The Tuesday Toss: Eli's Coming
April 12, 2016 — By Evan Lepler
The Tuesday Toss Archive
Before delving into the rest of the wild West and a slew of other noteworthy developments from Week 2, today’s column commences in an unexpected and improbable place.
On Monday, the Los Angeles Aviators officially signed 2010 Callahan Award winner Eli Friedman for the remainder of the 2016 season. The team expects him to be on the field for this Saturday’s ESPN3-televised contest at San Diego, the result of a dizzying whirlwind of circumstances that included a serendipitous encounter at a recent Portland pizza party.
The former Oregon ultimate star had recently returned to Portland as a quick pit stop on his way to Los Angeles, where his own chaotic lifestyle was about to finally plant some roots. Over the past half-decade, Friedman has intermittently traveled the world, occasionally to play ultimate, but more frequently utilizing his Master’s in Environmental Law to help oversee compliance operations on several offshore oil rigs. His journeys have taken him from the coasts of Malaysia to the shores of Hawaii. He’s been up by Alaska and down in the Mexican Gulf. It has been a rewarding, challenging, and painfully disc-free existence for long stretches of time.
“I was just losing my mind out there,” Friedman said, “and I had to find something more geographically stable.”
So about a month ago, while on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean, he interviewed for a new job in Los Angeles. Not long thereafter, he accepted the position and moved to LA to begin this new gig as the Environmental Compliance Director at American Apparel.
On March 15, Friedman was one of several hosts at a hometown event known as “Pizza Cult”. At this social gathering, anyone who attends is also supposed to bring another person that nobody else knows.
One of his friend’s—who was another one of the hosts—invited a woman, who also happened to have a Tinder date scheduled that night. She brought the date along too. Coincidentally, that guy ended up sitting right next to Friedman.
Shortly before moving, amidst pizza and strangers, the friendly conversation between Friedman and the woman's Tinder date turned to ultimate, at which point they each learned an important fact about one another.
As fate would have it, the other gentleman, whose name was Nick, had spent a good chunk of his life in Los Angeles. And for 10 years, Nick worked at Sony right next to James Park, who happened to be one of the owners of the Aviators.
Immediately, Nick texted James, saying, “I’m with Eli Friedman, who’s moving to LA.”
Sensing an opportunity, Park got Friedman’s contact info and they chatted for the first time the next day.
“We had a nice conversation,” Friedman said.
But his life had been so turbulent, with change coming so swiftly; he had given very little thought to playing professional ultimate this season. Other owners, including San Diego’s Will Griffin, had already reached out over the winter to gauge his interest. Before securing this new job in Los Angeles, though, Friedman’s lifestyle as a nomadic scientist largely prevented him from making long-term commitments to ultimate, a reality that hurt his abilities to mesh with his former teams in Portland.
Consequently, even when this new opportunity developed, ultimate opportunities were not the top thing on his mind.
“I’ve just been so overwhelmed by the idea of moving and figuring out a new job, a new routine, I felt really apathetic to the gestures that have been made [by several owners], even though they have been super warm, gracious gestures,” Friedman explained.
He had told Park that he would be transitioning to Los Angeles in a week. So after seven days passed, the persistent Aviators owner followed up, offering him tickets to the team’s season opener, which Friedman accepted.
One day after moving to town and settling (in a friend’s large closet), Friedman went to play beach pickup and ran into Jack Marsh, who had recently transplanted to Los Angeles and joined the local AUDL team.
“That incentivized the whole opportunity,” Friedman said.
He had never played with Marsh before, but he knew him from competing against him, and they were both part of the U.S. delegation that competed at the 2015 World Beach Ultimate Championships in Dubai. At Beach Worlds, Marsh won gold with the open team, while Friedman earned a bronze medal with the mixed team. Almost exactly a year to the date they reconnected, with Marsh offering a frank assessment of the opportunity that possibly awaited him with the Aviators.
On April 2, sitting in the stands, Friedman watched the Aviators fall in overtime to San Francisco. He also met Franklin Rho, the team’s coach, and a few others with the organization. He was intrigued.
When they connected again on Monday, Park was eager to wrap up a deal that would officially put Friedman in an Aviators uniform for this Saturday’s match with the Growlers. There was still a small sense of uncertainty, but Friedman found himself compelled “to sign a piece of paper”.
“I love playing frisbee, so why not?” Friedman said.
“James said he was talking with Boon [Technical Clothing, the team’s official apparel provider] in the Philippines, and they were already printing a jersey for me,” Friedman said. “So this guy’s on it!”
