August 8, 2017
By Evan Lepler
On Friday evening at Sea Foam Stadium in Saint Paul, Minnesota, there were 502 throws. The final outcome came down to just one or two.
Over the course of 48 minutes of intense, elimination ultimate in front of a lively and partisan crowd, the Minnesota Wind Chill and the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds engaged in a wild roller coaster ride. By the end of the night, 51 scores were on the board, and the Wind Chill’s record crowd was absolutely stunned by a dramatic fourth-quarter collapse.
Highlights from Pittsburgh's furious 6-0 rally in the fourth quarter against Minnesota.
In the span of seven minutes, the Thunderbirds stormed on a powerful 6-0 rampage, seizing their first lead of the night with only 4:06 remaining. Minnesota still had time, but the momentum and mojo were gone.
As Pittsburgh completed its final eight passes to whittle the final seconds away, the contrasting emotions of the Thunderbirds’ narrow 26-25 triumph were obvious. Pitt’s sideline was pandemonium, the culmination of an improbable road comeback, executed with superstar Tyler DeGirolamo serving only as a supportive spectator. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s had no choice but to watch the Thunderbirds celebrate. Collectively, the Wind Chill body language could be summed up with two words: disbelief and disappointment.
Full game footage from August 4 between Pittsburgh and Minnesota.
While no one would argue that Pittsburgh provided four full quarters of ‘The Championship Look,’ the Thunderbirds earned the right to live another day. For the third straight season, they will head to Madison for the Midwest title game. And if they can harness their fourth-quarter mindset from the opening bell on Saturday at Breese Stevens, they have the horses to dethrone the Madison Radicals’ reign.
“I think our ceiling is higher than it’s ever been, but we’re more inconsistent than we’ve ever been as well,” said Pittsburgh’s Pat Earles, who had four of his five assists in the second half on Friday night. “Looking on to next week, Madison’s ceiling is potentially lower than it’s been in year’s past, but they’re starting to ramp up their consistency. So there’s a big, fat opportunity there.”
Just 10 teams remain in pursuit of the 2017 AUDL Championship, and that number will shrink to four by the end of this weekend. It would be easy to pick all of the chalk, as the quartet of favorites all seem quite strong. But considering what we’ve seen throughout the past four months around the league, it should be obvious that nothing is certain.
10 teams remain in contention for the 2017 AUDL title.
The Full Field Layout
Friday night’s thriller was certainly impacted by circumstances, though not decided by them. Many members of the Wind Chill had competed earlier in the day at the U.S. Open, while the Thunderbirds had spent the day traveling. Early in the game, it was obvious which team was feeling better.
As throngs of fans were still filing in, Minnesota bolted to a 4-0 lead, looking impervious to the gusting breeze that flustered Pittsburgh throughout the first half. The quick start gave the Wind Chill license to play loose, and it felt like one huck after another floated perfectly as the Thunderbirds’ defensive strategy backfired.
Highlights from August 4 between Pittsburgh and Minnnesota.
“To start the game, we were playing ‘just don’t get beat under,’” commented Pittsburgh Coach David Hogan, “and their hucks were just on.”
Even after stabilizing from the disastrous start—from being down 4-0, the Thunderbirds scored four of the next five goals to get within one—Pittsburgh’s poor decisions on offense gave Minnesota another huge boost. The Wind Chill scored four goals in a row for the second time in the half to increase their lead to 9-4, and at halftime the Thunderbirds felt mildly fortunate to only be down 15-11.
“The big thing we talked about at halftime was just to stop throwing hucks to covered people,” said Hogan, matter-of-factly. “That’s a little bit about Pat. He’ll try to take over a little more than he should, especially when Ty’s not on the field, but we have a lot of capable cutters on that line.”
Earles agreed that his first half effort needed tweaking.
“That first half was definitely me just trying to take over with my throws, which is a common mindset and it’s not a good mindset that I find myself in,” said Earles. “That’s why I started cutting more. Once I start cutting more, I actually settle in and realize that smart decisions are better than forced decisions regardless of the score.”
Earles threw for Pittsburgh’s first three scores in the second half, but it was unclear if the Thunderbirds D would be able to generate enough breaks. In fact, after the two teams combined for 10 breaks and just eight O-line holds over the first 18 points of the game, the two offenses combined for 24 goals in the next 25 points. In the third quarter, each offense was unbroken with seven holds, including Earles’ goal from Mark Fedorenko with five seconds left to keep the Thunderbirds within four heading to the fourth.
