June 16, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
Since the creation of the West Division in 2014, three of four AUDL champions have hailed from California. In 2018, the West only has two playoff spots, and one seems to belong to the Los Angeles Aviators. They sit at 7-2, with both losses occurring in inter-divisional play. Remaining in the hunt for the second playoff spot are both former champions from the division, the San Francisco FlameThrowers (4-5), the San Jose Spiders (5-5), alongside the less-heralded San Diego Growlers (4-6).
All three teams believe that with a few bounces in different directions, they could be in first place instead of the Aviators. The West as a division could boast the most parity, and that makes for an exciting sprint in these last few weeks of the regular season. Even one loss could doom a team’s playoff chances. With that in mind, let’s compare each team’s strategic advantages and personnel.
San Francisco FlameThrowers (4-5)
Remaining schedule: vs SJ, vs LA, @ SD, @ LA, vs Sea
The FlameThrowers are the defending AUDL champions; however, they dug themselves an early hole. Not knowing that the West only has two playoff teams, the FlameThrowers were 1-4 early in the season. They expected to struggle while rebuilding the team on the fly, but the FlameThrowers are much improved now. They have the best top-end talent in the division, and Aviators defender Zach Theodore described them as the team that Los Angeles least wants to see in the playoffs.
Marcelo Sanchez, Antoine Davis, Lior Givol, Byron Liu, Greg Cohen, and Eli Kerns are devastating offensive weapons. The team’s offensive system is fantastic at creating space for their athleticism to shine in single coverage.
“San Francisco, one-on-one, they're very good at isolating a cutter and getting open whenever,” said Theodore. “Antoine [Davis], his athleticism is insane. I know he's faster than me, and he can probably get up over me. I'm pretty sure I'm taller than him, but he's still scary. If he gets running in a straight line, I have no chance.”
All of their top players are elite cutters. They know that opponents are terrified of Davis, Sanchez, and Cohen striking into the endzone, and they use that fear to open easy offensive holds.
“You can't ever stop them,” said San Diego’s coach, Kevin Stuart, of San Francisco’s stars.
“You have to contain them, and maybe they'll make a mistake here or there, and then try to get them exhausted over a four-quarter game.”
“For our offence, our gameplan doesn't change a whole lot depending on who we're playing,” said Eli Kerns. “[We] catch huge unders, grind with our legs, and then let people settle in to open up those deep shots in the second half. Teams are scared of Antoine. Teams are scared of Greg. Teams are scared of Marcelo.”
Nobody in the league has more freedom catching unders than Antoine Davis. Defences sell the farm to take away his deep shots. Davis taking risky decisions after receiving the disc on unders, or even Kerns doing the same, could be opponents’ best chance at generating a turnover.
“With Antoine on San Francisco, I don't mind if [he] gets an under and throws it deep. I'll think, meh, my guy probably has a chance,” said Theodore. “When Eli's playing offence, we usually want him to huck into questionable matchups. He's definitely willing to put it, and he's a good thrower, but he's willing to put up riskier shots than [Elliott] Chartock might be.”
Davis is Theodore’s matchup whenever the Aviators face San Francisco, and the Aviators try to use heady team defence to contain him from running deep. If San Francisco is in a vertical stack, the deepest defender will always help deep to ensure two defenders are underneath any huck that goes up. If San Francisco sets up in a horizontal stack, the furthest defender on the break-side has the same responsibility. The plus-one team defence just wants to make sure that San Francisco tires itself out.
If Davis does catch it, teams should not let him throw a flick, which is far superior to his backhand. If San Francisco does turn the disc over, any opponent must ensure that San Francisco’s top players run as much as possible. Exhaustion could be their only weakness, especially with all the responsibilities entrusted to them. Tired players throw riskier hucks.
It’s important to note that practically all of San Francisco’s top players are most effective when cutting instead of handling. Eli Kerns is a terrific thrower, and he will handle for the team, but opponents are happy when he’s confined to the backfield. As a result, much of the success of the FlameThrowers depends on the consistency of Elliott Chartock’s throws.
Chartock is an AUDL rookie, but he is a veteran player. He leads the team in completions, and he has the throwing chops to make sure that a break-side help defender won’t have time to catch up to his hucks. Coach Josh Greenough likes to call Chartock this year’s stabilizing force, much like Jordan Marcy.
The FlameThrowers are confident in their depth, even if opponents are not. Chartock is terrific, and Jordan Jeffrey is an underrated star. The youth on the team has improved quickly since the beginning of the season.
