July 26, 2018
By Adam Ruffner
After the best regular season in franchise history and their first playoff win since 2012, the Indianapolis AlleyCats are one Midwest Division championship game away from accomplishing their mission of establishing a new order. The only thing standing between them and a trip to Championship Weekend are the Madison Radicals, the five-time reigning division champs, and a team that is 17-1 all-time against Indianapolis.
That lone 'Cats win came back on June 17, and though it was by a single goal against a Radicals team playing their second game in as many days on the road, the win was significant if not entirely cathartic for Indy.
“When the clock hit zero and Rick [Gross] secured the win with his sideline D in the end zone, I just wanted to grab each guy that had been through all the losses and hug them,” said career 'Cat Keenan Plew in the Week 12 Tuesday Toss. Sure, a full-strength Radicals squad mollywhopped the same AlleyCats team two weeks later in Madison by a score of 26-17. But the seed of confidence, however small, was planted in the 'Cats. And the team has responded down the stretch by going on a 5-1 tear that started on June 17.
“I’m simply ecstatic that we finally got over the hump,” Indianapolis Head Coach Eric Leonard said after the Week 12 win. “[Our guys] have worked very hard for a long time, but haven’t really seen the results follow until this season. It’s been tough to see us come so close, only to have that ‘big win’ slip through our grasp. So to finally get the monkey off our back against a team that has beaten us 16 times in a row is not only gratifying, but a validation of sorts for the work put in."
"It’s about freaking time because this was a long time coming."
Now, the AlleyCats roll into Madison with considerable momentum. They are coming off back-to-back wins against the Minnesota Wind Chill, including a 20-19 victory in the first round of the playoffs last weekend without arguably their two best players in Plew and MVP finalist Gross; both players are expected to play this Saturday. After years of committing to developing their youth, the depth of Indy is better than ever, with players like Keegan North, Donovan Triplett, and Kip Curtis elevating their play when given larger roles and opportunity. Travis Carpenter may still go by "The Kid" from time to time, but he is starting to reach his prime and playing like it, putting together his most complete season as a player in 2018. Oh, and they have that guy who has scored more goals than anyone in the AUDL, ever, Cameron Brock, who continues to polish and refine his game year after year.
Yes, Indy is ready for this divisional championship matchup. But so are the Radicals. Madison is nothing if not prepared, and there's been a slow, sharp edge of determination to their season, like a blade being drawn.
"We hit a rough patch in the middle of the season that really made us rethink what we were doing on offense and defense," Radicals Head Coach Tim DeByl said. "Those adjustments have really paid off, and right now the team is playing the best ultimate we've played in years."
In previous years, Madison would sometimes go through entire regular seasons relatively unchallenged, only to have their biggest obstacles appear during Championship Weekend. Prime example being in 2016, when Madison entered Championship Weekend undefeated and with a shot at winning a title in front of a home crowd, only to have the Seattle Cascades pull off a miraculous seven-goal second half comeback in the semifinal in one of the greatest games ever played.
This year was different. In Week 9, the Raleigh Flyers went into Breese Stevens Field and did whatever they pleased with the disc, pummeling the Radicals 24-16 and giving Madison its worst loss in franchise history. The home crowd—the true spirit of the Radicals franchise—was visibly stunned. It was only the second regular season loss at home since 2013 for the Radicals, and Jonathan Nethercutt, Jack Williams, and company were blowing past the best defense in the league and turning the field into a track meet.
The destruction was so complete, Madison simply decided to start over rather than sort through the wreckage. Longtime deep defender Peter Graffy shifted to the Radicals offense to help a unit that, while efficient, would get stuck in ruts of inconsistency. The change was immediate, as the team won its next game 20-17 over Minnesota, with Graffy collecting five assists and three goals. Madison is now 6-1 since the Raleigh game, and is averaging 25.0 goals per game during that stretch. The Radicals pace of play is markedly quicker, and the playmaking duo of Graffy and Pat Shriwise has become borderline unguardable. The two have combined for 39 assists, 41 goals, and 343 completions compared to just 14 turnovers in Madison's last seven games. The Madison hallmark of tenacious defense is still there—they are averaging the third most blocks per game in the league—but the reinvention of the Radicals is due to their newfound offensive flow.
Saturday has the potential to be franchise-defining for both teams. For Indianapolis, a win would mean a complete revision of every criticism, every slight they've endured over the years of being the lesser-than rival in a lopsided series with the Radicals. For Madison, a win would put them in their sixth consecutive Championship Weekend, and one game closer to the ultimate goal: Hoisting the championship trophy in front of their home crowd.