August 9, 2019
By Adam Ruffner
The first semifinal of 2019 AUDL Championship Weekend kicks off with two legacy franchises that have never won a title, as the Indianapolis AlleyCats face off against the undefeated New York Empire. The Empire are making their fourth semifinals appearance since 2013, while the AlleyCats are returning to Championship Weekend for the first time since playing in the inaugural AUDL Championship Game in 2012. The Empire enter as heavy favorites, but the AlleyCats have built their team identity on proving haters wrong, and are experienced at winning with the odds stacked against them.
New York constructed a superteam during the offseason that has lived up to the hype in 2019. Their new stars in Jack Williams and Grant Lindsley have integrated seamlessly with a roster that fell just two goals shy of the championship game a year ago in Madison. There might have been some questions at the beginning of the season on how to share the disc effectively with so much dominant talent on the Empire offense, but if anything, the presence of Williams and Lindsley has led to career years for team veterans Harper Garvey, Conor Kline, and MVP hopeful Ben Jagt.
Conversely, the AlleyCats have cultivated much of their power from within, adjusting personnel on a need-fit basis through the years. Cameron Brock, Keenan Plew, and Travis Carpenter are the most expierenced trio of teammates in AUDL history, but it's the younger generation led by Rick Gross, Alex Henderson, and Keegan North that have elevated Indy from fiesty playoff contender to possible champions. And in the first major free agency signing since Brodie Smith in 2012, Brett Matzuka has had a calming presence in every lineup he's used in, providing a rock solid quarterback for offensive and defensive drives alike.
The biggest question heading into this matchup is: How does Indy contain New York's depth of talent? The 'Cats have been a very stingy defense in each of the past two seasons. But Indy is a bend-not-break unit that relies on team switching and focus rather than lockdown single coverage, hounding opponents into self inflicted mistakes; Indy ranks just 15th overall this season in takeaways. Given that the Empire commit the fourth fewest turnovers of any team in the league this season, the AlleyCats will have to engineer ways to pressure New York's throwers so they can't get into a rhythm. Colin Ringwood and Conner Henderson did a good job of disrupting Pittsburgh's handler flow in the Midwest Division Championship Game two weeks ago, but will need to redouble their efforts on Saturday.
And though the 'Cats offense is in the bottom half of the league in scoring, it is one of the more polished and effective conversion units in the league, ranking sixth in offensive efficiency in 2019. Similar to a heavy rushing attack offense in the NFL, Indy employs its offense methodically over four quarters using their high level throwing precision and chemistry. They orchestrate long drives, often winning the time of possession battle by a comfortable margin. But the 'Cats have never encountered a defense as bullying in coverage as this Empire squad. Led by Jeff Babbitt and anchored by four-time AUDL champion Beau Kittredge, the New York defense seemingly has an advantage across the board in individual matchups on paper, and they are very dangerous when they smell blood in the water; the Empire were fifth this year in converting their break opportunities.
This game may be determined in the opening minutes. If Indianapolis can show they can stick with New York out of the gate, and gain confidence along the way, they have the moxie to fight for the full 48 minutes of game clock. But if the Empire open up an early lead, they may just have too much talent and championship experience for the AlleyCats to overcome.
|20.38 (15)||GPG||22.38 (4)|
|19.46 (5)||GPGA||18.85 (2)|
|9.46 (15)||BPG||10.15 (10)|
|16.92 (6)||TOPG||15.38 (4)|
|256.92 (1)||CMP||224.00 (16)|
|94.60% (4)||CMP %||94.40% (7)|
GPG: Goals Per Game; GPGA: Goals Per Game Against; BPG: Blocks Per Game; TOPG: Turnovers Per Game; CMP: Completions Per Game; CMP %: Team Completion %
- Offensive chemistry — The seven Indy players with the most O-line points played this season have completed 2166-of-2269 throws combined for an absurd 95.46 completion rate. And that grouping doesn't even include Matzuka, who is completing 98 percent of his 437 throws in his first season with the 'Cats. There's no team at this Championship Weekend with a better sense of offensive identity, and the 'Cats utilize theirs to convert holds whenever necessary, and are especially potent when they have a lead.