Bizarrely, Friedman arrives as another playmaker likely departs. Husayn Carnegie, the skyscraping cutter who caught 22 goals last year and played the past two weeks for LA, is now moving to Seattle, and he is unlikely to play for the Aviators again this season. Friedman and Carnegie are far from the same player, but certainly, having the former should help mitigate the loss of the latter.
“We’re very excited to have [Friedman] in an Aviators jersey,” said Rho, “and he should be a great fit with the offense we’re running. His ability to handle the disc, stretch the field with throws and breaks, and be an active threat as a receiver—all of this helps with some of our weaknesses.”
It’s worth noting that, despite the Aviators’ optimism, no one, not even Friedman, really knows what kind of player he’s going to be. He readily acknowledges that some of his ultimate talent has been sacrificed in the pursuit of other daring professional adventures.
“I was given opportunities to work in Alaska for a summer, to work in Canada for a long time,” he said. “I was given opportunities, and sacrifices were made against the [development] of my ultimate career.”
“I’ve always wondered, ‘what if?’”
During his time offshore, his quarters were cramped and there was no one to toss with. In a small exercise room with an eight-foot ceiling, he often would remove the panels above his head to give himself some extra room to jump. When he would occasionally use the treadmill, it would be rocking with the rhythm of the boat. He joked that he didn’t even bring a frisbee, because if it soared overboard, he’d have to write himself up for “marine debris”.
Now 28-years-old, the former Callahan winner who also won a gold medal with the U.S. Junior National team at the World Junior Championships in 2006, finally has a chance to settle into a new home and see if he can rediscover his early-20s form.
His ultimate rebirth begins with his Aviators debut, which can be seen at 9:15 Eastern, 6:15 Pacific, this Saturday on ESPN3.
The Full Field Layout
Chuck Cao and the San Jose Spiders take the line in the elements during their 26-25 Week 2 win.
It was about an hour after San Jose had wrapped up its surprisingly spectacular performance, and team owner Andrew Zill still had an exasperated, but satisfied look on his face.
“Honestly, are you surprised that you won this game,” I asked him.
“Yes,” he replied, point blank.
After an offseason that featured an exodus of so many of the team’s stars, the hype that accompanied the franchise’s first two seasons—each ending in an AUDL title—was a distant memory. Among the guys who helped them win titles over the last couple seasons: Beau Kittredge, Cassidy Rasmussen, and Kurt Gibson are now in Dallas; while Greg Cohen, Simon Higgins, Marcelo Sanchez, Kevin Cocks, Tim Gilligan, Christian Johnson, Eli Kerns, Jordan Marcy, Nathan White, Russell Wynne, and Sonny Zaccaro all migrated to the FlameThrowers.
But it’s widely known that the Bay Area’s rich talent base is far deeper than just the top dozen, and Friday night proved that it is a mistake to dismiss or discount the two-time defending AUDL champs.
In handing Seattle a last-minute 26-25 setback, the Spiders re-announced themselves as postseason contenders in the league’s most competitive division. Offensively, Sean Ham anchored the cutting core with a near-perfect performance: eight goals, two assists, 16 completions, and zero turnovers. In the backfield, Chuck Cao was half-Ashlin Joye, half-Jordan Marcy, constantly initiating the foundation of the offense with 39 completions in 40 throws, including three assists. And beyond these two gamechangers, the Spiders still had an army of athletes that played with a purpose under the direction of player/coach Kevin “Dollar” Smith.
“The most we’ve ever practiced in our three-year history was in these last two months here,” Smith said after the game. “I think it’s paid off.”
The Spiders brilliant first half featured very few turnovers throughout a steady rainfall, and San Jose built a 19-15 edge midway through the third. A case of the drops, combined with Seattle’s extra notch of pressure, caused the Spiders to crumble late in the third, however, as the Cascades outscored the Spiders 6-0 over a 10-minute stretch. Trailing 21-19, it looked like perhaps the game one cinderella was losing her pumpkin.
Down the stretch, though, the Spiders made several big plays, while enjoying the benefit of luck in a couple instances too. San Jose’s break to tie the game at 24 came on a deep look that Seattle’s Reid Koss tipped, only to have it fall into the chest of the Spiders’ Lucas Dillow for the goal.
Then—after he knocked away an ill-advised pass from Cascades handler Danny Karlinsky in the lane—Ethan Falat registered the bookend score on a dish from Brandon Fein, giving the Spiders a 26-25 lead with 28 seconds left.
Ethan Falat with the game winning bookends.
Seattle calmly took possession with confident body language that implied an easy score would send the game to overtime, but the Cascades could not convert. From just shy of midfield, Koss launched a deep backhand toward Mark Burton, who might have been Seattle’s top cutter on the weekend. This throw, however, soared too far beyond Burton’s reach, and that was the game.
