August 13, 2019
By Evan Lepler
Midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s AUDL Championship game, Barbara Stevens shared a clairvoyant message with her sister.
A few minutes later, with the game tied 18-all late in the third, Josue Alorro, known to many of his teammates simply as Josh, indeed took flight and changed the course of the championship game. Guarding the electric Abe Coffin, Alorro lept and intercepted a Dalton Smith scoober to the reset space, creating a rare turnover in the crisply played final. Up to that point, there had only been two breaks in the entire game, one for each team, and giveaways were few and far between.
After a timeout, the Empire confidently capitalized on Alorro’s flying block, with Jeff Babbitt hauling in Jack Williams’ short-range huck to give New York its first lead of the second half at 19-18 with 1:03 remaining in the third. In a battle of counterpunching heavyweights, the Empire had finally landed a critical jab to the Dallas Roughnecks’ jaw, made possible by one of the Empire’s lesser-known standouts.
“To me, what turns the game around is the person you’re not really expecting to do something who just does it,” added Stevens, thrilled that her sisterly remark had come to fruition.
Empire Head Coach Bryan Jones echoed Stevens’ sentiment, promoting the magnitude of the moment. “Josue’s just capable of getting those big-time blocks,” asserted Jones, “and that was the biggest turning point.”
Although the Roughnecks tied the game again 48 seconds later, when Coffin found Henry Furuta to tie the score at 19 apiece, that equalizer—which created the 17th tie of the game—would be the last time the two teams were level. Over the next 32 seconds of game action, spanning the final two quarters, the Empire would deliver a couple additional daggers to Dallas’ championship dreams.
Through the first 10 quarters of the weekend, there had not been a true buzzer-beating goal. That changed in the closing seconds of the third, where for the second straight year, the eventual champion’s top defender made a momentum-shifting snag against the Roughnecks with no time on the clock. A season ago, it was Madison’s Kevin Pettit-Scantling who hung on to a deflected disc before launching his memorable CPR celebration. On Sunday in San Jose, it was Babbitt who made the monstrous sky on Harper Garvey’s last-second flick, athletically elevating his wide frame in front of the pack of awaiting Dallas defenders. It was his sixth goal of the weekend, and the timeliest, prompting a primal roar as he enthusiastically chest-bumped teammates Grant Lindsley and Ben Jagt. On Babbitt’s back, the Empire had taken a 20-19 lead, and they would receive the next pull to begin the fourth quarter as well.
“He’s the most clutch player with a 50/50 disc that I’ve ever seen,” declared Jones. “Which is crazy because we have Ben Jagt on the team.”
Lindsley, who also delivered an extraordinary offensive performance himself throughout the weekend, went even further in praising Babbitt’s abilities.
“He’s gotta be the best overall athlete that I’ve ever played with,” remarked Lindsley. “He’s just incredible. We warmed up in a basketball gym before playing Ottawa this season, and ya know, people were throwing him windmill alley-oop dunks, and he could do it from a standstill.”
Rather than remain in awe of the buzzer-beating brilliance, of course, the Empire unleashed another one of their deadly weapons in the opening seconds of the fourth, as Harper Garvey, trapped by two Roughnecks on the sideline, fired a breathtaking quick-release hammer over the entire Dallas defense to a wide-open Conor Kline for a one-throw score.
“Out of the double-team, it’s cartoonish,” commented Jones. “Harper The Hammer, he needs to be his own super hero.”
Garvey’s quick strike, one of his seven assists in the final, gave the Roughnecks a 21-19 edge with 11:43 remaining, just 32 seconds of game action after Furuta had tied the score at 19. From there, New York’s polished and pristine offense, along with one more dazzling display from the Empire D-line, put the game away.
The sensational sequence came midway through the fourth, with New York up 23-21, when 18-year-old Tristan Yarter caught an underneath forehand from Mieser and looked upfield, 30 yards away from the front of the end zone. With nothing developing, he followed the Empire system, looking into the parallel reset space and lofting an angled backhand that initially appeared like it may hit the turf. But Marques Brownlee, known to his millions of social media followers as MKBHD, accelerated quickly and launched horizontally to make the most iconic snag of the weekend, and perhaps of the season.
