July 23, 2019
By Evan Lepler
After four wildly entertaining games decided by a grand total of nine goals, half of the 2019 AUDL Championship Weekend field is now set. The New York Empire and San Diego Growlers—neither of whom have ever won an AUDL title before—both fought off valiant battles from divisional rivals to punch their tickets to San Jose, while just four other franchises still remain alive in the championship chase. The South and Midwest finals—with the Dallas Roughnecks at Raleigh Flyers, and the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds at Indianapolis AlleyCats—are both scheduled for 7:00 PM this Saturday night.
Having fielded a handful of questions about this topic already, here’s your annual reminder about how Championship Weekend semifinal matchups are set. Once the four teams qualify, they are re-seeded by regular season record. So with two teams already locked in, here’s what we know.
Undefeated New York will be the number one overall seed, while San Diego will be either the number two or the number three seed. The Growlers would be number two with a Dallas victory and number three if Raleigh advances. If Raleigh wins, the Flyers would seize the number two spot and the Midwest victor would become number four seed, sending them to face the Empire in the semis. If Dallas prevails this Saturday, however, it could mix things up.
There’s a quirk in the possibilities this year because Indy earned the top spot in the Midwest by winning the head-to-head series with Pittsburgh, but the Thunderbirds have a vastly superior season-long point-differential. Since Dallas, Indy, and Pittsburgh all finished the regular season 8-4, that overall goal margin could become a factor. Therefore, the Thunderbirds, with their +33 regular-season point diff, would rise to the number three overall seed at Championship Weekend if Pittsburgh and Dallas both won. If Indy and Dallas win, then the Roughnecks (+15) would be the number three seed and the AlleyCats (+6) would be number four.
Consequently, New York knows it will face either Indy, Pittsburgh, or Dallas in one semifinal, while San Diego will get either Raleigh, Pittsburgh, or Dallas on Saturday, August 10 in San Jose.
With those bookkeeping details clear, let’s dive into the more suspenseful developments from the opening weekend of the 2019 postseason, a slate filled with great crowds, clutch defense, and a cool tale of a former fan making a season-changing block.
The Full Field Layout
In the first three years of the San Diego Growlers franchise, from 2015 to 2017, college student Scott Radlauer would often attend games as a fan with his UC-San Diego buddies.
“I started playing ultimate [in 2015],” recalled Radlauer, who began playing his first year at UCSD after spending couple years at community college. “I was always in the stands, hanging out, enjoying the game…It felt like a real fan experience, especially that first year with [Jimmy] Mickle and [Nick] Lance and Kurt Gibson. I didn’t really know who they were, but I just knew they were really good at frisbee. We had hundreds of fans, and we would all be like, ‘Hey, it’s a Saturday, let’s go hang at the Growlers game and watch and learn frisbee.’”
Clearly, he’s a quick learner, as evidenced by this past Saturday night’s showcase at San Diego’s Mission Bay High School, where the Growlers franchise picked up their most significant win in five years in front of the largest crowd they have ever had. And Radlauer, now in his second year wearing a jersey on the field rather than cheering from the stands, delivered a couple critical plays late in a tight game to help propel San Diego to a landmark 25-21 victory over the rival Los Angeles Aviators, sending the Growlers to their first Championship Weekend.
“All these five years, just really trying to build something, and it finally kinda all comes together,” stated Growlers’ Co-Owner Will Griffin. “It’s kinda surreal.”
The pivotal Radlauer play came after the visiting Aviators had run off three consecutive goals to take their first lead of the game with 4:48 remaining in the third quarter. Trailing 17-16, the Growlers offense finally solved LA’s effective big-man sideline double-team to secure a hold that tied the score at 17-all, but they knew they needed another break to retake control of the game, which they had maintained throughout the entirety of the first half. Heading back onto the field for the ensuing Growlers’ D-point, Radlauer made an adjustment.
“I had been trying to help off on some of the other players just to prevent some easy throws, and that point I decided, it’s time to shut down my person, Joc Jimenez,” explained Radlauer. “He was on the break side. I think he went deep and then came under and started coming across the front to the open side, and I was just with him the whole time. And I think it was a high stall so they had to throw it, and I was just there. On offense when we got the turn, I was standing break-side, waiting for someone to throw me the disc. Dominic Leggio was staring at me and didn’t wanna throw it and he dumped it to Nathan Bridges and then Bridges was like, ‘Alright, I’ll throw this.’ And he throws a moonshot [hammer]. Sits up there for like six seconds and I’m sitting under there waiting for it. I just go up and come down with it.”