“I don’t think we came to San Jose mentally prepared to play,” admitted Koss. “I’m not sure exactly why, but it was clear after giving up 10 points in the first quarter that we weren’t ready. We made some good adjustments, and our offense was playing well enough, though also not great, and in the end we had dug too big of a hole for ourselves. We’ve always made clear our goal is to get better every game, and hopefully this will be a good wakeup call for us.”
It’s fun when the preseason conversation receives a bit of a jolt, and that narrative certainly shifted with San Jose’s surprise triumph to start its season. The Spiders believe they can be more than just a playoff spoiler; they are striving to contend.
“We have a really tough schedule this year, and I’ve looked at the games and picked some ones that I think we can really go for hard and stack some lines,” said Smith. “We want to get into playoff contention and at least give ourselves a chance.”
A win over Seattle was a great place for the Spiders to start.
Sean Ham—who didn't register a turnover in the game—hauling in his 8th goal of the contest.
The Cascades were unable to rebound on Saturday night in the North Bay, falling at San Francisco 27-18. They did transform an early 7-2 deficit into a one-goal game at the half, but the FlameThrowers depth wore down Seattle in a dominant second-half effort, outscoring their northwest visitors 14-6 over the final 24 minutes.
Meanwhile, even before securing the services of Eli Friedman, the Aviators escaped with a slim one-score win in their first meeting of the year with the Growlers. Los Angeles had led by the lopsided score of 18-9 late in the third quarter before almost completely falling apart down the stretch. San Diego closed the game on an 11-3 run, but still ultimately fell short in a 21-20 result.
“At halftime, we knew we were going to win the game,” said Los Angeles’ Eric Lissner, who led the team with six assists on Saturday night. “Confidence turned to overconfidence, which turned into clock watching. We deserved the win, but the fans deserved a less stressful fourth quarter.”
The Growlers cut it close, but their goal to inch within one came with just 17 seconds remaining, so they did not muster a possession with a chance to tie at the very end.
The 1-1 Aviators will pursue the franchise’s first above .500 record when they re-engage with San Diego this weekend, while the Growlers will be determined to avoid their second consecutive 0-3 start to a season.
A four-game weekend in the Midwest included one substantial surprise, with Minnesota stealing a win in Chicago on the second day of a back-to-back. On a chilly afternoon in the Windy City, the wind chill and the Wind Chill teamed up to limit the Wildfire to only four second-half goals, as Minnesota transformed a 7-5 second-quarter deficit into a 17-11 victory on the road.
“The weather…what can I say?” Chicago Captain AJ Nelson said. “It was a Wildfire home game. Seems like all our home games are destined to be rainy, cold and breezy, which is tough, but not something I personally feel should benefit one team over the other. So, the weather was terrible, but only a factor inasmuch as I think Minnesota handled it a little better than we did.”
The Wind Chill had dropped a 25-11 result at Madison on Saturday, but despite the wide gap, entered Sunday as an encouraged team. They believed that their effort against the Radicals had been far more competitive than past years, giving them hope that they’d be able to rebound.
It was clear very early in Sunday’s game that it would be a battle for upwind scores. With this in mind, Wind Chill Coach Lou Abramowski thought it was an excellent sign that, before the game, he had found a head’s up penny on the upwind goal line.
As the game progressed, Minnesota employed a strategy of always playing its D-line on downwind points, embracing the huck-and-play D mentality that would force Chicago to tediously march the full 80 yards over and over again. Several times when the Wildfire made it close to an upwind score, Wind Chill star Brian “Strings” Schoenrock would deliver a big defensive stop near the goal-line to swing momentum back to Minnesota.
“Strings was in his element on Sunday,” said Abramowski. “I thought he was amazing, blocking multiple upwind goals and saving a few possessions going downwind.”
Brian Schoenrock led the way for the Wind Chill in their 17-11 win over the Wildfire, registering five goals and six blocks on defense.
With five goals and six Ds, Schoenrock steered the Wind Chill into the winner’s circle in an important early-season contest. Greg Cousins and Tyler Latham were two Minnesota rookies that also made big plays in Sunday’s victory. In just 10 touches, Latham registered four assists and three goals, leading the team in plus/minus for the weekend. The Wind Chill were also very excited about the emergence of Cullen Raasch, who made his pro debut on Saturday at Madison. In just 12 points played on the weekend—he was unable to be at Sunday’s game—Raasch finished second on the squad in plus/minus.
The Wind Chill may not be a championship contender just yet, but Abramowski stressed that his primary long-term goal is to bring a title to Minnesota. It was only a 1-1 weekend that included a two-touchdown rout in Madison, but the Wind Chill wrapped up the road trip with a very positive perspective.
