August 6, 2019
By Evan Lepler
As we brace for another compelling AUDL Championship Weekend, the eighth since the league was founded in 2012, one Hamilton lyric feels appropriate: “History has its eyes on you.”
Obviously, the men and women battling for freedom and independence during the colonial era reside in a wildly different pantheon, but for our sport and our league, legacies are defined and maintained by what happens in the most important moments, the significance of which are magnified by the amount of time spent pursuing them. If there’s one thing to know up front about the 2019 final four, it’s that several of the league’s perennial grinders will finally get their chance to try and seize the greatest glory on the grandest stage.
Of the 10 players in AUDL history who have been competed in at least 100 games, six of them—Cameron Brock, Travis Carpenter, Mike Drost, Matt LeMar, Keenan Plew, and Matt Stevens, all pursuing their first title—will take the field on Saturday in San Jose. And it feels full circle, considering the preseason focus on “The Original Six,” that Brock, Carpenter, Kyle Cox, Goose Helton, and Plew, five of the six individuals who have competed every year of the league’s existence, have earned opportunities to compete at Championship Weekend, which none of them have done since the league expanded beyond eight teams.
All of these veterans already possess plenty of statistical prestige, with Brock, Plew and Drost sitting atop the AUDL’s all-time leaderboard in goals, assists, and blocks, respectively. From a commitment standpoint, no one shines brighter than LeMar, the New York Empire’s ironman who has suited up and played in each and every one of New York’s 109 games since the franchise was created in 2013.
Brock’s dedication is right up there too. When the Indianapolis AlleyCats held him out of their relatively meaningless season finale (because Indy’s number one seed in the Midwest was already secured), it doubled the number of games that the league’s all-time scoring king has missed since 2012. He’s now played in 119 of Indianapolis’ 121 contests, an astounding feat considering he very nearly did not even try out because he was so certain he would not be good enough to compete. Along with Plew, his former Ball State University teammate, the two have combined for 785 goals and 585 assists in 234 games, numbers so eye-poppingly absurd they are virtually impossible to place in any reasonable context.
Helton, an AlleyCat himself for one year back in 2012, certainly merits additional mention, as the ultimate fitness guru continues to command respect for his athletic abilities in his mid-30s with his fifth team. When he joined the San Diego Growlers in 2019, the two-time MVP became the first player in AUDL history to suit up for teams in all four divisions, and Saturday’s donnybrook with Dallas will be Helton’s 98th career game, 12th most all-time.
And of course there’s Beau Kittredge, the ageless wonder who turned 37 in June and has been showered with praise for his clutch playmaking in critical moments against Raleigh and Toronto this season. Like Helton, Beau’s a two-time AUDL MVP. Unlike him, of course, Beau stands alone in pursuit of his fifth championship, a fact made even crazier by the reality that he’s attempting to win a title with his fourth different team, something that has never happened in any of our country’s major professional sports.
From a team standpoint, each of these franchises carries an intriguing narrative, with plenty at stake. The Dallas Roughnecks are the only previous AUDL champion among the quartet, while the New York Empire will be trying to deliver the league’s first undefeated season since the Roughnecks went 17-0 in 2016. As Dallas looks to potentially directly deny New York’s perfection, the four-time South Division champs care even more about reclaiming their throne after losses in the semis and finals the past two years.
The Empire, meanwhile, have handled their lofty preseason expectations with aplomb, navigating a tricky schedule by repeatedly playing their best with the game on the line. They are absolutely the favorite heading into the final four, though their lack of domination throughout the regular season suggests that more tight finishes are likely. Overall, 12 of their 13 games were decided by five or less, with timely execution and a few fortunate breaks keeping New York’s perfect season intact.
The San Diego Growlers arrive with 11 wins, second-most in the league (trailing only New York), along with a deep, balanced roster that carries cohesiveness and confidence. Even emerging from a West Division that most agree was down in 2019, the Growlers have grown into a complete and powerful opponent, with a cutting core that will be challenging to contain and defensive depth that will surprise the average fan.