After the sky, Radlauer briefly glared at his opponent before celebrating the break with his teammates. The fact that it was the 24-year-old Radlauer who came up with the huge game-changing play did not surprise any of his teammates, many of whom insisted that he has become their best defensive player.
“He’s so good,” said Growlers Head Coach Kevin Stuart, who also coached Radlauer in college at UCSD. “He’s such a physical defender, and when he decides to turn it on…I’m biased, but I think he’s one of the better defenders in the league. He can guard a handler, he can guard a downfield cutter, he can go up, and when he anticipates, he goes 110 percent.”
Though the Aviators would hold on the next point to even the score at 18, the Growlers quickly went up 19-18 on their O-point before delivering a dramatic buzzer-beating break as the third quarter expired, when Goose Helton’s cross-field backhand found Jesse Cohen with no time left. The two-goal lead through three promptly doubled in the opening minutes of the fourth, as the Growlers cemented their control with a 22-18 advantage. Calmly, the Growlers bled the clock on their remaining possessions, scoring their final goal with seven seconds left to take the West title by the same four-goal margin by which they were defeated by Los Angeles in 2018.
Aside from Radlauer’s block, the key turning point involved San Diego unlocking LA’s sideline double-team trap, which produced several turns and breaks for the Aviators in the two middle quarters. Entering the game, the Growlers knew that LA might utilize the trapping defense on an intentionally short pull, but they admitted being slightly caught off guard by its frequency and effectiveness.
“Everyone runs it a couple times a game maybe, if they’re down, but that was the most we’ve seen it from any team all year,” explained Leggio, one of the five fifth-year Growlers who took the field on Saturday. “And it worked, so hats off to them, but once we figured that out, the scores started coming.”
A key component of the Aviators’ gameplan, the LA double-team trap was even more effective because of the size of the marks, as 6’7” Jake Baumer and 6’2” Nate Kirchofer were generally the two defenders who immediately set the double-team after an intentionally short pull, usually thrown toward the sideline less than 20 yards downfield. The Aviators induced several Growlers’ turnovers with the defense before San Diego made a key spacing adjustment.
“Make sure that no person could cover two,” answered Helton, when asked about the shift in strategy. “Lose 50 yards if necessary, it doesn’t matter.”
From the Los Angeles perspective, it was a feisty effort with a disappointing conclusion.
“We had a strategy, we shot our shot, both teams played hard, and we just came up short,” remarked Aviators player/coach Tyler Bacon. “We trained all year for this game, we worked on things in other games knowing the Growlers would be waiting for us at the end. So we practiced plays, we practiced defenses, we worked on our fundamentals, we worked on our matchups, we scouted them, we got here, everyone was ready, everyone was focused, and it just wasn’t enough.”
Travis Dunn paced the Growlers in plus/minus for the fourth time time this season, compiling a +8 with four goals, four assists, one throwaway in 37 tosses, and one clutch block on a Bacon huck late in the third quarter. That was one of the Growlers 13 blocks in the game, recorded by a dozen different players
“I think we know that defensively we don’t have to do anything special,” added Leggio. “We don’t have to switch a lot, we don’t have to poach a lot; we line up across and we’re confident in our defenders to make them work really hard, and I think we did that most of the game.”
Obviously, and understandably, the Growlers are super psyched to be heading to the final four for the first time.
“It’s awesome,” stated Leggio. “We got a great group of guys, and we were all very hungry, and we know we have a good team, and we did it. We’re stoked. We’re very excited. We’re a confident group, and who knows what happens in semis?”
Unblemished, yet unsatisfied, the New York Empire’s pursuit of perfection will continue in San Jose following their tense 19-16 triumph over the Toronto Rush, a game that featured many of the same themes that the Empire have showcased all year. They did not dominate, yet they still prevailed relatively comfortably. They let their studs shine, but they also got an unreal breakthrough performance from an underrated player who changed the game with his presence and determination.
A week before the East Division final, Empire Head Coach Bryan Jones decided to shift Jibran Mieser, who’s typically been used as an offensive cutter, over to the D-line. Regardless of whether New York were going to face the Rush or the DC Breeze, Jones liked the matchup of Mieser against some of the cutters on both opponents.
“Jibran’s just got an explosiveness factor and he’s quick,” asserted Jones. “He’s big and quick, which is such a rare combination.”
