July 24, 2018
By Evan Lepler
The 2018 AUDL Playoffs are underway, and the main takeaway is to be prepared for anything. Odd circumstances can creep up on a team, and this time of year, adaptability is essential.
How would you handle playing in an unrelenting monsoon? What if your season was on the line and your best player was unavailable with a concussion? Can you deal with the pressure of being the favorite and vaulting your organization to new, unprecedented heights?
These were just a few of the questions that were answered in the opening weekend of postseason action, which featured three elimination games, two of which were heavily influenced by the elements.
“I thought our weather was bad,” said Indianapolis AlleyCats Head Coach Eric Leonard. “But then I watched the East Division playoff game…yuck.”
Indeed, the conditions in Washington D.C. were beyond brutal, producing a significant surprise and a historic fourth quarter. The New York Empire, who have sailed on stormy waters frequently over the past couple seasons, looked prepared and embraced the ugly ultimate. They finished the evening totally drenched, but giddily delighted. As the DC Breeze were dealing with the disappointment and shock of their season suddenly ending, the Empire were joyously moving on with a renewed sense of optimistic confidence.
The Full-Field Layout
After getting shellacked by double digits in DC on July 14, the New York Empire appeared to be more of a placeholder than a contender. Presumably, they would be the overmatched opponent that the Breeze would take the pleasure in trouncing for the second consecutive week, en route to DC’s real postseason challenge in Toronto.
Had the weather been perfect, perhaps it would have transpired this way. We will never know.
“That was probably the worst weather I’ve had to play in in six years with the Empire,” said Mike Drost, who’s been with the team since 2013. “The consistency of the rain and wind for all four quarters and the entire six hours we were in DC really stood out as a unique AUDL experience, but it was the same challenge for both teams. In some ways, it simplified the game for us. We had talked about a lot of defensive adjustments and strategies to slow down the [DC} offense, and once we got to DC and saw the weather, we scrapped the whole plan, just forced them to throw flicks, and not let off any backhand hucks, especially upwind.”
When the Breeze were seemingly handling the steady rain just fine and registered the game’s first two breaks late in the opening quarter—both on backhands from Xavier Maxstadt—it reinforced the notion that we were watching déjà vu. In the broadcast booth, we were contemplating how we would keep things interesting when—not if, but when—the Empire crumbled again.
On the sidelines, however, New York was gaining belief and confidence that they had figured something out.
“Going into the game, it was obvious the weather and subsequent strategies were going to play a huge factor, and about five minutes in, I was pretty certain we were going to eventually win,” New York’s Matt Auletta boldly stated on Monday. “Even when DC got a break to go up in the first, it still felt like we had the better defensive game plan, more confident throwers, and the bigger athletes to pull down some floaty throws as we attacked downwind. Defensively, we wanted to prevent them from throwing backhands as often as possible, and we were looking to double team and crowd throwers and cutting lanes as often as possible.”
Admittedly, the Breeze were missing some of their taller players who may have helped in the torrential conditions. Joe Richards, who hurt his shoulder making a goal-scoring grab in the regular season finale, was unavailable, and DC also was missing the services of Eric Miner, Christian Boxley, and Johnny Malks, three players who combined for 12 goals and six assists against the Empire on July 14.
“It was tough,” said DC’s Rowan McDonnell. “On one hand, I love playing in those elements, wind, rain, etc. Makes throwing challenging and changes the game theory. I would say that New York’s size and strength shows more in those kind of conditions. [Ben] Jagt, [Jeff] Babbitt, and Beau [Kittredge] were tough to score on, and they made some catches upwind. Ben Katz was incredible; he was the MVP of the game, super reliable and a very smart player whose abilities shined in those conditions.”
After taking advantage of a McDonnell throwaway in the final seconds of the first by floating a buzzer-beater to Jagt, the Empire tied the score at eight less than a minute into the second by converting their first upwind break of the game, Josh Alorro to Mike Drost. On the next point, Katz, who seemed as impervious as anyone to the horrific throwing conditions, fired to Jibran Mieser for the downwind break to give New York a 9-8 edge. The two teams would trade downwind holds for the rest of the half, entering the locker room completely waterlogged and tied at 13. None of the players had any clue about how much tougher scoring would be after halftime.
“Players were just trying to stay warm,” said McDonnell.
The first three points of the third quarter were downwind holds, but there was little that was routine about them, especially as the elements amplified in their intensity. The rain that had been falling steadily all day became thicker and stronger. The wind also ratcheted up, making every throw and catch an uncertain and uncomfortable task.
