March 14, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
Will 2018 finally be the year in which the Toronto Rush are dethroned from their eternal perch atop the AUDL East Division? In their quest to do just that, the New York Empire added new, high-profile additions Beau Kittredge and Marques Brownlee to their already star-studded core.
Toronto isn’t afraid.
“Scared? No. But aware of who's going to be on the field [for the Empire]? Absolutely,” said Rush coach Sachin Raina. For their part, the Rush are returning their core, including captains Andrew Carroll, Cam Harris, Thomson McKnight, and Geoff Powell, as well as superstars Mark Lloyd and Isaiah Masek-Kelly. The Rush will again be amazing in 2018.
For the Empire to threaten the Rush, they will have to make history. The Rush are 70-6 against East Division opponents since their inception in 2013, and they are 14-0 all-time against the Empire. That’s Harlem Globetrotters level of dominance.
However, coach Raina thinks New York has been (and will be) much better than that record indicates.
“I don't think that record accurately reflects how close this matchup and this rivalry has been. And I would say that to not just an AUDL reporter, but to a Rush reporter, and I'd say to the guys in our huddles, and I'd say that behind closed doors too" Raina said. "That's the honest truth.... As much as I'd like to say something hilarious and controversial, the reality is that it would be a lie; those [New York] guys are good.”
Every Rush and Empire player and coach I spoke with described the games as closely-contested, despite the one-sided dominance in terms of wins and losses.
The Empire struggled in 2017. For all of their talent last year, the New York Empire were unable to consistently click on offense throughout the season. They threw the disc away far too often, frequently appearing to value highlight plays over maintaining possession. Rookie and main handler Harper Garvey compiled 46 throwaways in 2017, good for sixth most (tied) in the AUDL.
New York’s offense finished with an incredibly low 61 percent conversion rate; only the league’s bottom-dwellers in the Detroit Mechanix (51 percent), Nashville NightWatch (54 percent), Vancouver Riptide (55 percent), Chicago Wildfire (56 percent), Ottawa Outlaws (59 percent), and Philadelphia Phoenix (60 percent) had less efficient offenses. None of those teams boasted near the top-end talent of the Empire in 2017, and they combined for 11 total wins. New York’s 2017 campaign was in some ways more alike to those teams than to the East’s top clubs in DC and Toronto.
Those close with the Empire last year described the team as more of a collection of players than teammates. The team had multiple coaches throughout the year, beginning with Tom Gibbons as head coach, Gary Dixon as offensive coordinator, and CJ Ouellette as defensive coordinator. Ouellette, a former D-line player dabbling in his first ever coaching experience, ended the season as the team’s only coach. Though he enjoyed coaching, he is far more excited to be returning as a player this year and leaving coaching to the professionals.
Every Empire player, coach, and owner with whom I chatted attributed the team’s offensive struggles to a lack of familiarity between players, poor game attendance from some stars, and the unexpected carousel of departing coaches.
New York is confident that it will improve. The team has specifically sought to redress its 2017 woes, and the positive changes are starting from the top. The team will now play at Joseph F Fosina Field, or "Flower Park", which will offer far more to fans on game day, including food, drink, parking, a PA system, and accessibility.
More important to the on-field product, Eileen Murray will assume coaching duties for the Empire after having coached the Phoenix in 2017. New York is much closer for her than Philadelphia, and she’s excited to lead the team. Her early goals are defining expectations for players, making sure that attendance and community involvement are top of the list. She’s putting the work in early to build her relationships with players, empowering them within the system, and making sure they understand her expectations and tactical decisions. By all accounts, New York is thrilled with her (very) early performance.
Both 2017 Empire games against the Rush were tightly contested, despite lopsided results. In its first game of the season, New York was tied 17-17 before Toronto scored the final five points of the game. Interestingly, New York finished the third quarter with a miraculous highlight buzzer beater that resulted in Sachin Raina furiously reminding his Toronto team to focus.
“I don't know the exact words [I said], but I do recall thinking that that play was…boneheaded,”Raina said with an anguished laugh.
Cam Harris, who tipped the disc into Isaiah Bryant’s hands, summarized the play succinctly: “I gotta catch my Ds.” Harris remembers another play from that same game, later in the fourth quarter, with equal bitterness: when Jeff Babbitt recorded a layout block against him:
“That's the only time I've remembered [Jeff Babbitt] coming down off of a pull and matching up with me.... I count it 1-0 him, for now.... He's a well-built giant of a human.” Harris refused comment about who would win in the air between them. In the second 2017 matchup between New York and Toronto in Week 17, Toronto fought for a playoff spot while New York was only playing for pride. Regardless, Babbitt and Ben Jagt – boasting long and athletic defensive frames – still recorded highlight-reel D’s:
Toronto, meanwhile, prevailed behind its faceless army. Cam Harris led the team in assists, with only three, and the young guns ran wild on the field, with Darren Wu, Ben Burelle, Jason Huynh, and Bretton Tan combining for 13 goals. New York practically beat itself, throwing 30 turnovers and only finishing 40 percent of their offensive possessions with scores. A lack of focus and familiarity was New York’s downfall.