“I am happy to hear we surprised some folks with our win [on Sunday,]” Schoenrock said. “Our goal on the weekend was to come out at worst 1-1.”
The Wildfire will have a quick chance at revenge, as Chicago will travel to the Twin Cities this weekend. If Minnesota can prevail again, the Wildfire will have a steep uphill climb to keep their postseason streak alive.
“It is a long season, and that is a tough first game to have, but at the end of the day, whether it was some nerves, the conditions, or some new pieces, I think we just didn’t execute as well as we wanted to,” Nelson said. “That is something that takes practice and trust, and I know we will improve on both of those as we move forward.”
The third AUDL team to play multiple games in Week 2—along with Seattle and Minnesota—was Ottawa, a second-year franchise that began the season with the hope of improving from its .500 record in year one. But with a very difficult two-game trip through New York and DC, the sophomore slate began with back-to-back setbacks.
“Indeed, a disappointing road trip with some highs and some lows,” said Outlaws Captain Karl Loiseau, who led the team with six goals on the weekend.
Slow starts in both games plagued the Canadian club, as the Empire and Breeze both gained confidence quickly. While Ottawa returned most of their 2015 roster, New York and DC featured plenty of new players. It was just one game, but both of these East contenders looked sharp.
For New York, the team’s offensive game plan has evolved, according to Coach Tom Gibbons. While the Empire have rookies stepping into roles on both sides of the disc, Gibbons explained that while they simply reloaded on D, they have totally redesigned their O.
“We went into the season looking to erase the distinction between handler and cutter, and with our new personnel, so far so good,” he said.
Newcomers like Sean Keegan, Josh Alorro, and Chris Kocher all took turns distributing the disc on offense, while Markian Kuzmowycz, known to his teammates as “Muk,” consistently did damage downfield in the Empire’s 24-19 victory. Muk led the team with five goals.
“Combined with having most of our returners, I feel this is our best team yet,” said Empire veteran Ryan Drost, after contributing four goals and three Ds. “But we know that most of the teams in the East (and the league) can say the same thing, so that’s not enough. The division is very competitive, and the Rush and Breeze are rightfully favorites, so we’ve got plenty of work left to do.”
The Breeze immediately began their season with four breaks in a row, setting a tone with their balanced, deep defensive line. Ottawa responded with three straight scores to get within one at 4-3, but then DC’s D gathered four more consecutive breaks in creating a 9-3 gap. The Breeze rolled in their debut, 28-17.
Markham Shofner creating separation deep with a nifty stutter step as the Breeze convert easily on offense for the score.
“Our strength was definitely the tough defense we played right from the start,” said Breeze Head Coach Alex “Dutchy” Ghesquiere. “We had great intensity and focus. I can’t think of an individual who stood out without thinking of five more.”
While the Empire get to host Montreal this Sunday on the second day of the Royal’s two-game trip, the Breeze are off until Week 4, when they will host one of the most highly anticipated showdowns of the season. On April 23, Toronto will begin its season in DC, a titanic matchup that will be televised on ESPN3.
“Between now and Toronto, we have two team practices where we will continue to mostly focus on our own offense and getting smoother and more intuitive with the Breeze systems,” said Ghesquiere. “This will be a project for the rest of the year. The offense is new to rookies and I expect it will take many more weeks for it to fully develop. I am happy it is functional at this point, but I expect to have many of the wrinkles I can see in it from our first game worked out as we get towards the end of the season.”
Down South, three teams improved to 2-0, as Dallas continued to demand respect, Atlanta snuck past Charlotte, and Raleigh held serve at home in its high-stakes rematch with Jacksonville. While the South’s top trio won’t intersect until the Roughnecks roll into Raleigh on April 30, there is still plenty of drama.
Taylor Pope, the former Flyer and new AUDL analyst for ESPN3’s South Division coverage, offered to put his journalism degree to work and scribe a summary of Saturday’s battle between Raleigh and Jacksonville. His perspective, influenced by a decade and a half competing at the highest level, is enlightening. Here’s what Taylor wrote:
Confident Composure. It’s that thing you maybe notice without exactly “seeing.” You see it in the way that guys stand tall with the disc, scan the field with only necessary jockeying to move the mark, before stepping out with balance and timing. Cuts are long, and space clears as the cutters move. The cut timing is not too early so the thrower has to rush or put extra zip on the throw, and it’s not so late that the thrower eyeballs it long enough for the defense to reposition the mark to strike or go flat, denying the pass altogether. Basically, it looks like an easy game of throw and catch. When great players do the right thing, it makes it easier for good players to follow suit and all of a sudden, everything is clicking. This is the Raleigh offense, when they are playing at their best.
