August 1, 2023
By Evan Lepler
When the clock struck zero on Colorado’s season and the Los Angeles players joyously celebrated on the Summit’s home field, Aviators Coach Jeff Landesman struggled to fully cherish the moment.
“I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions right now,” he said, speaking to me about 15 minutes after the final buzzer.
On one hand, the third-year coach had just watched his team engineer one of the more surprising playoff upsets in recent AUDL history. On the other, his 22-year-old son, Danny, a second-year member of the Summit, had suffered a knee injury in the third quarter that clearly, and understandably, had dad rattled.
“It’s so hard, cause I’m like so ecstatic that we won, but after he went down I’m like, it’s just really sad and sucks that he hurt himself,” said the elder Landesman. He needs to get an MRI. It could be ACL. But he’s walking so probably not a really bad tear, but I don’t know.”
It’s virtually impossible to fathom the feelings and emotions that a father experiences in a situation like Jeff encountered on Saturday night. Coaching against your kin is an unenviable task in any circumstance, let alone an elimination playoff game where the love you have for your own team is exceeded only by a lifelong bond that’s even greater.
The Aviators were trailing 15-14 with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter when Danny suffered his injury, which occurred when he landed after leaping for an overthrown disc. Earlier in that same point, Danny had tossed an uncharacteristic first-throw turn, and considering the situation and the stakes, it was the rare fleeting instant where Dad felt excited about his boy’s mistake.
“When he turned the disc over on that point, I was like ‘oh good!’ cause he never turns the disc over and I never expect to get a turnover from him,” said Jeff. “And then we didn’t score on it; we gave it back, and then he got hurt on the next time they turned it over, so I’m like why didn’t we just score on that one and then he wouldn’t have gotten hurt.”
Danny departed the contest with 4:19 left in the third period, and his team leading by one. Nine seconds later, the Aviators tied the game, and, though we did not realize it in that whirlwind moment, the Summit would never lead again. Danny remained on the sideline, but did not return to the game.
“Would we have won the game if he hadn’t gotten hurt, if he had kept playing on the O-line?" asked Jeff, rhetorically. “I felt like we had a lot of momentum and played really well but it’s just really hard. It’s hard to be super happy that we won, and then, it’s the first injury that he’s ever had. So, it’s hard.”
There’s no diagnosis yet, and optimism prevails in Landesman land.
Obviously, it was a night that neither father nor son shall forget, though dad’s team will need to turn the page soon because the 11-1 Salt Lake Shred are beckoning.
In 10 days, the Aviators and Shred will square off in a West Division title matchup that few, if anyone, saw coming.
The Full Field Layout
The Aviators were broken twice in the first quarter, yet still led 7-6 after one. They surrendered three more breaks in the second quarter, but were only down 12-11 at half, largely due to a pair of spectacular buzzer-beaters that helped Los Angeles almost entirely overcome the Summit’s five first-half breaks.
At the end of the first, Sean McDougall skied for Brandon Van Deusen’s visionary 68-yard laser flick as time expired. Twelve minutes later, as the second quarter concluded, Lukas Ambrose enthusiastically elevated to snag Calvin Brown’s 50-yard shot that got caught in almost the exact same spot.
They were two of the several jump ball scenarios that went the Aviators way, with LA playmakers consistently coming up huge at Colorado’s expense.
“I definitely felt that,” acknowledged Summit Captain Cody Spicer. “We had our athletes down there, and they just seemed to come up with every single one of them.”
The craziest individual play was probably Ambrose’s first quarter greatest, when he saved Chris Mazur’s moon-ball forehand that hovered in the air endlessly before the 24-year-old rookie soared over the sideline and chicken-winged the disc back into play and into the hands of teammate Kevin Tien. Four throws later, Mazur used a much smoother backhand break and Ambrose again disrespected gravity in making the leaping grab. It was an absolutely outrageous sequence that doubled as the Aviators’ first break of the night.
