The Tuesday Toss: New Challengers Emerge In Every Division
May 2, 2017 — By Evan Lepler
As Week 5 unfolded, we witnessed one wild surprise after another.
San Jose set the tone with a thrilling Friday night buzzer beater, shocking Seattle in the West. Saturday afternoon saw Detroit win and Toronto lose, a Halley’s comet-like concurrence for AUDL historians. On Saturday evening, Madison, the perennial Midwest power, suffered through a chilling Minnesota wind and dropped their first regular season game in nearly two years, while the Spiders’ improbable rampage continued through Vancouver. There were still four games to see on Sunday, with Dallas and San Francisco, a couple championship favorites, both teetering on the brink of defeat before surviving their gritty battles on the road.
In the aftermath of the 15-game slate, the entire competitive landscape has been jumbled. Even the defending champs from Dallas, who improved to 22-0 all-time, showed stark signs of vulnerability. If only Atlanta had managed to make half as many unforced errors, then the Roughnecks would have endured the same sorrow fate as the Cascades, Rush, and Radicals, their fellow Championship Weekend participants from a year ago. Dallas has another daunting trek through Jacksonville and Raleigh scheduled for Week 7, and there’s a tremendous chance that the Roughnecks will experience the new AUDL reality on that journey.
In 2017, the whole league is wide open. Every division has improved depth, especially in the middle of the pack and below. This has provoked an edgy drama to nearly every game.
Absorb these nuggets from Week 5:
- Three games were decided by one goal
- 11 of the 15 games were decided by five goals or fewer
- The second biggest win of the weekend (by margin) came from Detroit, a franchise that won just four games over the last three seasons.
- Those four Detroit victories since the start of 2014 came by a grand total of 10 points; the Mechanix beat Chicago by nine at home on Saturday.
- Road teams went 8-7 on the weekend by a margin of 350-343, with Bay Area-based road teams went 4-0)
Without knowing exactly where we are going, it’s clear that some league dynamics are substantially shifting. And whether you are semifinalist or a struggling cellar dweller, you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.
It feels like times are a changin in the AUDL. And thus far, it’s an intensely compelling evolution.
The Full Field Layout
The San Jose Spiders capped their amazing April with arguably their most convincing and clutch performances of the season. Few preseason prognosticators dared to predict the younger Bay Area brother as a true threat in the West, yet the black and gold clad arachnids carry a four-game winning streak into May after storming through the Pacific Northwest in Week 5.
At 4-1, Coach Tyler Grant has the Spiders atop their division and one win away from matching the franchise’s total from a season ago, utilizing their underrated army of defensive workhorses and the steady offensive hand of, among others, Justin Norden, whose distributing prowess and downfield effectiveness has transformed the former Carleton College standout into a true MVP candidate.
In two games this weekend, Norden registered eight goals and 13 assists, giving him 11 goals and 32 assists for the season, leading the league in the latter.
Snapshot of Justin Norden's impressive weekend on the road.
“Early on in the season, I talked to Justin about opening up his game a bit more,” said Grant. “He’s had the throws for a while now, but wasn’t using them as weapons. I think the change from last season to this season has been in his ability to be more aggressive with his throws and his willingness to move upfield to be a receiver.”
Justin Norden takes off upfield before dusting two Seattle defenders in the air and tossing the assist.
While various injuries have kept him from being 100 percent for much of the past few years, Norden entered this season feeling healthy and confident that he could assume a larger role in the Spiders’ offense. He’s quickly meshed with O-line counterparts like Chuck Cao, Steven Chang, Evan Boucher, Jackson Stearns, Evan Brydon, and Sonny Zaccaro, spearheading a San Jose scoring brigade that is averaging 27.6 goals per game through five contests.
Stearns, who is averaging five goals a game by himself, thinks that the Spiders would not be having anywhere near their current success without Norden.
“If you take him away, we’re maybe 2-3 at best, probably more like 1-4,” said Stearns, who scored seven times on Friday before a fourth quarter ankle injury sidelined him for the rest of the weekend. “I think the biggest difference is, this year, [Justin] is clearly the center handler, and since he knows that, he’s playing much more aggressive. He’s always had the skills and athleticism. He’s a very well-rounded player. He’s big, pretty fast, and can jump, and as a handler he has all those unique release points that help him break the mark."
“Our system is designed for him and the other handlers to be aggressive. We want them going up-line, attacking downfield when appropriate, and aggressively looking to move the disc laterally with their breaks. The system fits Justin’s strengths and he has the talent and attitude to maximize it all. The rest of the team then feeds on that energy. Justin was more vocal in the huddle this weekend, more confident on the field, and everyone just has more belief when he’s out there.”
Norden’s steady wizardry kept San Jose in front basically all night on Friday against Seattle, but the Spiders still needed some last second heroics and incredible teamwork to secure their first road victory of 2017. With less than a minute remaining, the score was tied at 26, and the Cascades had the disc looking for their first lead of the game. The seven-man defensive unit applied intense pressure and induced a wayward throw from the Seattle handler. The up-line toss was intercepted by the poaching Matt Crawford, his second D of the day and team-high 10th of the season. A timeout was called, and Norden and company returned to the field.