In the first half on Saturday, Jonathan Nethercutt and David Snoke were a dynamic handling unit, and with Jack Williams and Justin Allen let loose downfield, the Raleigh O-unit proved they could score in a variety of ways. It seems that Nethercutt has established himself as the central cog, picking up the disc, supplying many break and space throws. While playing with confident composure, he is unstoppable. As with many young players with the tool set to place the disc anywhere, he is sometimes prone to a poor decision or execution error, but his few mistakes on Saturday were overshadowed by a splendid performance. Jack Williams, a relatively unknown player on the professional stage, is a star in the making. While many players his age possess the speed, hands and hops, few put it together with the grace and fluidity like Williams.
In trying to describe the Jacksonville Cannon’s offensive strategy and play, one word kept coming back to me: unsustainable. Yes, they were able to connect on their deep ball on several occasions, but barring a couple upwind occasions, they seemed reluctant to try anything else. The wind can sometimes do that to a player or team. The balancing act between aggressive play and trust that, as a unit, the seven on field can complete a dozen passes to get a red-zone goal, seemed like a wager the Cannons were reluctant to embrace.
The Jacksonville Cannons are certainly not without weapons of their own. Mischa Freystaetter is undoubtedly one of the top five offensive weapons in the league. He’s huge, long, and possesses an uncanny ability to make catches with players either draped all over him or in better position. The combination of his receiving ability with Stephen Poulos’ “country mile” throwing prowess creates a well that the Cannons utilize repeatedly. On numerous occasions, the Cannons would receive the centering pass on offense and launch 60+ yard endzone attempts despite two or three Flyers in the lane and two or three other defenders bracketing the deep cutters. Despite the Flyers D line positioning themselves and diagnosing the Cannon’s seemingly one-dimensional desire, the Cannons converted a surprising amount of deep shots. This, of course, begs the question: If the Cannons can diversify their attacking approach, how good can they be?
In the end, this game was won and controlled by the Flyers’ defensive unit. While Raleigh has never struggled to get D’s, they have struggled in the past to move the disc offensively, many times lacking that confident composure. Against Jacksonville and Charlotte, however, Noah Saul has taken command of the D line. While not necessarily the flashiest player, his grind is behind many of Raleigh’s successful breaks. While more than capable of making bigger, more aggressive throws, it seems that he has taken on a legs-first mentality, often blasting up field, planting, resetting and gaining enough separation to move it again before high stall situations develop. Under the scrutiny of being labeled highly underrated in recent publications, he is demonstrating with his play that he is just that.
While Jacksonville was able to trade until 6-6 and did demonstrate a will to make the deep ball work, they were never really in this game. The upwind/downwind nature of the game did present them with some chances, but once Raleigh pulled away, they only furthered their lead. A 5-6 point lead was maintained for most of the second half. This was despite the Raleigh O-line giving up some breaks here and there.
While the hype for this South Division Playoff rematch was high, in the end, the defensive strategy by Mike Denardis and the Flyers took away the one thing Jacksonville wanted to do, and when you give the Flyers the disc too many times, they are going to make you pay.
Pope will rejoin me on ESPN3 for the Dallas-Raleigh showdown at the end of April.
The Outside In
On Saturday, the Dallas Roughnecks improved to 2-0 with another double-digit win over Austin. While the season is young, the highly anticipated Texas team appears worthy of the hype, largely because the depth that the leadership has fostered.
In their recent game at Austin, the Roughnecks primary offensive line consisted of the team’s three captains, Beau Kittredge, Jimmy Mickle, and Matt Costello, along with established stars like Kurt Gibson, Cassidy Rasmussen, and Brandon Malacek.
The seventh member of the O-line was a relative unknown. Ever heard of Thomas Slack?
Far from a household name, Slack made the unlikely transition from practice player to O-line cutter in the span of a week, recording a goal and an assist in Dallas’ 11-goal win over the Sol.
“He was big for us,” said Gibson. “Great guy, great teammate, good attitude, humble, willing to do whatever it takes to win. He’s 100 pounds dripping wet, and he can just run forever.”
Thomas Slack catches up to a laser-guided perfect huck from Kurt Gibson.
So where did he come from, and how did he find his way onto the team?
Well, Slack played college ultimate at Texas A&M, largely overshadowed by higher-profile Callahan candidates like Dalton Smith and Matt Bennett. At Roughnecks tryouts, Smith had told Mickle to keep an eye on Slack.