“Saturday was a different kind of rain,” commented Auletta. “It was heavy, and it just never let up, not for a second.”
Not everyone hated it.
“I like games like that,” claimed Kittredge. “It’s just who wants it more.”
Kittredge, who was returning from a calf injury and playing primarily on the Empire’s D-line, distributed the first break of the third quarter by connecting with Conor Kline to give New York a 16-14 lead with 5:01 left. Then, 38 seconds later, Mike Drost found Jagt downwind for another break to stretch the lead to three. Two minutes after that, following one hold apiece, the Empire broke upwind again, their third break of the third quarter, as Marques Brownlee carefully secured the dish from Kline, making the score 19-15 with 2:21 remaining in the third.
Astoundingly, Brownlee’s goal would be the last of the game.
“The fourth quarter was surreal,” said Auletta. “I dropped a pass that would have given us an upwind break pretty early in the quarter. As it happened, I was obviously unhappy about it. Looking back on it, I like to think that by dropping that pass, I put us into the history books instead.”
Auletta’s drop was one of 20 turnovers during a laughable, aggravating, mind-blowing 12-minute, multi-timeout, mistake-laden point that never ended until the buzzer sounded with no time left on the clock. While difficult to confirm, it is presumed that it was the first goal-less quarter in AUDL history.
“The sideline vibe for those last few minutes was strange,” added Auletta. “First, we couldn’t believe no one could score; then, we couldn’t believe DC wasn’t taking the time into account and taking some aggressive shots, as time was getting rather short for them. And then, at a certain point, it was obvious there was no time for a comeback, and we were actively rooting for our teammates not to score. Something about the scoreless quarter and still winning and the crazy weather, it all just felt right so we rolled with it and had some fun.”
As the quarter hit the midway point and beyond, the Empire sideline was jumping around in exciting disbelief, gradually realizing that they were going to win the game in this bizarre, kooky fashion.
“The fourth quarter was easily the most fun I’ve ever had when my team just couldn’t score,” said Mike Drost. “Jeff [Babbitt] actually mentioned during one of the timeouts that we had a chance at a scoreless quarter, and that was with a few minutes left, and I thought there was no way it would happen, especially since I was hoping we would score. But thanks to the wind, rain, and a couple end zone miscues by both teams, we had what I’m guessing is the first scoreless quarter in AUDL history.”
Katz and Jagt finished the night as New York’s statistical leaders with seven assists and seven goals, respectively, to lead the Empire’s three-quarter scoring effort. Babbitt and Mike Drost each registered two blocks on the game’s 12-minute-long final point, and Babbitt ended the game with six total blocks, along with four goals and one assist. McDonnell led DC with five assists, one goal, and three blocks, but the Breeze, despite taking an early lead, struggled to complete their short quick passes that enabled them to carve up the Empire the previous week.
“The conditions simply were not favorable to our offensive game plan of quick tempo and lateral movement of the disc,” acknowledged DC’s Matt Kerrigan, who finished with one goal, two assists, and no throwaways in his 15 passes. “After the first quarter, New York made some adjustments, including more length on their double teams and playing harder person defense. The conditions were such that both deep and in cuts were challenging an windows were shrinking due to the pressure from New York and the elements. We didn’t do a good job adjusting our style to fit the weather. Kudos to New York for bringing big throws and bouncy and big receivers to a game with those conditions, which helped them eat up a lot of the floaty throws.”
After completing 96.1 percent of their throws in the sunny regular season finale, the Breeze only completed 87.9 percent in Saturday’s unreasonable conditions. Contrastingly, the Empire, who struggled with a relatively mediocre 92.4 percent completion rate on July 14, only narrowly dipped to 91.5 percent a week later in the midst of the storm.
“One of the things that we noticed from last Saturday to this Saturday, even though the weather was terrible, as a team our energy was better,” said New York Head Coach Eileen Murray. “We really made it a point this week to talk about how the energy on the sideline is very important. Last week, when we started losing, people kinda checked out. We were like, no matter what happens, we are gonna dedicate ourselves to being good teammates and giving energy to the field, and I was really proud of everybody. We had a bunch of non-rostered players make the trip in this terrible weather, and I saw them bringing water out to their teammates and giving them their coats. It was night and day from last week to this week. It was really great.”
When the game was finally over the teams had graciously shaken hands, the sauna in New York’s locker room was a popular destination. Several players hit the hot showers before taking their clothes off, just eager to absorb a little warmth. As the Empire motored north later that night, some of the veterans realized how wildly special the experience was.
