August 31, 2021
By Evan Lepler
Even knowing the stakes, it’s easy to forget the emotional toll of playoff ultimate. After a grueling season of overcoming adversity and advancing to this moment, the single elimination stage carries a daunting spotlight, complete with boundless opportunity and constricting pressure, either of which can carry or crush a competitor.
As we witnessed this past weekend, circumstances can shift quickly. Pregame excitement on one sideline can soon be squashed by peerless precision from the other. Three and half quarters of quality ultimate can be undone by the inertia of one or two killer mistakes. Halfway through the opening round of the 2021 AUDL playoffs, the dual beauty and cruelty of sports were both on display.
In San Diego, the Roughnecks were overwhelmed by the Growlers’ early excellence, unable to dig all the way out of their deep initial hole. In Chicago, the Wind Chill were clearly the superior side for most of the night, but failed to execute in the game’s most critical moments, as the Union capitalized with a magical comeback to transform an otherwise frustrating experience into a joyous and cathartic celebration.
In very different ways, San Diego and Chicago both clinched their trips to Championship Weekend, where they will cross paths with two Atlantic Division powers in the semifinals on September 10, now just 10 days away. The Atlantic situation will settle itself soon enough, as Raleigh travels to DC this Friday and Atlanta journeys to New York this Saturday. Whoever advances, the race for the title feels as wide open as ever. Consequently, the thin line between perfection and implosion also feels tiny, precious, and precarious, a reality that the four Atlantic participants must recognize and embrace heading into the biggest games of their seasons this weekend.
The Full Field Layout
At halftime on Saturday night, San Diego’s Goose Helton told broadcaster Megan Tormey that the Growlers had opened the game with their intensity level at just the right spot. That perfect mindset and focus enabled San Diego to build a sizable early lead, creating the confidence to overcome the few inevitable mid-game hiccups en route to their mighty satisfying 22-18 result.
But Helton also recognized that one early mistake could have completely changed the energy and feel of the first quarter.
“Upon reflection, I think perhaps the most important play of the game was in the opening sequence,” said Helton. “Paul Lally’s initial catch narrowly escaped the reach of Dalton Smith. Had the second throw of the game been a turn, we likely would have had a very different trajectory.”
This seemingly forgettable snag was one of the 47 consecutive completions the San Diego Growlers converted before their first turnover, which did not occur until Khalif El-Salaam dropped a wide open catch in the end zone that could have made the score 10-4 with 10:46 remaining in the second. Fortunately for San Diego, that blemish was not the forever turning point that swung the momentum and cost the Growlers everything they had done up to that point, because literally they had been perfect. The Growlers completed all 41 of their throws in their breathtaking first quarter, which included five hucks, four breaks, and an unquestionably discombobulated opponent.
“The Growlers came out in a force middle, which seemed to really throw us off, and we struggled to adjust,” said Kyle Henke, who surprisingly made his return from a wrist surgery that was initially thought to be a season-ender.
Henke and fellow star Abe Coffin both were back in the lineup, but the Dallas Roughnecks lost another O-line stalwart in Thomas Slack during warmups when, emblematic of the injury-laden season that Dallas endured, he strained a leg muscle. Considering that Dallas had not played in three weeks and their opening O-line felt more like a talented pick-up seven as opposed to a finely-tuned unit, the Roughnecks were broken on four of their first six offensive points. Even when Dallas did score, it was a grind, as the Roughnecks required 86 completions to score their four first-quarter goals, more than twice the number of throws that San Diego needed to thrash the Dallas D on their opening nine-goal barrage.
“Our defensive game plan included a lot of straight matchup looks,” said veteran Growler Steven Milardovich, who recorded multiple blocks for this third consecutive playoff game, dating back to 2019. “We wanted to compete and make them earn their goals…At a film session earlier in the week, Dom Leggio coined a new defensive catchphrase which we were rallying around, ‘live-side muscle, break-side hustle.’ Not exactly revolutionary, but it reiterates the idea that we want to battle and get physical to protect the live side and then hustle to recover if they work to the break-side.”
While the Growlers’ defense disrupted Dallas’ mission, San Diego’s offense hummed like a powerful locomotive. Jonathan Nethercutt’s presence, in just his second game of the season, felt natural and comfortable, as he completed all 37 of his throws including an early huck to Travis Dunn for the night’s opening break. Helton also delivered a masterful turnover-free performance, producing a game-high plus-10 on 25-for-25 passing, his role shifting slightly more downfield with Nethercutt able to bolster the handler set.
“I did feel relief in having [Nethercutt] in the backfield,” said Helton. “It let me initiate our offense with greater frequency and roam downfield more. Inserting a player of his caliber could easily have been a distraction or an element of chaos. However, Nethercutt’s presence clearly enhanced our offense, which is both a testament to the Growlers’ system—a system akin to that which Nutt and I have collaborated and coached together—and demonstrated Nethercutt’s adaptability with regard to novelty of personnel.”
