West Stays Wild in 2021

November 23, 2021
By Daniel Cohen

With the league’s two Texas teams switching to the West Division following the 2019 season, the main divisional storyline heading into 2021 was the newly formed rivalry between the Dallas Roughnecks and San Diego Growlers. Both winners of their respective divisions in 2019, the two teams met for the first time at 2019 Championship Weekend in the semifinals, and after a hard-fought battle Dallas was able to outlast San Diego to advance to the championship. 

Both teams added significant pieces heading into this season. San Diego signed former Seattle Cascades All-Star Khalif El-Salaam, two former AUDL champions from the Bay Area in Greg Cohen and Lior Givol, and veteran handler Paul Lally, who had played previously with Atlanta and Nashville. Dallas looked more local for their new additions, signing arguably the top five players that played with the Austin Sol in 2019: Chase Cunningham, Kyle Henke, Michael Matthis, Rory Orloff, and Mason Wuensch. Adding all-star level talent to their already championship-caliber rosters, San Diego and Dallas were the two clear favorites of the West.

Or so us critics thought.

For the first DAL-ATX Texas battle, the Roughnecks traveled up to Austin to take on a largely unknown, young, and inexperienced Sol roster. More than half of the Austin roster were in their first year with the team, and the majority of that group had never played an AUDL point.

Naturally, the Sol immediately took a 3-1 lead with two breaks in the first four points. While the Roughnecks eventually answered back to make it 5-5 at the end of the first, it was clear from the start this was not going to be an easy win for Dallas—this Sol team was ready to fight. Austin displayed impressive chemistry for a group that didn’t have much AUDL experience; rookie captain Evan Swiatek played like a seasoned vet as the team’s primary O-line cutter, Hayden Stone was a highlight machine in his Sol debut, and Joey Wylie ran wild on the D-line, putting constant pressure on the new-look Roughnecks offense. At halftime, the game was 12-12. At the end of the third, 18-17 Sol. The defining moment of the game came when rookie Vinay Valsaraj fully extended for a layout goal with under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The score put the Sol up 22-21, and the momentum carried into the next point when the Sol broke the Roughnecks to go up by two. The 24-23 Sol victory sent shockwaves through the division, as the 19th ranked Sol pulled off the upset over the championship favorites from Dallas.

The next day, the Growlers hosted the Los Angeles Aviators for their Sunday afternoon home opener, a week after defeating their SoCal rivals 19-16 in LA. In their second meeting of the season, the Aviators flipped the script. Boasting an energized offensive core in veteran Sean McDougall, former Cascade Sam Cook, and two second-year rising stars in Danny Landesman and Calvin Brown, LA started fast and managed to build a dominant 13-8 lead by halftime. A 4-0 run by the Growlers in the fourth quarter was too little too late, and the Aviators went home with a 20-18 upset win. After two weeks, the playoff favorites had already lost a game each.

In the north, the season started more or less as expected, with the Seattle Cascades and San Jose Spiders trading games the first two weeks to each start 1-1. The Growlers took care of business on their Week 3 road trip to the pacific northwest, winning both games of their doubleheader weekend despite requiring overtime to take down Seattle. The Cascades were punchy; they had a young and hungry D-line loaded with under-21 rookies, and Manny Eckert was proving to be a legitimate gunslinger on offense. San Jose needed a 7-1 run in the fourth to defeat Seattle in Week 2, while San Diego needed an 8-3 run to avoid the upset in Week 3—Seattle could’ve easily started 3-0. Instead, the Growlers became the first team in the division to reach three wins, and next up was a home game against Dallas for their first meeting of the season.

Coming off a five-goal win over LA the day before, the second game of Roughnecks’ doubleheader weekend featured two of the more efficient offensive performances we’d see in the division all year. Travis Dunn, Goose Helton, and Paul Lally were playing like one of the stronger veteran cores in the league, facilitating each possession with a good balance of smart throws and opportune looks downfield. On the other side, Chris Mazur, a standout handler who was back with Dallas after last playing with the team in 2017, was giving this Roughnecks offense a new identity with his ability to throw to any spot on the field. The game would stay within one goal for nearly the full 48 minutes, until Khalif El-Salaam found Hunter Corbett with 4:45 left in the fourth to put the Growlers up 20-18. The Roughnecks would get the break back though, and they’d later find themselves with the disc at midfield in a tie 20-20 game with under a minute remaining. Looking for an upline cut in a high stall count, Ben Lewis instead found a bidding Paul Lally who made the play of the game to get the disc back for the Growlers. 30 seconds of game clock later, Goose Helton hit Jesse Cohen for the game-winning score.

The same weekend, the 2-0 Sol traveled up to Seattle and San Jose for a doubleheader of their own. Despite scoring 23-plus goals in both games, the Sol lost both games by allowing 28 in each, and they ceded the top spot in the division to the Growlers. San Jose played one of their best games of the season, as Jordan Kerr and Keenan Laurence led the young Spiders core to their highest point total of the year. Through four weeks, Austin, Dallas, San Jose, and Seattle were all 2-2.

Due to a rescheduled Week 1 game, the Sol and Roughnecks were set to face off in a Texas doubleheader weekend in Week 6. Both teams were now 3-2 after each took care of Seattle the week before, and the Roughnecks would have home field advantage for both games. The first game of the weekend saw both teams finish with 25-plus turnovers, as Dallas and Austin traded momentum swings throughout the game. Tied 16-16 with 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter, John Cecil found Eric Brodbeck in the end zone after a long, seven-turnover point to put the Sol up one. The Roughnecks’ last second buzzer beater attempt on the final point was denied in the back of the end zone, and the Sol held on to win 17-16.