If focus was the 2017 Empire’s issue, then 2018 should see improvement. Eileen Murray is working specifically on improving the team’s familiarity, even scheduling team-bonding exercises during the pre-season. She mentioned icebreakers and guided pre-practice discussions as specific ways to help teammates bond.
Import Beau Kittredge is famous for his dedication to the sport, and he’ll also help the Empire maintain its dedication on and off the field. He’s seen every situation, which is invaluable for a talented team looking to find cohesion. Among Kittredge’s many AUDL records is most career playoff points played, at 295. Interestingly, that record is shared by Toronto’s D-Line playmaker Isaiah Masek-Kelly, who is an athletic marvel himself.
And Kittredge, Babbitt, and Jagt will be far from the only stars on the Empire in 2018. Despite his numerous 2017 turnovers, Harper Garvey is as talented and daring a thrower as exists. While he was a rookie last year (which was likely a factor in his turnover count), his willingness to attempt any throw resulted in absurd highlights:
Matt Auletta, who caught that disc, described that catch as more of a dive and fall than a layout. He loves playing with Garvey: “It’s is a lot of fun. Sometimes teams poach off me a little bit, try and get in throwing lanes or pick up some other cuts, and then I just take off downfield. Sometimes if the disc is with a cutter or someone else, they might not want to throw the 60-yard crazy throw, but it's nice with Harper because if I ended up super open on that [cut], it seemed like every time he threw it.”
Coach Murray was almost giddy discussing New York’s talent and size. In regards to end-of-quarter situations, she laughed, saying “forget it, it's amazing... [we can field] a whole line of giants.” Though she mused that Kittredge and Brownlee would be sensational playing together, she is leaning more towards placing Kittredge on the offense and Brownlee on the defense. Either way, the goal for both is to prioritize disc possession instead of highlight plays.
She is rewriting the offensive principles and playbook so as to value the disc. She doesn’t even want her offensive players spending much time practicing defense.
“If I'm communicating to the offense, ‘let's make sure you're really good at defense’, what am I really communicating to the players?” she asked. Once the principles are solidified, players can have more freedom to improvise. She quoted Bruce Lee in regards to how her players could view hucks within the new offense: “obey the principles without being bound by them.” She admitted that she would accept the occasional full-field scoober.
It goes without saying that New York’s new additions will affect the entire East, not just the Rush-Empire rivalry. Bretton Tan, a third-year player for the Rush, is excited to watch the entire division jostle for the playoffs throughout the season: “It's gonna make watching other games more fun as well, actually. It'll be cool watching [the Empire] go against DC this year, maybe they've closed the gap there, against Montreal, maybe they've closed the gap there too. I think it's gotten a lot closer between the top 4 teams.”
With all the talent in the East, Coach Raina is excited for the increased coverage and hype sure to follow: “There's a part of me that's always felt that [the East] should be the division to watch. I certainly think we're gonna get a lot of attention. When you have a marquee player like Beau come into your division, certainly you'll get more attention. The fact that [the Rush] made a run to the finals and came 1 point short will get us more attention.”
Despite the increased spotlight on their division, nobody is looking past the games on the field. The Rush players, to a man, conceded that New York would pose a challenge. I expected more bravado from Rush players, playing up the 14-0 record in Toronto’s favour. Instead, they were more respectful (who would have thought: Frisbee players, respecting their opponents?): “You never know. It could be [the year we lose to the Empire]. I think, a few years back, back when the Rush were still undefeated, nobody thought the Rush could ever lose. Here comes Montreal, here comes DC, all of a sudden we've got 6 losses on our name... At some point, we're gonna take one loss to the Empire,” said Bretton Tan.
Cam Harris is less willing to muse about New York beating Toronto: “I honestly don't think we're ever going to lose a game.” Coach Murray echoed him when asked if the Empire would beat the Rush this season: “I always go into every game knowing that we're going to win.”
Such is the stuff of rivalries. Everyone with whom I spoke reminded me that preseason is the time for speculation, but we can’t know how the teams match up until they do just that.
After all, games aren’t played on paper. They’re played on the field, where high-profile stars help, but are only individual members of a team. And with two regular season games between the Rush and Empire – April 14, in New York, and June 17th, in Toronto – the field will be crammed with stars and storylines galore. Will New York finally prevail against its northern neighbors? There’s never been a better time to watch and find out.