By the end of the night, Mieser’s instincts and athleticism were one of the main stories of the game, as the 26-year-old recorded three layout blocks while playing D, all of which led to Empire scores. He delivered bookends late in the first quarter to put New York up 6-3. He anticipated magnificently on a first-throw-after-a-timeout—an F-TAT?—bidding past Toronto’s Akifumi Muraoka for the second time, enabling New York to lead 15-12. And he virtually put the game away with a sensational layout catch-block past the Rush’s Wilkie Lewis with just under three minutes left in the game, transforming Toronto’s quest to inch within two into a 19-15 score with 2:34 remaining.
Afterwards, Mieser humbly credited the team’s system for putting him in the right spots to make plays
“We ran our regular defensive sets with some specific instructions on particular matchups,” explained Mieser, whose three blocks against the Rush matched his total from the entire 2019 regular season. “We were able to execute pretty well, and I think we made them very uncomfortable. Once they get out of sorts, it’s much easier to read the offense. Same goes for my last D. I actually got switched onto a bigger matchup I hadn’t seen that game, but I knew I had the speed advantage so I gave a good cushion to keep him under and I knew exactly what he was trying to do in that moment, which was to just get the swing. Read the play, and got the D.”
Obviously, there was much more to the three-goal game than Mieser’s three tremendous blocks. Overall, the Empire started strong offensively and created their first break on the game’s sixth point, when Beau Kittredge denied a floaty throw to the end zone and Josh Alorro found Jeff Babbitt 10 throws later. Up 4-2, the Empire would soon stretch the lead to four and remained in front the rest of the night, despite the Rush closing to within one at 16-15 midway through the fourth.
In that critical moment, with the Toronto D-line doing its best to bear down and come up with a block, New York’s star-studded O-line calmly executed a turnover-free hold to make it 17-15 on Conor Kline’s seventh and final goal of the night. One point later, following a costly Rush stall, Ben Jagt authored the night’s most spectacular offensive sequence, accelerating into a massive layout when it appeared a defender had the angle to corral a big backhand huck from Jack Williams. That, along with Mieser’s final block on the ensuing point, put the nail in Toronto’s coffin.
“I think we did a decent job of adjusting in the second half, but still had a couple of tactical and execution errors that kept us from really closing the gap,” commented Rush Head Coach Sachin Raina. “I think our D-line did about as good a job as anyone has done on their O-line this year. To keep them under 20 is pretty tough, and usually when we do that we win games. But credit to their coaches and players for drawing up a pretty effective end zone defense scheme that forced four turnovers from us. In the end, that was probably the difference in the game.”
Babbitt and Kline led the Empire statistically, each finishing +7, while Grant Lindsley dished six assists. Jagt mustered just two goals and two assists, his smallest offensive output of the season, but New York’s defense held off the fierce Rush comeback bid.
“It was an exhausting game,” commented Jones, relieved to escape against a Toronto team that has haunted him at times throughout his coaching career. “I told Sachin after the game, I can’t believe the mental toughness that Toronto has. Those young guys on defense played so well and really put a lot of pressure on a lot of superstars.”
One day earlier, the Rush felt like they had a bit of luck on their side, coming down with multiple buzzer-beaters and overcoming a four-goal gap to shock DC 22-21. But they could not replicate the magic on Sunday against the still-undefeated Empire.
“On Sunday, it felt like we couldn’t catch a break, whether it be a goal being called back because of an injury call, or New York players coming up with great grabs despite us playing near perfect defense,” added Raina. “We played a pretty good game on Sunday, especially considering the adversity we faced—missing players and having played the night before—but New York was the better team that night and deserved to win.”
Saturday’s game was exhilarating, though.
It began with a bit of absurdity, with each team turning the disc three times on the first point. Toronto’s Bretton Tan recorded all three of the Rush’s blocks on the first point, but the Rush gave the disc back all three times and eventually DC found the end zone for a wacky 1-0 lead.
“We joked how we could’ve been up 3-0 after the first point,” mentioned Raina. “And then, in a blink of an eye, we were down 4-1.”
From there, the Rush scored seven of the next 10 goals to take an 8-7 lead, only to cough up the opportunity again as the Breeze rampaged on a 5-0 run to lead 12-8 early in the third. Toronto fought back again, tying the score on Wilkie Lewis’ buzzer-beating sky to close out the quarter. Heading to the fourth at 17-all, it was anyone’s game.
