August 8, 2019
By Adam Ruffner
Return Of Indy To Championship Weekend
After years spent jockeying in the middle of the pack of the Midwest Division, the Indianapolis AlleyCats are making their triumphant return to Championship Weekend for the first time since appearing in the inaugural AUDL title game in 2012. And since enduring a franchise low point with 5-9 campaign in 2017, the AlleyCats have steadfastly rebuilt and rejuvenized their rotations from the inside out, earning 20 wins over the past two seasons with a combination of offensive chemistry, a surprisingly stingy defense, and one of the best young rotations in the league.
For the second straight season in 2019, Indy got wins against each divisional rival, giving their Midwest championship an undisputed quality that has redefined the AlleyCats' identity. Two seasons ago the 'Cats were plagued by turnovers and inconsistency with the disc. But this year, the team finished first in the AUDL in completions per game while surrendering the sixth fewest turnovers per game. Meaning: Indy shares the disc a lot, and displays a lot of trust in their teammates and system.
- Beau Kittredge's Sixth Straight Championship Weekend
Nobody has been better at winning in this league than Beau Kittredge, as he prepares for his sixth straight appearance in the final four. He already has four AUDL titles—two with San Jose, one with Dallas, and one with San Francisco—but a fifth one this year with the New York Empire would put the former two-time league MVP in a historic category all on his own.
And Kittredge is playing some of his best disc in years, placing in the top 20 in the league in blocks for the first time since his MVP season in 2015. The 37-year-old is seeing the disc clearly and has been a true anchor for an Empire defensive unit that is second in the league in goals allowed. Even when bothered by injury, as Kittredge was in the East Division Championship Game two weeeks ago, he is able to make a difference with his experience and moxie, forcing a late-game stall with an impressive mark.
- Jagt Party
Coming off one of the most dominant individual seasons in league history—he became one of just five players ever to notch a 50-assist, 50-goal regular season—Ben Jagt has the tools and the drive to live up to the massive expectations put on him and his Empire team. He's also proven himself to be a force at Championship Weekend already, going off for nine assists and six goals in last year's semifinals loss to Dallas.
The trick for Jagt may not be how much he scores, as him tallying a bucketload of Empire points is pretty much a given; Jagt has scored 4+ times in every game in 2019. No. For Jagt, the key will be limiting turnovers. In 13 games this season, Jagt has 10 multiple turnover performances. His 14 blocks on the year help offset some of his mistakes with the disc, as Jagt is more than capable at earning the disc back for his offense. But if New York wants to make their first championship game appearance in franchise history, mistakes from their playmakers will need to be at a minimum.
- A Perfect Empire
With a perfect 13-0 record heading into the weekend, the Empire have a chance to cement their legacy and become the third franchise in league history—and the first since 2016—to go undefeated. On paper, this New York team is the least dominant of the historical group. But the narrow margins of victory has forged this Empire team into a true, steeled competitor on both sides of the disc. They have the number four scoring offense and the league's second stingiest defense this season, the odds-on favorite for MVP (Jagt), the winningest player in league history (Kittredge), the AUDL's all-time ironman (Matt LeMar), two of the top four all-time leaders in blocks (Mike and Ryan Drost), the league's number four goal scorer all-time (Matt Stevens), a Jack Williams, a Grant Lindsley, and a Babbitt.
Similar to their Saturday night opponent from Indy, this New York franchise has one of the most established winning tenures in league history without a title. For all the star talent at the top of this roster, it is when you see team veterans like LeMar, the Drosts, Stevens, and others stretching their talents in new dimensions to help this team that really makes it resemble a true champion.
- New Era Roughnecks
For a team that has qualified for four straight Championship Weekend appearances, it's amazing how much turnover this Dallas franchise has gone through during those years. The franchise started as a superteam born out of high profile, out-of-market acquisitions, and has transformed into more a grassroots collective of youth and yeehaw vigor. The Roughnecks enjoy making plays for each other, and they have a kind of feeding frenzy attitude when they get on a roll. They have stars, obviously, but Dallas is maybe the least reliant on them of any team in the bracket.
Dallas want to distinguish themselves from their origins. And the only real way to do that is to win another title that can slide right alongside the one they won during their inaugural season in 2016.
