July 26, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
The Austin Sol (7-7) could represent a genuine threat to the Raleigh Flyers (10-4). The two teams met twice in the 2018 regular season, splitting the season series 1-1. Because of a scheduling quirk, Austin will play at home despite being the lower-ranked team, and Austin’s crowd is one of the best and rowdiest in the league. They’ll host Raleigh this Friday, July 27 at 7:30 PM/ET on Eleven Sports on Twitch. The winner will get the right to face the Dallas Roughnecks (13-1) the following night on Stadium in the 2018 South Division championship game.
Despite possessing a cadre of top flight talent, the Sol backed into their first playoff appearance as a franchise. Before their win-by-forfeit over the Tampa Bay Cannons to clinch a playoff spot, the Sol finished the season on a 2-4 stretch, albeit against difficult competition.
“If I was [Austin], I would accept the playoff invite, but I wouldn't feel like I earned it, necessarily,” said Raleigh Head Coach Mike DeNardis.
Austin is one of the few teams to have defeated the Flyers this season, downing them back on April 27. Austin got the win by forcing misthrows from some of the most consistent throwers in the league. Bob Liu, Noah Saul, and Brett Matzuka combined for seven throwaways, many of which were relatively unforced. But the Sol cannot rely on the Flyers shorting hucks or simply mistiming their throws, especially with Raleigh’s heightened focus for this playoff matchup.
Furthermore, Raleigh was without three of their top seven guys in Jonathan Nethercutt, Mischa Freystaetter, and Jacob Fairfax. Having Nethercutt as the primary thrower on offense shifts Liu and Matzuka into their roles as facilitators, which both players excel at. And having Freystaetter and Fairfax as targets makes the Flyers formidable—they might be the best one-two receiving duo in the league.
Raleigh was indeed able to shift their stars back into their proper roles when the two teams played again in June. Raleigh had a relatively full lineup, and they crushed the Sol 32-14. That game was not a proper indication of the matchup between the two teams, either, as Austin kept the game close – even tied 9-9 early in the second quarter – before slowing later. Furthermore, Austin was without several of their own top players in Jerrod Wolfe, Andrew Walch, and Ethan Pollack.
Raleigh has been historically dominant when their top guys have played. The 80 points played together between Nethercutt, Fairfax, and Williams have been scored 64-16 in favour of Raleigh. When Austin’s top offensive players have been available, they’ve been a very good team, but not in the same tier as Raleigh. Pollack, Chase Cunningham, and Max Cook have shared 90 points on the field, and Austin has outscored opponents by 64-26 when they are on the same line. Though Austin’s peak offense generally converts as efficiently as Raleigh’s, they are much poorer at reclaiming the disc after a turnover. Freystaetter, Nethercutt, and others are terrific defenders on Raleigh’s O-Line, but Austin has had trouble recapturing the disc after throwing turnovers. The Sol have begun playing defenders like Walch and Wolfe on the offence to help get stops after a turnover, but the team as a whole still isn’t elite in those types of situations.
“Sometimes their athletes aren't performing because it might be a little windy, or they're not as in tune with their throws, and those vets really help stabilize their offence,” said DeNardis. “Whereas their young athletes are explosive and make plays, and do a lot of exciting things – [Kyle] Henke in particular is very interesting to watch - so they balance that well.”
Austin’s greatest advantage – playing at home – might mean little. Raleigh delivered the AUDL’s signature regular season victory this year on the road by stomping the Madison Radicals into the dust at Breese Stevens Field. They showed what they can do when fully operational. Austin will be hard-pressed to topple such an impressive team if Raleigh comes out sharp.