As the crowd erupted following Brownlee’s full-extension play, the 25-year-old Jersey-native immediately popped up and lasered a sizzling inside flick to Sam Feder, who just as quickly hit Mike Drost for another exhilarating Empire break.
In a Facebook comment admiring the play, New York’s Beau Kittredge, who also made individual history by winning his fifth championship with his fourth different franchise on Sunday, chimed in with a tinge of his trademark snark, writing “Props to the teen for throwing a dump throw we worked on throwing all year whether MKBHD was ready for it or not. That’s called an educational throw. Way to stick to our flow, Tristan. Incredible continuation by Kezz (sic).”
Indeed, the continuation throw had Brownlee’s teammates and coaches buzzing even more than the dramatic layout catch.
“I thought Tristan had the right look and Marques just didn’t go for it initially or didn’t make a move, but if Tristan had put that flat, then we don’t get the spectacular play he got,” said Jones. “And, I mean, holy hell, that inside break afterwards I think was the most impressive part! Like, you get that disc and your adrenaline’s running and you go ahead and throw that dagger across the field, holy crap! We’ve all seen conservation of greatness. Then, Feder had the courage to just unwind and hit Drost. It’s an open play, but it’s tough for a guy who’s in that big moment to just seamlessly execute it. That was when I was like, ‘ok, I think we’re gonna win this game,’ and I had to pull myself back into the moment because I was like, it’s still not over though.”
There was still 5:45 left on the clock, but with the way New York was playing offense, Dallas was basically done. No matter what defense the Roughnecks threw at the Empire, it rarely rattled New York’s talented lineup, that saved its best performance for the most important time.
“It felt like we played our best game of the season in our last game of the season, which was pretty cool,” said Lindsley, who accumulated nearly 800 yards of offense for the Empire in Sunday’s final. “We had a slump at some point pretty much every game, and to have such a clean game—I think it was eight turnovers for us total in the game—it was great.”
Lindsley may have been responsible for one of the Empire’s eight offensive mistakes, but that lone blemish was massively overshadowed by his dominant ability to create giant chunks of yardage for himself and his teammates. With the AUDL tracking the distance of each throw and catch, Lindsley, who registered five goals, four assists, and one block, finished the final with the most receiving yards (398) and the second-most throwing yards (391, behind only Garvey, who threw for an insane 497). By comparison, Jagt paced New York with a masterful +11, scoring six goals, five assists, and completing all 10 of his throws, but he totaled 456 yards—358 receiving and 98 throwing—a good 333 yards shy of Lindsley.
“I wish we had yardage stats for every game,” mentioned Jones, “because I think that would be an all-time great performance from Grant Lindsley; 800 yards of total offense, I think that would be a benchmark type of performance.”
Time will tell if Lindsley’s statistical effort reigns supreme for ages hence, but regardless of the numbers, his all-around showing, along with his team’s unrelenting push towards perfection, galvanized New York’s 26-22 triumph over the Dallas Roughnecks, enabling the Empire to hoist the AUDL championship trophy for the first time. Furthermore, New York became just the third team in AUDL history to take the title with an undefeated record, as the Empire finished 15-0, joining the 2013 Toronto Rush, who went 18-0, and the 2016 Roughnecks, who went 17-0. Although New York’s 2019 overall point-differential paled in comparison to the ’13 Rush or ’16 Roughnecks, the Empire were in many ways more impressive, winning 14 of their 15 games by five goals or less against a tougher schedule of opponents than Toronto or Dallas dealt with during their title runs.
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“I just don’t think this team cared about [being] undefeated,” said Jones, emphasizing that they collectively cared much more about being champions than making it through the gauntlet without a loss. “There was no edict. There was conversation occasionally about it, but it just wasn’t a point of emphasis. It was there, but it was so nonchalant, this team was just so chill about it. I don’t think this team ever let the pressure get to ourselves. We knew what we could do, and we had that quiet confidence throughout the year.”
Most everyone on the overjoyed Empire partied by the pool on Sunday afternoon into the evening before many had to go to the airport for their red-eye flights back east. According to one member of the team, no one at the celebration was more animated than Kittredge, the 37-year-old superstar who posed for a photo with the championship check, and, as he framed it, nothing else. It’s become routine for Beau to be on top of the ultimate world, but it was another noteworthy storyline to New York’s success, adding to his already unprecedented ledger of accomplishments.
