August 16, 2022
By Evan Lepler
Only one lead change across three games, but that doesn’t begin to describe the increased level of urgency and intensity as the 2022 AUDL playoffs launched on Saturday night. Ultimately, the three favorites prevailed on their home fields, but not without a smorgasbord of nervous moments.
Now, we’re down to the final eight, as the top two seeds in each of the four divisions will all collide this coming weekend. Either one of the home teams will stumble or we’ll see the most talented Championship Weekend quartet in AUDL history. Frankly, those two dynamics are not mutually exclusive.
No matter how it turns out, by Sunday evening we’ll know the semifinal schedule, and then we’ll be just five days away from an absolutely mesmerizing Friday night doubleheader in Madison.
Before looking too far ahead, though, we’ve got three riveting opening round playoff contests to recap. As DC, Minnesota, and Salt Lake all understand, no postseason victory can ever be taken for granted.
The Full Field Layout
The Breeze earned their first playoff win in five years by playing their cleanest offensive game of the season. In fact, DC’s eight turnovers on Saturday night represented the second-fewest giveaways in franchise history, only one more than they had in their June 2021 rout over Boston.
But early in the game against the Phoenix, the DC offense struggled to find a consistent rhythm, and the Breeze defense looked incapable of slowing down Philly’s huck-happy attack.
“It felt like they were winning the game even though we were up 7-6 after the first,” said DC’s Rowan McDonnell.
Indeed, the only O-line miscues in the opening quarter belonged to the Breeze, as Philly’s O-line sliced and diced through DC’s defense. But the Phoenix went 0-for-2 on their initial pair of break chances, and the Breeze still escaped the period with a one-goal lead.
“I think we were a little bit in our head at first,” said DC Head Coach Darryl Stanley. “In the second quarter, I talked to some of the guys, and I was like, ‘I think the tactics are probably fine. We’re just not executing on some of the basics.’”
As for the necessary adjustments, DC resolved not to give James Pollard and Jordan Rhyne the same huck looks that they were destroying the Breeze with early, going 5-for-5 in the first quarter. Philly actually held without a turn on their first eight O-points, requiring less than 42 seconds per point, on average, to find the end zone, but DC’s O-line also kept pace, grinding through one tricky red zone possession after another.
The teams were tied eight times through the first 15 minutes, but DC finally broke through with a 3-0 burst midway through the second quarter, dramatically changing the feel and complexion of the game.
“They stepped up,” said Pollard. “We couldn’t keep it together long enough.”
Pollard’s performance, with five scores and over 600 total yards, was scintillating at times, but also marred by mistakes. He finished with six throwaways and one drop, accounting for half of the Phoenix’s 14 turnovers. His hucking highlights were exhilarating, but the inconsistencies also put the Phoenix in a tough spot, especially as the Breeze D-line gained more confidence.
“It’s only a matter of time before our defense gets going,” said McDonnell. “They got going and we got the W.”
By the end of the night, DC’s defense produced five breaks (in eight chances), while Philly’s went just 1-for-5. And though it was technically a hold, perhaps the play of the game came late in the third quarter, when Philly failed to convert on an opportunity after a timeout. Moussa Dia got the block on a deep shot intended for Greg Martin, and then AJ Merriman unleashed a full-field missile, which Luke Rehfuss caught in the back of the end zone. Philly could have shrunk the deficit to two in that moment, but instead the lead grew to four, which was the beginning of the end for the Phoenix against DC’s stingy offense.
“We’ve been talking about how we’re one of the better throwing teams out here,” said Stanley, who earned his second playoff win as coach of the Breeze. “On a still day like this, on this wide of a field, you gotta be like that. I’m really proud of them. That’s exactly what we’re gonna need to be able to do to beat New York.”
Jonny Malks had five goals and completed all 55 of his throws to lead the DC O-line, while Jacques Nissen and Tyler Monroe combined to go 62-for-63, dishing three assists apiece. On the other side, Philly’s Jordan Rhyne and Alex Thorne collectively went 97-for-98, keeping the Phoenix within striking distance most of the night. Martin grabbed six goals, a game-high, but the Breeze still won all four quarters, slowly growing the lead as the evening progressed. Up by one after one and leading by two at the half, the Breeze were ahead 17-13 through three, winning the game 23-18.
“I think this is exciting for everybody to be able to look and say, we took care of business,” said Stanley, asked about how the Breeze can carry this momentum into New York next week. “Maybe a rocky start, but once the second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter happened, that was the kind of game we anticipated from our players.”