Nethercutt’s vast throwing toolset also helped San Diego solve one of Dallas’ regular riddles that the Roughnecks briefly utilized to swing the momentum in the second quarter. Despite nearly being down by six earlier in the period, the Roughnecks closed to within two when a sideline double-team trap produced a quick break.
“That was actually a turning point,” said Dallas Head Coach Jim Davis. “We trapped [Tim] Okita on the line. We drew that up on the white board literally right before the game. We got a turnover and score. Of course, they instantly made the correct and great adjustment to put Nethercutt in to pick up the disc on the trap cause he can throw the hammer anywhere. That makes the junk stuff harder to do. The judicious use of the trap has been very effective and keeps them a little bit off balance, but if you feel like you run the trap and they score in 10 seconds and the O has to trudge back on to the field, it makes it a little bit harder. So that was a big deal.”
Dallas did trim San Diego’s five-goal first quarter lead down to three by halftime, and the Roughnecks were only down two heading into the fourth. But the Growlers’ recorded another clutch break to begin the final period, and the Roughnecks never were able to get back closer than two the rest of the way, suffering through several red-zone turnovers on possessions that could have narrowed the gap to one.
“There were so many important plays, I am probably leaving a bunch out,” said Growlers Head Coach Kevin Stuart. “Khalif’s hand-block early in the game is one that comes to mind. Hunter [Corbett’s] layout catch off the huck from Khalif. The jump ball near the end zone that Dalton Smith gets a hand on and we score was also big; those are the ones Dallas usually gets. Unfortunately for Ben Lewis, the play where he gets tripped up and allows Goose to catch a goal. Lior’s layout catch in the fourth to avoid the turnover and get the goal. The break coming out of the fourth quarter was huge. Overall, our defensive pressure was incredible and our defense is the unit we have relied on all year to keep us in the games and close them out. One of the best defensive units I have been around on any team I have coached.”
The San Diego Growlers finished the night with a season-low 10 turnovers, while converting seven of their eight hucks and 14 of their 15 red-zone opportunities. Consequently, they are headed back to Championship Weekend for the second straight season after their greatest win in franchise history, a claim that Dunn made to Tormey in their postgame conversation on the sideline.
“I think I would have to agree with Travis that this was our best win so far,” said Milardovich, who along with Dunn and Leggio are the three Growler players who have been on every roster since the franchise was founded in 2015. “It’s satisfying to reflect on how far we have come as a team and as a franchise, but we are still focused on getting better and preparing for Championship Weekend. Hopefully, we can have a couple more ‘best wins in franchise history.’”
One night later, the Minnesota Wind Chill completed their first 68 passes in their own brilliant start against the Chicago Union, who looked uncharacteristically out of sorts through the majority of the Central Division title tilt.
“They came out like it was a championship game, and we came out looking like we forgot how to compete,” said Chicago’s Pawel Janas.
As Bryan Vohnoutka, Cole Jurek, and Nick Vogt all made clutch grabs in the downfield space, the Union struggled to generate pressure, converting just one break in four chances through the first three quarters. Minnesota led 17-15 heading into the fourth and increased their lead to three after a marathon two and a half-minute hold to begin the final period. At that moment, it sure felt like Chicago’s chances for a thrilling comeback were incredibly bleak.
“Minnesota had a phenomenal game plan against us,” said Chicago’s Nate Goff. “They snuck multiple deep cutters past our last back help in the first half for easy goals. They showed our D-line a new look which plummeted our efficiency on break chances. They demoralized our squad with a successful snake in the grass. Props to Coach [Ben] Feldman. They should have won that game.”
But of course, as you obviously already know, the Wind Chill did not win the game, as the Union outscored Chicago 5-0 over the final seven minutes to stunningly escape with a miraculous 21-19 victory. This result could certainly be framed as a thrilling comeback, but in the immediate aftermath, it sure felt more like a Minnesota meltdown.
“No one mistake defines a game, and this game was no different,” said Wind Chill Captain Brandon Matis. “The last thing I want is players dwelling on individual mistakes rather than focusing on things we can do better as a unit moving forward. That said, there were two moments that certainly stand out as momentum shifters.”
“The dagger to me was the huge block Goff got in the lane off Klane [when the Wind Chill led 19-18 with about 3:30 remaining,]” said Matis. “The timing of that play was detrimental to us, but what hurt even more was how open Beef [aka Cole Jurek] was. I’m not sure if they had a matchup breakdown or they just decided to play hard person defense with no deep help, but that looked like a huge whiff on Chicago’s part, a sure goal, and all of a sudden, Chicago is breaking. Super deflating.”