Similarly, the longest tenured members of the Empire, especially ironman Matt LeMar, who has played in every single game in the franchise’s history, cherished the moment they had been working so hard for since 2013. After the game, LeMar squeezed alongside five of his veteran teammates on the same small couch, relishing the achievement that New York had just secured. And perhaps even more than the victory and the championship, they were appreciating each other, marveling at the brotherly bond they have built through the highs and lows of the 111-game journey.
Almost every member of the team also lavished praise and love upon the Stevens family, who became majority owners of the Empire franchise in August of 2017, after the team had gone 6-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time ever that summer. Less than two years later, New York’s franchise has been transformed into an operation that exudes professionalism, fulfilling the standard that Barbara and Paul envisioned when they took the helm.
“I wanted to win it for the Stevens’,” said Lindsley, echoing a message that was commonplace among Empire players in the immediate aftermath of the game. “They’ve been a really generous group. I was not expecting to be treated this well as a player.
Barbara and Paul surely would not have been so passionately involved in the Empire if not for their son, Matt, trying out for the team in 2013. Six years and 259 goals later, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer was especially grateful that his parents, who met in the third grade and will celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary on Wednesday, were so closely involved in the team’s ascendance to the top of the ultimate world.
“My parents have dedicated such a ridiculous amount of brainpower and time and financial [commitment] to make this work out for us,” said Matt. “They’ve sacrificed a lot every day for the last two years to make this work. I’m really proud of them, I love them a lot, and I’m really proud of this team. I know this means the world to them.”
For the 2019 Empire, all the pieces fell into place. They returned tons of talent, and were bolstered by the good fortune of two of the world’s most dynamic players moving to New York in the weeks leading up to the season. Almost immediately, they were anointed as AUDL favorites, a burden that they handled rather gracefully throughout the campaign. Two new coaches, Bryan Jones and David Blau, found the right message and tweaked the systems and lineups until they were just right. Very rarely if ever did an individual ego adversely impact the team culture, as the collective buy-in from everyone remained top-notch from April to August. And in the end, though they rarely dominated for four full quarters in any particular game, they always came through in the clutch, often overwhelming their overmatched opponents in the final period of play.
Consequently, the New York Empire are AUDL champions, an imperfect team with a perfect record that always played its best when it mattered most. The Dallas Roughnecks, Indianapolis AlleyCats, and San Diego Growlers all enjoyed moments of hope and excitement throughout Championship Weekend, but the Empire still fulfilled their ultimate mission, rising above their competition with unparalleled skill, intelligent tinkering, and electric execution.
Congratulations to the Empire, and enjoy the moment!
Then get ready, cause everyone else is coming for you in 2020.
For the second year in a row, an ultimate player shy of his 20th birthday shined in the AUDL championship game. It was pretty incredible to see New York’s Tristan Yarter, who won’t even turn 19 until next April, on the field in some critical moments for the Empire. Though he only appeared in eight points on the weekend, he recorded an assist and a block in the 17-15 semifinal win over Indianapolis and made the right choice on his reset to Brownlee in the final, leading to MKBHD’s dramatic layout, inside flick, and Empire break.
Yarter, who graduated from the birthplace of ultimate, Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, will be a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh this fall, and one can envision an intense recruiting battle between the Empire and Thunderbirds commencing for the youngster’s future AUDL services.
The Greatest (Ultimate-Related Social Media Post of the Week)
Darren Yamashita’s photo of Brownlee’s layout is as good as it gets.
Dalton Smith’s post is perfect, too.
The AUDL season is always an enjoyable and exhausting grind, for players and broadcasters alike. Over the past 19 weekends, I have broadcast games in Dallas/Austin, New York, Dallas, Atlanta, San Jose, Madison, Phoenix (a non-ultimate event), Austin/Toronto, Minnesota, Madison, DC, Raleigh, Montreal, Connecticut (another non-ultimate event), Chicago, San Diego, Raleigh, Minnesota, and San Jose. Honestly, I wanted to write it out just to see it myself.
