Thursday Thoughts: Setting The Table For Championship Weekend VI

August 10, 2017

1. The Raleigh Flyers have beaten Dallas once before, but Saturday will be a completely different challenge.

In previewing most postseason matchups, it’s wise to look at the regular season meetings to see if there’s any data worth analyzing or extrapolating. With the Dallas Roughnecks and Raleigh Flyers, don’t bother; they couldn’t be more meaningless. Quite simply, there’s little or nothing to be learned from Dallas’ 33-18 rout in outrageous wind on April 9 or Raleigh’s 32-25 triumph over the shorthanded Roughnecks on May 13.

Highlights from the last matchup between Dallas and Raleigh.

When the Flyers host the Roughnecks on Saturday afternoon, it is a brand new battle, and it is arguably the most significant division title game the AUDL has ever seen. Whoever wins will be the favorite heading into Championship Weekend; whoever falls will be forgotten as a final four outsider.

A couple weeks ago, Dallas reshuffled its lineup and found its top gear against Jacksonville. Notably, Dylan Freechild and Chris Mazur shifted to the D-line, while Kurt Gibson, Brandon Malecek, Jimmy Mickle, and Abe Coffin did the heavy-lifting for the Roughnecks’ O. While the combinations could certainly change again for Saturday, there’s no question that Dallas will have a full and hungry roster for this road test. Coming off first double-digit victory since April, their confidence has to be at a season-high.

Meanwhile, it’s been more than a month since the Flyers last took the field, and it’s been nearly two months since their last meaningful close game. Raleigh’s 13-1 record speaks for itself, but those 13 wins won’t count for anything if the Flyers start slowly on Saturday.

After being a notoriously slow-starting team in 2015, the Flyers largely corrected those issues over the past two seasons. Against Dallas, an ugly first few minutes could be crippling. It’s not imperative for Raleigh to ring off a huge string of breaks in the opening quarter, but the Flyers must hang tight with the Roughnecks, who are fully expecting to go to North Carolina and win.

Raleigh’s handlers are going to be critical. MVP candidate Jonathan Nethercutt had 14 assists the last time he played Dallas; if he has half as many on Saturday, his team would be in decent shape. Frankly, maintaining possession is more important than throwing goals, as the Roughnecks D-line has the offensive firepower to feast on careless errors. Consequently, Nethercutt, along with Noah Saul, Brett Matzuka, Justin Allen, and Brian Casey are all going to feel the pressure of needing to stay mistake-free.

Highlights from Jon Nethercutt's 2017 AUDL single-game record setting performance with 14 assists.

If the Flyers decision-makers can play responsibly, then the question becomes can Raleigh’s arsenal of underrated but potent downfield targets make enough plays in the air to inflict damage on Dallas’ fine array of athletes? Raleigh has Goose Helton, Matt Bode, Jacob Fairfax, Jack Williams, Shane Sisco, and Terrance Williams as likely O-line targets, while Hunter Taylor, Nate Goff, Tim McAllister, and David Richardson are all beasts on D. On paper, the Flyers have all the pieces they need to dispatch Dallas and move on to Montreal. They also have a coach who recently spent his 40th birthday watching film, and presumably will introduce a new wrinkle or two that the Roughnecks have not seen before.

With all this said, Dallas’ championship experience will be exceedingly tough to topple. The Flyers have the talent to do it, but do they have the mindset and the consistency? We will find out on Saturday.

2. The West Division is San Francisco’s to lose.

Of course, don’t forget what happened last year. We spent all sorts of time discussing how tough it would be for a team to win on Saturday and then beat the San Francisco FlameThrowers on Sunday. The Seattle Cascades made us look silly by dominating both games. But unlike last season, the FlameThrowers will be at home this Sunday, and neither the Los Angeles Aviators nor the San Jose Spiders has looked as good as the 2016 Cascades down the stretch.