- The Greatest Goose Tale
For a guy who earned his nickname telling stories, Goose Helton's in the midst of telling his finest fable yet in 2019. Helton reached the championship game in 2012 with Indy, and has not returned to Championship Weekend since, despite becoming an all-time legend in the intervening years. Here's a quick list of where Helton stacks up on the historical leaderboards:
- 217 goals (9th)
- 319 assists (2nd)
- 138 blocks (5th)
- 1956 completions (21st)
- 2231 points played (5th)
But the big shadow hanging above all those impressive statistical numbers is the lack of a championship. In his mid-30s, Helton is reestablishing what it means to be in one's prime—he enters Championship Weekend as one of the most dangerous playmakers on the field, capable of taking over a game. This close to a title, Goose might soar.
- Travis Carpenter On The Big Stage
Simply put, Travis Carpenter is a player you have to root for. Since entering this league as a 19-year-old, end-of-the-bench kid, Carpenter has learned and worked and developed and tweaked and refined his game by emulating his favorite players and applying himself 100 percent to his craft, now entering his prime as one of the best all around talents in the AUDL. He's always possessed natural instincts as a defender, but it's his evolution as a thrower that has him in the MVP discussion. Carpenter has 58 assists on 515 completions (95.50 percent) in 13 games in 2019, and is really learning how to take possession of games all on his own.
Carpenter helped Indy earn their first-ever win in Madison with a series of clutch plays down the stretch. He caught the game-winning goal in the win over Minnesota that effectively clinched their playoff berth. And he was standout in the team's Midwest Division Championship Game win.
- Dallas Offensive Tweaks
In his second season as the lead strategist for the Roughnecks, Head Coach Wes Nemec is becoming very good at adjustments. Few teams would bench their franchise leader in completions and assists (Brandon Malecek), and shift an All-AUDL caliber striker like Jay Froude to defense before a divisional title game. But those two switches led to Dallas' best game of the season in a 21-17 South Division Championship win over Raleigh. The Roughnecks offense was humming for all four quarters, completing 289-of-298 (97 percent) of their throws as a team against a Flyers defense that ranked in the top five in the league.
The semi-new look Dallas offense revolves around speed, precision, and timing. Coffin is the centerpiece, while Olson, Wilder, Thomas Slack, and Kevin Richardson work off each other with amazing responsiveness in space. The secret sauce, though, is the versatility of Dalton Smith, who begins many drives in the handler set, but has a keen sense of when to attack downfield.
- The Abe Coffin Show
After a nine-assist, 49-for-49 throwing performance in the South Division Championship Game, Abe Coffin enters Saturday's semifinal as the hottest offensive player in the bracket. And Coffin's last performance was only the most recent flourish for him this year: Since the beginning of June, Coffin has put up 27 assists on 222-of-226 throwing (98 percent), seven goals, and six blocks in his last seven games. It's a welcome return to form for one of the league's most unsung stars after missing the entirety of the 2018 season.
Coffin's speed and field IQ allow him to always be in rhythm with the disc, and the Dallas Roughnecks offense is taking full advantage of it by pushing the tempo and looking often for continuation hucks. And because of Coffin's injury last season, he is just beginning to tap the speedy connection potential with young strikers Carson Wilder and Connor Olson.
A true playoff performer, Coffin has quietly built one of the most impressive postseason resumes in league history, minus a title. He has 13 assists, 11 goals, 106-of-109 throwing, and 117 points played in six career playoff appearances.
- Shutdown Defenders
Last year the Madison Radicals rolled through Championship Weekend thanks to the stifling defense of lockdown defenders like Kevin Pettit-Scantling, Sterling Knoche, and Thomas Coolidge. They say defense wins championships, so here's a list-inside-the-list of some (non-exhaustive!) guys in coverage that could be big difference makers, listed alphabetically:
- Jeff Babbitt, New York — A linebacker masquerading as an ultimate player, Babbitt simply blows up a lot of plays using his sheer power and athleticism. But what's truly underrated about his game is his field IQ, and ability to provide help defense over the top.
- Sam Ellison, Indianapolis — Lanky rookie who has stepped in midseason and produced well for the 'Cats as a big defender. Will likely be a part of the scheming to slow down New York's Jagt in the semifinal.
- Jay Froude, Dallas — Though Froude has played just 20 percent of his total points this season on defense, he is a natural coverage specialist and ballhawk. In the South Division final, he was a key ingredient in disrupting Raleigh's high flying attack by shadowing their playmakers.
- Max Hume, San Diego — Seldom at the top of the stat sheet in blocks, Hume is a speed demon who simply shuts down a lot of the players he guards. He has a great feel for read-and-reacting in handler spaces, and is masterful at forcing high-stall panic throws from opponents.