“My first thought [when I released the flick huck]: ‘hmm… that’s not what the disc was doing in warm-ups,’ seems like the wind has picked up more than was obvious at ground level,” said Mazur. “Then I hoped it would stay in the air long enough to flatten out and stay in bounds, knowing full well if it was in bounds that Lukas always has a chance.”
As the throw continued to float forever in the thin Colorado air, various other thoughts popped in Mazur’s mind.
“Noticed how nice the clouds were rolling over the mountains as the sun was setting,” he joked, mentioning how the errant toss had more hang time than any pull that night. “Hoped the good food truck would be open at New Terrain [Brewing Company] after the game. Felt gratitude for being in the game and getting to travel to Colorado. Then personal regret for not taking care of the disc. Disappointment for making my teammates play more defense."
“In hindsight, apparently it doesn’t even need to be in bounds [for Ambrose to make a play on it.]”
The whole sequence was emblematic of the Aviators’ performance. If there was a play for Los Angeles to make, no matter the degree of difficulty, they kept adding impressive athletic feats to the highlight reel.
“It just felt right,” said Ambrose, reflecting on the greatest. “I felt like we were close to OB, and just going up for it, it was close enough where I felt like I could get it, and [Quinn] Finer seemed like he was letting it go, so just figured I would give it my best effort, and it worked out. It’s pretty shocking. First one for me. Super special.”
The roller coaster ride continued into the second half, where the Aviators tied the game, then fell behind by multiple goals, then led by multiple goals, en route to their 22-21 victory. Whereas the LA offense became more polished and poised as the game progressed, Colorado’s O-line, particularly in the aftermath of Landesman’s injury, struggling to remain efficient.
“I think that was one of the biggest differences [in the game],” said Alex Atkins, who finished the night with a game-high 56 completions, but also a game-high four throwaways. “LA had a lot of cohesion as a group, and we were just lacking that all year. Tough when we’re just rotating through so many people.”
Of course, the Aviators’ D-line also deserved considerable credit for Colorado’s second-half woes. Tien contributed two goals and two blocks, Brown registered three assists and two blocks, and Ambrose’s two-goal, one-assist stat line hardly captured his immense impact.
“That Lukas Ambrose kid is the truth,” declared Colorado’s Matt Jackson.
“The defense, man,” gushed LA’s Pawel Janas, postgame. “Defense wins championships, and we have the best defense in the country, and the O-line did just enough to not lose the game.”
It’s truly been a remarkable transformation for the Aviators, from 1-3 to the West Division Championship game. Along the way, they required a comeback from four goals down against Oakland in their regular season finale, they needed and received a generous gift from their rivals and friends down in San Diego, and now they are on their way to Salt Lake as the only three-seed to survive this past weekend.
Their season could have already ended multiple times, yet Los Angeles still clings to life. How have they kept it going?
“Just because we believe,” said Jeff Landesman. “We trust each other. We’ve been working on that from the beginning of the season. We’ve been working on the chemistry and being able to trust each other, and it’s showing. It’s starting to show.”
Was Austin’s 19-18 victory over Carolina the best win in Sol history? Probably, yes.
“You know, I hadn’t thought about this win as being perhaps the most satisfying as a member of the Sol, but it’s gotta be, right?” said Austin’s Kyle Henke.
Sure, the Sol’s first win over Dallas, an overtime triumph in 2019, ranks up there too, but defending home turf for the franchise’s first postseason victory, particularly after a regular season where Austin was often considered fraudulent as a true contender, had a super special sweetness.
“With all the hoopla about not having beaten a winning team this season, [Saturday’s win over Carolina] was more or less the tipping point for the Sol to say that 2023 wasn’t in the red,” added Henke. “Much of the season has been discouraging, [but] that game had a lot of magic in it.”
There was very little offensive magic early for either side. In fact, both offenses struggled mightily, and the action began with breaks on five of the first six points.