The second game of the weekend started even, until the Sol busted things open in the second quarter, going on a 9-5 run to take a 13-9 lead into halftime. Brodbeck and Swiatek had the Sol offense humming, while Jeremy Keusch and Zach Slayton sparked several key breaks for the D-line. Slowly but surely, the Roughnecks fought their way back, as the Sol watched their lead shrink to three by the end of the third quarter, then finally to zero after three straight Roughnecks goals to open the fourth quarter. Up 19-18 with 30 seconds left in the game, the Sol were one stop away from sealing their third consecutive win over their Texas rivals. With the stall count rising at midfield, Dallas’ Matt Armour heaved up a deep shot to Kyle Henke—who was playing his second game with a cast on his left wrist—which was underthrown but caught anyway after Henke laid out for the game-tying goal off the deflection. The game went to overtime, and after trading the first two points, Dallas broke Austin for what would end up being the game-winning goal by Mason Wuensch.

Sitting at 4-3, questions still loomed about the Roughnecks’ season outlook, though all three losses had come by exactly one goal; Dallas was that close to being 7-0. After their back-to-back games against the Sol, the Roughnecks traveled West to take on the Cascades in Week 7, a team they’d defeated 24-16 two weeks prior in Dallas. But Seattle was a different team in front of their home crowd, with their energized D-line capable of stringing together breaks at any point to swing momentum. They broke Dallas seven times in the game, including five times in the second half, which set up Manny Eckert and the Cascades offense to close out the game in the fourth; Eckert threw four assists in the final frame to put the game away 22-18. 

The next day, Austin nearly took down San Diego, but Steven Milardovich’s layout block and subsequent assist with under a minute remaining in the game gave the Growlers the late lead, and they held on to win 21-20. The victory marked the fourth straight for San Diego, as they continued to hold first place in the West with just one loss on the year.

The following week, the Growlers went on the road to take on the Roughnecks in Dallas. The Roughnecks were plagued by injuries; Abe Coffin would end up missing the rest of the regular season after Week 7, Dalton Smith was still waiting to make his 2021 debut, and Henke was still playing with a cast. The Roughnecks ended up losing two more key pieces in Week 8 vs. San Diego, as Jay Froude and Chase Cunningham both went down in the third quarter. With Dallas up one after three quarters of play, the Roughnecks D-line came alive to start the fourth, converting back-to-back breaks to put the ‘Necks up 14-11. Dallas played like the better team from start to finish in this one, outproducing the Growlers on offense and generating significantly more blocks on defense. Gabe Hernandez was thriving in a featured O-line role, and Casted Henke played his best game of the season, finishing with three assists, three goals, and three blocks. 

The Growlers loss was a temporary setback, but they responded well. They took down Austin 21-17 the next day, then another Steven Milardovich clutch block sealed their home win over Seattle in Week 9. The Growlers then made league news by signing 2017 AUDL MVP Jonathan Nethercutt to the roster. While it had been more than 26 months since Nethercutt had played an AUDL game, he slotted in seamlessly to the Growlers offense against the Aviators in Week 10, tying for a game-high four assists and leading the Growlers to their highest-scoring total of the season (24). One week later, the Growlers clinched the one seed in the division after defeating the Aviators for the third time in their final meeting of 2021.

In Texas, Austin and Dallas each took care of the Spiders in Week 9 to set up the final battle for Texas in Week 10. With Austin sitting at 6-5 and Dallas at 7-4, the winner of the game would earn the second and final playoff spot in the West. At this point, Dallas had much of their A-team: Mazur, Marshall, Kevin Richardson, and Smith were all active after playing a combined six games to that point. After two one-goal losses and a one-goal win over Austin, Dallas put their foot down; they scored the first point of the game and held their lead till the end. Mick Walter did everything he could to bring Austin back, turning in the single-best defensive performance of the season; Walter finished with seven blocks, with his last block-plus-assist bringing Austin within one with under a minute left in the game. The Roughnecks held on for the 23-22 win; they were headed to San Diego for a shot at their fifth consecutive Championship Weekend.

It took the Growlers best game of the season to take down the Roughnecks in Week 4; San Diego finished with just 11 turnovers in that first meeting, which stood as their fewest in a game all season. That is until the playoffs. Bringing Nethercutt back for his second game of the season, the Growlers had their full arsenal of talent to take on their new West Division rivals, and they came out with an absolutely perfect first quarter: Nine goals, zero turnovers. The 9-4 run to start the game was enough to coast to the finish; just as Dallas had done to Austin in their final meeting, the Growlers never allowed the Roughnecks to hold a lead. Goose Helton played the best playoff game of his career, which included becoming the AUDL’s all-time leader in assists, and the Growlers won 22-18. 

Their second Championship Weekend appearance in as many years would put a slight damper on the Growlers’ 2021 season, as the New York Empire started fast with a Jack Williams layout goal and never looked back; they pulled away quickly with an eight-goal first quarter and led 13-7 at halftime. Although San Diego outscored New York 11-9 in the second half, the halftime deficit proved too much to overcome; the Empire advanced to the finals with a 22-18 victory.

While they fell in the semis for the second consecutive season, the Growlers again proved they belong at the top of this league. They became the first West Division team since the 2015 San Jose Spiders to claim the division title in back-to-back seasons.