Despite their feisty feline theme, the Indianapolis AlleyCats are clearly the underdogs of the final four, a distinction they are certainly accustomed to after battling for years to earn the appropriate respect in the Midwest. With their strongest roster ever, the AlleyCats are powered by experience and enhanced by explosive youth, giving them more than a puncher’s chance against anyone they play. It will be imperative that they avoid falling behind early against the Empire, but if they can hang around, they will quickly gain belief, and all the pressure in the ultimate world will be squarely on the backs of their undefeated and excessively talented opponent.
One way or another, history will unfold this weekend in San Jose. In some ways, all four teams are young, scrappy, and hungry, trying to not throw away their shot at $20,000 and a moment they would never forget.
The Full Field Layout
In reverse order, here are the 20 best players who will be taking the field at Championship Weekend. By the end, you will see why New York is considered the favorite.
20. Rick Gross, Indianapolis AlleyCats
There were literally a dozen different guys I also considered for this final slot, but Rick Gross’s undeniably nuclear athleticism and past productivity give him the edge. With Keegan North and Alex Henderson assuming larger roles on the Indy offense, Gross’s numbers dipped in 2019; after registering +99 and +86 in the past two regular seasons, he mustered +55 this year. But it is worth mentioning that his completion percentage (96.8 perecent) was easily tops of his career, and the AlleyCats will desperately need Gross to play out of his mind if they are gonna beat the Empire on Saturday.
19. Conor Kline, New York Empire
After scoring just three goals in his first six games this year, Conor Kline’s season shifted dramatically when Head Coach Bryan Jones switched him back onto the O-line when the Empire were struggling at DC on June 1. Since joining New York’s mega-talented offense, he as accumulated 41 goals in seven games, including seven in the East Division final against Toronto. Just 24 years old, the UMass alum is a good reminder of how important each player’s individual situation can be. Everyone in this league has talent; it’s often up to the coaches, leaders, and teammates to try and maximize a particular player’s contributions for the good of the team. Over the past two months, Kline has excelled in his new role, a fact that will almost certainly continue at Championship Weekend.
18. Brett Matzuka, Indianapolis AlleyCats
Playing on his fourth AUDL team, Brett Matzuka remains a quirky and effective handler who can change a game with his crafty quickness. While he only played in eight regular season games, he averaged more than 50 completions per game at a career-best 97.6 percent completion rate, picking up 14 assists and 26 more hockey assists along the way. The AlleyCats have more frequently utilized his skills on offense, but the team has been better off when the O-line clicks without him and his throw-and-go leadership can pilot the D-line after turns. Only six years removed from being selected to the United States’ World Games roster, Matzuka remains very capable of going 75-for-75 and dictating the pace of Saturday’s semifinal.
17. Beau Kittredge, New York Empire
“It drives me nuts how smart that guy is,” said Raleigh Head Coach Mike Denardis, after Beau Kittredge made multiple game-changing plays in New York’s double overtime victory over the Flyers on June 22. He may not rack up the stats as propitiously as the past, but the four-time champ has figured out how to pick his spots and contribute in a variety of ways throughout the season. Even though a hamstring tweak has bugged him since early July, you just know that at some point in the semis or finals he’s going to make a play to help his team win. He’s 15-1 all-time in AUDL playoff games, and his team is again favored in the climactic contests of the season.
16. Dillon Larberg, Dallas Roughnecks
Few players can get under their opponents’ skin like Dillon Larberg, who plays with a healthy swagger and has the all-around game to back it up. The speedy D-line handler is key in orchestrating breaks and getting his team hyped as a consequence, and while his completion percentage (86 percent) leaves something to be desired, his bold quarterbacking of the Dallas defense transmits infectious energy throughout the rest of the roster. In his last four playoff games, Larberg has nine assists and five blocks, suggesting that he will again make an impact against San Diego on Saturday.
15. Travis Carpenter, Indianapolis AlleyCats
When he made his AUDL debut the day before his 19th birthday, Travis Carpenter was an electric athlete with an incomplete skillset. Seven and a half years later, the 26-year-old veteran has entered his prime, rounding out his abilities to become the AlleyCats rock, both physically and emotionally. If the AlleyCats have one advantage against the other three franchises at Championship Weekend, it’s the reality that they probably do care more than anyone about proving they belong with the best teams in the league. The question for the ‘Cats is how will they harness that energy? If Carpenter and company can play with a keen focus and calm ruthlessness, they can absolutely compete with New York. But the margin for error is small, and the AlleyCats will be facing a tougher test than they have ever seen before in their eight AUDL seasons.