Philadelphia becomes spectators until next spring, but the Phoenix still felt tremendous pride in their 2022 season.
“We made a big leap this year as a team,” said Pollard. “[Phoenix Coach Roger Chu] said to celebrate the season. For a lot of us, this was our first playoff game in the AUDL, but now this is the standard for the Phoenix.”
While the Breeze and Phoenix were trading punches early in DC, the Minnesota Wind Chill landed a few important haymakers in St. Paul. A couple errant AlleyCats hucks and cool precision from the Minnesota D-line gave the Wind Chill a quick 5-2 lead. Indy found its footing and inched back within one on multiple occasions the rest of the way, but the Cats never quite could dig out of the early hole, as Minnesota prevailed 20-18 for the fist playoff win in Wind Chill history.
“I am really proud of the team,” said Minnesota Head Coach Ben Feldman. “It is really nice to get that elusive first postseason win out of the way heading into Chicago next weekend.”
Like DC, the Wind Chill had their smallest turnover total of the season, giving away the disc just 11 times. Minnesota’s D-line offense, in particular, was brilliant in capitalizing on its opportunities.
“The big storyline for me is that our defensive group converted seven of nine chances, which was absolutely essential, as we failed to convert our end of quarter opportunities in the first, second and third quarter,” said Feldman. “Additionally, our offense has started to show more of a willingness and confidence in executing hucks in our attack, and I think that will be a critical part of having success next weekend and keeping our attack diversified against a really solid Chicago defensive group.”
“Offensively, we played a pretty clean game,” said Roy. “They were expecting all side stack from us, and I called a lot of horizontal initiations, which messed with their poach looks and gave us some easy initiations. We could have moved the disc with better tempo, but overall it was good—didn’t feel like we relied on big plays to win, just played consistently.”
Keegan North was involved in seven scores for Indy and Xavier Payne launched a memorable, monster full-field flick to Jacob Fella, but the AlleyCats hopes for a comeback were largely thwarted after a critical miscommunication early in the fourth.
“The first O-point of the fourth was really the turning point,” said Indy’s Cameron Brock. “We had a mixup on the play call. Going down three there put us in dire straits, and we unfortunately couldn’t quite recover.”
The AlleyCats scored the final two goals and had a chance to make it a one-goal game in the closing seconds, but it was too little, too late, and Minnesota advanced to the Central Division title game against Chicago for the second straight year.
“Minnesota did a great job of adjusting throughout the game,” said Indy Head Coach Will Drumright. “Every time we thought we had them figured out, they were able to counter attack. It’s also impressive as a team that they can be a true hybrid team with player rotation.”
After the game, Feldman addressed the AlleyCats’ late push with his team, and it’ll definitely be a focus heading into this coming weekend.
“We saw it happen last year in the divisional championship, and our group got to feel that pressure against this weekend,” said Feldman. “I think it’s a net benefit for us, as the more experience we have in that position, the more effective we will be when it happens again. All of our games against Chicago have come down to the final quarter the last several seasons, and the team with the lead on Sunday, whether ourselves or Chicago, is going to be feeling that defensive pressure. If we have that late lead, it is nice to have had some very recent reps in that position after this first playoff victory.”
Keep calm, and get fired up!
“That’s who we’ve been this season,” said Shred Coach Bryce Merrill. “We’re not gonna try and change that at this point and pretend like we’re a team that only throws eight turnovers a game. We don’t have the corp of veteran handlers like these other playoff teams have. And we’re young. So instead of trying to shake that reputation, we’ve leaned into it and embraced it, and we’re gonna ride the wave the rest of the playoffs. It led to some doinked drops, but it led to some awesome deep Ds. It led to a couple three-point runs from San Diego, but it also led to a pair of five-point runs from Salt Lake. It led to 25 turnovers, but it led to our first playoff victory.”
Indeed, the Shred embraced their exciting and turbulent style in their 19-16 roller-coaster ride over the Growlers on Saturday night, one of the more bizarre AUDL games in recent memory. San Diego immediately led 2-0, but then went more than 13 minutes without scoring as Salt Lake ran off six straight. Later in the game, the Shred only mustered a single goal in the last 11 minutes, but still withstood the Growlers’ late desperate rally, earning the right to face Colorado this Saturday in Denver.
“Definitely a game of runs,” said Jordan Kerr, who led the Shred with five assists and 409 total yards. “Going down 2-0 is always a little scary, especially when playing as good of a team as San Diego, but I feel like we were very calm and composed and were able to score and get our D-line out there. The rest was history. Our D-line won the game, hands down; 17 blocks, nine breaks, you’re not gonna lose a lot of games when your D-line does that.”
