October 5, 2021
By Evan Lepler
There’s no simple way to explain it, but I found selecting this season’s All-AUDL teams to be trickier than past years. Perhaps this was an outlier, though it just might be the new normal.
Even without the intriguing Canadian trio in the main continental competition, the league’s 2021 landscape featured more solid teams, very good players, and thrilling competitive battles than we’ve experienced previously. Consequently, that elevated level across the spectrum also made consistent greatness that much tougher to achieve. Frankly, that’s how it should be, but it also makes singling out individuals in a team game that much tougher.
I firmly believe that the 2021 season delivered the most compelling AUDL campaign in the league’s decade-long history, and this was a tribute to the tremendous commitment undertaken by owners, coaches, and players alike. Dedication and enthusiasm permeated across rosters, as everyone felt a sense of joy and relief to simply be back on the field. And the storylines, from Week 1 in early June to Championship Weekend in mid-September, never ceased to bring the drama.
Three and a half weeks have passed since Raleigh’s remarkable resilience produced the Flyers’ finest moment, and it’s time to offer some belated thoughts on the whole experience, along with some insight into the postseason awards that were officially unveiled earlier today.
The Full Field Layout
Ranking the craziest moments of the season could be a completely different column, but that conversation has to start with opening night’s madness in Madison, when the Radicals lost a game despite holding a one-goal lead and possession with just two seconds left. Four months later, that leaping Bryan Vohnoutka hand-block, Andrew Roy goal, and Minnesota overtime victory seems more insane.
But that craziness had immediate company, including that very same night in New York when Jack Williams caught a buzzer beater to edge DC, which turned out to be just the third most exciting Empire home game of the season. A couple months later, Raleigh had the disc and a two-goal lead(!) with about 35 seconds left in the Flyers’ regular season battle with New York. Improbably, the Empire somehow found a way to win that one too, just like they did in the playoffs against Atlanta, when heroics from all three of their superstars, including Ben Jagt’s game-saving block and Ryan Osgar’s game-winner in OT, sent the reigning champs back to the league’s biggest weekend.
Raleigh experienced its customary share of regular season heartbreak with four one-goal losses, a dynamic that perpetuated the narrative of Flyers’ past disappointments, only to shatter that storyline in the postseason. Those early North Carolina nailbiters, while excruciating, still felt historically normal, unlike the slew of early season shockers in Texas, with the surprising Austin Sol completely turning the tables on the Dallas Roughnecks. Take your pick of the four matchups between those Texas teams to choose their peak moment of insanity. The quartet of contests, all decided by one, had enough turning-points and what-ifs to make you dizzy from the drama.
From Chris Graber’s gravity-defying grab in Pittsburgh to Luke Rehfuss’ epic and timely overtime block in DC, different names rose up to create some of the season’s greatest highlights. LA’s Seamus Robinson, just 20 years old, got a run-through block on his first professional point, although Austin’s Jake Worthington, who’s three months younger, might have one-upped him when his first AUDL touch was a heroic Callahan. There was also an insurgence of even more youthful ultimate prodigies, like Minnesota’s Will Brandt, Chicago’s Eli Artemakis, and Seattle’s David Zhou, just to name three of the 2021 rookies who will maintain their teenage status until next spring.
The next generation sure is tantalizing, and it felt a bit like a changing of the guard with five-time champ Beau Kittredge quasi-retiring, but many legends of the league emerged even stronger out of the pandemic, offering leadership, experience, and a bunch of brilliant feats of athleticism. I’m thinking of Matt Smith’s unbelievable soaring layout score against New York in the playoffs, the speed and power that Kevin Pettit-Scantling regularly showcased to generate blocks for the Radicals, Goose Helton’s precision and passion in leading San Diego over Dallas with a perfect performance in the West Division playoffs. It would be poetic to omit Raleigh’s Noah Saul, considering his long-underrated contributions, but the Flyers’ forever captain deserves a mention for his confidence and clutchness in so many massive moments. There’s no doubt that winning a championship helped to reshape Saul’s legacy, as the 33-year-old pillar finally hoisted the trophy and experienced the coveted feeling that all players pursue.