- Nick Hutton, Indianapolis — Playmaker and leader of the Indy defensive front, Hutton has 111 blocks in 71 career games. With a terrific motor, Hutton generates a lot of highlight reel layouts that help galvanize the team's coverage intensity.
- Dillon Larberg, Dallas — With 40 blocks over the past two regular seasons—and three alone in this year's divisional championship game—Larberg is in a truly elite category when it comes to takeaways. His speed and bounce make him great in single coverage, but his real talent is reading opposing throwers and jumping the lane for poach blocks.
- Ben Lewis, Dallas — Similar in size and athletic ability to Babbitt, Lewis is a large body that can switch between different kinds of coverage with ease. He also has shown a knack for using his large frame to smother smaller players on the mark, and forcing opponents into poor throws.
- Jibran Mieser, New York — If you have the kind of layout-filled statement game Mieser did in the East final, you end up on this list. One of the more athletic players in the division—if not the league as a whole—Mieser easily transcends his 5'9" with ridiculous quickness, hops, and confidence.
- Steven Milardovich, San Diego — San Diego's defensive leader since day one of the franchise, and quietly one of the most productive block getters in league history, Milardovich is finally due for his first final four appearance. At 6'2" he naturally fits as a downfield safety, but works best in the midfield by throwing his lengthy frame into lanes.
- Scott Radlauer, San Diego — The not-so-secret weapon to the Growlers' defensive successes this season, Radlauer is a hurt locker for handlers and strikers alike. He's a Milardovich clone in terms of size, but with a bit more of an edge, giving him the kind of teeth that makes him perfectly cut out for lockdown coverage.
- Growlers Flow Offense
The San Diego Growlers largely owe their best season in franchise history to their weave-heavy, methodical offense. There is plenty of pop to the Growlers attack, but where this team is truly elite is in moving the disc quickly between players and eviscerating opposing defenses with flow and movement. In 2019, San Diego finished first in goals per game, offensive efficiency, and passing efficiency, and . roster three players—Travis Dunn, Goose Helton, and Tim Okita—with 40+ assists, 290+ completions, and 94%+ completion rate heading into their semifinal matchup with Dallas.
The Growlers have always had a good system with well defined roles. Okita distributes, Sean Ham catches goals, and MVP hopeful Dunn does a little bit of everything. The addition of Helton has supercharged this unit and brought them to the brink of their first championship. San Diego doesn't go big very often, but they have the best redzone offense in the entire league, and are very difficult to throw out of rhythm.
- Elevating Play
Last year's Championship Weekend featured a bunch of peak individual performances, especially from stars like Froude and Jagt. But it was also the stage for emerging players to make their names more known, as Carson Wilder and Connor Olson flexed their skills to push Dallas into the finals. Who will be the players to take their game to the next level this Saturday? Here's a few gueses:
- Throwers Handling The Spotlight
Every prior champion has had their elite throwers showcase their talents at Championship Weekend. So which individuals, and which tandems, will toss best in San Jose?
San Diego's rotation of Okita-Tran-Dunn-Helton may lack a little punch, but they are the most accurate, consistent, creative, and well rounded unit heading into this weekend. Helton and Dunn get the headlines, but Okita is an uptempo tactician that has been playing at an all-star level all season, and Tran is a rock with the disc. The Growlers had the best offense in the league in 2019, and their handling core was the main reason why.
Though they may come unsynced at times as they're still adjusting to their first full season together, New York's throwing lineup of Garvey-Katz-Williams-Lindsley has the potential to be the most devastating. Any rotation that features Garvey has basically unlimited range in stretching opposing defenses, and it's hard to imagine a better trio to balance against him than his Empire linemates. Lindsley is the real talisman for their success, because if he's ripping in-rhythm hucks, New York is going to stay undefeated.
The most experienced offense in the league, Carpenter-Plew-Henderson-Matzuka-North have been lights out in 2019, completing a combined 1998-of-2069 possible throws for a ridiculous 96.56 percent completion rating. Carpenter has blossomed into one of the best all-around handlers in the AUDL, Plew and Matzuka are unflappable with the disc, Henderson is a new school throw-and-go pacesetter, and North has hucks and hammers alike.
With Malecek potentially deactivated for the semifinals, Dallas will utilize Coffin-Smith-Furuta in one of the most balanced yet quick-striking handling lineups present. Coffin and Smith like to use smallball movements to setup their power position hucking and break throws, while Furuta has quietly honed one of the best flicks in the league over the past two seasons. One of the least proven groupings, Championship Weekend could be a coming out party.