Receiving to open the final period, the Thunderbirds converted 14 throws in 77 seconds, inching within three at 22-19, the closest they had been in the second half. The offense had found its rhythm.
“The wind died and really allowed Max [Thorne] and Pat to just drop the disc anywhere they wanted,” said Wind Chill Coach Phil Bowen. “And that’s really tough to cover.”
Max Thorne's highlights from Saturday night.
Whereas Minnesota had been more ready to compete at its best at the outset, in the fourth quarter the Wind Chill began to feel fatigue setting in. With just over eight minutes to go, Pittsburgh finally began to take advantage.
Thorne hit Scott Trimble for their first break of the second half, creeping within two at the 8:06 mark. Then, after another Wind Chill giveaway, Pittsburgh shot it deep to Anson Reppermund, who dished to Jon DeAmicis for the goal with 7:15 left. Suddenly, the score was 23-22.
By then, the momentum felt real, like an inevitable tidal wave, powerful and vast. Thomas Edmonds and Thorne punctuated a seesaw three-turn point by connecting for the game-tying goal with 5:05 left. Then, Carl Morgenstern picked up a goal and an assist over the next two minutes, leading the Thunderbirds to two more breaks by quickly capitalizing on the Wind Chill’s errant throws.
“The turnovers came in bunches,” acknowledged Minnesota’s Josh Klane, who registered five goals and four assists but also dished seven throwaways. “They were good looks, but we just missed them…The wheels kinda came off. The O-line didn’t execute at the end when it counted, and that was it.
“The D-line did their job, and the O-line couldn’t quite finish the job.”
After Morgenstern’s huck to Sam VanDusen made it 25-23, the Wind Chill finally scored their first goal in more than eight minutes to creep back within one with 2:11 left. But another turnover-free possession for Pittsburgh resulted in Thorne grabbing his game-high seventh goal, increasing the lead back to two with 1:23 left. Minnesota would not get a chance to tie it again.
“I don’t want to say that legs started to go, but I think it’s pretty obvious watching it that we lost our legs a little bit,” said Bowen. “That shows up not just in defense, offense, positioning, speed, but in throws as well. Throws [and decision-making] are some of the first things that go when you tired.”
Despite an 11-3 regular season record that earned them the right to host a playoff game for the first time in franchise history, Minnesota’s season ended the same way as last year, suffering a narrow defeat against Pittsburgh. For the Thunderbirds, they are hoping the third time will be the charm in their quest to surpass the Radicals when it really counts.
“We’ve played [Madison] really tight many times,” said Reppermund, who paced the Thunderbirds with three Ds on Friday night. “I think they’ve always been within reach for us, and hopefully we can give them another good game and show what we can do.”
Highlights from the 2016 Midwest Division championship game.
Pittsburgh and Madison will meet at 7:00 PM Eastern this Saturday evening, and it will be broadcast live on the Eleven Sports Network and streamed on AUDL.TV/Live.
The Outside In
While Minnesota could not deliver a full four-quarter effort, the play of the day belonged to the Wind Chill’s Dylan DeClerck. Late in the first half, after Pittsburgh had inched within two, Caleb Denecour scored with seven seconds remaining. Theoretically, the Thunderbirds had time for a ‘hail mary’ launch, but it turns out they would have been better off just letting time expire.
Dylan DeClerck's statement bookends for the Wind Chill gave the home team a big boost of momentum going into halftime.
After Jay Drescher’s pull, the Thunderbirds wanted to complete one short throw to set up the full-field bomb. Little did they realize that milking the short toss for a couple extra yards would prove to be so painful.
“My goal as I was sprinting down the field was to get a mark on the thrower quickly to make those seven seconds as difficult as possible for Pittsburgh,” said DeClerck, who played college ultimate at Iowa and Drake. “I knew that I had the legs to get down quickly, but I never thought I would get the chance to get a D, much less an extra score.
“When I saw the thrower looking to the side of the field where he would put the disc, I started to curve my route toward that sideline, and after seeing the handler moving backward, I knew that I was going to try and jump the lane. Whether or not I was going to actually get a hand on it was the question, and luckily enough I had just enough space and the right timing to get most of my hand on the disc.”
DeClerck’s spectacular layout had denied Pittsburgh the typically easy first throw, but the athletic Wind Chill defender was not done.
