6400: Champs

August 29, 2019
By Grant Lindsley

Champs – Empire Save Their Best for Last

In Saturday’s semifinal against the Indianapolis AlleyCats, the New York Empire played three great quarters. But only three. The Empire held a commanding lead, 14-7, but eight minutes later, the score was narrowed to 16-13 with five minutes still to go, plenty of time for Indy to come back. The game felt familiar for the Empire’s O-line: a good – albeit inconsistent – offensive performance that allowed the other to stay close, but not close enough to win.

That trend concerned me heading into Sunday’s AUDL Championship game against the Dallas Roughnecks.

Dallas looked great in their semifinal. Their D and O lines seemed more specialized than any other team in the league. The Dallas D was tall, athletic, hucked often when they gained possession, and boasted a defender in Kai Marshall who could deliver blocks (five vs. San Diego) and threaten to hang with Empire’s Ben Jagt in the air.

The Dallas O, on the other hand, played quick small ball, hucking only at opportune moments. In the finals, Dallas threw tons of passes (307 compared to Empire’s 173), and Dalton Smith led the most fluid give-and-go offensive system I’ve ever seen.

The Roughnecks recorded only 11 turnovers against the Empire, impressive for any AUDL game. The Empire needed consistency, and when it mattered most, the Empire delivered: a mere eight turns total.

In games where both offenses are playing so well, the importance of each possession rises. The value of a block surges. The game looks clean, and each offensive hold feels like a relief for the team that scored.

But the respite is temporary. With each hold, pressure builds on the offense set to receive the next pull, and when they hold, the pressure rises again. Precision matters. This is ultimate at its finest for players and fans alike.

At halftime, the game was dead even at 13-13 with only one break per side.

There’s a saying in ultimate that the only thing an O line can ever do is lose a game. In other words, D lines are the group that wins a game, because they create the breaks that give their team the lead. O lines are expected to score, so they lose when they fail to do so more than the other team’s O line. (Usually people who play defense employ this saying).

But there’s some truth to it. Anyone who has played offense knows the feeling of being in a tight game. In a word, for me, it would be business. Ideally, offensive players are focused and controlled because of the consistency required to perform at a high level for an entire game. If you’re on O, you have a job to do.

Defense is a completely different emotional experience. In a word, the feeling of being on a D line in a tight game is hunger. In high-level games such as last weekend’s final, D lines fail again and again and again to create a turnover – a single, delicious turnover.

But defenders are long-term hunters. They wear down their prey. That’s why you hear sidelines celebrating with calls like “Body blows!” to their D lines, implying that they’ve made the opposing O line tired. Even if the D line didn’t generate a break, they’re building towards one. Once the D finally gets a turnover, the feeling is glory.

Glory must have been what Josh Alorro felt when he got a catch block (sadly not included in the highlight reel) on a scoober intended for Abe Coffin late in the game. In a display of exceptional presence of mind, Alorro called a timeout when the stall count rose instead of forcing a low-percentage deep throw. Maintaining possession mattered too much.

It’s hard for a defender to switch from the hunger mentality of defense to the business mentality of offense. That quick mental downshift probably birthed the other saying you hear from players: that a D line has to do twice the work of an O line – charged as they are with getting turnovers and converting the turn for a goal.

The saying is playful, but there’s also truth to it, as evidenced by the pivotal moments that swayed the finals in the Empire’s favor with six minutes left to play.

The Empire had no timeouts remaining and were up 23-21. The defense had generated a turn, but the stall count was high, and Tristan Yarter didn’t have options downfield. He threw a wide backfield reset pass, and Marques Brownlee’s catch to save possession kept the break chance alive.

A silhouette of Brownlee’s beautiful grab, in the words of Evan Lepler, “could be the new logo for the league.”

Brownlee’s catch was outdone by his throw, a laser flick across the break side to Sam Feder. That cross-field, inside-out zinger was high risk, for sure – it’s an easy throw to shank, especially in the adrenaline-flushed moments following an incredible catch.

But Brownlee hit his target in the chest, and the speed of the throw actually allowed Feder to backpedal a few steps, separating him from his defender and giving him momentum to continue the offensive flow with a backhand to Mike Drost in the endzone.

It was a crucial break. Up until that point, no team had led by more than two goals. Empire never enjoyed the confidence of an early lead, which, admittedly, we had seemed to enjoy a bit too much during the semifinal and at times during the regular season.

Dallas forced the Empire to play the all-around best game of our season.

From my perspective now, as a spectator looking back at highlights and stats, the game looks great. While I’m still on the fence about a couple elements of professional ultimate (field width and the presence of referees) and am also keen to see a similarly funded and promoted women’s league (PUL or another), I’ll also say that this AUDL Championship game was the most compelling pro game I’ve watched.

There was just enough wind to make certain throws challenging, but not so much that the game got sloppy. Both offenses played possession-oriented offense. Both teams had athletic highlights worthy of Top 10 reels across all of sportsdom that day. Refs sped up the game and made few to no poor calls in the finals. The full stats shed light on the game in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Championship Weekend 8 is in the books. The Empire completed a perfect 15-0 season, and while our focus is rightfully now on celebrating, I can’t help but also glance ahead to next season and wonder: how will the Empire strike back?