In the huddle, the Spiders’ message was threefold. There was enough time for a few throws, so there was no need to rush. It was imperative that the cutters ran hard and were ready to score. And, perhaps most importantly, make sure that they got a throw into the end zone before the buzzer sounded.
“At the end of the first quarter, our players had a scoring opportunity but caught the disc a few steps out of the goal,” Grant remembered. “That one was tough to watch.”
This one would be better.
Norden and Cao exchanged a couple quick throws in the handler set before swinging the disc to Kelly Van Arsdale, who floated a pass to Cao who was slashing diagonally up and across the field. When Cao caught the disc, about 10-15 yards shy of the end zone, he had to pull the trigger.
“As soon as I got position on my up-line cut, I checked the clock behind me and saw there were about six seconds left,” said Cao. “I knew I would have only a second or two when I actually got the disc from Kelly, and I would have to be decisive. When I caught the up-line and found no teammates within 25 yards of me on the open side, I knew I just had to launch a back-shoulder throw, and thankfully Alec [Surmani] already had great separation.”
Cao launched a bladey outside-in flick that curled into the end-zone, precariously close to the sideline. The buzzer sounded with the disc still in flight, it swerved around the reach of Seattle’s Sam Harkness, and Surmani made the leaping snag moments later, landing in bounds by maybe a yard with the game’s dramatic, clinching score. With no time remaining, the Spiders had prevailed 27-26.
Chuck Cao's daring crossfield throw for the game winner on Friday night in Seattle.
“What a crazy game,” Norden exclaimed afterwards.
The ecstatic Spiders stormed the field and celebrated, but then had to promptly turn the page for their second game of the weekend in Vancouver less than 24 hours later. The mindset was simple: don’t let up.
Full game highlights between the Spiders and Cascades.
Dealing with some injuries from the day before, Grant shuffled the lines. Playing through some wet weather in the opening quarter, the Spiders built a quick lead. While the Riptide made several early mistakes, San Jose was dialed in and crisp. By the end of the first quarter, the Spiders had converted five breaks for a 9-4 lead.
“We were really able to capitalize on opportunities early and set the tone for the game,” said Cao.
San Jose basically maintained its early edge for the duration. The Spiders were up 15-10 at halftime, 21-15 through three, and prevailed over the Riptide 28-22. Brydon had a big day with six goals and three assists, while Brandon Fein had four Ds, with three assists and a goal.
Norden, who dished eight assists on Saturday, was effusive in his praise of the team’s defense.
“It’s so hard in the AUDL to create turnovers, and this has not been a problem for our team,” Norden declared, singling out Van Arsdale, Crawford, and Fein for their impactful D.
Grant also was proud of the team’s abililty to convert turnovers into goals, adding, “Once we had the disc, our D-line played solid, unselfish offense and we kept punching it in.”
The Spiders now have four wins against four different franchises in the West, everyone else except the Aviators. San Jose will have its first chance against LA on May 13. The Spiders, who are off this weekend, have their next three games at home and don’t leave the Bay Area again until June 17.
“I knew we had a strong team going into the season,” Grant explained, “but I didn’t necessarily think we’d go 4-1 to start the season. Our preseason work showed that we were starting to improve, but until I saw what we could do during game one, I didn’t know how far we could go. Winning on the road is super tough, so, had I actually considered it during the preseason, I would have said we’d probably be 2-3 at this point.
“I think our win against the FlameThrowers showed that we could play with any of the teams in our division, but it was too early to tell. Now that we’ve beaten Seattle on the road, I expect we’re all thinking playoffs are possible. However, it’s a four-team race for three spots, and we still haven’t played the Aviators. Everyone is looking forward to that game because it will be a true test for our team.”
While the Spiders took care of business in the northern third of the West, their Bay Area brothers excelled similarly in the south. San Francisco used a critical 4-0 run late in the third quarter to break a 17-all score en route to a hard-fought 26-22 triumph over Los Angeles on Saturday. Then, the FlameThrowers survived a 21-20 nail-biter in San Diego on Sunday when the Growlers’ game-tying huck to a wide-open receiver sailed too far and out of the reach of the hustling target.
Cassidy Rasmussen put up huge numbers—five goals and 14 assists in two games—and Eli Kerns helped to run the show in his return to the field, adding four goals and 10 assists on the weekend. This duo anchored the effort, but it was another emerging superstar that garnered even more praise.
“I think the main story of our game was Antoine Davis,” said Los Angeles’ Bryan Nguyen. “It felt like he was open all the time and caught anything that was thrown to him.”
Game highlights from the April 29 matchup between the FlameThrowers and Aviators.
In the win over LA, Davis accumulated six goals, three assists, and three Ds. Though his Sunday production did not match the Saturday spectacular, his overall performance provoked some lofty comparisons.
“I think the obvious comparison athletically for Antoine is Beau [Kittredge],” said Rasmussen, who’s played alongside the three-time AUDL champion for much of the decade. “I think Antoine has much more polished disc skills at his age than Beau had, and if he can develop the same decision making that makes Beau so valuable he will be incredibly hard to stop. The craziest thing for me is watching Antoine play is like watching Beau play, if [Beau] was always going 100%. Beau is an incredibly smart player, and he’s played for so long that he really has started to pick and choose his spots. Antoine is so young and has all the energy in the world, when he turns to go deep, he is going as hard as he can and it’s pretty impressive to watch. He’s still getting used to playing with all of us in the Bay.”