Four members of the Shred finished with multiple blocks, led by Devon Terry and Ben Green getting three apiece. Salt Lake did finish with a season-high 25 turnovers, but by preventing San Diego’s offense from finding its groove, the Shred never trailed after seizing the lead on their early 6-0 run.
“The story of the night was the fact our offense couldn’t get on track, and we put ourselves into two holes that we couldn’t quite crawl back from,” said Growlers Co-Head Coach Kevin Stuart. “A lot of that credit goes to Salt Lake and their defensive game plan, which didn’t allow us to utilize the width of the field like we want to do; also, the windy conditions hurt our deep game.
“Offensively, we weren’t disciplined and didn’t execute well under the defensive pressure," Stuart continued. "Although our defense did their best to keep us in it and helped to keep the game close even after going down 16-10. With all that said, I felt we battled from start to finish in what was an ugly game, offense-wise. We played with a lot of grit and heart, and I love that about our team, and I would go to battle with everyone on our roster any day of the week.”
The Growlers only completed five of their 13 huck attempts and suffered through eight red-zone turnovers, numbers that were certainly impacted by the game conditions.
“The wind was as unpredictable as any wind I’ve played through in an AUDL game,” said San Diego’s Paul Lally, who had a game-high 45 completions, but also endured nine throwaways. “Salt Lake applied great pressure at the point of attack in our handler set on the marks and dumps. They’re a really strong team defensively and make you question every throw when they’re nearby. The wind reduced our deep game precision, and they capitalized intelligently on that. I personally take ownership for far too many execution and decision-based turnovers.”
After beating San Diego for the third straight game, the Shred now turn their attention to the Summit, the opponent that gave Salt Lake its only two losses of the season.
“They’re such a dynamic offense,” said Merrill, commenting on Colorado. “So we can’t overplay any one aspect of their attack. But our defensive unit has put in the work and hopefully we disrupt their 17-for-19 huck performance from the last time we played. Offensively, we’re glad to have Sean Connole back for the playoff matchup, as his absence was acutely felt when we last played the Summit.”
While Salt Lake will hit the road to see who from the West will make it to Madison, Merrill remained extraordinarily grateful for their final home game of the year in front of their loyal fans.
“We had a blast playing in front of the Shredheads one last time,” he said. “It’s been an incredible energy this inaugural season. The Utah youth scene has set a high bar for what success looks like this season, and we’re just trying to keep up with them!”
Seven On The Line
- DC’s David Cranston has long been considered one of the sport’s top defenders, but in the fourth quarter on Saturday, his offensive contributions helped the Breeze finish off the Phoenix. He tallied two goals and an assist while playing six O-points, which was a season-high. But why? “We needed a couple more legs, and I think he did that,” said Darryl Stanley. “He was ready to run. It’s nice to have a guy like that who’s been playing with you for years just in your back pocket, and he can play O anytime.” Rowan McDonnell added that Cranston might actually be the best offensive player on the team, despite the fact that he rarely plays on the O-line. “His communication and defensive pop just keeps him over there,” said McDonnell. “I think you would expect to see him wherever the coach needs him. He’s super chill and will do whatever it takes to win.”
Even though DC prevailed by five, Rowan McDonnell was not overly pleased with his game individually. Although he contributed positively with two goals and four assists, he also had four throwaways, tying the most he’s had in a game since 2016. In a postgame interview, he revealed that Paul Owens deserved a ton of credit for slowing him down. A few minutes later, with Owens nearby, McDonnell continue to shower the Phoenix defender with praise. “That was the worst game I’ve played all season,” said McDonnell, letting Owens know that he was responsible for frustrating the former MVP. Owens smiled and replied, “That was the most running I’ve done all season.” Earlier today, McDonnell saluted Owens further, posting on Instagram that the 23-year-old Owens is “the most underrated player in the AUDL.”
One more note on the Philly/DC game: the crowd and atmosphere at Carlini Field were both tremendous! “It was amazing,” said Philly’s James Pollard. “A third of the DC stands were Phoenix fans. They came down, they were loud, they tried to drown out the crowd, it was amazing.”
Even Breeze Coach Darryl Stanley, who’s originally from Philadelphia, appreciated the boisterousness from the visiting fans. “I think the Phoenix fans are respectfully tough,” he said. “I like these guys. They congratulate you. They wanna high-five you after the game.”