“We have a bunch of young guys, who are up-and-coming,” said Kerns. “The perception that we're top-heavy is perhaps accurate, but we also have a lot of sleepers on the roster. Those players all have a ton of potential.”
San Francisco’s defence in the beginning of 2018 was shaky, and it had difficult converting on break opportunities. That’s not nearly as true anymore. The FlameThrowers like to play Greg Cohen on defence, and when Chartock is healthy, Kerns will also play a number of points with the D-Line.
Mark Burton remarked that Cohen and Kerns took turns defending him when Seattle and San Francisco matched up. Kerns started the game on Burton, and he has the athleticism to front a handler and wall off practically any cut. Kerns played so far beneath Burton that he was forced to strike deep or risk gumming up the offence. Of course, Burton beat Kerns in the air repeatedly, finishing with 11 goals as Kodi Smart threw dimes all evening. However, that Kerns has the ability to turn one of the league’s best throwers into a pure deep cutter is telling; San Francisco’s defence can change how an offence plays ultimate. When they need a block, all of their top players are elite, athletic defenders.
Kerns and Cohen’s presence will also ensure San Francisco more consistently punches in their break opportunities. Their defence has not been great on the season, allowing offences an incredible 77 percent conversion rate when Kerns and Cohen are on the line. That’s still good enough: in almost 100 points played together, Givol, Sanchez, Davis, and Kerns have an 80 percent offensive conversion rate. San Francisco will score with ease, and even a few break points in a game can be enough for them.
San Diego Growlers (4-6)
Remaining schedule: vs Sea, @ Sea, vs SF, vs LA
The Growlers are the surprise of the West thus far this season. They shared the lead of the division after the first few months, with a 4-2 record. An 0-4 run has hurt the Growlers dramatically, and coach Kevin Stuart isn’t reassured by the fact that three of those four losses have been by two goals or fewer.
He knows that San Diego needs to win out on the season to qualify for the playoffs, and even then, San Jose could still finish with a better record.
Even at 4-6, the Growlers are over-performing expectations in 2018. The handling core is incredibly young, and several of their players couldn’t buy playing time in past years.
“Coming into the season, I didn't know, really, what to expect,” said Stuart. “We had a lot of new guys. If you look at who's been really handling the disc for us, our main guys, they're all 22-24 [years old], just out of college. [Michael] Tran has been on the team for two years. Last year he was a role player. I had to sit him for a couple games, just because I didn't see much. But he's been working hard, and he's steady. Tim Okita, it's his first year on the team, first year in the AUDL. He's been doing a great job. Jake Gutkowski…he was a practice player for us last year, and now he's thrown into the fire.”
Those three players have been incredible, combining for 51 assists and 845 completions on the season, compared to only 39 throwaways, for a 95 completion percentage. However, a few of their turnovers have come at important times in recent games.
“We're making some really poor execution errors at inopportune times. I think that's what's going on. We have a lot of young guys. There's a little bit of growing pains,” explained Stuart.
The Growlers play lots of small-ball on offence, and their handlers and cutters are terrific at finding open space for resets. San Diego uses up-line cuts as well or better than almost any other team. However, the extra passes required to run a small-ball offence mean that there are extra opportunities for unforced turnovers, especially from young players.
The Growlers have been led by Travis Dunn, who has exploded as an MVP candidate in 2018. Dunn has 39 assists on the season and 19 goals. He’s also one of the team’s best defenders. The team’s conversion rates are much better when Dunn is playing, whether on offence or defence. When San Diego has the disc, Dunn is a constant deep threat, and his flick huck is one of the best in the game.
“He can get open deep or throw it deep, too,” said Los Angeles’ Theodore of Dunn. “He's improved in that area, a lot. [His flick] is so good. He's one of the deep threats I don't really want to push under as much, because [his flick is] so effective.”
On defence, San Diego uses far more junk and zone sets than any other team in the division. Though Steven Milardovich, Nate Page, and others are terrific individual defenders, the team often relies on its tricky sets to generate turnovers.
“They threw a lot of junky zone,” said Seattle’s Burton of his experience playing against San Diego. “It was a lot of making things look really enticing for us to throw, and our inexperience, as well as other things, we wouldn't attack the disc, and they would come flying through and get the D.”