“I watched him a decent amount at tryouts and definitely saw some talent, but he didn’t stand out,” Mickle said. “At our first meeting after the first tryout, nobody mentioned his name, but because of Dalton’s recommendation, I pushed for him to be invited to the second tryout.”
Since Slack is on the shorter side, he was often wedged into a handler role during the tryout process. In the backfield, he did not get many opportunities to showcase his greatest skill, his speed. Consequently, the Roughnecks did not give him much consideration to make the actual roster. But he had done enough to earn a spot as a practice player, which is when he really began to make an impression.
“As we started practicing for the month before the season, we started to see moments of brilliance from Thomas,” Mickle said. “He is really fast, but more than anything he has great spatial awareness and cuts really well off of more disc dominant players like Beau, Cassidy, and myself, which makes him a perfect fit for the O line. He doesn’t make many mistakes, so he fills a role perfectly.
“With a decent number of travel players and other various injuries, we decided he would be a great addition to the roster. [There was also] a desire to reward those who worked hard and deserved recognition.”
The Roughnecks are not an organization that will do anything small, so when it was decided that Slack would be added to the active squad, the team’s leadership delivered the news in a wild way.
“We decided to show up to his work with a jersey to let him know he made the team,” Mickle explained. With help from Reid Bacon, another Roughneck player that started playing ultimate with Thomas back in high school, we found out where he worked and the best time to show up. Dylan [Freechild], Beau, and myself arrived, video camera and all, and sat down in a conference room. We had this boss call him into the office and he started laughing when he walked in and couldn’t believe we were there. Although Beau and I butchered our lines announcing that he made the team, it was very entertaining and awesome to see how excited he was to join the team.”
All in all, it was just another day at goofy Roughnecks Central, where Dallas is only at the very beginning of its journey to try and redefine AUDL success.
Slack’s fiancée, who lives in Colorado, even flew in to surprise him at the game, a perfect cap on the experience for the unheralded addition.
The Roughnecks are off in Week 3, host Jacksonville on April 23, and hit the road for their two-game North Carolina trip after that.
The Greatest (Ultimate-Related Social Media Post of the Week)
While the Austin Sol experienced the unenviable challenge of facing the juggernaut Roughnecks in its first two AUDL games, the Sol are far from discouraged by their 0-2 record.
While they will have many more chances to win, including this weekend as they visit Charlotte and Raleigh, the most encouraging aspect of their first couple of weeks was definitely the remarkable crowd that showed up for their inaugural home game on Saturday.
The pictures, tweeted by both the team and the league, reminded me of Montreal’s first crowd in 2014.
1,500 Austin Sol fans showed up for the team's inaugural home opener on Saturday.
“It was truly an amazing experience playing in front of 1,500 fans,” said Austin’s Jerrod Wolfe. “Austin has a huge ultimate community with rec, high school, and middle school leagues, which led to an excited and knowledgeable crowd. Hearing their reactions and excitement when big plays happened or when we scored was an incredible experience. Patrick Christmas, the owner, has said from the beginning that his big mission is to spread our love of the game to the youth of Austin, and I think we were hugely successful in doing that during the first game.”
The team’s leadership, despite the double-digit defeat, concluded the night with a very positive outlook.
“Our goal is to build a community team that can compete on a national level,” said Sol Head Coach Mike “Tank” Natenberg. “The most positive takeaway from these first two games was having teammates continue to support each other until the final seconds even when frustration was running high. Our vets are used to more success during games, and they did a great job of remaining humble and set a great example of all out effort until the end of the game regardless of the score.”
Life in the AUDL has allowed me to explore so many awesome regions in North America. It’s impossible to pick a favorite destination, but I do love visiting the great ultimate scene of Northern California.
There are a bunch of beautiful drives around the Bay Area. It’s just pretty country, with the mix of mountains and water, shoreline and skyline. After flying into Oakland, I trekked down to Los Altos Hills on Friday afternoon, marveling at the rolling green hills while zigging and zagging toward the South Bay.
In past trips, I have crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, progressing toward the Pacific Coast en route to pickup ultimate by Ocean Beach. While some traffic is to be expected in or near any big city, the varying delays of San Francisco and its surrounding boroughs are a byproduct of the area’s beauty.
On Sunday morning, as I packed up for my travels home, I met another taste of the area’s flavor. It was around 9 AM, and there was a middle-aged man standing in between my rental car and presumably his pickup truck. He was facing his car, and I did not give him much thought. It was relatively early, I had recently woken up, and I just figured he was looking at his phone outside of the hotel.
After putting my things in my trunk, I politely said “Excuse, me,” as I snuck past him toward my driver’s-side door.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, not in a mean way, but with a tone of shame that, at first, I didn’t understand.