The Minnesota Wind Chill were just as delighted by their home crowd. In fact, their playoff game was a new franchise record in terms of attendance, as they crossed over 1,000 fans at Sea Foam Stadium in St. Paul for the first time.
“It was cool to see such a strong crowd,” said Minnesota’s Andrew Roy. “The support we’ve gotten all season from the fans has been remarkable. Our last regular season game was against Detroit and the stands were still packed and loud for that game, which spoke volumes to me.”
Of course, the Wind Chill are not opposed to going on the road for their matchup with the Union this weekend. A reminder that during the three regular season meetings between Minnesota and Chicago, the road team won every time. The Union would have finished 12-0 if not for the Wind Chill’s 25-22 win on July 1.
Salt Lake’s Jordan Kerr has been as valuable to his team as any other player in the league all season. That’s what made his injury early in the second half on Saturday so scary. Tracking a deep shot that was bouncing bizarrely with the wind, Kerr awkwardly made the catch while falling and hitting his face into the disc and the ground, almost simultaneously.
“Looks like my nose is broken from the hard landing, but we should be fine for the Colorado game,” he said, shrugging off any major concern. Although he took an injury after the catch—Chad Yorgason did his best Kerr impression by throwing the next pass for a score—Kerr was back on the field for the Shred’s very next O-point, although it may have helped that Salt Lake’s defense ran off four breaks in a row before the next Growlers goal brought Salt Lake’s offense back onto the field. The injured occurred one minute into the third quarter, and he was back on the field with three minutes left in that period. To no one’s surprise, Kerr threw the score on his first point back as well.
One thing I was thinking about in the aftermath of the weekend was the similarity between Philadelphia and Indianapolis with their current trajectories. Both teams improved from 3-9 in 2021 to 6-6 in 2022, and they each bowed out in the first round of the playoffs, albeit after underdog performances they could certainly be proud of. Neither Philly Coach Roger Chu nor Indy Coach Will Drumright is likely be earn AUDL Coach of the Year honors, but both of those leaders deserve recognition for the job they did steering their respective teams this past season. The teams ahead of them in their divisions will be mighty tough to surpass, but one of the intriguing storylines heading into next year will be trying to project the ceilings for these two franchises, who both played an entertaining brand of ultimate in getting back to the playoffs in 2022.
Our four-game divisional championship weekend begins with the South Division’s return to the field, starting at 6:30 PM/ET this Saturday when Carolina hosts Austin on AUDL.tv. As of today, it’s been exactly a month since the Flyers’ last game, but I fully expect 11-1 Carolina to show few if any signs of rust against the Sol. Austin has had a magical season, including a one-goal win over the Flyers back in early June, but I’m just not sure the Sol will have enough firepower to match Carolina for four full quarters this Saturday.
The next epic chapter of the DC-New York rivalry begins at 7:00 PM/ET on Saturday night, though the game will air at 9:30 PM/ET on FOX Sports 2. The Breeze and Empire have played 11 one-goal games since 2014, and almost 80 percent of their games over the past eight years have been decided by four goals or fewer. New York defeated DC by four in both matchups this year, but the Breeze have known all season this is the game where they need to peak.
On Saturday at 8:30 PM/ET, Salt Lake and Colorado will commence their West Division title bout on AUDL.tv, with the winner poised to be the first expansion team to make Championship Weekend since the 2016 Dallas Roughnecks. “If Colorado is 100 percent on offense—i.e. if they have [Jay] Froude and [Alex] Atkins, it’ll be difficult for Salt Lake to slow them down,” said San Diego Coach Kevin Stuart, offering his perspective on the matchup. “If Salt Lake wins, they will need to convert all break opportunities that Colorado gives them. Colorado is stingy with the disc, so it may not be many. I think it’ll be a close game for the first half and that both teams will be running hot with emotion. The first team to settle in and play under control will be the team to punch the ticket to Madison.”
Lastly, the weekend will culminate with the Central Division showdown on Sunday afternoon in Chicago, scheduled to begin at 5:00 PM/ET on AUDL.tv. Even though the road team has won the three previous matchups, there’s no doubt that the Union will be considered favorites against the Wind Chill. “I give the advantage to Chicago because they seem to be peaking at the right time,” said Indy Coach Will Drumright. “Minnesota will need to play a perfect game against the Union. Chicago’s size on defense will make it difficult for Minnesota at times.”
Here’s to four double-overtime thrillers and another exciting, unforgettable playoff weekend!
Can’t wait to see the semis take their shape.