San Diego is terrific at ensuring they have multiple defenders underneath any opponents’ huck. The Growler’s zone defence was successful the first time they played against San Francisco, triumphing 25-21. However, the FlameThrowers won the rematch 25-24, in large part due to Eli Kerns.
“I was not there for the first game of the season against San Diego, but the feedback I got around that game from a variety of players was that they threw some junky defences for most of the game,” said Kerns. “That really wore on the O-Line [in the first game]. Junk and zone offence are the places where I excel in offence.”
Kerns’ athleticism and intelligence, combined with his versatility, were huge. He finished with seven assists and four goals in the win. The Growlers have one more game remaining against the FlameThrowers and will need to win for a chance at the playoffs.
San Jose Spiders (5-5)
Remaining schedule: @ SF, vs LA, @ Sea, vs Sea
Currently sitting at second place in the West, the Spiders are in control of their own destiny for the playoffs. They have the same remaining schedule as the Growlers, but in a different order. Both teams have one remaining game against San Francisco, one against Los Angeles, and two against Seattle.
The Spiders entered the season believing they would be a strong contender for a championship. However, lack of availability from Shane Earley, Lucas Young, Gabe Hernandez, Nick Murphy, Steven Change, Mark Lin, and others have been difficult challenges.
One result from missing so many stars has been that the Spiders have developed a deeper team than either San Diego or San Francisco. Ethan Falat developed from a defensive star into an offensive one. Reserve players have stepped into larger roles.
“Ethan [Falat] is one of our guys who is always there, always open, and because he's a great defender, he's able to get the disc back for us,” said coach Tyler Grant. “I've actually been pretty pleased with some of our reserves and practice players have stepped up in games. Guys like David Hammer, Ben Levinksy, and Tyler [Condit] all have worked their way through the system and have made good contributions through what would have been a mostly reserve role. But they've played well, and they've earned the games that they've played in.”
On offence, Sonny Zacarro has stepped into a leading role. He’s already set career-high numbers this season in assists, goals, completions, and completion percentage. He’s so shifty with handler cuts that he’s always open for resets.
Jackson Stearns and rookie Zach Sabin are San Jose’s most devastating offensive weapons. Both stand 6’4 and can climb a pile with ease. When the Aviators battle the Spiders, Theodore guards Stearns, but that leaves Sabin freedom to dominate a smaller player. He finished with seven goals when the two teams clashed in the beginning of May.
Stearns’ decision-making is one area in which opponents might force turnovers from San Jose. Though a talented thrower, Stearns has a propensity to leave hucks in the air a tick longer than necessary, giving defenders a chance to catch up.
“I'm not as afraid of [Stearns’] deep throws. They've got some very good throwers on that team. But if Jackson throws it deep, I'm willing to let that go,” said Theodore.
When the Spiders have a relatively complete offensive line, they like to move Justin Norden to the defence. He could be the team’s best player, and like Greg Cohen for San Francisco, his presence maximizes a defence’s break chances. He headlines a defence that is likely San Jose’s greatest strength.
“We are coordinated on defence. We have some defences that, not necessarily anything special, like a zone look that no one can beat, it's not like that. I've worked hard on training people to make things difficult. That's one of our advantages because I think we do behave as a unit defensively,” said head coach Tyler Grant.
They have a variety of top defenders. Andrew Moore is in the running for fastest player in the league. Burton saw a variety of defenders when Seattle played San Jose, but Moore is the Spiders’ choice to defend an opponent’s most-skilled offender. He may be the tip of the spear, but San Jose’s physicality is what drives home their advantages.
“The Spiders are just a very physical team. It does cross the boundaries, and I think it plays into their style. They are very physical on everyone. They're very handsy. They get away with it, and sometimes, it's one of those things [other teams] have to fight through,” said Burton about what aspect of San Jose’s defence is most challenging to face. “San Jose is a very hungry, physical team.”
The Spiders are well equipped to face opponents with more talent. Other than a stinker in their third game of the season, in which they were missing nearly half their roster, San Jose hasn’t lost a game by more than three points yet this year. They always keep things close. Mark Burton predicts the Spiders take the second playoff spot in the West.
“I could see San Jose, with their physical defence, being a team that could sneak [into the playoffs] if their offence is clicking. If Jackson Stearns, I haven't seen play yet [this year], but if he's healthy, he has others who are stepping up, they can be a very good team,” said Burton. “They would be the team to beat if they brought it. I think their D-Line is intense enough. Their O-Line just needs to keep doing what they're doing and be willing to score on command.”