Presumably, Rasmussen’s not claiming that Davis is definitely on his way to being one of the greatest players to ever play the sport. But his lofty praise seems reasonable based upon the admittedly small early-season sample size. So far, he has been the best version of ‘rookie energy guy’ that anyone could ask for. In five games, Davis has 12 goals, seven assists, and 10 Ds.
“One of the thing we encourage [Antoine] to do is to keep bringing his infectious positivity to our team,” said FlameThrowers Coach Ryo Kawaoka.
After the LA game, Kawaoka praised Davis, along with Sam Kanner and Lior Givol, for making ‘psychologically game-changing Ds’ during the team’s pivotal third quarter rally. The Aviators mostly felt good about the way they played against their highly respected foe, but the quick lapse gave the FlameThrowers all the cushion they needed. With poise on offense down the stretch, San Francisco secured the win and handed LA its first loss of the year.
“They’re just such a composed team,” LA’s Eli Friedman said about San Francisco. “They value the disc, and they move it so quickly and fluidly that it’s hard to defend once you turn it over. We had some end of quarter errors that cost us. Up until the end of the third, we were running really well with them.”
On Sunday, the FlameThrowers weathered the sweltering temperatures and breezy conditions to complete the two-win weekend. Just like the day before, a late 4-0 run proved to be critical.
In answering a 3-0 Growlers run that gave San Diego a 17-16 lead, San Francisco’s toughness shined in a 4-0 response, jumping ahead 20-17.
San Diego inched within one at 21-20 with 40 seconds left, and the Growlers’ active double-team off the ensuing pull forced a turnover with around 30 seconds left, giving them a chance for the tie at the end of regulation.
“Dan Bellinger immediately took off deep and Travis [Dunn, who had intercepted San Francisco’s desperate high-stall hammer,] was basically unmarked,” recalled San Diego’s Dom Leggio. “Travis hucked a flick but unfortunately it went over Dan’s head."
“Dan was wide open. We probably had time to work the disc from across half-field with 30 seconds left, but Travis had a great look. We had a golden opportunity.”
After the game, San Diego dwelled upon its eight drops and other unforced errors, while San Francisco also bemoaned its sloppy play throughout the game. As Rasmussen said, “Sunday was just a matter of willpower. We started off really slow and I felt like a good chunk of the team was hoping that someone else would step up and run so they didn’t have to.”
When the clock expired, it was just another missed opportunity for winless San Diego, while San Francisco snuck away with a 3-1 record for the season. They are a half-game behind San Jose, a fact that seemed to delight the FlameThrowers and their overall Bay Area pride.
“So fired up about how good San Jose is,” remarked Kawaoka. “I guess I should have been hoping for a 1-1 weekend from them, but to be honest the entire team was excited about San Jose’s wins this weekend. Off the field, we are the biggest supporters of each other’s programs.”
In the West, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle all still have just one loss, while San Diego and Vancouver are each still searching for their first wins as the calendar flips to May. Although there’s a decent gap between the top four and the bottom two, the Growlers and Riptide still believe they have the pieces to contend.
“We outplayed San Francisco is every aspect except the ‘don’t shoot yourself in the foot’ category,” Leggio said. “In ultimate, especially the AUDL, whoever wins that category is most likely going to win the game. Our morale is still high and we are still a confident group. I am not discouraged by the 0-4 start, but with only 10 games to play, we need to hop on the winning train sooner than later.”
For several decades, northern California has been a haven for great ultimate. Over the past half-decade, ever since the AUDL’s inception, you could say the same about Madison and Toronto. The Radicals and Rush met in the 2013 title game as first-year franchises and have participated in every Championship Weekend ever since. Over the past four regular seasons, Madison and Toronto have combined to go 106-10, an insane string of excellence that made this past Saturday so stunning.
Let’s start in Minnesota, where the Wind Chill seized command in the first quarter and never trailed in their satisfying 22-20 victory. The Radicals scored five of the last six points to make the final tally appear more respectable, but Madison, in suffering its first loss in nearly 700 days, snapped a string of 21 consecutive regular season victories.
Full game footage from the matchup between Madison and Minnesota on April 29.
“The Wind Chill played great, completing the majority of their passes through the wind,” said Madison’s Kevin Pettit-Scantling. “We didn’t. I think we had nearly 30 turnovers, most of them unforced. You won’t win games playing like that.”
The Radicals finished with 23 throwaways and five drops, while the Wind Chill had 20 and three, respectively. Whereas Madison was missing many core members of its O-line, Minnesota handlers Josh Klane, Jason Tschida, and Austin Lien each had between 67 and 74 completions in the blustery conditions.
“Klane, Tschida, and I have quite a bit of natural chemistry,” said Lien. “Those two obviously played in college together [at Minnesota], but we’ve all been in the same ultimate circles for a long time. The dynamic between the three of us works out pretty well too. Tschida and I are generally pretty risk-averse, which affords Klane well-deserved room for creativity. His deep throws are what really open things up for our offense, which Jason and I are happy to facilitate. We still have some strategy points to hammer out, but definitely no trouble getting open for each other and moving the disc.”