“After getting the block, I considered picking it up for a microsecond, but decided that I could probably get to the end zone faster and hoped that someone was there to pick it up. Luckily, Jay was prepared to help us get the score and put a great throw into a very narrow window on the sideline.”
The crowd absolutely erupted as DeClerck’s score made it 15-11 at the halftime buzzer, and his teammates were just as enthused as the fans.
“Oh my god, that was unreal,” remarked Klane. “That was the high of the game, definitely.”
DeClerck had another D in the game as well to finish the season with 21, tied for 15th most in the league. But he had never gotten a dramatic first-throw layout D like this before, and the immediate bookend made it that much sweeter.
“I usually guard cutters and try to conserve energy running or jogging down on the pull so I can play tough defense for a long point,” shared DeClerck. “This was one of those few times where I was going to run down on the pull to guard a handler and let the taller guys cover the back end of the play for the huck that we figured was coming, and I knew that I would only have to defend for seven seconds so I could sprint almost the whole time.”
The Greatest (Ultimate-Related Social Media Clip of the Week)
Big ups. Big regrets.
I dropped it. pic.twitter.com/aQHOcHMoTr
— Caleb Denecour (@calebdenecour) August 8, 2017
Considering that Caleb Denecour’s personal twitter photo used to be him unsuspectingly getting hit in the face by a disc, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the humble receiver—who happens to have a massive social media following—shared this photo truthfully.
He caught many more than he dropped throughout the 2017 season, as Denecour collected 56 goals in 14 games played between Austin and Minnesota.
My trek to the Twin Cities was relatively uneventful, especially compared to the travel trauma that so many other ultimate players experienced this past weekend. Dicey weather in the Midwest led to many disc diehards being stranded in airports, desperate for solutions.
Tom Annen, who travels frequently between grad school in Boston and ultimate in Madison, found himself stuck in St. Louis for more about 24 hours on Thursday and Friday in his quest to get to Minneapolis. Several other players and coaches got halted in Chicago, left with no choice but to rent a car and turn a 55-minute flight into a six-hour ride.
Everyone who travels frequently enough will eventually find themselves pleading for mercy from a transit nightmare. When inconvenience strikes, all you can really do is exercise patience and try to be amused by the frustration. Coaches and athletes talk all the time about focusing on the things that you can control. Usually, when the travel Gods cast a dark cloud upon you, the best option is to just ride out the storm by focusing on something else.
Obviously, and speaking from experience, it’s easier said than done.
Seven on the Line
1. So what’s the deal with Tyler DeGirolamo, who only played eight points and was a relative non-factor in Pittsburgh’s one-goal win on Friday? “His hamstring just started tightening up this week,” explained Hogan. “Just can’t get up to full speed right now. We put him in in the first half just to draw some matchups, put him on some handlers a bit on D, but eventually he just took himself out. It’s not like he has a tweak; it’s just tight; can’t get up to full speed. It’s gotta be frustrating for him, but I’m glad it’s not a tweak, glad it’s not a pull. He’ll get his treatment, and we’ll see how it goes over the course of the week. So hopefully we’ll get him for Madison. We’ll see.”
Though limited, Tyler Degirolamo still showed off the speed on Saturday.
2. While Earles and Thorne both had standout performances for Pittsburgh, the Thunderbirds also showered praise on Jonathan Mast and Thomas Edmonds, each of whom had really solid games in anchoring the team’s O-line, especially in the second half. Combined, the duo went for eight assists and 76 completions in 77 throws, with the only turnover being Edmonds’ milked toss that DeClerck pounced on at the very end of the first half. “Edmonds was on fire,” said Hogan. “He played great. He was getting open a lot. Kept things consistent. Pat and Max are able to be the players they are because we have Thomas and Jon keeping the disc in their hands all the time. Just so stable with their skill and how they’re able to get open.”
Jonathan Mast continues to balance out the power throwers on his team with soft touch and precision.
3. Curious what his response would be, I told Hogan that I did not think the Thunderbirds could beat Madison at Breese Stevens Field without a healthy DeGirolamo. Understandably, he disagreed. “I don’t think so,” he said, indicating that they indeed could win without him. “I think we need a consistent game. I just really think that’s it. We didn’t have him the last game we played them; I know home and away is very, very different, and they were missing a bunch of guys too. But it’s a really good O-line [that we have]. I believe in them a lot, and [they weren’t broken once on Friday night in the second half] against a pretty good D-line. I thought they played really well on O against Madison last game. It would suck not to have [Tyler], but I think we’ll be alright.” While praising his offense, Hogan also acknowledged that Saturday’s showdown with the Radicals will likely be a defensive struggle. “I just think our D-lines know how to play against each other,” he said. “I think there will be a lot of O-turns and there will be a lot of breaks. I think it’s gonna be an up and down game, but obviously we can’t come out like we have. If we give them two breaks to start, we’re kinda cooked.”