“That was the most satisfying win I’ve been a part of with the Empire, when you take into account the weather, the opponent, and the stakes,” said Mike Drost. “Missing the playoffs and not winning a playoff game for a couple years really makes you appreciate the moment more.”
There were similar sentiments on Saturday night in Indianapolis, where the AlleyCats faced the Minnesota Wind Chill. The 'Cats were looking for their first postseason win since 2012, when the AUDL only had eight teams in its turbulent inaugural season. The weather in Indy, while not nearly as consistently terrible as New York, was still dicey. And more importantly, the AlleyCats were entering the most important game of their season without two of their cornerstone players. Keenan Plew, the league’s all-time leader in assists, was unavailable, and Rick Gross, who finished second in the league in plus/minus this year, was out after suffering a concussion in practice last Tuesday.
“Going into the game without Rick or Keenan was more of a mental challenge, in my opinion,” commented AlleyCats Coach Eric Leonard. “Obviously, it’s very difficult to replace that sort of talent, but we have guys with experience who were able to fill in offensively. But Keenan and Rick are big emotional leaders for us, not necessarily because they give big speeches in the huddle, but they lead by example on the field with their effort and mental strength. We needed our veterans to step up and fill that role for us, and I think collectively the group filled that void.”
The AlleyCats plugged Kyle Cox and Spencer Loscar into the offense and expected them, as veterans, to re-assimilate quickly. They each delivered solid performances. but the conditions, while not as extreme as what New York and DC dealt with, still were a curveball to both teams’ game plans.
“Conditions were adverse, to say the least,” said Indy’s Cameron Brock. “It was one of the windiest AUDL games I’ve played in. It rained for maybe 30 or 40 percent of the game. At first, it did not feel like an upwind/downwind game, but as the game went on, it definitely became upwind/downwind. This is the typical type of game that Indy teams lose. We don’t play well in windy or wet conditions. We lose these games.”
Brock’s pessimism was partially self-fulfilling when the AlleyCats stumbled in the opening quarter. Even though they jumped out to a 2-0 lead, the Wind Chill scored the next three goals to take a 3-2 advantage. Overall, there were five lead changes in the first half, which the AlleyCats won 11-10, narrowly clinging to a slim lead at the midway mark. In the third, Indy registered a break early in the period, but never could extend the lead further.
“The game was really tight for the first three quarters,” said Leonard. “Neither team led by more than two. Each team had their fair share of break chances, but a combination of tight defense and bad weather made it difficult for either team to pull away.”
Leading 15-13 into the fourth, the AlleyCats finally created some separation early in the final quarter, registering consecutive breaks to lead 19-15 with 6:36 remaining. But the Wind Chill refused to die quietly, countering with a 3-0 run over the next 3:07 to inch within one at 19-18.
“During Minnesota’s comeback, I don’t feel like we fell apart or anything,” opined Indy’s Travis Carpenter. “I think the conditions simply caused some turns and their hucking game was on point the last few minutes, which led to some quick goals.”
With the outcome hanging in the balance, at least one member of the AlleyCats organization was cognizant that circumstances were eerily familiar to a past experience that did not end well.
“After a pair of holds, we receive the disc up 20-19,” recalled Leonard. “Another drop, and I immediately have flashbacks to the 2017 season, where we lost a game to Minnesota in almost the exact same circumstances. The good feelings from six minutes ago were long gone, and I was just hoping we could hold on.”
The climactic sequence in the Midwest was also somewhat similar to the ending in the East, in that no one was able to score.
“The last point was very intense,” remarked Carpenter. “The wind was gusting a lot and making it very hard to work any sort of system. We were getting a bit scrambled on the turn for defense, which allowed Minnesota some uncontested throws to get their offense moving.”
With just over a minute remaining, Carpenter chased down Minnesota’s Colin Berry for a dramatic block on a deep shot to preserve the AlleyCats’ one-goal lead.
“That play was tough because he is a lot taller than me, and I’ve seen him sky some of our best guys in that situation before,” said Carpenter. “Luckily, I had enough left in the tank to put everything I had into that jump, even though I had to run it down.”
The AlleyCats turned it over again on an ill-advised huck from Levi Jacobs, but Loscar and Keegan North defended the ensuing Minnesota deep throw with 20 seconds left. A few completions later, Brock caught a pass with just a few seconds remaining, hugged the disc tightly as time expired, then launched it high into the air and commenced the celebration, emotionally chest-bumping Carpenter, his long-time teammate, as the rest of the AlleyCats stormed the field.