Zach Norrbom’s block and Rowan McDonnell’s goal helped the Breeze register a clutch break to start the final quarter, and then the teams began trading offensive holds that created ties at 18, 19, 20, and 21. After six consecutive turnover-free holds, Toronto’s Iain Mackenzie came up with a block at 21-all, and after a couple pass interference penalties against DC, including an honorable integrity rule invocation by the Breeze’s Nathan Prior with the game on the line, Isaiah Masek-Kelly connected with Andrew Carroll for the go-ahead goal with just three seconds left. When Xavier Maxstedt’s full-field backhand landed shy of the end zone at the buzzer, Toronto’s crazy comeback was complete.
“I wouldn’t call it a lucky win; I’d call it a grinding win,” Masek-Kelly, who led the way with five assists, three goals, and two blocks, explained in a postgame interview on audl.tv. “We knew it was four quarters, and you gotta play hard all four quarters. It was a helluva game by them. They pushed us to our limits. They’re a great team.
The Breeze, though obviously disappointed, agreed that it was a tremendous battle between two very evenly matched squads.
“It was really just an awesome game,” declared Max Cassell, who registered four assists for DC, including a ridiculous no-look greatest late in the first half. “Rowan and Andrew Carroll both seemed pretty unguardable at points, per usual. [Thomson] Mcknight had a really impressive game, especially after going down at some point in the middle of the game. Toronto whipped us on end-of-quarter buzzer-beaters, which are effectively breaks. We just couldn’t seem to knock their O-line out of their rhythm [in the second half]. We made a few mistakes early in the half, and they threw the last punch.”
By the end of the weekend, however, it was New York who had the last laugh in the East, taking the divisional crown again. Whereas last year’s remarkable rise from 4-5 to Championship Weekend felt far more improbable, the 2019 journey felt somewhat inevitable, but kudos to New York for meeting and fulfilling the lofty expectations that accompanied the high-profile offseason signings.
“We were obviously happy, but last year’s win [over the Rush] was a historic moment that will be hard to top,” mentioned Mieser, remembering the at-the-time unprecedented win over their rival from Ontario. “We were not looking past Toronto by any means, but we felt great going in, felt good during, despite a rocky third quarter, and definitely felt great after."
While it did not necessarily provide either the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds nor the Chicago Wildfire with an advantage, players from both sides acknowledged that the biggest story of their Midwest semifinal might have been the weather conditions in which they endured.
“The biggest thought I had going into the game was how damn humid it was,” explained Pittsburgh’s Mark Fedorenko. “It wasn’t quite as hot as it was in Chicago last week, but despite towels, ice jugs, grass, etc, no one could keep their hands dry. It was so humid that any water or sweat would not evaporate, thus leaving everyone with slick hands. You could see this especially early in the game with some lackluster pulls and deep shots with poor shape and distance control.”
Certainly, the Thunderbirds handled the elements better early, as an abundance of Wildfire errors, including a first-possession stall and a dropped pull a few points later, helped Pittsburgh surge into an early 4-1 edge. Like the DC-Toronto game, though, the action was littered with runs, and the Wildfire outscored the Thunderbirds 10-6 through the rest of the half to actually take an 11-10 lead into the break.
Whereas the Wildfire had lost by 13 at home against Pittsburgh last week and were broken three times in the opening minutes of the road rematch, they somehow still were in control heading into the home stretch. Furthermore, Chicago had the disc in the hands of star handler Pawel Janas near the attacking end-zone with the score tied at 20 and about a minute remaining. This is a scenario that anyone on the Wildfire would have presumably taken enthusiastically heading into the night.
Janas surveyed his options and saw Tim Fergus shaking free from his defender with the stall count rising. Janas made the right choice, lofting a backhand to the open space near the goal-line. When it left his hand, it looked like it would be the go-ahead score, but the disc chose not to float long enough, and Fergus was unable to get there in time, giving the disc back to Pittsburgh with a minute on the clock. About 50 seconds later, Thomas Edmonds secured a Kenny Furdella up-line toss into traffic near the front-pylon of the other end zone, and the Thunderbirds were back in front 21-20 with just 11 seconds left.
While the Pittsburgh fans were fired up, the job was not yet done, as the Thunderbirds needed one more defensive stand to earn a trip to Indy. Desperately wanting to avoid overtime in the exhausting conditions, the Steel Curtain D-line closed it out.
