March 23, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
It’s been a tough two years for the Madison Radicals.
After an undefeated regular season in 2016, the team was cruising to victory against the Seattle Cascades in the semifinals at home, leading 20-13 with only a few minutes remaining in the third quarter. The team was playing in front of a monstrous home crowd, with more than 3000 people storming through the gates of Breese Stevens Field for the Saturday night showcase. But just when it looked like the Radicals would clinch a berth in the championship game, the Cascades launched a historic comeback. Stands full of friends and family watched the Radicals – who almost never allow more than three or four points in a quarter to their opponents – choke away their lead over the Cascades, losing 26-25 in the end.
Pat Shriwise, a team veteran on the offense who has been with the team since its inaugural season, thought that 2016 Radicals team had too much pressure. The desire to fulfill their hopes of a first title in front of their home crowd turned from eager anticipation into grinding desperation. When Seattle started fighting back and turning Madison’s fairytale season into a nightmare, the Radicals collapsed.
Heading into 2017, the team felt different. Usually an upbeat bunch, the bitter taste caused by the semifinals loss had not yet departed from their mouths. Players weren’t enjoying the little things that are required for winning. Training, practicing, and playing felt like work.
And somehow, facial hair became their attempt to re-inject joy. After a road win in overtime against the Minnesota Wind Chill in early June, the team agreed not to shave until they lost again. It was not a unanimous decision, and some disagreed with the newfound grooming aesthetic.
“Can I say they’re all the worst?” Andrew Meshnick asked in response to my prodding about his favorite Radical’s facial hair.
But mustaches aside, something clicked when the team gave in. Not only were the Radicals more loose come playoff time, and the team was riding a seven-game win streak.
The Radicals were eliminated from the 2017 playoffs in a well-fought game to the superteam and eventual champion San Francisco FlameThrowers. Coach Tim DeByl admitted that the loss felt easier to swallow than the Seattle loss from the previous year, though he doesn’t know if that lessening of pain is necessarily a good thing. One thing he did know was that his team played a hell of a game.
“Everything can work and you still lose,” DeByl said.
That can happen when you’re playing against players the caliber of Ashlin Joye, who DeByl considers one of the greatest players to have ever played. Joye has been a particular villain for the Radicals, as he has been a part of the teams that have eliminated Madison from the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. In those three games, Joye has thrown 17 assists on 178 completions compared to just eight throwaways, all against the league’s best defense.
“If Ashlin Joye hadn’t been in the league [during 3] of the last 5 years, [Madison] would have won a couple titles.”
After yet another playoff loss in 2017, 2018 could provide the redemptive arc and catharsis the team craves so desperately. The energy around the team feels better, with more butt-slaps, high-fives, and overall positivity according to players. More than anything, the team is excited for championship weekend to return to Madison in 2018. Scott Richgels, a 6'7" cutter who's been with the team since day one, even delayed his retirement for another chance of winning a championship in front of a home crowd.
The Radicals are one of a few teams who enter 2018 with a legitimate chance at the title. Though some players preferred I mention the Raleigh Flyers or Toronto Rush as favorites, captain and emotional leader of the team Kevin Pettit-Scantling declared his Radicals to absolutely be the odds-on title favorites.
Consistency is the Radicals’ most powerful attribute. Coach DeByl said his schemes are only able to work so well because the players know and trust each other’s tendencies. Every player with whom I spoke raved about how easy it is to play on a line when you know your teammates as intimately as do the Radicals know each other.
But there will be more to the Radicals in 2018 than in years past.
The defense will – as always – be flat-out predatory. Seriously, if you’ve got the disc with Meshnick on the mark, you should probably be careful. His hand blocks are legendary.
“I think I just try to react to what the thrower is looking for without really making it obvious that I know where he’s going to throw,” said Meshnick. Pettit-Scantling said that Meshnick is teaching him how to break eye contact so as to encourage a throw, before jumping in front of the disc – sacrificing the force – to record a block. Meshnick is given freedom by Coach DeByl to improvise in order to generate those turns. It pays off.
According to DeByl, the mark isn’t even where most of the blocks are generated in their zone scheme. The zone tries to over-emphasize the size of the AUDL fields, baiting teams into “skip” passes, where they skip past the easy reset passes and try to gain more yards on crossfield swings. A triangle formed between the best athletes – both edges and the deep defender – prevent any yardage gained. Those defenders in the triangle amass blocks like I do parking tickets: Peter Graffy notched 27 blocks in 2017 as the monster lurking deep, and Pettit-Scantling equaled him with 27 of his own from the edge position, putting both players in the top five of the league. Both Graffy and Pettit-Scantling were nominated the AUDL’s All-Defense team in 2017, and they didn’t even lead their team in blocks.
Pettit-Scantling explained how Meshnick finished with 28 in 2017, earning the coveted blocks title for the team during the regular season.
“Going into the last game, I had 25, Mesh had 23, and I was like, ‘I don’t mean to be competitive, but I’m gonna beat you in this.’ He was like, ‘alright, I’m gonna try.’ Mesh had 5 blocks in that last game.”
Graffy - the all-time AUDL leader in regular season (129) and playoff (16) blocks - is the D-Line quarterback, both before and after a turn. Pettit-Scantling raves about his ability to lead the defense in forcing turns.