- Dream Matchups
Ultimate as a sport is predicated on matchups, and so one of the best parts of being a fan is geeking out about the potential individual battles. Here's a quick hit of possible duels to be amped about in each semifinal contest.
Indianapolis vs New York
- Jeff Babbitt (NY) vs Keegan North (IND)—Indy runs a lot of dynamic looks through their striker North, whose combination of speed, agility, and hops make him a tough guard in the backfield and as a downfield receiver. But North has never had to deal with a defender like Babbitt, who is elite at forcing offensive players out of their primary routes.
- Conner Henderson (IND) vs Harper Garvey (NY): If you're going to beat New York, you have to stangle them at the point of attack, because if the Empire get the disc to their continuation looks they're practically unstoppable. The difficult part is that Garvey has been his best self all season, finally merging his power and potency (126 in 37 career regular season games) with the disc into a lethal precision attack (94.90 percent completion rate in '19).
- Nick Hutton (IND) vs Jack Williams (NY): Over the past two seasons, Williams has emerged as the preeminent striker in the league. You can neither stop nor really slow him down, but you can try to divert the disc away as much as possible so that Williams doesn't dictate the entire game. Hutton is the 'Cats best disc denier, and might be able to bait a layout block early if New York tries too hard to feed Williams.
- Ryan/Mike Drost (NY) vs Rick Gross (IND): The league's most prolific scorer the past three seasons, Gross is rounding into one of the most complete offensive players in the AUDL at 25. But the Drosts have 200+ combined games of experience going toe-to-toe with the East's best receivers, and they excel at applying pressure for the full four quarters.
- Beau Kittredge (NY) vs anyone: Who doesn't want to see a legend who is rounding towards 40 grind out defensive stops in pursuit of his fifth championship? Plagued by a hamstring injury in recent weeks, Kittredge is still able to employ bursts of playmaking and weapons-grade field awareness to leave his mark on any big game.
Dallas vs San Diego
- Zach Marbach (DAL) vs Sean Ham (SD): The West's best deep cutter vs the South's best cutter defender, there's sure to be a lot of jockeying between these two. Ham is one of the best receivers in league history at body positioning with legendary hands, while Marbach is big enough and fast enough to test Ham wherever he goes. This matchup may not get the attention it deserves, but the very fate of the game may depend on its outcome.
- Max Hume (SD) vs Abe Coffin (DAL): Coffin has been playing into the outside edges of the MVP debate lately with his scorching throwing performances. Hume was integral in disrupting the Aviators' normally smooth handler flow in the West Division final, hounding opponents in the dump space. Hume might have advantages in length and top end speed, but Coffin's red-light-green-light acceleration and disc skills are difficult for any defender.
- Jay Froude (DAL) vs Goose Helton (SD): Two highlight prone all-stars going head-to-head, this is about as good as it gets. Helton is, flat out, an athletic freak who just had his most efficient offensive season in his career at the age of 35. Froude is coming off back-to-back All-AUDL campaigns, and relishes matchups with opposing alphas.
- Scott Radlauer (SD) vs Dalton Smith (DAL): When the Growlers want a player to go away, they unleash Radlauer on them. But Smith has too many tools and too much experience to be made irrelevant. Radlauer could use his size to impose on Smith's game, but Smith works so fluidly off the other players in the Dallas offense that if Radlauer gets overly aggressive in his coverage, Smith could wind up with some easy scores.
- Dillon Larberg (DAL) vs Travis Dunn (SD): The Growlers like to employ Dunn around the disc a lot, which makes absolute sense given Dunn's abilities. But Larberg is one of the best read-and-react defenders in the league, routinely blitzing throwing lanes and capitalizing on a fastbreak break score before his opponents even know what hit them. If Larberg forces Dunn to move upfield and become a receiver, though, that could be even more dangerous for Dallas.
- Which Team Will Win The Crowd?
For just the second time in eight seasons, the host site for Championship Weekend will not feature a local team. The last time such an occurrence happened was in 2017, when the Montreal faithful rallied behind their countrymen from Toronto and may have helped tilt the Rush in their semifinals upset of the Roughnecks; history could mimic that on Saturday night when the SoCal Growlers take on Dallas in San Jose.
But aside from geographical tribalism, what will spur the thousands in attendance to root for one of these four squads? Indy is the plucky underdog of homegrown talent. Dallas is the brawler who never says never. San Diego is a familiar divisional foe. And while New York and their undefeated, big city vibe may be offputting for some, the roster itself is stacked full of players who are easy to cheer for.