“Our end of quarter line executed to perfection, forcing a non-ideal jump ball thrown on the flick side down one sideline,” remembered Fedorenko, who rose up in the pack of pursuing players for the game-sealing block. “That made it harder for Chicago to get a good grouping underneath the disc and allowed our defenders, myself included, to get a better read and make a more assertive play. Personally, I felt that despite my size I’ve struggled in the pile a lot with confidence, even evidenced by this game. Our runners on the pull coverage put us in such a good position that all I had to do was make the right read on the disc.”
In the end, the 21-20 margin was as slim as it gets, with the Thunderbirds advancing to Indianapolis as the Wildfire wondered what could have been.
“We were 90 seconds and 10 yards away from winning that game,” stated Janas, somberly. “I think the team we had playing against Pitt was our best roster of the whole year, and we were all obviously hoping to get to play with one another for more than just this game.”
Even though he did not play in any of the first five points of the game, Chicago’s Matt Rehder finished a game-high +8, with three assists, one goal, and four blocks, often feasting on ill-advised deep shots that Pittsburgh launched throughout the middle portion of the game. For the Thunderbirds, Owen Watt enjoyed easily the best statistical performance of his season, matching a career-high +7, with three goals, one assist, and three blocks. Max Sheppard tallied five assists and three goals, but also endured three throwaways. Edmonds completed 100 throws and scored five times, but also dished four turnovers, a season-high.
“It’s not wrong to say that Shep and I had off games Saturday,” acknowledged Edmonds. “I still think we played well, but both of us know we could have played better. We like to huck, especially to each other, and Chicago took that away in many instances and we had to adjust. I’m sure Indy will do their homework as well and do something similar. We’re ready for it.”
If Pittsburgh had beaten Indy in either of the two Pennsylvania-based matchups this year, this Saturday’s Midwest final would be a home game for the Thunderbirds. Instead, Pittsburgh hits the road, hoping that the visiting team will improve to 4-0 in the Birds-Cats series this season.
“I know there is still more work that needs to be done in order for us to win against Indy,” stated Sheppard. “It wasn’t a pretty game we had against Chicago, but we pulled out the W."
Entering the 2019 season, the Rush quietly redefined their standards of success. A big part of this was a focus on gradual improvement, and despite Sunday’s result in New York, Toronto remained proud of the progress that was on display.
“I think you don’t have to look much further than our young guys to realize we accomplished that goal,” reflected Raina, analyzing the development that he helped foster throughout the season. “Wilkie [Lewis] and Luc [Comire] weren’t expected to play more than a couple games this year, and when players went down, they filled in brilliantly. Dan LaFrance and Phil Turner weren’t even on the 30-man roster for our game vs. New York last year. This year, in that game, they were our two best defenders.”
Typically, there are not that many unknown commodities come playoff time. But it’s worth reiterating the performances that Toronto got from its slew of contributors who were either young and/or had minimal AUDL experience before this season. Lewis and Comire, both rookies in 2019, were members of the Canadian U-20 roster in 2018 and have the potential to become anchors for the Rush down the road, perhaps sooner than later. Meanwhile, Turner led the Rush with 17 blocks in the regular season before adding three more this playoff weekend. And except for one drop back in late May, LaFrance managed a turnover-free 2019, with seven goals, one assist, and one block in eight games.
“At the end of it all, we’re obviously disappointed that we didn’t win the game, but the sentiment was far more positive than it was after last year’s last,” added Raina. “The plan is to build on this experience throughout the club season and come back next year even better.”
The Greatest (Ultimate-Related Social Media Post of the Week)
If by some chance you haven’t seen the video of Khalif El-Salaam’s truly unbelievable knee-racing skills, you must watch this clip now.
I’ve probably watched it 25 times by now, and it’s still mesmerizing. If knee-racing were an Olympic sport, El-Salaam would be Usain Bolt.
A quick follow-up on last week’s Traveling Tales, when I mentioned that hotel prices in San Diego were absolutely insane, apparently as a result of Comic Con, the annual entertainment/comic book/pop culture convention that I still barely understand, other than the fact that it routinely draws north of 200,000 passionate fans into the hub of the city.
I lucked out tremendously when I was basically offered a small one-bedroom house near the airport by a friend of a friend who was leaving town for the weekend. It was amazingly fortuitous, and it could not have worked out better—both for me and for the AUDL travel budget.