“He’s a great talker, a lot of the zone is communication from the top… It’s almost like he’s the pilot of the ship, and he maneuvers everybody so that the offense tests him.”
And Graffy rarely loses those tests. His ability to dominate individual matchups in space has even prompted reigning league MVP Jon Nethercutt to remark about Graffy’s talent.
“I think Graffy's done a pretty good job demonstrating over the years that throwing passes that float for a long time in the deep space aren't necessarily good decisions when he's hanging out back there,” Nethercutt said.
With such a fantastic defense, Madison is confident against offensive teams that lack patience. Every Radicals player is excited to play against Raleigh on May 26 in the AUDL Game of the Week, and the team is internally confident. The Radicals did, after all, come away the victors when they beat the Flyers in the 2015 semifinals.
We like our matchup against Raleigh,” DeByl said. “They’re a little more loose with the disc and want to play more of an uptempo, shoot-‘em-up game, and…that’s the kind of team we want to play.”
When teams are patient against Madison, the zone can be exploited. Here’s an amazing drone video of persistence triumphing against Madison’s zone. You can see the principles of the cup shifting, edges closing off space, and the deep commanding the entire field.
If the zone isn’t working, as happens against teams that prioritize short passes and disc possession, Pettit-Scantling is confident that the D-Line’s best seven matchup favorably, man-to-man, against anyone. The team boasts 15 players who are 6’2 or taller this year, making them the tallest Madison team to date.
The offense is simpler, designed almost perfectly to beat this Madison team’s own defense. The O-Line prioritizes easy passes, possession, and patience, playing the efficiency game. DeByl mused that if his offense was on the field for the longest possible time during scoring possessions, the opponent’s O-Line “will get a little frantic when they get into the game.”
Colin Camp, the O-Line deep threat who led his team in goals during 2017, put it simpler.
“Our role is basically just to get our D-Line back on the field so they can be their dominant selves.”
While he struggled in his first few years adapting to the offense, Camp has really come into his own on the Radicals. He led the team with 39 goals last year - a franchise high for a single season - and showed an ability to take over down the stretch in big games, most notable in last season’s important Week 11 win on the road.
The matchup between the offense and defense is fierce during practice. Patience combats patience, and O-Line mainstay Shriwise loves the battles.
“Our offense really likes playing against zone, honestly,” Shriwise said. “It's pretty fun for us when Tim's like, 'Hey, we're gonna work on zone tonight.' The defense loves it, too. I think those are our most fun practices.”
2018 has seen more camaraderie between the two lines, whose players happily congratulate their adversaries when scoring in practice. That’s a marked shift from last season’s more dampened demeanor.
Shriwise also mentioned that the offense will be slightly more uptempo this season. They’ll look to shoot deep more often, especially with some young legs stepping into larger roles with the team. After having rolled out mostly the same lines on both sides for the past several years, 2018 will see changes for Madison. Youth will shift the look of the roster.
“We've been playing together for quite a while, on this O-Line of ours, and it's tough for us if we're facing a D-Line who's just got legs for days and can run on us,” said Shriwise.
Camp, 27, has often felt younger than his older, mustachioed, dad-like teammates. He says that will change this year, and he’s happy about it.
“I've been one of the youngest guys, and now I kind of feel like I'm getting old with some of the new young guys coming in... That's what I want. I want young guys nipping at my heels, trying to get my playing time.”
For Shriwise, the team is exciting not because of the winning, but because of the competitiveness that turns to bonding.
“There's these new people, these new voices on the team, and letting them claim their space on the field and carve out a role for themselves keeps things new for me,” Shriwise said.
And those youngsters will pop this year. Marquis Mason – a converted wide receiver from the University of Wisconsin – is a few years removed from injuries to both of his ACLs, and he is looking more athletic than ever. With a year of experience under his belt, he should dominate in a defensive system that allows athletes space to improvise. Everyone with whom I spoke raved about Mason this year, and the excitement around him is palpable.
Chase Marty and Sterling Knoche, both rookies last year, will play “huge minutes” for the team on the D-Line, according to Camp. Sef van Kan and Tarik Akyuz are both solid young offensive players who’ll contribute beyond their years. All in all, 10 new players will take the field for the Radicals, including Robyn Wiseman. The team is excited about her dynamic throwing ability from the handler position, which should add more power to the O-Line.
As a result of a new season, the championship returning to Breese Stevens Field, and the exciting youth movement, the thrill of playing has returned to Madison. For championship weekend on August 11-12, Madison is looking to sell out the stadium, which holds around 5000 seats. That seems likely; the team sold nearly 4000 tickets for Madison’s semifinal game against Seattle in 2016.
The players may not have mustaches any more this season, but the team has another delightful plan in place to keep their focus on the mundane instead of the final goal.
“KPS started [this],” Camp said. “We have a bottle of champagne that's going to remain unopened all year. We're going to travel everywhere with it, travel to every practice, travel to every game, and when we win the championship, we're going to bust it open.”
2018 is a new year for Madison, and the team is embracing its potential with gusto. The Radicals are playing for home-field advantage, for redemption, and to finally win a championship for and in front of arguably the best fan base in the league. But most of all, they’re playing to keep that champagne from going to waste.