Game highlights from the matchup between Madison and Minnesota on April 29.
The Minnesota offense made enough plays, but the Wind Chill defense created the biggest highlights. After generated 21 Ds in their opening 10-goal win over Indy, the Wind Chill registered 14 more Ds against Madison.
“Jay Drescher was pretty clearly the star of the show for our D-line offense,” said Lien. “His end of [second] quarter grab on the hammer from Logan Weiss was a huge play for us, as well as rifling that backhand huck upwind for Strings [aka Brian Schoenrock] to make the highlight reel grab on.”
Schoenrock’s catch was certainly the marquee moment for Minnesota, and the incredible accelerating layout made the SportsCenter Top 10 on ESPN Sunday evening.
“We give Jay the green light to make some plays as a thrower when Strings is downfield,” Lien explained. “Strings does a great job setting up his cuts specifically for Jay’s throws. I knew as soon as Jay caught the disc that the throw would be going up. I think he may have been aiming for the upwind corner of the field, but the throw clearly did not come off that way. When it stayed straight down the middle, nearly straight at a waiting help defender, I’ll admit I lost a little faith. As soon as the throw cleared the defenders though, I knew Strings was coming down with it.”
It was Schoenrock’s only goal of the game, and it was one of four assists for Drescher, who finished a game-high +7 for Minnesota. Currently 2-0, the Wind Chill have their next five games against the bottom three in the Midwest. Minnesota won’t see Madison again until June 10 in the Twin Cities. Three weeks later, they’ll meet again at Breeze Stevens Field.
It’s also worth mentioning that Minnesota and Pittsburgh won’t meet until July 9, when they’ll play twice in three weeks to wrap up the regular season.
The Radicals remain a very viable threat, obviously, with their home opener against Chicago beckoning this Saturday.
“We’re not happy we lost, but we’re motivated,” said Pettit-Scantling, whose +9 through two games is tops on the team. “Last year, there was more pressure to not lose than there was to win. Now that we feel the competition rising in the Midwest, I think you’ll see more tenacity out of us. Perhaps the thing we’ve been missing so far.”
In the history of their franchise, the Madison Radicals have never lost back-to-back games. The Toronto Rush could say the same thing.
Until this past Saturday.
An excruciating display of unforced errors combined with Montreal’s improved athleticism and execution allowed the Royal to steamroll the Rush at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, just their second ever home setback in five years in the league. Much like the final tally in Minnesota, Montreal’s 22-19 triumph was not totally indicative of how the Royal controlled the game. Montreal led 6-3 after one, 11-7 at the half, and 20-14 through three before Toronto scored four straight to inch within two in the final quarter.
Game highlights from the matchup between Montreal and Toronto on April 29.
“For us, the biggest storyline was execution… or the lack there of,” said Toronto Captain Thomson McKnight. “We had 11 or 12 drops as well as 20+ throwaways. For the third game of the season, that is pretty unacceptable and very unlike us. It felt like we were very tight in the first three quarters and were playing nervous. While they definitely played well and made the most of their opportunities, from our perspective we gave them way too many chances for free.”
The Rush’s loss dropped them to 1-2, while the Royal joined the DC Breeze and the New York Empire at 2-1. Already this year, Montreal has won at Toronto, Toronto has won at New York, and New York walloped Montreal at home. Try making sense of that.
“Personally, I still had the bad taste in my mouth from the New York game and made sure that our focus, as a team, was increased intensity,” said Royal Captain Kevin Quinlan, referencing his team’s lopsided 21-8 loss against the Empire in Week 4.
Montreal was missing several key contributors from the previous weekend like Christian Foster and Kevin Groulx, but the Royal had other guys step up, illustrating the team’s improved depth. Andre Arsenault (three Ds) and Nathan Dandurand (four goals) each had solid games, while Frenchman Quentin Bonnaud led the way in plus/minus. Felix-Antoine Daigle and Antoine Genest topped the squad in completions, while Max Rick added four assists and two Ds.
“Through the first three quarters, we simply made fewer mistakes and punished them for their drops and throwaways,” said Rick.
Cam Harris led Toronto with seven goals, but more notably, 14 different members of the Rush registered at least one throwaway, while nine different guys had at least one drop. Former All-AUDL standout Isaiah Masek-Kelly was charged with three drops, giving him five in three games on the season, tied for the most in the league. (Interestingly, Jacksonville’s Mischa Freystaetter, who set an AUDL record with 95 goals last year, also has five drops, albeit in five games.)
Toronto will have a chance to exact revenge this weekend when they visit Montreal on Sunday. The Rush may be fatigued though, since they first face 1-1 Ottawa on Saturday afternoon.
“No spot in the standings is safe,” said Harris. “Every game has to be earned.”
Just to be clear, it would be foolish to sell your Madison or Toronto stock too fast. They are two programs that both still have the talent and purpose to be back at Championship Weekend. But this past weekend was an eyebrow-raising warning for both squads. Neither the Radicals nor the Rush have had to deal with much regular season adversity in this league, but their divisional dominance seems to be over. They still can win the thing, but it will be a much tighter race from top to bottom.
The league-wide narrative would have been so easy if Atlanta had simply held onto its halftime lead. Or the Hustle could have taken charge in the fourth quarter after they tied it up at 20 with 9:33 remaining.