Moments after Goff’s emphatic rejection of Klane’s too low throw, Paul Arters hit Von Alanguilan for the game-tying goal. Just 45 seconds after that, following another Wind Chill mistake, Arters delivered the go-ahead strike, a 25-yard upline flick to Keegan North that gave the Union a 20-19 lead, their first time in front since they were ahead 2-1 in the opening minutes of the game.
“Crossing over O-line guys to play those universe-point D-lines at the six minute mark of [the fourth quarter] was a desperation move that paid off,” said Janas.
Still, the Wind Chill had 2:21 left and were receiving the pull down by one, very capable of stabilizing and potentially extending the game. Or so one might have thought.
“They scored to go up one, and I went up to each member of our defensive unit on the sidelines and said ‘O is going to hold here, and then we’re going to go get a block,’” said Matis. “Obviously, that chance didn’t come. Andrew Roy gets stalled. As hard as it is for me to say this is a veteran leader on the team, I’m human too; at that moment, I knew the game was over. We just didn’t have it anymore.”
Kurt Gibson connected with Tim Schoch with 1:39 left to double the Union lead, and Chicago was suddenly in complete and total control. It all happened so fast, and the contrasting emotions were staggering.
“Pure euphoria,” said Janas, who threw five assists and completed 43-of-45 throws on the night. “We all knew the team underperformed, but I didn’t get a sense that we were less joyful because of it. You don’t get a lot of these moments in life, so we did our best to cherish this one. I know I did.”
On the other side, a sense of disbelief and devastation overwhelmed the Wind Chill, as their 19-16 lead with 7:08 remaining had disappeared so rapidly.
“My feelings as the buzzer sounded were of frustration and disappointment,” said Vohnoutka. “I was thinking about all of the little things I could have changed that could have led to a different outcome. Like my catch on the sideline that was called out—I knew where the line was and had people watching tell me that I was in—or the throwaway I had to Colin [Berry]. I felt like we had outplayed them for three quarters but couldn’t close the deal. That sour taste from this game is going to last a long time, and I am sad that this iteration of the Wind Chill will no longer exist.”
Indeed, whereas Minnesota’s season ended in heartbreaking fashion, the Union somehow found a way to survive and earn Chicago’s first postseason victory in the history of the franchise.
“Ten minutes prior [to the end], it felt like we had very little chance to win,” said Goff. “The hugs with Ross [Barker], Pawel, [Chicago Owner] CJ [O’Brien], [Head Coach] Dave [Woods], Drew [Swanson] and others are something I will remember forever.”
Seven On The Line
- Beyond the two memorable playoff battles, there were two final regular season contests in the Atlantic Division this past weekend, both of which mattered in terms of determining the upcoming matchups and locations. The New York Empire needed to win in Boston on Sunday to earn a home playoff game, and the Glory very nearly became the spoiler that Atlanta was hoping for. Tied 17-all in the final minutes, Boston had possession with a chance to score the go-ahead goal, but New York’s defense stood strong, got the stop, and converted the game-winner—Ryan Osgar to Jeff Babbitt—with 18 seconds left. “Sometimes the close games just come down to one play, and fortunately that play went our way when they made an unforced error in the last minute which allowed us to go ahead,” said New York’s Mike Drost. Osgar and Boston’s Tannor Johnson both registered 300/300 games, eclipsing the 300-yardage plateau in both throwing and receiving yards, but Johnson’s huck on the game’s final throw landed incomplete, and New York prevailed 18-17. Willie Stewart finished an impressive plus-9, with six assists, two goals, and one block, earning a spot on the Honor Roll despite the defeat.
- Regardless of the Empire’s result, the DC Breeze knew they would be at home to start the playoffs after their dramatic double overtime victory over Raleigh in Week 12. But the Breeze still had to win in Tampa Bay to officially claim the top seed in the Atlantic. And even without many of their mainstay contributors, DC still dominated under the sweltering Florida sun, breaking the Cannons offense 12 times in their 28-16 victory. “Getting little to no sleep—arriving at the airport at 4:00 AM—mixed with the Florida heat simply meant we had to really grind,” said Breeze veteran Leo Pierson, who registered career-highs in goals (three) and blocks (four). “My highlight had to be my initial layout block. Leaving my feet early and laying my body on the line for the block sets a tone for my game.” Individually, Pierson had twice as many blocks as the Cannons entire roster, which only generated two against DC’s disc movers throughout the four quarters. Meanwhile, the Breeze racked up 19 blocks as a team, with Moussa Dia contributing three blocks along with three goals in his AUDL debut. Jonny Malks anchored the DC offense with seven assists and 499 total yards, helping the Breeze improve to 10-2, their best regular season record in the franchise’s eight-year history.
- Raleigh and Atlanta certainly will have something to say about this, but here’s an interesting quirk: if DC and New York can both win this weekend, then all four Championship Weekend participants will arrive into the semifinals with 11-2 records, 10-2 regular-season slates plus the initial playoff victory. Never before have all four Champ Weekend contenders entered the climactic weekend with four identical resumes.