“It was a great moment, and, selfishly, I was very happy to be the last person to catch the disc,” said Brock, who finished with four assists and two goals. “As someone who’s played all but one game for this franchise, which I missed because of a stroke, a guy that’s played more games than anyone and has dedicated everything I can to this team. I really wanted that disc. I wanted to feel the disc in my hands as we won the game. It was a cool feeling. And it was even cooler to look over to see Travis, another guy that’s been a Cat for seven years, wanting to celebrate with me. After six years, we finally won another playoff game. And we’re ready to try and win another one next weekend.”
Jacobs paced the AlleyCats with four goals, while Donovan Triplett, Sam Sohn, Kip Curtis, and the Henderson brothers—Connor and Alex—all drew rave reviews for their performances, particularly while the team missed Gross and Plew. Curtis led the defensive effort with three blocks, while Triplett, Nick Hutton, Sohn, Loscar, and Carpenter all recorded two Ds apiece.
“The story of the game for me is how our youth is stepping up in a big way,” declared Leonard. “Alex Henderson, Connor Henderson, Kip Curtis, Levi Jacobs, and Donovan Triplett all had great games on both sides of the disc and had a huge impact. Considering there’s not a lot of high-level college experience between them, they are showing maturity well beyond their years and taking on increasing responsibility. The majority of our team is under 25 and there’s plenty of room for them to grow. These guys are hopefully going to be around for several more years, so while the current team success is exciting, I know there is plenty more coming down the road.”
While New York and Indianapolis still need to win at places they have never won before to advance to Championship Weekend, the Los Angeles Aviators enjoyed a different type of satisfying celebration on Saturday night. For the first time in franchise history, the Aviators are final four-bound as West Division champs, following their wire-to-wire win over the San Diego Growlers, 26-22. Perhaps it was made even sweeter because of how hard the Growlers made them work for it.
“San Diego had a very clear game plan: don’t let us score in under five passes,” observed LA’s Chris Mazur, who led the Aviators with six assists. “I haven’t checked the stats, but I imagine our offense has thrown close to the least number of passes of any team in the league this year. San Diego did a great job of stopping our initial play calls with a variety of defensive looks, short pulls, rolled to the sideline pulls, and plenty of double teams. Amazingly, we found a new level of patience as a full unit and threw our fewest number of turnovers of any game this year.”
The Aviators completed 267-of-274 passes, good for a 97.4 percent completion rate, the team’s highest in 2018 and second-highest in franchise history. Los Angeles completed 307-of-315 passes, a 97.5 percent rate, in a 28-26 win over Vancouver on July 2, 2016.
Despite the Aviators’ precision, the pesky Growlers refused to go away.
“I don’t think I would describe this game as a typical LA-San Diego game,” commented Steven Milardovich, who led the Growlers with five assists. “I feel like this was the best version of both team and probably the best quality of ultimate that the two teams have ever played against each other. I feel like in the past, our games have been grinding defensive battles, but Saturday felt more like two teams who really had an identity on offense and two D-lines who were battling for opportunities to make a play.”
The Aviators opened the game with back-to-back breaks before the Growlers O-line finally held, though San Diego’s D broke back to even the score at two in the opening minutes. Up 6-5 at the end of the first, the Aviators used a 5-2 burst early in the second to create some more comfortable separation at 11-7, and it was 13-10 at the half.
“We did battle all game long, but their offense just played cleaner,” remarked San Diego’s Travis Dunn, who registered four goals and four assists to lead the Growlers at +7. “They had fewer unforced errors and took advantage of ours. We definitely never felt like we were out of the game.”
Though the Aviators won the third quarter to stretch their lead to 19-15, the Growlers crawled within two at 24-22 with just a couple minutes left. San Diego had the momentum and envisioned an epic comeback.
“We broke to make it 24-22, and on the next D-point, we played great shutdown defense and forced them to throw a high-stall jump ball,” remembered Milardovich. “[Tyler] Bacon flung a floaty O-I flick across the field, and [Mark] Elbogen skied the pile to save the possession. They dished and scored shortly after. If we had come up with that block, then we could have brought it within one point, and then who knows what happens.”
Everyone agreed that Elbogen’s sky and subsequent score was the play of the game, cementing the Aviators’ position to prevail.
“Mark played great all game long,” said Mazur. “Definitely makes me wonder a bit of a ‘what-if’ he had been full strength healthy all season. I know he was pretty dominant in the past, and it’s exciting to see him make a bigger and bigger impact every week.”
The Growlers even admitted that by focusing on some of the Aviators’ other top offensive weapons, Elbogen became the X-factor, finishing with five goals.