14. Harper Garvey, New York Empire
Check out Harper Garvey’s amazing progression in productivity and precision from 2017 to now: His assist total went from 33 to 40 to 53 while his completion percentage also rose from 89.8 percent to 92.9 percent to 95.1 percent. Usage has remained strikingly similar; he’s played virtually the same number of points in each of his three seasons, but the now 25-year-old (who turns 26 later this month) has made steady and remarkable improvements. The added talent around him certainly plays a small part in his growth, but he also deserves credit from limiting his fearless gun-slinging style in favor of a more conservative approach, while still picking his spots to unleash a 60-yard hammer when it’s open. It’s certainly possible that, with Garvey and Matzuka, we may have the AUDL’s two best long-distance hammers on the field at the same time on Saturday.
13. Sean Ham, San Diego Growlers
An AUDL champion with the Spiders in 2015, Sean Ham’s consistency as a receiver has been truly special. He’s the only player in the league who has caught at least 40 goals in five consecutive seasons, an amazing run that has him sitting with 232 goals in just 58 games all time, the third-best goals per game rate in AUDL history among players who have suited up for at least 50 contests. In his 10 games played this season, he snagged five or more goals seven times. Considering that two other San Diego O-line cutters are ahead of him on this list, Growler opponents are generally forced to pick their poison, and it will be mighty interesting to see if key two-way players like Jay Froude and Kai Marshall start the semifinal on defense for Dallas. Both Froude and Marshall have a history of making plays on O, but Roughnecks Head Coach Wes Nemec utilized their speed and explosiveness on defense against the Flyers a couple weeks ago, a game-plan that helped Dallas continue its South Division title streak.
12. Goose Helton, San Diego Growlers
It was another strong season for Goose Helton, perhaps the greatest individual campaign he’s put together since his MVP seasons in 2012 and 2013. The change of scenery from Raleigh to San Diego provided a refreshing new challenge, giving him more of a platform to flex his leadership styles compared to the past couple of years, when he was commuting and inconsistently available to contribute. Almost immediately, he became a trusted and dedicated veteran on the San Diego squad, and his on-field performance might actually be secondary to the impact he’s had on the team’s culture and belief. Dallas will be a very tough test, but this 2019 Growlers team will enter unafraid.
11. Keegan North, Indianapolis AlleyCats
The 24-year-old Cincinnati-alum really found his rhythm in 2019, becoming a critical focal point of the Indianapolis offense when he was on the field. Had Keegan North played in more than eight games, he certainly would be in the All-AUDL conversation, though his performance might be good enough to sniff the Second Team anyway. Versatile and skilled, North can occupy any role in the Indy game-plan, and the AlleyCats hope that this weekend can be his national breakout performance.
10. Carson Wilder, Dallas Roughnecks
A few years back, one veteran member of the Austin Sol encouraged me to keep an eye on this young prospect out of Texas Tech, whose athleticism and raw skills suggested enormous potential. That inclination was 100 percent accurate, though the Sol could not keep the kid they affectionately nicknamed “Learner’s Permit” from bolting to Dallas. Now, the 23-year-old Carson Wilder is an anchor for the Roughnecks, having led the team in plus/minus at +54. He scored four more goals in the South Division final and carries some critical playoff experience—including the memory of falling short in 2018—into this weekend’s action.
9. Travis Dunn, San Diego Growlers
A five-year Growler veteran, Travis Dunn was still finding his role in 2015, made a jump for the 16 and 17 seasons, and then really discovered his ceiling as a player over the past couple years. In fact, his numbers from the '18 and 1'9 seasons are eerily similar.