4. Did you know that only four players in the AUDL finished the 2017 regular season 40+ goals and 40+ assists? Perhaps even more surprisingly, all four have been eliminated from the Championship pursuit. Atlanta’s Nathan Vickroy (46 goals, 45 assists), Indianapolis’ Cameron Brock (47 goals, 43 assists), Minnesota’s Ryan Osgar (47 goals, 44 assists), and Philadelphia’s Sean Mott (54 goals, 40 assists) all had great statistical seasons, but none are playing for any of the remaining 10 teams. Only three players in AUDL history have registered a 50/50 season: Indianapolis’ Keenan Plew registered 59 goals and 63 assists in 2013, while Raleigh’s Justin Allen (58 goals, 52 assists) and Toronto’s Isaiah Masek-Kelly (50 goals, 51 assists) in 2015.
5. New York’s Jeff Babbitt also had a 40/40 season, but his was 50 goals and 41 Ds. While the Tuesday Toss had made many inaccurate prognostications through the years, this particular nugget was foreseen very early in the 2017 season. Babbitt’s numbers were unprecedented. Jonathan “Goose” Helton scored 34 goals with 46 Ds with Indianapolis in an MVP campaign during’ the league’s inaugural season, while Philadelphia’s Matt Esser mustered 47 goals with 37 Ds in 2013. But Babbitt’s season put him in a club by himself. In fact, only Babbitt, Helton, Madison’s Peter Graffy, and New York’s Mike Drost have ever accumulated 40 Ds in a season through six years of the AUDL.
Jeff Babbitt did work on both sides of the disc in 2017.
6. There were nearly 800 different players who saw the field in the AUDL this season, and 251 of them finished the year with a 100% catching percentage, which is to say, they had zero drops. On this list, no one had more catches than Raleigh’s Jonathan Nethercutt, who finished the year with 517 touches, 17th most in the league. DC’s Lloyd Blake and Pittsburgh’s Max Thorne were the only others players with more than 360 touches to have 100% catching rates, with 459 and 451 touches, respectively. Chicago’s Michael Pardo and Vancouver’s Patrick Church led the league with 12 drops apiece, though Pardo was also second in the league in goals, scoring 70 times on the season.
7. I don’t think it’s likely, but you know what would be fun? Imagine the Seattle Cascades, confident in their core of players but looking for some new leadership, decided to try and make a splash, secretly flying down to Medellin, Colombia to interview Mauricio Moore, who recently led the Colombian World Games team to a silver medal (and a victory over the USA in pool play). Seattle has spent the past few seasons without a steady coach and has shown no indication of a strong desire for this to change, but how exciting would it be if the Cascades ambitioned for this same kind of outside-the-box hire that put Brad Stevens on the Boston Celtics’ bench a few years back. The AUDL is probably not at this point yet where teams would pursue the hot names in coaching from out of town, but if Moore ever expressed any interest in coming to the US for a season, several pro teams would be wise to go after him.
Oh, the possibilities!
1 playoff game Friday
3 playoff games Saturday
2 playoff games Sunday pic.twitter.com/voRQ8nakI6
— AUDL (@theAUDL) August 8, 2017
With six games on tap this weekend, we are just five days away from knowing the final four.
Montreal and DC begin the docket on Friday night, with the winner going to Toronto on Sunday. Dallas and Raleigh square off on Saturday afternoon in what should be an epic heavyweight showdown, while Pittsburgh and Madison share the stakes when they start on Saturday night. Meanwhile, the West Division postseason will take shape on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon in the Bay Area, with Los Angeles and San Jose battling for the right to face San Francisco.
Here’s your bold prediction for the weekend: At least one home team will lose, and Championship Weekend will include a least one team that did not win its division.
After two relatively calm weeks on the AUDL postseason schedule, we’re set for the second most exciting weekend of the 2017 season, with the anticipation of Montreal’s magic building every day.
Let the games begin!
The Tuesday Toss is published weekly on theAUDL.com during the season. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler