May 27, 2020
By Evan Lepler
With the 2020 AUDL season on hold, new television partner Fox Sports has chosen to re-air many of the league’s classic games from years past. Next up is the 2018 semifinal shootout between the New York Empire and Dallas Roughnecks. Here’s what I most remember about the build-up and aftermath from that particular title showdown.
Two weeks prior, we had witnessed the most shocking Saturday night in the history of the league. In the span of a couple hours, arguably the league’s two favorites were eliminated in stunning fashion. First, the Toronto Rush, who were 13-1 on the season and 17-0 all-time against New York, were shocked by the Empire 18-17 in a low-scoring struggle that reshaped the East Division. Later than evening, the Raleigh Flyers coughed up a six-goal lead against Dallas in one of the wildest games in AUDL history, which the Roughnecks won 20-19 to deny the Flyers a spot at Championship Weekend for the second straight season. Consequently, when Championship Weekend arrived in Madison, Toronto and Raleigh, two bona fide contenders, were both home watching. Instead, the first semifinal pitted two teams that had never met before, creating a massively intriguing matchup to start the Saturday doubleheader at Breese Stevens Field.
Strange as it may seem now, both of these teams kinda felt like Final Four wild cards at the time. The Roughnecks had lost most of their superstars from their inaugural championship season, yet still reigned supreme in the South due to a combination of savvy free agent signings, great team structure and belief, and the tremendous development of several individuals rising into marquee roles. The puzzle pieces of their roster fit together well, and Dallas leadership, from ownership to coaches to captains, always put the ‘Necks in a great position to succeed. Even without all the national team talent, their institutional track record and steady confidence made them feel like the favorite against New York, who somehow had evolved from a below-.500 disappointment at the end of June into a potential juggernaut by early August.
It’s hard to emphasize, especially for those who now think of the Empire as an undefeated champion, just how everyone felt about New York’s season through much of 2018. Personally, I had spent a couple years touting the Empire as the next great team, continually forecasting their rise above Toronto, only for the Rush to repeatedly maintain their dominion over their Division. It got to the point where I incorrectly picked New York so many times, I vowed I would never pick the Empire again until they proved they could do it. When New York signed four-time champion Beau Kittredge prior to the ’18 season, it seemed like maybe bringing in such a dominant winner would change the narrative, but the Empire largely looked frazzled through their uneven 4-5 start to the season. Certainly, it felt like New York was still several significant strides away from becoming a legitimate contender.
The Empire closed their 2018 regular season with four wins in five games, but that stretch still included an embarrassing 29-19 blowout in DC, a game that did not feel as close as the 10-goal margin indicated. Inarguably, it was a one-sided beatdown that made it hard to fathom the potential reversal of the result just one week later. But the unbearable elements that both teams encountered on the following Saturday evening served to completely change the equation. On a night when torrential downpours and gale force winds virtually transformed the competition into another sport entirely, the Empire adapted better than the Breeze, prevailing 19-15 in a game that unforgettably included a scoreless fourth quarter. Seriously, the game’s final point lasted 12 minutes and included 20 turnovers, multiple timeouts, and mercifully concluded when the final buzzer sounded, leaving everyone mesmerized by the unprecedented turn of events.
One week after that, the Empire showed up to Toronto goofily confident, feeling like they had nothing to lose, and then they caught the Rush on an off-night. Toronto’s first O-point featured a completed centering pass and then an immediate Thomson McKnight throwaway, setting an ominous tone for the Toronto franchise that had never before fallen short of Championship Weekend. Still, the Rush had the disc on the goal line late in regulation with an opportunity to force overtime before another uncharacteristic turnover officially squelched their upcoming trip to Madison. It’s still crazy to look back on this whole ordeal, knowing that the Empire had somehow gone from a mediocre 4-5 start to a semifinals berth. But deep down, we knew they had enough offensive firepower to frighten any opponent that would stand in their path, with Kittredge’s postseason mystique looming as another intangible factor that could impact the upcoming contests.
So, when Championship Weekend arrived, these two wild card squads squared off for a berth in the finals, and proceeded to put on a remarkable show for the Wisconsin fans, scoring more goals in 48 minutes than the AUDL had ever before seen in postseason game. Together, the Roughnecks and Empire scored 17 goals in the first quarter, 16 in the second, 15 more in the third, and closing with 14 in the fourth, erupting for 62 scores overall, a mark that remains the most explosive offensive showcase in AUDL playoff history. Frankly, it’s easy to imagine this record standing for quite a while, and perhaps forever, especially considering the timing changes that the league implemented in 2019 that effectively shortened games by starting the clock on the release of the pull as opposed to the offense’s first touch of the disc.
Aside from being the highest scoring Championship Weekend game ever, this Roughnecks-Empire showcase also holds additional historic stature. Including the 2019 season, Kittredge has now competed in 18 playoff games in his AUDL career, more than any other player. Amazingly, he’s won all of them, except for this wild shootout against the Roughnecks in 2018. Certainly, one lone blemish in six seasons of competition is nothing to be ashamed of, but it remains the outlier in Kittredge’s career, the only time where he and his team could not will themselves victorious via talent, teamwork, and good fortune.
Beyond the history, this game featured all sorts of other fun storylines. In no particular order, how would Dallas try and contain Ben Jagt? Could Kittredge calm down Roughnecks’ standout Jay Froude, who was making his return to Madison? Would Dallas’ dynamic young prospects conquer or cower under the pressure of the big stage? Who would have the coaching edge between Dallas’ Wes Nemec and New York’s Eileen Murray, both of whom were experiencing Championship Weekend for the first time?
Reflecting back, it feels like a few critical unforced errors may have been the difference in this semifinal, though the Roughnecks’ triumph came with a substantial cost, as injuries to two of their top big men would hurt their chances on Sunday. Regardless, this semifinal served as a fascinating showcase of professional ultimate, with two franchises that both seem poised to remain contenders for a long time. Obviously, this Dallas-New York duel was a harbinger of things to come at Championship Weekend, as both teams would return stronger a year later for a thrilling meeting in the final. In 2018, both teams were a bit more raw and inexperienced, but that only added to the variability and suspense. Overall, though neither of these teams would become AUDL champs this particular year, they both memorably denied the legitimate title dreams of their most prominent divisional rivals en route to their collision in the semis. This, as much as the 62-goal scoring spree or Beau’s first playoff setback, might be the lasting legacy for these two tantalizing 2018 teams.
The Empire-Roughnecks 2018 Semifinal premieres on FS2 today (on Wednesday, May 27) at 6:00 PM/ET.