It’s a thrilling privilege to travel to each of these destinations to do a job I cherish, but skymiles do wear on ya after four and a half months of takeoffs and touchdowns. A week from now, I’m delighted to share that my feet will be in the sand, and I won’t even need to fly to get there.
Seven On The Line
- The New York Empire absolutely deserve to be the champs, but it was another tough deal for Dallas in terms of impact injuries at the final four. Whereas the Roughnecks lost their two big guys, Dan Emmons and Kevin Richardson, in the semifinals a year ago, it was arguably their most talented all-around athlete, Jay Froude, who went down in Sunday’s final against New York. The All-AUDL talent appeared to tweak a hamstring chasing Lindsley on the cut to the end zone that became the game’s first break, with 9:02 remaining in the second quarter. And unfortunately, Froude never returned, missing the final 33 minutes of game time. The Roughnecks got a break back without Froude to create a 13-all tie at the half, remaining close until the Empire closed the game on a 7-3 run to pull away late. It’s impossible to know how Froude’s presence could have shifted the result, but seems obvious to state that the Roughnecks missed their captain in the biggest moment of the season. And for Froude, it marks five straight years—two with Madison, three with Dallas—of making it to Championship Weekend but falling shy of the ultimate prize.
- With Froude down and Emmons inactive, the only Roughnecks captain on the field was Dalton Smith. At times, it felt like he played the immense role of three different people at once. “Dalton just went off,” commented Jones. “That was an incredible performance by him. We knew it was coming, we talked about it for about a half, and it just didn’t matter. He had that one sequence, where he just ran a straight line and Dallas moved it like, it looked like the Golden State Warriors swinging it around the three-point line.” Across the two-game weekend, Smith completed 113-of-115 passes, with eight goals, four assists, and a block, anchoring much of the Roughnecks attack with poise and determination, another clutch performance for the 26-year-old whose been with Dallas since the franchise’s first season.
- The semifinals on Saturday were both compelling, even if the two favorites prevailed with neither going down to the last second. Three days later, the Indianapolis AlleyCats are undoubtedly still demoralized about the drops, of which there were six. These mistakes were incredibly costly, especially considering that the AlleyCats trimmed a seven-goal deficit down to two in the second half. Still, what may have hurt even more than the drops were the AlleyCats standouts having just ok games; none of them had their best game of the season on Saturday, which is what they needed to surpass New York. Travis Carpenter chewed up more than 600 yards, mostly as a thrower, to lead the Indy offense, but the Cats’ collective completion percentage finished at 92 percent, a significant step downward from the franchise-best 94.7 percent season-long clip they achieved during the year. Indy also had no answer for Jagt, who was involved in eight of the Empire’s 17 scores and accumulated 518 yards receiving. Regardless, the AlleyCats remain understandably proud of their Midwest title and final four berth, taking another step forward for the franchise that has been around since the league’s founding.
- Interestingly, while the first semifinal was a two-goal game that felt more like a five-goal game, the second semi was the exact opposite, a five-goal result that genuinely seemed significantly closer. The San Diego Growlers, as it turned out, were undone by Dallas’s brilliant start and superb finish. The Roughnecks bookended the game with 4-1 rallies, and the fact that San Diego outscored Dallas 16-15 in between is nice, noteworthy and, at the same time, relatively inconsequential. Dalton Smith and Henry Furuta picked the Growlers apart, completing every one of their 115 throws in the Roughnecks’ backfield. Travis Dunn had a strong performance for the West Division champs, likely cementing his First Team All-AUDL status, but his three-goal, five-assist effort was not accompanied by enough support. The Growlers’ D-line did earn a pair of dramatic breaks to begin the fourth quarter, including a short Will Turner to Nate Bridges throw that followed Trevor Purdy’s insane rejection of Kaplan Maurer’s desperation hammer. But after inching within two at 19-17 with 7:03 left, the Growlers only scored once more the rest of the way, as Dallas completed the 23-18 triumph.