“I was nervous,” admitted Dallas’ owner, Jim Gerenscer, after the game.
But Dallas displayed its championship mettle by outscoring Atlanta 9-4 over the final nine and half minutes to prevail 29-24, saving last year’s Championship Weekend quartet from the ignominious status of all losing on the same weekend.
Atlanta snuck back within one at 23-22 with 5:52 to go, but Dallas responded with an overpowering 4-0 run over the next 170 seconds to put the game away.
The Roughnecks rally really represented what this team has been about throughout its existence. They have combined great talent with fierce intensity. They don’t always play perfect, but they sure do capitalize when their opponent plays less than perfect.
After walloping overmatched Nashville 27-8 on Saturday, Dallas perpetuated its string of perfection without four of their top players. The Roughnecks did not have Jimmy Mickle and Dylan Freechild, who were in Colombia with Team USA, nor did they have Kurt Gibson or Matt Jackson, who were both injured. But they still had plenty of firepower, and at halftime, trailing 13-12, they reminded one another of the intensity that was necessary.
Game highlights from the matchup between Dallas and Atlanta on April 30.
“I think the key to surviving was mental toughness,” said Jay Froude, who collected eight Ds, four assists, and three goals in Dallas’s two wins this weekend. “It sounds cheesy and cliché, but it’s the truth. We walked into the locker room at halftime feeling like we let the mindset of fatigue and travel get the best of us. I think we just hit the reset button and played without ourselves, grinding through the tough points, eliminating the mistakes, and capitalizing on our opponent’s miscues. The sidelines were a big part of our success late in the game. Regardless of the outcome of the point, we were making sure to pick our teammates up.”
Taylor Pope, my broadcast partner on the AUDL Game of the Week on Sunday, made an excellent point when he was watching the two teams warm up before the game. The Roughnecks simply had a swagger to their collective body language. They played hard and with great skill, but also with a calmness and confidence that did not waver even when the Hustle made their runs.
After trailing 7-4 through one, Atlanta answered with a 9-5 second quarter to be up one at the break. But the Roughnecks scored the first two points of the second half and never trailed again. On some critical possessions late in the game, Dallas’s defense played with a great sense of urgency, forcing quick turnovers that would almost immediately become breaks. As Matt Bennett explained, every member of the team played with a chip on their shoulder so the Roughnecks could continue their unbeaten streak.
“You do not want to be a part of the team that [suffered] the first loss in franchise history,” said Bennett, “and you can tell that was on everyone’s mind, especially on defense, which really stepped up in the fourth quarter.”
Some teams press when they’re under pressure. Atlanta, for example, made a slew of uncharacteristic mistakes. Dallas, on the other hand, seemed to embrace the gravity of the moment. The competitiveness brought the best out of them. Chris Mazur and Brandon Malacek were steady O-line handlers from wire to wire. Stanley Peterson and Ben Lohre were open a ton. And Abe Coffin had his best game yet as a Roughneck.
Coffin, who like Froude played for the Radicals last year, led Sunday’s effort with four goals, six assists, and two Ds. It was an all-around performance that was reminiscent to what the Roughnecks might have gotten from Cassidy Rasmussen last year or Dylan Freechild this year.
“Abe has been a monster all season,” said Bennett. “He is so crisp and clean, yet explosive and dirty. He plays so fundamentally, but at the same time takes shots you would never expect. The best way to describe him in this offense is as a catalyst. He has gelled so quickly with this O-line.”
While Dallas basically won with 16 active players on Sunday against Atlanta—four fewer than the allowed gameday roster of 20—the Roughnecks are already aware that there will be a couple more weekends this season when they expect the roster to be thin. These circumstances could lead to a loss, and so could road games at Jacksonville, Raleigh, and of course Madison (in the Cross Coast Challenge on June 3).
Atlanta’s feistiness served to alert Dallas that waltzing to another perfect 14-0 record is far from a given, yet the Hustle’s inability to overcome the Roughnecks shorthandedness spoke to the special nature of Dallas’ 22-game accomplishment. With unsung playmakers like Kai Marshall, Thomas Slack, Chris Larberg, Dan Emmons, and Jake Anderson continuing to produce, the Roughnecks once again have a deeper core than many believe.
I would not predict them to go 14-0 in 2017, but here on May 2, I would probably pick them to win the title again. Championship Sunday is 117 days away, and the amazingly resilient Roughnecks will likely be the favorites in Montreal.
In one of the most dramatic finishes I’ve ever seen in the AUDL, Pittsburgh remained perfect, improving to 2-0 heading into their Cross Coast Challenge showdown in Seattle this weekend, by squeaking out a wild 26-25 win over Indianapolis on Saturday evening in the Steel City.
The game featured two finely tuned offenses that were sharp and in rhythm most of the night, and the visiting AlleyCats felt like they had the game in control when they went up 25-23 past the midway point of the fourth. If Indy could have held on, it would have been their third win in four tries over Pittsburgh.
But three points later, Max Thorne hauled in a Pat Earles deep shot and dished it to Mark Fedorenko to give the Thunderbirds the 26-25 edge with 1:33 remaining. Mentally, Pittsburgh’s offense was already preparing for Indy’s tying goal, thinking about how they would punch in the winner after the Cats evened things at 26.