Staying just a mile or two away from the intense Comic Con madness, I walked down near the big convention center on Saturday after lunch to catch a glimpse of the breathtaking people-watching experience that everyone raved about. In many ways, it was an overwhelming, head-shaking, what-is-going-on-here stroll through the ornately costumed crowds and the passionate celebrity-seeking mobs.
It wasn’t for me, and I still don’t really understand. But most everyone seemed to be having a grand time, and considering the intense heatwave that enveloped much of America this past weekend, San Diego’s mid-70s sunshine could not have been more perfect.
Stay classy, San Diego. See you again this October.
Seven On The Line
- Are you kidding me, Max Cassell? His greatest to Garrett Braun on Saturday against the Rush has to be among the top plays of year in the AUDL.
Here’s how Cassell remembered it: “Leading up to the play, we had been kind of stuck on the Rush’s goal-line for a while. I was making a horizontal continuation cut for [Jeff] Wodatch, who I know likes the big ol’ backhand around. Throw went up, and I heard a Rush player yell ‘out of bounds, out of bounds!’ At this point, I knew that it was going to be close and picked up my pace a bit. The rest happened quickly. It was near the end zone, so I didn’t really have room to throw a regular backhand, so I think I caught it gripped upside-down and just threw a vertical upside-backhand. I couldn’t tell you if I got the throw off before I landed; I may be biased, but I definitely felt like I did. At first, I was definitely more excited about just scoring than pulling off the greatest. Like I said, we were grinding for a bit on their goal-line before scoring, but it’s not every day you get an opportunity—Thanks ‘Datch—to pull off a greatest, and bonus for actually scoring off it. That was my first greatest in any meaningful game, for sure. I’m thinking I should do it more often now, though.”
For a little perspective, the Golden State Warriors—the Steph Curry iteration—were still a couple years away from winning their first title the last time the AUDL held a Championship Weekend without Beau Kittredge. This will be six straight trips to the final four for Beau, who’ll be seeking his fifth AUDL title in San Jose. Sunday’s contest was especially bizarre for Kittredge, considering he was involved in two very important plays, despite the fact that he only played six points because of a tweaked hamstring that he re-aggravated in the opening quarter. Remarkably, Kittredge did not play at all the second or third quarter, but took the field for a D-point with New York up 17-15 in the fourth. Guarding Toronto’s Thomson McKnight, he poached off to set a sideline double-team on Andrew Carroll, who could not find a release before the seven-second stall count expired. Kittredge, who clearly was not striding normally as he loped around the field through the hamstring tightness, immediately followed the ref’s stall call by enthusiastically signaling for a timeout, the final thing he would do on the field in the game. “That was an all-or-nothing play,” Kittredge said about the double-team that led to the stall, and then the break. “I had a plan, and it worked. The timeout was part of it. A double team was the only possible way I thought I could get a D. They love running it up the backhand sideline and I had not set an aggressive double-team yet. It’s crazy how hard it can be for a smaller person to get out of that situation, especially if you are smart and don’t foul.” Kittredge, who turned 37 in June, initially hurt his hamstring in practice before New York’s regular season finale against Philadelphia, but was determined to ‘risk it’ and try to make an impact in the Empire’s playoff battle with Toronto. Asked if he thinks he will be ok for Championship Weekend, Kittredge replied with one word, “Yup.”
Like a diehard fan camping out for tickets to a big game, Toronto’s Isaiah Masek-Kelly, who played in his 98th and 99th career AUDL games this past weekend, may have made a difference with his pregame nap at the field site on Saturday afternoon. He flew into New York that morning, arrived at Fosina Field in New Rochelle about six hours before game time, and strategically laid down near the end of the field that would be shaded first. Then, he fell asleep. When the rest of his team arrived, they naturally joined the refreshed Masek-Kelly at the end of the field to commence warm-ups. Considering it was a true neutral site game, neither the Rush nor the Breeze had a predetermined bench or designated side of the field that was inevitable, and one wonders if the location of Isaiah’s pregame snooze possibly helped his team down the stretch. “In one-point games, every edge matters, and not having to warm up in the sun could have been the difference,” mused Raina. Just to squash any thought that this actually was an unfair advantage, if it was even an advantage at all, it’s worth mentioning that the Rush were indeed the number two seed and the “home team” in the East Division semifinal game, so one could argue that they deserved to be able to choose the more shaded side for warmups.