- Adaptability — Owing to their internal knowledge of each other, Indy is great at interchanging player roles actively during points. North may start off in the handler set, but move his way upfield into a receiving role if he likes his matchup. In opposition, Levi Jacobs almost never rotates into the handler set, but is the team's number one option for hucking. Carpenter is one of best distributors in the league this season, but can also be converted into a coverage defender when the team needs stops. This close to their first title, don't be surprised to see Indy's stars receiving heavy minutes in a variety of positions.
- Team experience — No franchise in this year's final four has quite the team culture of this battle tested Indy group. They've been preaching for years that they could prove themselves against top competition if and when they got the opportunity, and now that time has arrived. A matchup with New York is about as distilled an example of "David vs Goliath", and the 'Cats must prove they have the heart and smarts to knock off a powerhouse.
- Defensive depth — Hutton has grown into one of the best defenders in the Midwest over his years as a pro, and there are a few other nice options in coverage like Aaron Weaver and Jacob Fella who show promise. But the 'Cats lack lockdown defenders, which could lead to problems in a hurry with the Empire offense. Even if Indy somehow figures out a way to slow down Jagt, and aggravate Williams and Lindsley when they have the disc, they're still going to have to figure out a way to contain two of the best continuation cutters in Kline and Matt Stevens.
- Height — With the exception of a small handful of players, the AlleyCats get a lot down for a roster mostly filled with dudes hovering under the six foot mark. They've figured out how to mask their shortcomings largely due to matchup familiarity and clever scheming against Midwest foes, but it's a whole different beast dealing with New York's imposing lineup, especially Jagt, Babbitt, Williams, and Marques Brownlee.
- Big game experience — Four AlleyCats were a part of the 2012 squad that made the championship game, but no other players on the roster have Championship Weekend experience. And few have ample playoff experience aside from a brief postseason run in 2018. Indy has demonstrated some impressive mental focus throughout all their games in the Midwest this season. But none of that quite compares to the stage that is Championship Weekend in front of thousands.
NEW YORK EMPIRE
- Dynamic throwers — Garvey, Lindsley, and Williams are three of the most talented throwers on earth, and putting them in the same lineup gives the New York offense a sandbox-level of creativity. There is not a more dangerous disher than Garvey at a standstill, as he has full field range with multiple throws even when picking up a dead disc. Lindsley and Williams could be regarded interchangeably as the best in-rhythm throwers.
- Playmaking — Jagt has been a billboard of highlights the past two years. Babbitt and Williams, too. Kline, Brownlee, and Jibran Mieser are all able to "go get" when they get a bead on the disc. Ben Katz has a rope-a-dope kind of rhythm to his game that catches opponents flatfooted and exposes them at the worst possible moments. Oh and there's some guy named "Beau" who has done a few things in clutch moments over the years involving a disc.
- Championship pedigree — Aside from Kittredge and Lindsley having AUDL titles individually, this Empire team has been preparing with a champion's mindset all season long. They conduct themselves like winners, and they expect great things for their teammates given the amount of work and dedication they've put into this year's undefeated campaign. They won't settle for anything less than hoisting the trophy above their heads.
- Slow starts — When New York has been in trouble this season, it has been because of lethargy at the start of games. The Empire have a tendency of letting opponents linger around for a quarter or three before using their talent and depth to decide the final outcome down the stretch. Boht the coaching staff and players are aware of this trait, though, so expect a jumpstart in some form on Saturday.
- Defensive focus — When the Empire are locked in defensively, they're one of the best in the league at generating stops and converting breaks off opponent turnovers. But they can also allow teams to go on runs for stretches at a time, and can get caught up chasing in fastbreak scenarios.
- Patience — There's a certain kind of inevitability to the Empire's winning that is derived from their combination of talented personnel, experience, and coaching. But sometimes they are caught up in expectations and get slightly ahead of themselves in the thick of a game, forcing decisions and allowing themselves to sink to the level of their opponents. New York is the most talented team in the field, and they can dictate plays while still allowing the game to come to them.