In reality, the final point of the night, both epic and heartbreaking, would take the final 93 seconds.
The final point from Saturday night.
“During the final minute, I know my focus had not changed,” said Indy’s Keenan Plew. “We knew as an offensive line that as long as we took what was given, we could score all night. We had a few offensive plays/sets that worked extremely well all game, and I felt confident that we could go down the field to tie the game.”
The AlleyCats were initially patient before launching long, and Indy’s Travis Carpenter drew a pass interference call in the end zone, setting up possession on the goal line in the middle of the field. Still, the AllleyCats were not in a huge rush.
“I decided to pick up the disc because I trust Cam [Brock] or Keenan the most to beat their man with their legs in a one-on-one. Unfortunately, Pitt bracketed our cutters, which forced [Michael] Ames and I to complete a few passes in a row with handler movement. When Ames took off, I decided it was the right throw to make for two reasons: One, there was no possible poach, and the defender was faceguarding Ames which meant he would not see the disc if I threw it out in front. Two, Ames is one of the most reliable players on the AlleyCats. I realize this is very ironic, since he dropped it.”
The disc floated perfectly in space, and it appeared Ames had the easy catch to tie the game at 26. But like we all have done at some point in our lives, Ames became guilty of the game’s pivotal drop.
“I thought we had tied it, but it wasn’t meant to be,” said Plew. “All in all after watching the play, I was happy with our progressions, but disappointed with the end result, obviously.”
But there still was time on the clock after Ames drop, and it was impressive how quickly Indy stormed into defensive mode.
“To Indy’s credit, they immediately set two hard double teams without being prompted or letting their body language drop,” said Pittsburgh’s Mark Fedorenko. “[Xavier Maxstadt’s] huck to Anson [Reppermund] and his subsequent hammer caused a couple nervous glances as time ran out, with the entire sideline screaming ‘hold the disc!’ The entire ending of the game felt like a rollercoaster of emotions.”
The offense-heavy battle yielded plenty of impressive stat lines, as Pittsburgh’s Max Thorne completed 61-of-63 throws with eight assists, while Jonathan Mast and Tad Wissel complemented Thorne by combining for 94 completions without a single throwaway and seven assists.
Tyler DeGirolamo followed up his four-goal, five-assist performance from last week with nine goals and two assists against the AlleyCats, though several uncharacteristic mistakes hampered his overall production.
“Tyler had a pretty rough game, despite what the stats said,” according to Pittsburgh Coach David Hogan. “He did look better physically than he did a week ago, but three drops and three throwaways is something I’ve never seen from him. We both agreed to move him onto the D-line for the fourth quarter so he could just focus on being an athlete and playing defense. His presence as a defender was very important for us and gave us a crucial short field turnover that led to the game-tying break.”
Currently even with Minnesota at 2-0 atop the Midwest, the Thunderbirds will embark on their longest road trip every when they fly to Seattle this weekend for the second of four featured interdivisional games in the league-wide Cross Coast Challenge.
Unlike most matchups at this stage of the AUDL, there’s an intriguing unfamiliarity between Pittsburgh and Seattle, something that will be fascinating to follow on Saturday night. I am thrilled to share that Ian Toner, who broadcasted College Nationals on ESPNU last year, will make his AUDL broadcasting debut with me this weekend in Seattle.
“It’s going to be very entertaining,” said Hogan, “as both O-lines have players who are elite at both hucking and cutting deep.”
Sounds like fun to me.
In some weeks, and perhaps in past years, Detroit demolishing Chicago could have led the column. This week, amidst the dozen other captivating games, it gets relegated to nearly 6,000 words deep.
But the Mechanix 23-14 victory over the Wildfire on Saturday gave Detroit an important early-season notch to build upon. Austin Engel (eight assists) and Johnny Bansfield (three goals, four assists) are two names you probably already know due to their time with Pittsburgh last year, but each played critical roles in Detroit’s first win of 2017.
A name you probably don’t know is Alex Kapiamba, whose nickname is Bubbles. His twitter handle is @UltimateBubbles, and he does bear a slight resemblance to The Wire character of the same nickname. Kapiamba registered four Ds in Detroit’s victory; the rest of the team had nine.
“Alex ‘Bubbles’ Kapiamba played great all game and had at least one timely block before the end of a quarter,” said Detroit’s Eric Hubbard. “It was very keep to keeping our momentum and preventing Chicago from working to come back.”
Kapiamba, who played for the Flying Horsecows at Oberlin College—the school in Ohio where my parents happened to meet—made his AUDL debut for Detroit in the season opener against Indianapolis on April 8.
With a mix of familiar names and some important new additions, the Mechanix are hopeful to take another step forward in 2017. While it’s hard to envision them challenging for the Midwest Division title, the roster seems revamped enough that they will be capable of challenging anybody in the division on any given day.
The Greatest (Ultimate-Related Social Media Post of the Week)
In the moments before switching my phone into airplane mode on Sunday night, a text popped in from Taylor Pope, my broadcast partner for that afternoon’s action in Atlanta. It read, “Eleven broadcast cut off our halftime assessment.”