Across the AUDL, there are just three franchises who have had the same head coach every season they’ve been in the league. Tim DeByl has always led the way in Madison, Mike DeNardis continues to steer the ship in Raleigh, and Kevin Stuart has gradually built a division champion in San Diego, helping to carry the Growlers to the West Division title in his fifth year with the team. Interestingly, San Diego co-owner Will Griffin shared that Stuart has maintained a consistent message from the very beginning. “I feel like Kevin’s been saying the exact same thing since year one,” commented Griffin. “He’s all about energy and effort and discipline and wants to play a team ballgame, and that’s what he’s always preached.” Griffin led the Growlers to 7-7 seasons in 2015, 2017, and 2018. The team endured a frustrating 2-12 campaign in 2016, but are sitting at 11-2 overall and atop the West Division just three years later. Asked if he was excited to start scouting his potential final four opponents, Stuart responded, “I am. That’s one of my favorite parts of coaching, diagnosing and figuring out who the matchups are.”
Different jerseys and different quarters on different coasts, but Goose Helton’s backhand buzzer-beater for the Growlers on Saturday night was astoundingly similar to his game-winning desperation backhand for the Raleigh Flyers exactly 26 months earlier. On May 20, 2017, Helton’s toss to Jacob Mouw stunned the Jacksonville Cannons, who had let a three-goal lead slip away in the fourth quarter. This past Saturday, Helton’s throw sailed over the defense and into the grasp of Jesse Cohen, giving San Diego a 20-18 lead heading into the fourth quarter. In both situations, he caught the disc near the front right pylon with about two or three seconds on the clock. It always helps to have a guy who’s been in a particular spot before, and Helton’s extensive AUDL experience, on Saturday and throughout the season, has been a difference-making boon for the Growlers.
While the 2019 San Jose Spiders won’t be competing on their home field at Championship Weekend, a couple of former Spiders will indeed be returning to Foothill College for the final four. San Diego’s Sean Ham and New York’s Beau Kittredge both won titles with the Spiders in 2015, while Kittredge also won with San Jose in 2014 and was named MVP of the league in both of his San Jose seasons. Furthermore, Ham and Kittredge have both already hoisted the trophy once in the South Bay. The 2015 title was secured in San Jose, but not on their home field, as Avaya Stadium, typically the residence of the San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS, served as the glorious championship site four years ago.
In terms of championship experience heading into the final four, it’s very possible that Kittredge will have more AUDL titles than all the other remaining players combined, a reality that will occur if Raleigh beats Dallas this weekend. The Roughnecks have nine guys who saw time in the 2016 title game who have played for the team in some form this year: Dan Emmons, Chris and Dillon Larberg, Matt Jackson, Brandon Malecek, Kai Marshall, Zach Riggins, Thomas Slack, and Dalton Smith. Meanwhile, no one on the Flyers, AlleyCats, or Thunderbirds have ever won an AUDL title. And aside from Kittredge, only San Diego’s Ham and New York’s Grant Lindsley have ever experienced a professional championship. Consequently, there will be either three or as many as 12 former champions potentially suiting up on August 10 in San Jose, depending on the result of Saturday’s South Division final.
Speaking of that South Division showdown, here’s a quick rehashing of the history between Dallas and Raleigh, a rivalry that will bring us a postseason matchup for the third consecutive season.
In the past four regular seasons, since the Roughnecks inaugural 2016 campaign, Dallas has won five of the nine meetings, though the Flyers have taken the last two by sizable margins, winning at home by nine and seven, respectively, on June 15 and July 5. In two postseason matchups, however, the Roughnecks are 2-0, earning a 27-24 in Raleigh in 2017 and overcoming a six-goal deficit in the thrilling 20-19 comeback a season ago.
This year, the tide has turned a bit, however, as the Flyers actually had a great chance to sweep all three regular-season meetings, but let a four-goal lead slip away in the season opener, way back on April 5 in Texas. Both rosters have evolved significantly since then, of course, making it difficult to draw any significant conclusions based upon that result.
For these two franchises, their 2019 legacies will very much be defined by what happens in the 48-minute battle this Saturday night, with Dallas trying to advance to its fourth consecutive final four and Raleigh looking to return to Championship Weekend for the first time since 2015, before the Roughnecks had ever played a game.
Frankly, I’ve been looking forward to this game all season long, and it will be great to work the broadcast of the South final alongside Ian Toner for the second straight season. We’ll be live on Stadium at 7:00 PM/ET on Saturday night!
Talk to you then!
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