“I think that is a testament to the depth of their O-line,” remarked Milardovich. “They have so many threats to worry about that a guy as talented as Elbogen was not the focal point of our defensive game plan, and he made a big impact. Brent George was another big factor for them; he made all the plays that came his way, including a couple of huge catches, and you could argue that those plays were the difference in the game.”
The Aviators added another break in the waning moments, as the stars aligned for Zach Theodore, an original member of the LA roster and the franchise’s all-time leader in blocks. Theodore, who finished with four blocks and two goals, registered bookends for LA’s final point, basically sealing the team’s first trip to Championship Weekend.
“[Theodore’s] been a cornerstone of the franchise since day one, and it’s one of those truly fitting special moments to see him close out the game like that,” said Mazur, who himself is an LA rookie but brings valuable final four experience from his two previous seasons with Dallas. “I think I emptied two full bottles of water spraying it around at teammates and at the crowd after [Theodore’s] layout catch. Electric environment with our biggest home crowd of the season.”
After the game, the Aviators celebrated in their locker room, but leaders quickly reminded them that simply advancing to the final four was not the number one goal. Mazur told his teammates, "Madison was never the destination; it’s part of the journey."
“We are so excited for Championship Weekend,” said Theodore. “In the locker room after the game, coach let us cheer for a little bit, but he and the guys who have been before brought back the focus. We have three more weeks to train and improve, then we have an amazing opportunity to showcase our talent on a huge stage. I’m having trouble choosing a word to describe my excitement. Our owners are ecstatic.”
Eric Lissner, another original member of the organization, also cherished the moment, saying, “Four years of deliberate training, hours of preseason conference calls, and over 1,000 points played. This is the first time we’ve made champ weekend, and it hopefully won’t be the last.”
A few more bullet points to wrap up this still-catching-up-on-sleep-after-Worlds edition of the Tuesday Toss:
- New York’s win improved Beau Kittredge to 13-0 all-time in AUDL playoff games, having gone 6-0 with San Jose in 2014 and 2015, 3-0 with Dallas in 2016, and 3-0 with San Francisco in 2017. The four-time champ will again put his perfect postseason performance on the line again this Saturday against Toronto, whom the Empire have never beaten. New York is 0-17 all-time against the Rush, including three playoff losses from 2013-2015. The only certainty is that one of these perfect streaks will end this weekend.
- The Empire’s victory in DC was their first time winning on the road against the Breeze since June 20, 2015, another quirky game that was impacted by some rough weather conditions. On that day, New York earned one of the lowest scoring victories in AUDL history, a game that ended 8-7 when it was called due to lightning shortly after halftime. “That 8-7 game was unforgettable,” said Izzy Bryant, now an Empire assistant coach and an Empire player in 2015. “Constant rain with two lightning delays, and the game finally called just after halftime. This may be because I’m on the sideline as a coach now, but the conditions last Saturday felt worse than the 2015 game. There may not have been lightning last Saturday, but the rain and wind were more of an impact.” DC defeated New York seven consecutive times at home in between the two aforementioned losses, both of which will largely be remembered for their extreme meteorological circumstances.
- Before Saturday, the AlleyCats last playoff victory had occurred 2,184 days ago, a 24-20 result over Cincinnati on July 28, 2012. A couple weeks after that, the AlleyCats lost the inaugural AUDL championship game to the Philadephia Spinners, 29-22. Looking ahead, Indy will travel to Madison, a place where the Radicals are 44-4 all-time and 44-1 against Midwest opponents. Madison enters Saturday’s Midwest final riding a 43-game home winning streak over divisional opponents, dating back to a one-goal loss to Chicago on May 12, 2013, which was 1,899 days ago.
- While New York and Indy try to make history against Toronto and Madison in the East and Midwest finals this Saturday, the South Division still has three teams alive in the race for the final four. On Friday night, the Raleigh Flyers will travel to face the Austin Sol, with the winner surviving to take on the first place Dallas Roughnecks a day later in the AUDL Game of the Week on Stadium. The Flyers have shown that they can win on the road, picking up signature victories at Dallas and Madison this year. Raleigh was not able to win at Austin in the regular season, though, falling to the Sol in overtime on April 27. While Austin has that lone victory over Raleigh, the Sol also were blasted by the Flyers in the June 1 rematch, a 32-14 rout in North Carolina. Meanwhile, if the Sol can get past the Flyers at home again on Friday, they would be entering Saturday’s tilt at Dallas with an 0-12 all-time mark vs. the Roughnecks. It should be a fascinating weekend of ultimate in the Lone Star State, and by 11:00 PM on Saturday—barring any additional weather-related shenanigans—the Championship Weekend matchups should be set.
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