shoulders.

3. Who will join the block party?

Forget about the offensive decision-making for a second. These are two of the top teams in the league in terms of getting Ds. At the end of the regular season, Minnesota was #1 and Pittsburgh was #4.

The Wind Chill D-line is led by Jimmy Kittleson, Jay Drescher, Dylan DeClerck, and Colin Berry. Combined, the quartet accumulated 80 Ds in 2017. Along with all of those Ds, they accumulated 46 goals and 43 assists.

Brian Schoenrock won AUDL Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against Pittsburgh in their last matchup in Week 17.

Pittsburgh’s Anson Reppermund led the Thunderbirds in blocks for the third year in a row, collecting 30 to give him 97 over the last three AUDL seasons. Dillon Tranquillo recorded a dozen Ds in just eight games after turning pro following the end of the college season.

In their head-to-head meetings, Minnesota’s Ryan Osgar and Brian Schoenrock each recorded four Ds against Pitt, with Schoenrock’s all coming in one game (the Wind Chill’s 19-13 victory two weeks ago). Similarly, the Thunderbirds had different players step up in creating turnovers against the Wind Chill, as Jon DeAmicis and Sam VanDusen each registered four Ds against Minnesota this season.

Obviously, defense is a team endeavor, but these are just some of the names you can anticipate being involved in the block party on Friday night. There will be a bunch of factors determining who advances to Madison, but it’s likely the game will be tight and relatively low-scoring, a recipe that will make stingy defense down the stretch incredibly important.