August 8, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
As the clock struck zero to cement their playoff win over the Toronto Rush, the New York Empire rushed the field with the abandon of a team that did not expect to be where it was. Jerseys were torn from sweaty bodies. Teammates hugged and cheered and slid on the field. Long after the crowd had departed and the stadium lights were extinguished, the Empire players were the only ones left on the field, still dancing.
“I am pretty numb right now,” said Empire Head Coach Eileen Murray following her team’s win.
The Empire had every right to celebrate, for they had just completed what is likely the greatest upset in the history of the AUDL. The Empire had just beaten the Rush for the first time in franchise history, and the win came in the crucible of the playoffs. New York will attend Championship Weekend despite suffering six regular season losses, which is more than any semi-finalist in the AUDL since the inaugural season in 2012. New York is an underdog unlike any in AUDL history.
There have been a few instances in AUDL history in which a lower-ranked team won a playoff game. However, no previous playoff upsets have been as dramatic as New York’s, at least by seeding measurements. No three seed in divisional history has advanced to Championship Weekend; in late June, it didn’t even seem like New York would qualify for the playoffs at all. New York finished the season on a 4-1 stretch.
“This was by far the most inexperienced, random assortment of people that's ever been put together and is competing for a championship,” said Beau Kittredge after knocking Toronto out of the playoffs. “We don't really know each other well. Most people have come from different backgrounds. It's very young. It's a very young team.”
New York’s improved play in the latter part of the season and into the playoffs is the result of an overhaul in team strategy. The Empire changed how they use several of their best players. Jeff Babbitt has played the majority of his points on defense during his AUDL career. His explosiveness allowed him to collect 41 blocks and 50 goals en route to a 2017 All-AUDL First Team nod. Murray has moved him to the offensive side in the playoffs, where he’s caught seven goals in two playoff games and been solid in distributing the disc. His deep play ability and stamina churning out cuts have given New York offensive life in low-scoring games.
To fill Babbitt’s void on the defense, Murray has moved Kittredge to the D-Line. Though he lacks explosion and can only run on his heels due to a pulled calf, his tenacity has proved critical.
“Having a person who knows how to score, knows how to take care of the disc on the D-Line, knows how to shut down one of their better players, that can feed a D-team,” said Kittredge. “Our defense was one of our things that we were struggling with. It takes a lot of pressure off the O if we have a D-Line that can really just grind on their O-Line. I'm willing to do that, I don't care. I'm willing to run for [expletive] ever.”
New York is no superteam. They don’t overpower opponents through sheer talent. They win through effort, grinding in the wind and rain. New York has excelled in the role of underdog, but they’ve only just begun their path through more heralded teams.
The Empire will face the Dallas Roughnecks in the first round at Championship Weekend this Saturday. The Roughnecks were only created in 2016, but they are already a historic AUDL franchise. Kittredge himself starred alongside a roster of all-world ultimate talents on the 2016 Dallas team that went undefeated and won the title. The Roughnecks have lost just five games in three years as a franchise. New York lost six games in 2018 alone.
New York will again have to bring the spark that has fueled their streak, as Dallas has one of the strongest top-to-bottom rosters in the league. New York won’t care. The Empire will muck up the game and force achingly long points. The Empire held the Breeze and Rush to a combined 32 points in two playoff games. New York knows how to neutralize opposing offenses, and make opponents play differently from their preferred style.
“If you look at this roster, if you just look at the roster, this team can beat any team that's out there,” said Murray. “I've always known we have a really deep bench. Because we have such big names, people focus on those names, and they forget about the rest of the players.”
The team certainly has great complementary depth pieces. However, at least some of New York’s newfound mojo derives from its most heralded addition. Kittredge is 14-0 in the playoffs during his career, and has won an AUDL Championship every year since joining the league in 2014. Kittredge is no underdog.
“If you have one person on the team who's done it, it makes everyone on the team think it's possible,” said Murray. “I'm sure people have an additional level of confidence, knowing that someone has been there before.”