“No, you’re fine,” I assured him, as I had easily slithered past him to get to the front seat of my car.
But then he turned around, revealing that it had not been a phone occupying his attention. The hint of embarrassment became a bit easier to understand when I saw the large can of Coors Light.
“Gotta have something to get rid of the headache,” he said, as he chugged the rest. “It’s not like I have any Aspirin lying around.”
I smiled, wished him well, and went on my way.
Seven On The Line
1) Perhaps the most important contributor that Jacksonville was lacking on Saturday was Head Coach Tuba Benson-Jaja, who served a one-game suspension that the AUDL issued after the South Division Title game last July. Following the heartbreaking and controversial double-overtime defeat, Benson-Jaja approached a referee and flicked the hat off the ref’s head, clearly a violation of acceptable coaching decorum. The terms of the suspension dictated that he could neither communicate with the team nor be a spectator. Without any other choice, the passionate leader stayed home and tried to get comfortable on the couch. “I prepared as though I was watching a Saturday night college football game,” he said, “and even got some wings and other tasty snacks to put me in a spectator mood. Unfortunately, the game did not have the outcome we were looking for, but I was able to learn a lot about our team by being able to watch a game [from afar] in real time vs. having to go back and re-watch our game after coaching in it. Raleigh played a great game and came ready to play. Hopefully, we will be able to make the proper adjustments for the Nashville game and get our first win of the season. The next matchup with Raleigh is many weeks away, and we have a lot to get accomplished between now and then.”
2) Atlanta may have only won by two, but the Hustle never trailed in its 18-16 victory over Charlotte, stretching the second-half lead to as many as seven. The Hustle closed the game on a 7-2 run, but Atlanta improved to 2-0, despite playing the first two weeks of the season without Matt Smith, their leading returning goal scorer from a season ago. Elliott Erickson and Sean Sears led the Hustle with three goals apiece on Saturday, while emerging standout Trenton Spinks has registered six goals thru two games. The Hustle will host Nashville this week before traveling to Charlotte on April 23. On the 30th, if Atlanta can keep rolling, the Hustle will be 4-0 when they head to Jacksonville. One week after that, they’ll welcome Raleigh to town for their first 2016 showdown with the Flyers.
Elliott Erickson frog splashes for one of his three goals on Saturday.
3) Madison will pursue a 2-0 start this Saturday at Indianapolis, as the Radicals picked up their 24th consecutive victory at Breeze Stevens Field with their 25-11 triumph over Minnesota this past weekend. Andrew Meshnick, an all-AUDL performer in 2015, began his season by scoring 10 goals, leading a D-line that repeatedly flummoxed its foe. “Meshnick, Peter [Graffy], Jay [Froude], KPS [Kevin Pettit-Scantling], Abe [Coffin, and really everyone else] produced turn after turn,” said Radicals handler Tom Annen, who only had to play seven offensive points in the team’s easy win. Minnesota’s Brian Schoenrock heaped praise on the Madison D, saying that “every time we had something going, we seemed to throw it into a Madison player we did not expect to be there. We all were quickly reminded how important running through every disc is every time. We probably had six turnovers where a player knew they had beaten their defender, yet a different Radical was there to make the defensive play.” Madison Coach Tim DeByl feels this is the deepest Radicals roster he’s ever had, and a pair of newcomers impressed in their debuts this past Saturday. Coffin led the team with four assists, while Ryan Tucker chipped in with five goals, second-most on the club.
Kevin Pettit-Scantling denying the disc in the lane, and then the Radicals D-line converts quickly for the break conversion.
4) One wonders if anything will change in the Radicals-AlleyCats rivalry when the teams collide this weekend. The rivalry has been as one-sided as any in the league, since the franchises were founded. “I know we’ve lost to them like 100 times in a row,” said Indy Captain Keenan Plew, only slightly exaggerating, “but that doesn’t stop our guys from thinking we can beat the Rads. Madison will always have the talent to be a great team, but if we can stay patient through the zone and run our offense cleanly when they play man, I think we have a shot.” The AlleyCats are also looking to get to 2-0 after winning an intense contest at Cincinnati on Friday night. The Revolution held a 12-10 lead early in the third, but the AlleyCats closed it out with a 12-5 rally to prevail 22-17, handing the Revolution another hard-fought loss. Cincy will continue to look for its first win of the season, and for revenge against Detroit, this weekend.