San Francisco has been building for an August peak all season. A year ago, the FlameThrowers might have been the team best suited to beating Dallas. But one bad day against Seattle ensured that matchup would not materialize. Consequently, San Francisco made several moves to bolster its already strong roster, adding Beau Kittredge and Cassidy Rasmussen from Dallas, along with picking up other national team talent like Ashlin Joye, Mac Taylor, and Grant Lindsley. Adding in a couple young phenoms like Antoine Davis and Sawyer Thompson provides even more explosive depth, not to mention a clear bridge between the old guard of the Bay Area and the new infusion of recent college stars. Collectively, the FlameThrowers have all the tools they need to take the title.

Cassidy Rasmussen's all-around talents have helped San Francisco set their sights on their first Championship Weekend appearance in 2017.

Regardless whether they face the Aviators or Spiders, San Francisco will have a sizable advantage. The FlameThrowers have proven their ability to wear down an opponent as a game progresses, especially on the second day of a back-to-back. Their strong mental game makes it particularly difficult to go on a big run against them, and it’s just as tough to repeatedly trade jabs with their army of playmakers.

Kittredge may not be playing at his MVP level of 2014 and 2015, but the now 35-year-old legend remains a game-changing presence, especially when the stakes are high. Over the past three seasons, Kittredge has gone 9-0 in AUDL playoff games, winning three titles. Like years past, he’s surrounded himself with teammates who will make it easier for him to thrive, and his big-game mentality remains what it has always been.

Don't forget: Beau Kittredge has won three straight AUDL titles.

It sure would be cool story if San Francisco gets tested on Sunday, but unless the Aviators or Spiders can deliver their absolute A++ weekend, it’s hard to imagine the FlameThrowers not making it to Montreal for the franchise’s first Championship Weekend experience.

3. Even after a rough start to the 2017 campaign, Toronto remains the most intimidating team in the East.

Several times this season, the Rush flirted with disaster. They dealt with national team absences and injuries, precariously risking home field advantage for the playoffs. Yet here we are again, with Toronto at home for the East Division game that counts most.

Back in the preseason, we contemplated whether Toronto’s youth would be ready to contribute in big games. On multiple occasions, that group delivered. Connor Armstrong played the third most offensive points on the squad and completed 96 percent of his throws. On defense, the MacKenzie brothers, Bretton Tan, and Jaret Meron all filled important roles to help them create breaks. Plus, the emergence of Rush rookie Marijo Zlatic as the team’s leader in Ds has been a pleasant surprise for GM Scott Hastie and Head Coach Sachin Raina.

Bretton Tan and his exuberant, springy athleticism has been part of a youth revolution on the Rush D-line.

Beyond the aforementioned group stepping up, Toronto’s midseason pickups like Jeremy Norden and Darren Wu have been impactful, both in taking pressure off some of the team’s other top players and giving the Rush another pair of threats that have big-game reps. Both Norden and Wu are capable of putting up significant numbers like eight assists or nine goals, and these are the types of outsider weapons that the Rush has lacked in the past.

It’s also worth pointing out that this Toronto team went 11-3 in the regular season despite superstar Mark Lloyd only playing three games. In that limited action, he still orchestrated a plus/minus of +20, with seven goals, seven assists, six Ds, and zero turnovers in 49 throws. Extrapolate those numbers over 14 games, and Lloyd would absolutely have been in the MVP mix. The Rush will have Lloyd on Sunday, which means that regardless of who they play, they will probably have the best player on the field.

Mark Lloyd's presence has helped make the Rush a championship contender every year since their inaugural season in 2013.

The Rush won’t be the bettor’s favorite heading into Montreal, but they are quietly lingering as a legit championship contender. With an experienced core and a slew of subtle, meaningful additions, this Toronto team is capable of being the last squad standing.

While both DC and Montreal have challenged—or outright beaten—the Rush in Toronto before, either opponent would remain an ample underdog this Sunday. If the Royal could sneak past DC, they would be uniquely motivated a couple days later. Not many fans genuinely expected them to be in the Championship Weekend mix this late in the season, and they truly have the potential to be a dramatic Cinderella story.

But the fact remains that, despite some stressful moments, Toronto was the best team in the East during the regular season. Playing at home on Sunday, they will likely rise to the occasion again as well.