January 17, 2019
By Adam Ruffner
Following their narrow 32-30 loss to the Dallas Roughnecks in the 2018 AUDL semifinals and their closest chance to a championship appearance in franchise history, the New York Empire are beginning the new year on a tear. The franchise announced this week that they will be adding former Raleigh Flyers standout and 2018 All-AUDL member Jack Williams, as well as former AUDL champion and speedster Grand Lindsley for the 2019 season. The two are merely pieces in a larger, multi-year rebuild that has positioned New York as potential title favorites heading into the 2019 season.
The Empire have been a perennial playoff contender and one of league's best defenses since the team's inception in 2013. New York has qualified for the playoffs five times in six seasons, and has three AUDL Championship Weekend appearances to their credit. But for years, the Empire quietly bowed to the rival Toronto Rush when it came to true divisional superiority; until last season, New York was 0-17 all-time against Toronto. But that narrative is gone, replaced by a new era in the East after the Empire's 18-17 shocker over the Rush in Toronto in the 2018 East Division championship game.
The outcome of the game was settled after only a few dramatic hours, but the process for New York's ascent began seasons ago.
The Empire have always had a solid-if-not-great core of committed players at their foundation. There are defenders like Ryan Drost and his twin brother Mike, the latter being the league's all-time leading blocks getter. Matt Stevens has five seasons of 30+ goals and a 95.70 accuracy rating on 558 career completions. And Matt Lemar, a handler defender who has yet to miss a professional game in six seasons of play, carrying a 95-game played streak into 2019. But for as consistent as New York's roster was, it lacked a definable star for years, settling for the moniker "Faceless Mob" to describe it's next-man-up, defense-first philsophy.
But that changed midway through the 2016 season when Jeff Babbitt came onboard. A man among boys in the college scene, Babbitt made an immediate impact in the pros with his big-bodied style of play, many times being mistaken for someone much larger than his 6'1" frame given his feats on the field. In his first ever game with New York, Babbitt collected one assist, two goals, and two blocks without committing a turnover in a 32-17 win against the Philadelphia Phoenix. The very next day, Babbitt added another two goals and three blocks, including this one that looks like an eighteen-wheeler took flight.
A week later, in the AUDL Game of the Week against the rival DC Breeze on the road, Babbitt was back at it. He muscled his way to two blocks and three goals, including hauling in the game-tying score at the buzzer at the end of regulation. New York had found its star.
The following season in 2017, Babbitt erupted. He became the first player in AUDL history to notch a 40-goal, 40-block season, and was named to First Team All-AUDL. That same year, the Empire brought on collegiate standout and 6'6" behemoth Ben Jagt at the midseason point, creating a twin tower dynamic with the two. Though his skills make him more offensively inclined, Jagt primarily played with New York defensive units at first, collecting 22 blocks in just eight games for the Empire. That same year, New York also added throwing phenom Harper Garvey, a D-III recruit with one of the smoothest games around, but who lacked polish and accuracy in his first season as a pro, completing just 89.80 percent of his 487 throws.
But the individual successes of New York's young stars were overshadowed by the team's struggles: The Empire missed the playoffs for the first and only time in team history, ranking in the bottom five in the league in scoring. On paper, the pieces seemed to fit. But with seven games of 20 goals or fewer in 2017, it was too much for New York to overcome despite employing the league's third best defense.
2018 was a year of changes for the Empire. They got a new ownership and a new home field. They hired former Phoenix playcaller Eileen Murray to be the team's head coach. And, maybe most significantly, they brought in four-time AUDL champion Beau Kittredge through free agency, signaling to the Empire players and fanbase alike that winning was an immediate priority. Though the two-time league MVP was coming off back-to-back seasons marred by injuries and less-than-stellar production, Kittredge was eager to bring his culture of winning from West coast to East.
“The thing is, I’ve always been hurt,” Kittredge said at the time of his signing. “I’ve been hurt since I was like 19, just one injury after another. When you’re going as hard as you can at all possible times, things are gonna break. Have you ever seen those old muscle cars that just blow valves and stuff? That’s like me.”
Kittredge turned 36 last June, and though he isn't the highlight reel playmaker he was once, his sense of the game and commitment to a team are as strong as ever. Despite his flair for, uh, egotistical eccentricities, Kittredge is, and always has been, willing to play whatever role is best for the overall success of his squad, and he demonstrated that vigorously in 2018 for New York, acting as a reliable field general for the Empire offense during the regular season before switching to defense for the playoffs, throwing himself in the wayback machine and guarding up MVP-level players like Jay Froude.
Lost in the midst of Kittredge's high-profile signing in 2018, though, were the savvy additions of Jibran Mieser, Marques Brownlee, and Ben Katz to the Empire fold. Mieser is a speed demon and natural receiver who posted 11 goals in the team's three postseason games. Brownlee is mostly known for his jaw-dropping highlights and YouTube fame, but he was maybe most useful as the Empire's primary puller on defensive lines, his lanky frame and long throwing motion allowing him to launch some of the deepest pulls in the league. And though he was the shortest of the bunch, Katz was arguably New York's best on-field addition last year, and that includes Kittredge. Splitting time almost equally between offensive and defensive units in his first season with the team, Katz did a little bit of everything at an elite level, amassing 28 assists, 35 goals, 14 blocks, and 275 completions (94.50 percent) in 323 regular season points. He has a pickpocket's sense of aggressiveness plus timing, and is one of those "right place, right time" players that every team craves.
And so now we get to present day New York, and the additions of Lindsley and Williams to an already loaded lineup. They are two of the best offensive players in the sport, and both have the ability to elevate their game in primetime matchups. Lindsley had five assists and five goals in the 2017 championship game, and Williams torched the league-best Madison Radicals defense to a tune of four assists, five goals, and 44 completions back in May 2018.
The Empire now have a gluttony of riches that may only be rivaled in terms of raw talent by the 2016 champion Roughnecks. Toronto has claimed the regular season title in the East every year of the division's existence, and will once again be one of the premier teams in the league. But in 2019, there's a new Empire.