Which brings me back to All-AUDL considerations. Inherently, these individual honors in a team game can be controversial, as there’s no easy and obvious formula upon which to base these decisions. Winning matters. Numbers matter. Commitment, health, and luck are all factors too. There will never be a metric that fully combines all of these dynamics, and that’s part of the agonizing fun. Ultimately, it comes down to what you see, but we all see things differently, through our own unique lenses and perspectives.
Through my "Game Of The Week" goggles and consistent AUDL.tv channel surfing, I thought there were only five First Team All-AUDL performances this past season and maybe like 25 second teamers. But this particular process does not work that way. We gotta simply select seven for each team and regrettably exclude another dozen or so worthy competitors. It was a challenge, but I do think we—I’m on a panel of league staffers that collaborated on these awards—got the recognition right in the end.
So here are the 2021 All-AUDL Teams, along with my brief thoughts about the decisions.
All-AUDL First Team: Travis Dunn (SD), Ben Jagt (NY), Pawel Janas (CHI), AJ Merriman (DC), Ryan Osgar (NY), Austin Taylor (ATL), and Jack Williams (NY)
Since surely you were wondering, my five first team locks were Janas, Taylor, and the Empire trio—"Janas, Taylor, and The Empire Trio" sounds like a fun bluegrass jam band. Janas and Taylor were the top two quarterbacks in the league this season, owning monster responsibilities every game and largely prospering in their respective situations. For Janas, he was able to play a bit more conservatively than past seasons, but still anchored the Chicago offense to a division title, the first in his four-year AUDL career. Taylor has been solid for several seasons, but absolutely soared to new heights in 2021, authoritatively overseeing Atlanta’s offense with precision and poise.
As for the Jagt-Osgar-Williams triumvirate, one could argue they were the top three individual superstars in the entire league. They complemented each other well, repeatedly came up huge in big moments, and had New York tied in the fourth quarter of the championship game. Raleigh had the better 20-man team that day, and inevitably each of the trio had sequences they wish they could have back, but it was hard to imagine a three-man posse doing more than what Jagt, Osgar, and Williams did throughout the season.
There’s a sizable gap between that top five and the other two first teamers, but that’s not meant to minimize the all-around performances of Dunn and Merriman. They still had two of the seven best individual seasons in the entire league! While Dunn’s numbers dipped a bit from 2018 and 2019, he remained a mega consistent and versatile cog in San Diego’s system, earning him First Team honors for the third consecutive season.
And then there’s Merriman, who just turned 21 in June, crashing the All-AUDL conversation in just his second professional season. Are there other players more talented and polished than Merriman in the league right now? Absolutely, but that’s not what All-AUDL honors are necessarily about. AJ’s all-around game, his highlights, his energy, his commitment, and his team’s success all factor in to justifying his first First Team nod. Almost certainly, it won’t be his last.
All-AUDL Second Team: Jeff Babbitt (NY), Allan Laviolette (RAL), Jonny Malks (DC), Greg Martin (PHI), Steven Milardovich (SD), Ben Sadok (BOS), and Max Sheppard (PIT)
This is where, in my opinion, everything gets especially tricky. There were many, many players in the league who had, maybe not great, but very, very good seasons. The margin between Second Team and Honorable Mention is minuscule, and in many cases, the de facto tiebreaker might be how many games a guy played. It’s not Eric Taylor’s fault that he got hurt and missed four games, but it feels safe to say he probably would have been on the list had he been healthy all season.
Evaluating Raleigh’s roster for All-AUDL consideration was definitely an interesting endeavor, as many of the champs undoubtedly deserve some recognition, but the Flyers would be the first to admit that their success was built around balance and depth, not necessarily on the back of two or three isolated threats. Consequently, Laviolette gets the Second Team nod over other candidates due to his production, consistency, and playmaking prowess, however it seems relevant to recognize that any of Raleigh’s other O-line contributors could be in this spot, too, if the roles shifted slightly.