As a reminder about the final weekend format, the two Atlantic Division winners cannot square off in the semis. Here’s what you need to know about the potential matchups. If DC wins on Friday, the Breeze will battle San Diego in the semis, while the Atlanta-New York survivor will challenge Chicago. But if Raleigh upsets DC, then the Flyers would take on Chicago, leaving the Hustle or Empire to tangle with the Growlers. The reason for this delineation is that Chicago is the higher remaining seed compared to San Diego, a byproduct of their equal records along with the Union’s superior season-long point-differential. Consequently, and perhaps ironically considering the fact that the Growlers certainly looked like the superior semifinalist this past weekend, the Union will match up with the lowest remaining Atlantic Division team. However the matchups fall, of course, the storylines will be plentiful.
By the way, we have not yet even mentioned another two-loss team that is well-positioned for a championship. The Montreal Royal finished their eight-game Canada Cup slate with a 6-2 mark after knocking off Toronto for the fourth consecutive time over the past six weeks. Dating back to 2019, the Royal have beaten the Rush in each of their last five collisions. Sunday’s result was the biggest margin of victory Montreal’s ever had against Toronto, a 25-18 score where the Royal jumped ahead 8-3 and never looked back. “The main story of the finale and the season so far is the homegrown Quebecois doing work,” said Montreal’s Kevin Quinlan, who finished third on the Royal in both goals and assists for their eight-game regular season. “I am so proud of the younger guys filling whatever role is asked of them and the two or three-year vets taking on bigger roles. Super selfless team that makes it easy to buy into.” Sacha Poitte-Sokolsky and Jakob Brissette both finished plus-11 in Sunday’s win, combining for six goals, 13 assists, four blocks, and only one turnover between them.
Despite the Rush’s seven-goal loss on Sunday, their 23-13 rout over Ottawa on Saturday puts the Rush in position to still advance for one more shot at Montreal. Currently, the Outlaws are 3-4, the Rush are 2-5, and second-place is up for grabs this Saturday night at TD Place Stadium, a sparkling and historic venue that usually showcases the Ottawa Redblacks of the CFL and Atlético Ottawa of the Canadian Premier League. If the Outlaws can take care of business in front of their home fans, Ottawa will move onto the Canada Cup final, scheduled for Thursday, September 9, or the eve of Championship Weekend. But a Toronto win would even the Rush in the standings with the Outlaws, and it would be their third win in four games against Ottawa, meaning that a Rush victory would give Toronto the tiebreaker and the right to battle Montreal in nine days. Suffice to say, the last two Canadian games of the season, this Saturday in Ottawa and next Thursday in Montreal, both are primed to become really incredible spectacles for the sport north of the border!
Some quick bookkeeping on the final regular season statistical champs. With his five assists on Sunday in Boston, New York’s Ryan Osgar did win the assist title, producing 59 dimes in his first campaign for the Empire, four more than Atlanta’s Austin Taylor, who finished with 55. Osgar’s teammate and roommate, Ben Jagt, was held to just three goals against Boston and finished one shy of Detroit’s Andrew Sjogren on the goal-scoring chart. Sjogren, with 53 goals, edged Jagt’s 52. The lone win of the year for the Mechanix. Jagt still topped the league in plus/minus, virtually lapping the field at plus-87. Osgar finished second at plus-67, while Raleigh’s Anders Juengst was third at plus-64. Austin’s Mick Walter and Atlanta’s Brett Hulsmeyer tied for the league lead in blocks, with each recording 23 apiece. Jagt also edged Sjogren for the top spot in receiving yards, with 4,493, while fellow Empire teammate Elliott Chartock paced the AUDL in throwing yards, with 4,698.
Kudos to Ian Toner and Megan Tormey for their laudable broadcasting hustle this past weekend, handling two playoff games in less than 24 hours that were over 2,000 miles apart. Trust me, that’s not easy.
Of course, I would have loved the chance to contribute too, but after my breakthrough Covid infection last week, I was understandably sidelined and forced to follow all the action from afar. As I tweeted on Saturday night, it was far more nerve-wracking watching everything from home.
Thankfully, I’m delighted to share that aside from the initial symptoms hitting me moderately hard 10 days ago, I have mostly felt normal over the majority of the past week, and I’m prepared and eager to return to the AUDL road this weekend!
The Atlantic Division slate—Raleigh at DC on Friday at 7:30 PM/ET, Atlanta at New York on Saturday at 7:00 PM/ET—feels almost like a mini-Championship Weekend, with four teams that are all absolutely capable of being the last team standing at Audi Field in 11 days.
It’s gonna be a frantic and memorable finish, and I cannot wait to see how it all unfolds.