July 25, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
The New York Empire (9-6) have fought through a tumultuous 2018 season. But they enter the East Division championship game with a lot of momentum, winners of five of their last six games. The five-time reigning East champs the Toronto Rush (13-1) will look to end the good times, as they have defeated the Empire each and every time for the past five years.
New York came into the season with a lot of hype, having added Beau Kittredge, Marques Brownlee, and Ben Katz to an already solid core featuring Ben Jagt, Jeff Babbitt, and the Drost twins, among others. In the first game of the season, the Empire fell flat, losing a low scoring 18-14 struggle against the Rush. The Empire offense was raw and relatively unpracticed together, as players freelanced offensive sets seemingly at will. They lacked rhythm and cohesion, scoring a season-low goal total. The crowd booed Kittredge throughout the game, and he told me – ironically? – afterwards that “[playing in the cold] is not quite my cup of tea, but seeing everyone out here really kind of brought the warmth to me. The energy from the crowd was really firing me up.”
“I enjoyed all the heckling.”
Needless to say, it was a tough start to the season for an Empire with lofty expectations. The second time New York faced Toronto this season was two months later on June 17, when a 4-3 Empire traveled to Canada. They were in second place in the East, but they were banged up and weary. New York was humbled 25-18, and they were so frustrated by the loss that players refused to be interviewed after the contest. The Empire have regained their focus since then, finding their stride at the perfect time of the season.
Toronto beat New York both times through consistency. The Rush defense is possibly more athletic at every position than the Empire offense. Bretton Tan is one of the best handler defenders in the league, and if Harper Garvey isn’t able to free himself for easy resets for the Empire, New York will have a tough time scoring enough to win. Isaiah Masek-Kelly is perhaps one of a handful of players in the league who is athletic enough to match Jagt. With New York’s centerpiece adequately matched, Toronto feels confident against the Empire’s large receiving core.
“If they want to win by throwing up jump balls, then so be it,” said Toronto coach Sachin Raina, succinctly.
Garvey and Jagt combined for 110 completions and 12 throwaways in New York’s two losses to Toronto this season. They’ll need to be better.
The Empire’s offense in both games relied on the performances of secondary playmakers in Katz, Josh Alorro, and Jibran Mieser. All are athletic, and they’ll face primed-and-ready Toronto defenders like Jason Huynh, Mike MacKenzie, and Iain MacKenzie. If New York can win those matchups, they’ll have consistent means to score efficiently. The Empire weren’t able to do so in either previous Rush games, scoring 16 points per game in their two losses.
Babbitt will be the X-factor for the Empire. If New York opts to play him on the offense alongside Jagt and Kittredge, Toronto’s defense will be stretched. Overloading size and athleticism is a dangerous tool. However, Babbitt’s playmaking gives New York more room for error.
Toronto will be without Mark Lloyd, a game-changing defender who was central to the team’s championship game run last year. But Toronto remains unconcerned, as they trust their depth on defense.
“We're going to keep our talent spread between two D-Lines so we can keep running out fresh guys,” said Raina. “Our strength all year has been our depth, our ability to have fresh legs at all times. To start to lean heavily on one groups of guys would abandon what we've been doing all year.”
“We don't have to worry tremendously about matchups,” Raina continued. “We have a team gameplan. We'll stick with our two D-Lines, and we'll have guys on the field who can match up with those guys, whether it's Marjio [Zlatic], Iain [MacKenzie, [Nick] Dacquisto, [Justin] Foord, [Isaiah Masek-Kelly], you can throw Mike [MacKenzie] in there. We've got big guys.”
Other than Masek-Kelly and Foord, there are matchups there where New York has athletic advantages with Jagt, Babbitt, and Kittredge. They need to hoard those advantages and attack them if they want to score on Toronto.
Babbitt leaving New York’s defense will hurt the Empire on that end, but it might make sense for New York. Head Coach Eileen Murray used Kittredge and Brownlee in primarily defensive roles against DC, and either can passably fill Babbitt’s shoes for the defensive line. Kittredge had great success matching up against DC’s MVP candidate Rowan McDonnell. Alorro also played defense for New York, and his agility and disc skills make him equally potent in coverage and as a thrower leading the counterattack.
Toronto will likely be less flexible with its roles. The Rush know what works, and they won’t make major overhauls to the team – as New York did against DC – unless there is an emergency.
“We're not going to radically change things just based on who we're playing. We can't. If you start doing that, then you already start playing into your hands,” said Raina.
Cam Harris will continue to be a fulcrum for Toronto’s offense. Babbitt frequently matched up against Harris this year. Who will take Harris when Babbitt sits? If Harris has free reign deep, Toronto will have no trouble scoring. And they may not, anyways. The Rush offense is one of the most efficient units in the league, with a deep wealth of handlers and athletic receivers. New York is a stifling defensive team, but they’ll need to figure out a way to disrupt Toronto’s patented pull-play scores.
New York is considered a top-heavy team, and they stayed true to that definition against DC. In a game with 34 points played, Jagt and Babbitt each played in 26 points. Katz played in 24. All in all, eight Empire players played in more than half of the game’s points. They’ll need to continue the same trend against Toronto.
Toronto has a talent edge. New York and Toronto ultimate have never been the most cordial. Look for that trend to continue under the bright lights of the playoffs. A chippy, choppy, chirpy game will favour the Empire, allowing them to get more rest for their stars. Fewer points in the game will give fewer opportunities for Toronto to stretch its muscles and play its tightly organized, quick-scoring brand of offense. New York will not be able to match Toronto if the Rush start stringing together offensive scores in 20 seconds or less.
Bottom line: The Empire have never beaten the Rush, and this weekend’s matchup bends towards Toronto. The Rush will be playing at home, with the healthiest roster they’ve had all season. In fact, Toronto will likely boast more talent in the 2018 playoffs than they have in their history as an organization. New York will need lots of factors to play in the right direction to have a chance. Players like Garvey and Jagt will need to win individual matchups against athletically equal – or even superior – defenders. Defenders like the Drost bothers will need to manufacture chances for the Empire’s defense, and New York will need to score on the majority of its break chances. Rush shooters like Harris will need to miss some shots. Even if all that happens, the Empire will still need their legs to hold up in the fourth quarter, as Toronto will surely play their players fewer minutes.
New York retooled their team coming into the 2018 season for this moment. They changed the team culture, offering more structure, more leadership, and more consistent dedication to practicing. Eileen Murray joined the team as head coach. Kittredge offered his athleticism and leadership. The Toronto Rush remain the immovable object in the East division, but New York might finally have the muscle to compete. If they pitch a perfect game, Toronto could see its run of dominance end. Any slip-ups from the Empire, and Toronto could coast into their sixth straight Championship Weekend appearance.