Pittsburgh’s Max Sheppard, a First Team All-AUDL performer in 2019, had an under-the-radar super solid season again, actually completing a higher percentage of this throws in 2021 than he did two years ago. But his team’s struggles made it impossible to include him on the First Team for the second straight year. Maybe if the Thunderbirds had finished off their August upset over the Hustle, but with just one win on the year, Sheppard’s All-AUDL ceiling resided on the second seven.
Jonny Malks and Ben Sadok were two other handling standouts that looked like First Team caliber talents for much of the campaign, but Malks’ midseason lull and Sadok’s inability to will Boston to a victory over a top team prevented them from securing top seven status. Despite those minor critiques, Malks and Sadok were two of the most creative and entertaining distributors in the entire league this season, easy choices for All-AUDL recognition.
Similarly, Greg Martin’s Philly Phoenix finished with just three wins, but the big man’s breakout burst was too impressive to ignore. He played in every game, erupted for 51 goals, and delivered a few ‘wow!’ highlights in every contest.
Speaking of ‘wow!’ highlights, New York’s Jeff Babbitt might be the sport’s ideal mix of ridiculously athletic playmaker and careful possession preserver. He finished the season with a 100 percent completion rate—thanks to, in his words, Jagt saving his butt after an errantly thrown flick in overtime against Atlanta—while also compiling 28 goals and 21 blocks. Astonishingly, Babbitt had five more blocks in the 2021 playoffs, giving him 20 blocks in 10 career postseason games.
Last but not least, especially when it comes to postseason defense, San Diego’s Steven Milardovich joins the All-AUDL ledger for the first time in his excellent six-year Growlers tenure. The story of his 2021 season, and really his whole career, was clutch game-saving blocks. He’s long been a testament to debunk the myth that you can’t play great defense at the professional level, as he registered 23 more blocks in 2021, tied for the league lead, including his playoff stats.
I could spend several thousand more words waxing poetic about all the playmakers who just narrowly missed out on All-AUDL stature this past season, but we’d be here all day. The fact is the league was deeper than ever in 2021, and I’d fully expect the talent to rise to an even higher level in 2022.
For the second straight season, New York’s Ben Jagt is your AUDL MVP, though this year was not necessarily as clear cut of a choice as it was in 2019.
Jagt had a few bumpy moments this summer, with some errant throws and unsuccessful deep cuts, but despite these miscues, he remained the most dominant force in the league. If we include his playoff production, Jagt finished number one in goals (63), receiving yards (5,375), and plus/minus (+106), while also tallying 55 assists, fourth-most in the league. Defensively, Jagt was one of 10 players to record at least 20 blocks on the year too.
Prior to the 2021 regular season, I was contemplating the top 10 players in AUDL history, and I tentatively had Jagt ranked second, behind only the legendary Beau Kittredge. Still, it was a very close call, with other great champions (Ashlin Joye, Cassidy Rasmussen) and statistical dynamos (Goose Helton, Cameron Brock, Cameron Harris) in the conversation. Now, after another MVP season, Jagt has clearly risen above everyone except for Alaskan who won five titles in his six seasons. Big Ben has a ways to go before conquering Kittredge, but it’s not necessarily an insurmountable task.
With this latest honor, the towering and talented New York cutter joins Helton and Kittredge in the multiple MVP club, and Jagt’s all-time statistical ranks continue to climb the charts. Entering 2022, he’ll be fifth in goals, eighth in assists, and 15th in blocks, and it’s very plausible he could rise to second, sixth, and 10th, respectively, with similar production next season.
There’s an argument to be made that ‘Jagt’s the MVP, Jack’s still New York’s best player,’ but I would counter that claim with the reality that Williams also benefits greatly from Jagt’s ubiquitous presence on the field. As phenomenally as Jack performed throughout the 2021 season, Jagt remained the single most dominant individual throughout the entire league, week-in, week-out.
The Empire may have been dethroned for the title, and Pawel Janas and Terrence Mitchell both made their own playful claims for the crown at Championship Weekend, but Jagt had the individual coronation, complete with scepter, cape, and royal respect.
From one side of a global pandemic to the other, the king stayed the king.