2018: 30 goals, 52 assists, 10 blocks, 319 completions at a 94.4 percent rate in 11 games
2019: 33 goals, 48 assists, 8 blocks, 313 completions at a 94.0 percent rate in 11 games
Furthermore, Dunn collected four goals and four assists in each of his two playoff games over the past two seasons, a he’s helped propel the San Diego franchise to its greatest heights yet. What makes his production even more impressive is how it accumulates, as the 28-year-old all-star rarely forces the issue. Primarily, he just relies on his natural athleticism, abilities, and teammates to give and take whatever he can in the flow of the San Diego system. Like North and Indy, the Growlers best chance to exceed their external expectations probably resides on Dunn’s shoulders, and he’s more than capable of handling that burden.
8. Ben Katz, New York Empire
Far too often, the underestimated Ben Katz sneaks up on his opponents with his quickness and instincts. Before they realize what hit them, Katz and company have seized an advantage. This season, the 28-year-old swiss-army knife completed 97.9 percent of his 341 passes, a success rate matched only by Indy’s Keenan Plew among players with that many attempts. Capable of playing on offense or defense, it feels inevitable that Katz will be on the field and involved in the play at the most crucial moment of any elimination game. He may not have the height or hops of some of his superpowered teammates, but Katz plays like the unstoppable everyman. You watch him and think that the best version of yourself could be as good as him, though you’ll almost certainly never actually get that good in reality.
7. Dalton Smith, Dallas Roughnecks
Still just a teenager when his layout block on the opening point of the 2012 USAU club final set the tone for his Texas club’s massive upset, the now 26-year-old Dalton Smith has entered his prime as a refined and multifaceted weapon who still carries the clutch gene whenever a game is on the line. In 2019, his precision is better than ever, though his versatility gives the Roughnecks plenty of options to try and flummox their opponent in any number of ways. In the South final against Raleigh, he reminded us he could be an every/other handler who piloted the disc, prolonged possessions, and punished defenses. We have also seen him focus more on defense, especially in the oft-unglorified role of harassing other handlers and interrupting resets. It’s tough to predict how we’ll remember Smith’s 2019 Championship Weekend performance, but it seems certain that his presence will be felt in one way or another.
6. Jeff Babbitt, New York Empire
While the block numbers and highlight reel moments ebb and flow, Jeff Babbitt’s steady presence perseveres. Intermittently sturdy, speedy, and high-flying aerialist, the 25-year-old former linebacker has earned respect in a number of ways, including his consistent presence; he has suited up in every single Empire game since he joined the team midway through the 2016 season. In that time, he’s reached the 100-block plateau faster than all but one player in AUDL history, recording 103 blocks in just 50 career games. His disc distribution ability is also elite, indicated by his career completion rate around 96 percent.
5. Abe Coffin, Dallas Roughnecks
Injured and unavailable for the entire 2018 season, Abe Coffin’s comeback tour has been even more impressive than advertised. Before the season, his coach touted his frisbee ability as ‘comically good,’ and that seems a fair summation of the absurdly efficient summer he has had. Even before the virtuoso +11 performance in the playoffs, Coffin had solidified himself as a superb all-around playmaker in the Roughnecks’ quality offensive system. Then, on July 27, the 26-year-old ripped Raleigh’s heart out by picking the Flyers apart with relentless precision, completing all 48 of his throws, nine of which went for assists. This weekend in San Jose, Coffin will presumably play a similarly high-volume role, and the big question is whether any of his opponents will be able to slow down or disrupt his confident rhythm.
4. Jay Froude, Dallas Roughnecks
Jay Froude did not grab the headlines following the Roughnecks’ playoff win in Raleigh, but his selfless switch to D-line certainly gave Dallas a boost. And in making the move, the Roughnecks may have realized that D-line is where Froude really belongs, considering his propensity to make gravity-defying plays that prevent his opponent from catching the disc. Along with Kittredge, Froude is the only player at the 2019 final four who will be competing in his fifth consecutive Championship Weekend, the first two of which came as a member of the Madison Radicals. Overall, the 29-year-old has tallied 18 blocks in 12 career playoff games, but the top prize has remained elusive, a dynamic that Froude hopes to rectify this weekend.