I was confused. I knew he was in the airport waiting for his own flight to board. How was he watching the Eleven Sports Network broadcast?
Well, when I landed and checked twitter, I got my answer.
— Taylor Pope (@TaylorPopeDPT) May 1, 2017
The game was re-airing on Eleven Sports, and an Atlanta airport bar had put it on.
Ultimate is not going to replace the NFL anytime soon, but the gradual exposure that that we have benefited from already is not nothing. If one out of every 1,000 people who sees ultimate in a bar decides to google it, that growth and awareness will accumulate over time.
Just a week ago, former AUDL MVP Goose Helton tweeted this video from a bar in California, showing ultimate’s weekly showcase shining for all to see
— Jonathan Helton (@Goose00Helton) April 28, 2017
We’re on the right track, and conveniently, the ultimate is just starting to get really, really good.
And no big deal that they edited out our halftime thoughts. To fit the game in a tighter broadcast window, full game footage gets edited for time constraints all the time. Better they show the ultimate than our mugs on the screen.
Getting that text from Taylor was not the only out-of-the-ordinary aspect of my departure from Atlanta on Sunday evening. My 9:07 flight had been delayed about 25 minutes because of a late arriving crew, but still things felt normal when the completely full Delta flight taxied away from the gate a little after 9:30.
I obviously fly a fair amount, but I had never experienced anything like this before. As the 717 was speeding down the runway toward its takeoff, some passengers at the back of the plane starting shouting frantically.
“There’s a crack in the ceiling!” they yelled. “Stop the plane!”
There was genuine panic from several voices, all behind me. I was in row 13 (out of maybe 30), and I turned to see what was happening.
Many passengers were pointing to the ceiling, claiming that there was damage.
The plane rose off the ground, and the panic did not dissipate.
As we were rising, the flight attendant stood up and walked down the aisle to investigate. He had a look on his face that the scared passengers were overdramatizing the moment.
It turned out not to be a crack in the ceiling of the plane. It was, predictably, just some condensation that had dripped, frightening some folks who presumably don’t fly that often.
The flight attendant announced a calming message, and a couple minutes later, the pilot did the same, assuring everyone that all of their gauges were normal.
It all turned out ok, as we touched down smoothly in Greensboro, NC about 45 minutes later. Thankfully, this travelling tale was mostly uneventful.
But it was slightly jolting to have a handful of passengers freaking out as our plane was lifting off the ground on Sunday. That’s something I don’t believe I’ve encountered before.
Alas, the journey continues.
See you soon, Seattle.
Seven on the Line
1. The only team in the league that’s played six games through five weeks improved to 5-1 on Saturday, as Raleigh used an eight-assist performance from Dave Snoke to help surpass Austin 28-23. The Flyers rediscovered the smooth offense they employed against Jacksonville two weeks ago, as the Sol only generated four Ds in the game. Perhaps most notable for the Flyers was the season debut (and Raleigh debut) for Brett Matzuka, who suffered a leg injury in preseason practice. Though he claimed not to be feeling in the greatest physical condition, Matzuka still matched Justin Allen for the team-high in points played, with 27. The former Wildfire and Breeze handler played 25 of his 27 points on the D-line, finishing the game with 25 completions in 27 throws, with one assist and one D. “I don’t feel great,” Matzuka said. “Femur fracture doesn’t seem fully healed, and it is rather limiting. I feel like I’m playing at 80%, but happy and blessed to be active and involved. Lost some explosive movement like my first step and jump, but hoping to get it back in the next few weeks.”
Game highlights from the matchup between Austin and Raleigh on April 29.
2. The Jacksonville Cannons also beat Austin over the weekend, handing the Sol their fifth straight loss with a 30-22 final. The win kept the Cannons just a half-game behind Raleigh at 4-1, though the Flyers won the previous meeting between the two squads fairly handily. Jacksonville only had recorded five Ds against Raleigh and then mustered just three a week later against Atlanta, but the Cannons recorded 15 Ds on Sunday against the Sol, largely because of the sizeable adjustment they made to their lineup. How sizeable was the change? About six-foot-seven. For the first time as a Cannon, Mischa Freystaetter primarily played defense on Sunday, only taking the field with the O-line one time in his 25 points played. Considering the Cannons defensive deficiencies, this is a fascinating swap that obviously adds length and explosiveness to the team’s defense. With Jeremy Langdon, Travis Catron, Cole Sullivan, Bobby Ley, and Chris Gibson, the Cannons still have solid O-line cutters, and Tyler Kunsa recorded seven assists as one of the O-line’s primary handlers on Sunday. It will be interesting to see whether this is a temporary or permanent move for Freystaetter, whose +121 set an AUDL record last year. There were moments late last year when it felt like the Cannons were focused on getting him his stats, and everyone involved in the organization this year has boasted that the only stat that matters is wins. Freystaetter’s offensive numbers will surely drop if he’s primarily on D, but it might be an adjustment that changes the game the next time the Cannons meet the Flyers. They collide again on May 20 in Jacksonville.