5) As the AUDL twitter account pointed out, and it’s worth an extra mention here, six different players in the league completed 30 or more throws at a 100% clip this weekend. The Empire's new addition Chris Kocher went 31-for-31 against the Outlaws in New York's season opener., playing primarily a handler role, set the standard by going 43-for-44, while Charlotte’s Jesse Lieberman went 38-for-38. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Kyle Stapleton and San Francisco’s Jordan Marcy each authored an ESPN documentary, going 30-for-30. The most pristine performance per volume, though, was from the Outlaw's Kinley Gee, who registered 47 completions on the same number of throws in Ottawa's loss on the road. These numbers are all derived from the official stats, which occasionally fail to include a nugget or two. For instance, when I informed Gibson of his perfect day, he tried to correct me. “Actually, I did have a turn,” he said, explaining that he chucked an end-of-quarter hammer that did, in fact, land incomplete. Nobody’s perfect, but a friendly hometown scorekeeper made Gibson’s day of distribution look that way. [Ed. note — section was fixed to add Chris Kocher (31/31 vs OTT on 4/9/16) and Kinley Gee (47/47 vs NY on 4/9/16) for their standout performances.
6) Pittsburgh opened its season with a comfortable 25-16 victory in Detroit, halting the Mechanix momentum with a sensational start. After the Thunderbirds allowed Detroit to score on its first O-point, Pittsburgh rolled off an 11-2 run to seize control. Down 19-11 at the half, the Mechanix scored four straight to open the second half, creeping within four. But the T-Birds responded with another convincing run, a 6-0 blur that put the game away. While the Thunderbirds were without established stars like Tyler DeGirolamo, Pat Earles, Aaron Watson, and Mark Fedorenko, newcomers like Johnny Bansfield, James Highsmith, Mike Ogren, Mitch Cihon, and Austin Engel all got their feet wet in the AUDL game. Bansfield, Cihon, and Ogren each had three assists. Veteran handler Alex Thorne led the squad with 33 completions (in 36 attempts), and David Vatz, who scored 62 goals a season ago, led the squad with five goals in his 2016 opener.
7) In aggregate, Week 2 in the AUDL saw 493 goals scored, an average of 41.08 goals per game. That’s a rise from the 39.7 goals per game in regulation that we saw during the opening week, but still below the per-game scoring average from a season ago. And actually, there was a good deal of scoring everywhere in the league this week except for the Midwest, which saw its four games total 39, 41, 36, and 28 goals, all below the league average for the week. Through 19 total games, only one team, the Dallas Roughnecks in their opening contest, cracked 30 goals as a team in a single game.
This is far from a brilliant observation, but indulge me for a second:
The more I watch the AUDL, the more I think the biggest factor in winning games is the seemingly simple task of avoiding mistakes. Having great playmakers to sky for scores is nice, and often thrilling. Owning a dynamic defensive game plan that aims to befuddle the opponent is a great perk too. But as my college co-captain, Dave Zarkowsky, often loved to shout: all boils down to “throws and catches.” (You might understand this better if you could hear Dave’s high-pitched voice cracking as he shrieked this refrain.)
Sometimes, spectacular teams have stars that can help them overcome turnovers. The greatest team in NBA history, for example, drains three pointers like layups to make up for the fact that they’re among the worst teams in the league at avoiding giveaways. Their style would not work as well if they didn’t have two of the 10 greatest shooters of all-time in the backcourt.
Obviously, great decision-making goes hand in hand with making the right play and avoiding mistakes, both in basketball and in ultimate. When I asked Kurt Gibson about his 43-for-44 game, he offered some interesting perspective about his accomplished career.
“I think there are opportunities to take, and you sometimes have to take a few risky throws. But I do think, for the most part, if you’re smart, playing turnover-free is in general a lot better than saying, ‘we really gotta force some deep shots here.’
“I find, in every ultimate team that I’ve played on, and I’ve been lucky enough to play on some pretty good teams, I find myself saying, ‘Hey, just dump and swing the disc. Stop forcing I/O flicks or whatever.’ And we’ll put ourselves in a much better position to score. I’ve never been like, ‘man, we really need to just start hucking a lot more.’
“So I do have to, as a leader on the team, I do have to mean what I say and say what I mean, so I have to go ahead and do it. So I just try to do it every time.”
Ultimate, like life, is often about resisting that temptation.
This conservative mindset, from one of the sport’s most explosive throwers, is one of the big reasons that Dallas remains atop the league’s power rankings through two impressive weeks.
“It’s definitely a fun team to play on,” Gibson added. “I don’t think any guy’s here whose ego is bigger than the team. We’ve got great chemistry early on. We just gotta stay focused and put in the work. If we do that, we’ll put ourselves in position to make a run in the playoffs.”
It’s only April 12, but 115 days away from Championship Weekend, the Roughnecks are still the team to beat.
The Tuesday Toss is published weekly on theAUDL.com during the season. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler