August 29, 2023
By Evan Lepler
After 30 straight wins, consecutive championships, and the most dominant trio of playoff performances the AUDL has ever seen, the New York Empire’s mantra “Chasing History” could perhaps be recalibrated to something more like “Unprecedented Excellence.”
Despite Joel Clutton’s buzzer-beating heroics and the Minnesota fans’ electric enthusiasm, there’s no doubt that, once again at Championship Weekend, the boys from New York stole the show. The Empire offense may have occasionally looked human, but their defense played with efficient ferocity, challenging everything and converting breaks in bunches.
“Last year, we had the historic offense,” said Empire Co-Head Coach Anthony Nuñez. “This year, we had the historic defense. And hopefully, next year we have both.”
Setting aside the fact that the Empire O pretty darn recently also delivered the greatest possession-preserving performance we’ve ever seen, the New York D-line truly paved the way for historic dominance at Championship Weekend. Over the past decade, no other champ produced as large a margin of victory during the semis and finals as the 2023 Empire.
Championship Weekend Combined Margins Of Victory
- 2013: Toronto +9 (41-32)
- 2014: Oakland +13 (51-38)
- 2015: Oakland +7 (42-35)
- 2016: Dallas +13 (60-47)
- 2017: San Francisco +5 (53-48)
- 2018: Madison +9 (44-35)
- 2019: New York +6 (43-37)
- 2021: Carolina +4 (40-36)
- 2022: New York +14 (44-30)
- 2023: New York +17 (46-29)
“We came in with a game plan, and we executed that,” said Ryan Drost, whose four blocks on the weekend surged him into the top spot on the all-time blocks chart, ahead of his twin-brother Mike. “Everyone was both committed to winning their matchups, but also to playing good team defense and looking for the switches and looking for the help when their players weren’t active and were far away from the disc [...] It was a total team effort on defense.”
Indeed, the Empire did not simply pressure their opponents; they overwhelmed them, frustrating resets and encouraging floaty deep throws that they consistently thwarted. On Friday, the Austin offense held just 11 times while getting broken on 15 occasions. On Saturday, the number of times the Shred O-line held and the Empire D-line converted a break was the exact same, nine apiece.
“Not only do we have Antoine [Davis], who I think has turned himself into the best defender in the league this year, then you add in the fact that we have one of the smartest defenders in Ben Katz, one of the world’s greatest defenders in Jeff [Babbitt, who was back on the D-line] this whole weekend, and then you add in Marques [Brownlee], Bretton [Tan] had four blocks [in the final], and every game somebody steps up big,” said Nuñez. “This defense is selfless and also just unbelievable.”
When a bizarre second quarter in Saturday’s title game created the impression that Salt Lake had a legitimate shot to rally back from their early six-goal deficit, the Empire defense again slammed the door on that idea pretty quickly in the third. Davis registered one of his five Championship Weekend blocks, Brownlee capped a 12-throw possession by tossing the score to Tan, and the Empire remained comfortably ahead the rest of the night, expanding their lead as wide as nine before the Shred inched within seven during de facto garbage time.
“The defense really was the MVP this season,” said Ryan Osgar, who paced the Empire with eight assists on the weekend.
While Babbitt, Tan, and John Randolph all merited consideration, Davis earned the Championship Weekend MVP honor after holding Austin’s Kyle Henke and Salt Lake’s Jordan Kerr to paltry production by their normal standards. Henke tallied one goal and one assist on Friday, and Kerr managed just one measly assist on Saturday, often isolated on Davis Island. With their stars subdued, the Sol and the Shred both produced their lowest scoring output of the entire season.
“My job is to really shut down the playmakers, the cutters that are playmakers,” said Davis. “I have to guard Babbitt and [Ben] Jagt and Jack [Williams] and Osgar, so I get great practice every week guarding great people.”
Starting with the road trip to Colorado and Salt Lake in mid-July, Davis delivered 12 blocks in the Empire’s final six games, almost entirely guarding premier players from the league’s other top teams. It was an incredible leap in production considering Davis had recorded 15 blocks in his first 22 games since joining New York in 2022.
“When I moved to New York, I knew they needed help on defense,” said Davis. “They only had a couple true lockdown artists, and I needed to become one of those. It really took a long time to bring it all together, but these last two months, everything’s been clicking.”
To be clear, Davis was still a very solid player for the Empire during his first 22 games on the team, but he definitely unlocked a new gear over the past six weeks.
“He was more than fine [last year], he was very good, but this year he changed his diet, he changed his training,” said Nuñez. “He felt more a part of this team this year. Last year was his first year and he was playing against us [the year before] with Atlanta. I think, this year, he just got comfortable with this team and what it was giving him. And then on top of that, he realized his next level. He leveled up.”
That’s also exactly what the Empire continue to do. When New York went undefeated in 2019, their 15 wins came by 52 goals, a margin of just under 3.5 per game. During their current 30-game winning streak, however, New York has outscored opponents by 203, nearly 6.8 goals per game. They’re 38-1 in their last 39, 60-4 in their last 64, and there’s no real reason to think the unprecedented excellence is close to ending. Sure, a dozen members of the Empire’s active roster at Championship were 29 or older, but there still appears to be an insatiable hunger amongst that group.
“I know a lot of us are getting kind of old, so hopefully we can stick around and stay healthy,” said Osgar. “At this point, we’ve kind of cemented ourselves as a dynasty. We all want to keep pushing and see how far we can really go [...] We want to make history, man. It’s really cool to try and do that.”
Jagt also reiterated the idea that winning only adds to the desire to keep winning.
“When you haven’t won,” explained Jagt, “it’s sort of like, ‘oh these are how seasons go. That’s just how it goes.’ When you win, it’s a drug. I want do to this more. We’ve realized repeating is really hard, but it feels so good. I think everyone on this team understands that drive."
“I’m already thinking about next year.”
The Full Field Layout
The Minnesota Wind Chill were mere moments away from clinching their spot in Saturday’s Championship Game, only to see their victory stunningly vanish.
The Salt Lake Shred had the disc, but they were trailing by one with six seconds left when Chad Yorgason pulled the trigger on a 55-yard floating backhand. As Joel Clutton brilliantly recognized that it wouldn’t make it all the way to the end zone, he elevated above the pack and delivered a deflection for the ages.
“I saw a jersey back there and I was like, maybe it’s one of our guys, let’s hope for the best, and sure enough, [Elijah] Jaime was there to catch it,” said Clutton. “That was fun.”
It appears in the final stats as a 58-yard buzzer-beating score from Yorgason to Jaime, but it will forever be remembered as Clutton’s epic moment.
“I saw Chad’s huck go up,” remembered Shred Coach Bryce Merrill. “It was gonna be two yards short. But I saw Clutton sorta curl back to that position, and all year long, we’ve run some of our end of quarters and you practice that. You practice having the Jaime or the player who’s behind the play [stay out of the main pack to anticipate a possible tip] [...] You talk about it and for that to happen at an upwind situation at the buzzer, just believable.
“We needed a hero moment, and we got it from Clutton.”
When you watch the replay again, pay particular attention to the way Jaime avoided getting stuck in the pack, moving around the crowd to the open space near the sideline. In retrospect, his spacing and instincts are almost as impressive as Clutton’s tip itself.
But the game was not over. All the buzzer-beater did was create five more minutes with the season on the line.
“We earned more ultimate, and we came out and got broken,” said Merrill.
Through the first 52 minutes of the game, Minnesota’s Tristan Van de Moortele, who caught the go-ahead goal 99 seconds into the overtime, had been arguably the top player on either side. But his only hiccup proved unbelievably costly. With less than a minute remaining in the overtime and the teams tied at 18, Van de Moortele turfed a forehand in the Wind Chill’s own end zone. Two quick throws later, Salt Lake’s Tony Mounga was wide open and the Shred led again, 19-18, with 34 seconds left.
That was twice as much time as Salt Lake had on the Shred’s final possession of regulation, but Minnesota struggled to gain quick yardage and ultimately left their last-second huck shy of the goal line, with no member of the Wind Chill able to recreate Clutton’s iconic deflection as time expired.
After the game, Minnesota Coach Ben Feldman was understandably heartbroken by the result, but took some solace in the overwhelmingly positive feelings that the evening had produced.
“The players, like just looking around the circle, it shows you how much these guys care about what we’re doing and the opportunity we’re creating, so first and foremost that makes you feel really good,” said Feldman. “But yea, it’s a stinger. A little foggy feeling like you had it and then you don’t have it. So much back and forth in that game for both teams. I’m still really proud of the guys."
“Incredible atmosphere. We’re so happy that our fans showed out, and the experience was just incredible for the team. A tip short, right? That’s what it comes down to. Both teams, there’s a lot of things, I’m sure, that they want back, but we knew it was gonna have to be that kind of game if we were gonna have a good shot at winning, and we did, and we thought our strategies worked pretty well, but they’re a talented group and made big plays when it counted.”
Coming up later today in “Seven on the Line”, buzzer-beaters, Callahans, the Austin Sol, and many other noteworthy nuggets from Championship Weekend. Photos by Daniel Cohen, Steve Kotvis, and Meghan White