3. Of course, New York’s Jeff Babbitt is illustrating how one can accumulate plenty of eye-popping numbers while primarily playing D. With four goals and three Ds in the Empire’s 18-13 victory over Philadelphia on Saturday, Babbitt now has 12 goals and 11 Ds in three games. If you project that over the course of a 14-game season, that puts the former UMass monster on a pace for 56 goals and 51 blocks. Keep in mind, no one in the history of the AUDL has ever had 40 goals and 40 blocks in a season before. “Playing with Babbitt is like using a cheat code in a video game,” said New York’s Taylor Brooks, who added three assists, a goal, and a D himself in the Empire’s second straight win. “A lot of times you hear that a player has a ‘second gear.’ Well, Babbitt has a second, third, and fourth gear. The Dude is a beast and it’s been amazing getting to play with him over the past few months.” He’s not infallible, though, as Babbitt did drop the disc once early in Saturday’s game. “It was actually kind of refreshing to see that he is indeed human,” Brooks said.
Jeff Babbitt claimed Defensive Player of the Week honors in Week 4.
4. In the similar realm of statistical success, the DC Breeze have their own young talent who seems poised to challenge all reasonable expectations. Prior to the season, several members of the Breeze organization basically said something like, “By the middle of the year, everyone is gonna know how good Tyler Monroe is because he’s been such a dominant beast during our preseason training.” Well, so far, it seems that prediction is accurate. Although he’s only played in two of DC’s three games, Monroe has scored 14 goals and dished nine assists in a pair of Breeze wins, including a seven-goal, five-assist line in the team’s five-goal win over Ottawa on Saturday. Monroe, a student at George Washington, just turned 22 in March. In the win over the Outlaws, Monroe was one of four members of the Breeze, along with Alan Kolick, Max Cassell, and Rowan McDonnell, to have multiple goals and multiples assists in the game. The 2-1 Breeze will host the 2-1 Empire in one of the top games of Week 6, a 6:30 PM first pull at Gallaudet University.
Game highlights from the matchup between Ottawa and DC on April 29.
5. Although the Outlaws fell short despite eight assists and 49 completions from Derek Alexander on Saturday, the men from the Canadian capital earned their first victory of 2017 on Sunday by edging Philadelphia 29-26. A tight game throughout, Alexander dished five more assists and 47 more completions while scoring four goals in the win over the Phoenix. Ottawa’s top performer in the victory was probably Alec Arsenault, who caught 10 scores and tossed three assists. With 15 goals on the weekend, Arsenault is already more than two-thirds of the way to his total from 2016. He had 22 goals in 14 games played a year ago.
6. Entering Week 6, only three remaining teams are undefeated. Dallas sits at 5-0 after sweeping it’s two-game trip through Nashville and Atlanta, while Minnesota and Pittsburgh are each 2-0 following their home wins over Madison and Indianapolis, respectively. In the first five years of the AUDL, there have only been three undefeated regular seasons, two of which came last year, when Dallas and Madison each went 14-0. Toronto also went 16-0 in 2013.
7. While only two divisions have unbeaten teams left, all four have winless teams. Heading into Week 6, there are six squads still looking for their first win of 2017. Austin’s 0-5 in the South, while Nashville’s 0-4. In the West, both San Diego and Vancouver are 0-4. Philly’s currently 0-3 in the East, despite a modest goal differential of -9, and Chicago’s currently 0-2 in the Midwest. This list is guaranteed to shrink by at least two this weekend, since Vancouver visits San Diego on Saturday night and Nashville travels to Austin on Sunday afternoon. The winners of those two games will certainly be hoping to slingshot their seasons forward. Chicago has a tough challenge at Madison on Saturday, while Philly is idle this weekend. The Phoenix will seek revenge against the Outlaws on Saturday, May 13, in Ottawa.
I don’t envy my editor.
Every Tuesday during the AUDL season, Adam Ruffner receives an e-mail with the Toss, and somehow, his superior intellect makes sense of it all before sprinkling in a multimedia fireworks show full of video highlights, clips, and photos to complement the content. This is a difficult job, and he does it spectacularly well.
But that’s not what I’m even focusing on here. Ever since I began writing the Tuesday Toss, Adam decided to undertake the task of the weekly Power Rankings, which are usually published near the end of the week right before the upcoming weekend’s games. It’s another significant journalistic feat for the talented wordsmith.
After what happened in Week 5, though, I’m guessing his mind will be spinning as he embarks on the power rankings process. As you clearly have read over the past 30 minutes—unless you skimmed, and then maybe you made it in five or 10—it’s hard to know what to make of certain teams right now. Recency bias might make you want to drop Madison and Toronto, but there track records of success might be more compelling than some of their one or two-loss counterparts. What about winless Austin, who has been saddled with an nearly impossible schedule of five games against Dallas, Raleigh and Jacksonville thus far? Could the Sol still be, maybe, the 12th best team in the league? (Adam had them 14th last week before losing two this past weekend).
The West Division will shake itself out over the next several months, but at the moment, with four one-loss teams, I have little clue how that quartet might compare to the South’s one-loss teams, Raleigh and Jacksonville.
Dallas is obviously #1. After that, good luck figuring it out.
Another Cross Coast Challenge game this weekend theoretically could provide some interdivisional insight. It also could lead to further confusion.
There are 126 games remaining in the regular season, including 10 this weekend. Settle in, and enjoy the ride. The rankings are interesting, but the best news is that the champion will be settled on the field.
As it should be.
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