- Dallas’ Kai Marshall deserves his own segment after recording five blocks in Saturday’s game against the Growlers, one shy of the single-game record for the AUDL playoffs. His denial of a normally routine under route on the game’s very first point set the tone in a similar way that Dillon Larberg’s block early in the Raleigh game made a statement, and even though the Roughnecks didn’t convert the break after Marshall’s opening D, it left an impression that he would be a menace to a bunch of San Diego’s cutters throughout the game. That was certainly the case, as he soared for a bunch of spectacular blocks later in the game, and he added another block to his weekend ledger when he got the better of Jagt on one occasion early in Sunday’s final. For the entire 2019 season, Marshall finished with a career-best 24 blocks in 14 games, the fourth-most in the league, and the most for anyone outside of the Midwest Division.
- What a thrill it was to meet and chat with the great Bill Nye, who began playing ultimate in 1973 and obviously became an international television star with his science stylings that have entertained kids for decades. I suppose I should not be too surprised, but I really was impressed by his genuine enthusiasm for the AUDL and the sport of ultimate overall. Although he only arrived in San Jose for Sunday’s final, he watched both of Saturday’s semifinal broadcasts on Stadium and was eager to share his opinions and analysis about the matchups. It was awesome, and the players and fans seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. I hope I can have him on another broadcast somewhere down the road.
- If you’re sad that the AUDL season is over and desperate for more ultimate to watch, well, here’s some good news! The third annual EuroStars Tour launches tonight in San Diego, with many of Europe’s top women’s ultimate talents barnstorming around America for a seven-game, two-week expedition against some of the United States’s preeminent club teams. Look out for Portugal’s Ines Bringel; I was excited to see her on the roster after watching her a bunch at past world championship events. The full schedule and roster information can be seen at eurostarstour.com.
Wow. It’s hard to believe another AUDL season is in the books.
This was my sixth year broadcasting professional ultimate, my fifth full season writing the Tuesday Toss every week from April to August. In fact, today is the 22nd straight Tuesday that the Toss has been published on theAUDL.com. I’m proud of this column, its consistency, and the stories it shares throughout the season.
Obviously, this weekly tome would be something else entirely without the generous cooperation of so many coaches, players, and owners from around the league. The thousands of insights from hundreds of interesting people throughout the year are only possible thanks to the unbelievable generosity and willingness that folks around the league offer me every single week. I know that most everyone involved in the AUDL is busy. Life is hectic, including work, relationships, travel, etc; I know time is not an unlimited commodity, and I constantly am blown away by the genuinely good people who go out of their way to offer insight, understanding, perspective, and amusing anecdotes from their own ultimate experiences. I feel like I owe them all many, many beers. And all too often, when I’m with them on the road, they beat me to the punch and put a cold beer in my hand first. The fact that this league is populated with so many good people makes me exceedingly grateful to be a part of it.
Furthermore, the Tuesday Toss would not exist if the AUDL wasn’t supportive of my goal to tell stories, produce journalism, and create a weekly anthology that catalogues the history of this still-emerging eight-year-old league. I’m grateful for Rob Lloyd, Tim DeByl, and all of the AUDL owners who have committed their time, financial resources, and intellectual wills to making professional ultimate a reality. There has been a growing sentiment that we’re in the midst of a critical tipping point for the league’s future success, and I agree. It feels like we are on the verge of something very, very special, unlike anything we’ve been or seen so far.
The editor of this column also deserves a very loud shoutout. Adam Ruffner, I APPRECIATE YOU MORE THAN YOU REALIZE [Ed. note: Leaving the caps-lock untouched, and grinding my teeth the whole time]. It is Adam who every week makes wise choices about how to format the Toss, and he is more generous about rolling with my variable schedule and quirky style than he has to be. Quite simply, the Tuesday Toss would not be nearly as good each week without Adam’s diligent and invaluable efforts.
And to all the ultimate players, fans, parents, and newcomers who devour the Toss every week, choose to snack on little snippets occasionally, or who just stumbled upon it today for the first time, I am so grateful that you are reading. Each and every week, I try my best to produce something worthy of your time. The most gratifying part of the job is receiving e-mails from readers and interacting with ultimate fans on the road. If you have never written before, I would love to hear from you!
The Toss will undoubtedly be back at some point in the fall, but the consecutive Tuesday streak will come to an end next week. As I implied before, I’m bracing for a family vacation to the beach. So while there won’t be a new column on the web, I promise I’ll toss at some point next Tuesday.
Hope you will too.
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