3. Grant Lindsley, New York Empire
A member of the 2017 AUDL champs from San Francisco, Grant Lindsley admits that he was a bit of a mercenary on that team. He only played two games in the regular season and latched on for the magical playoff run in Montreal. Two years later, Lindsley suited up for nine of New York’s regular season contests, fitting in wonderfully amongst the Empire’s other top talents. A supremely gifted speedster who can always get himself open, Lindsley’s ability to accelerate and shift directions quickly make him a tremendously tricky matchup, especially when you consider that opposing coaches may begrudgingly decide to put their third or fourth best defender on him, depending on what strategic course they are pursuing. As long as he doesn’t find himself gunning for stats—a dynamic that he’s acknowledged has crossed his mind at times this season—he should find himself centrally involved in New York’s quest to complete the perfect season.
2. Jack Williams, New York Empire
The key to Jack Williams’ weekend may simply be him getting to the airport on time. Seriously. He nearly missed his flight to Raleigh on June 22 because of New York gridlock—just to clarify, it was the inconvenient traffic jam, not the newly minted women’s ultimate team that had him racing through the terminal at the very last minute. When he was on the field, the former Flyer played a pivotal role in demoralizing his old team, just like he’s poised to do this weekend when he takes the field in San Jose. He did a little bit of everything this year for the Empire, scoring, dishing, defending, and continuing to expand the limits of his immense skillset, which, at age 24, still has considerable time to grow and get even scarier. With instincts beyond his years and the foot-speed to keep up with anyone, Williams is uniquely positioned to become one of the best players in the world, if he’s not there already.
1. Ben Jagt, New York Empire
Entering the 2019 season, it was unclear how Ben Jagt would fit into the Empire hierarchy alongside the talented newcomers like Lindsley and Williams. Obviously, he would remain an integral contributor, but reasonable minds could wonder who would command the most respect and do the most damage to overmatched opponents? And over the course of the season, Jagt has definitively been a step above, raging on a statistical tear for the ages. In 12 regular season games, the 6’6” tower racked up 54 goals and 54 assists, an average of nine scores per game. While his decision-making occasionally became a bit ambitious, he still finished the year with just two turns per game, a number that might be high if he was not producing such a ridiculous percentage of his team’s points. Jagt also stakes claim to the top spot in part because of his performance from Championship Weekend a year ago, when he roughed up Dallas’s defense to the tune of six goals and nine assists, albeit in a high-scoring 32-30 setback. The 2019 Empire are talented enough to succeed even when Jagt has a quieter game, like he did against Toronto in the recent East final, contributing "only" four points (two goals, two assists) in his team’s 19-16 win. But New York has a great chance to hoist the trophy on Sunday because of its breathtaking array of talent, with Jagt, a threatening menace who could have 10 goals or 10 assists, or both, leading the way.
As a reminder, the New York Empire will battle the Indy AlleyCats in the first semifinal, starting at 4:00 PM local Pacific time (7:00 PM/ET) on Saturday night from Foothill Stadium in the San Jose suburb of Los Altos Hills.
The Dallas Roughnecks will challenge the San Diego Growlers at approximately 7:00 PM local time, with the two finalists scheduled to meet on Sunday at 12:00 PM/PT (3:00 PM/ET) to determine the 2019 champion.
All three games will air on Stadium, and our intrepid production crew is also planning additional pregame and postgame coverage to set the scene from San Jose. We will have a number of surprise guests, including some AUDL coaches from around the league who will share invaluable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the competitors.
For the game telecasts, Charlie Eisenhood and Chuck Kindred will be joining yours truly for a three-man booth during the New York-Indy game, while Ian Toner and Megan Tormey will pop in beside me as the analysts for the Dallas-San Diego nightcap.
On my Facebook app today, I was reminded that exactly three years ago, on August 6, 2016, we witnessed arguably the most thrilling, exhilarating, and depending on who you were pulling for, devastating game in AUDL history. On that Saturday night in Madison, the Seattle Cascades closed on a 13-5 run to completely stun the Radicals 26-25 in a game that is still hard to believe. The crowd was breathtakingly electric, the quality of play was immense, and the most significant moments remain vividly clear in the memory of anyone who was there. The 80+ yard Will Chen buzzer-beating huck. The Donnie Clark block. The shocking silence from the rabid Radicals’ fans as the final seconds disappeared.
We can only hope that more magic will unfold this weekend, with new signature sequences and unforgettable results.
In the words of another Hamilton ditty, “Wait for it.” The final four is just four days away.
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