Carolina started on O, but were immediately broken back-to-back. Then, the de facto Flyers D-line finally held, and the Sol promptly surrendered three straight breaks and trailed 4-2. It was a bizarre and disorienting way to start such an important game.
“The first quarter was volatile,” said Austin’s Mick Walter. “I think it took us a bit to settle down. After being up a couple breaks, then down a break, getting back to even at the end of the first allowed us to calm down and find our groove emotionally.”
Similarly to the Summit, the Flyers actually produced more break chances over the course of the night, but that did not translate into generating more breaks. The Sol brilliantly went 7-of-8 on their break opportunities, while the Flyers finished 6-for-12.
“Our O-line defense clearly wasn’t there to stop their counter attack,” said Carolina’s Anders Juengst.
Like Los Angeles, the Sol also dazzled with several stunning big plays and buzzer beaters. At the end of the first, Jackson Potts’ missile connected with Matt Armour as time expired, tying the game at five. And in the closing seconds of the third, Henke made the play of the day, launching his body at full-speed to make a truly sensational catch that ultimate fans will be watching for a long time.
“I was surprised to see Jake put that disc up for me,” said Henke. “I thought surely I was on the wrong side of the field to receive any kind of pass. This is Jake QB1 Radack we’re talking about, though, so he puts the same-tenth I/O huck to me that looked like it was immediately sailing out the side of the field. I put my head down thinking I had to at least try, look back up, and of course the disc is perfectly flat and even falling in toward the field. I knew in the last three steps or so I was going to lay out—against the shoulder doctor’s orders—and I was feeling really good about my chances on my last step.”
The spectacular full-extension layout score came with two seconds left, giving Austin a one-goal lead. The Sol held to begin the fourth, doubling their advantage, and maintained the slim edge all the way to the final buzzer.
“Going up 19-16 with 91 seconds left was the moment it really hit me,” said Henke. “I knew it. The crowd knew it. We were firmly in the driver’s seat of a franchise-defining game.”
Carolina’s only break of the fourth quarter came with just 14 seconds left, and the Sol used three quick completions after the ensuing pull to lock up the momentous 19-18 victory.
“Ultimately, we had our chances in the fourth quarter thanks to great pressure from the D-line all game long and weren’t able to convert those key break chances late in the game,” said Juengst. “Hats off to the Sol for putting together a great game.”
Flyers Coach Mike DeNardis added that while Carolina had aspired to limit Austin’s big plays, the Sol continuously connected on difficult throws, finishing the night with 10 completed hucks, twice as many as the Flyers.
“Austin was very impressive with hitting their deep shots consistently through the game,” said DeNardis. “That was a strength we tried to take away and failed to execute on.”
Evan Swiatek led the Sol with five goals and three assists, while Joey Wylie tallied three goals, one assist, and one block while making several clutch grabs. Carolina’s Joe White churned for 629 total yards, five goals, and four assists, but also endured three throwaways.
At the end of the night, most of the stats were pretty similar, but Austin, with a season-low 14 turnovers, narrowly prevailed, as everyone on the Sol celebrated with their lively fans.
“While it’s sappy, it was awesome to hug my teammates out of joy in the most gratifying postseason win for many of us,” said Henke. “Such a relief and sense of full-circleness for many of us that have been on the team for quite some time. Thankful to get to share that moment, particularly with my stench bro, [Elliott Moore], as well as my bro bro, [Mark Henke].”
Up next, the Sol will travel to Atlanta for the South Division final, a battle between two teams that’ll both be hunting their first ever appearance at Championship Weekend. It’ll be the resumption of a wild rivalry, as eight of their 13 all-time meetings have been decided by one or gone to overtime. The Hustle own a slim 7-6 edge in the historical series, but the Sol are obviously full of belief and confidence after knocking off Carolina.
It’s sure gonna be a fascinating frisbee Friday on August 11, with the Sol and Hustle starting at 8:00 PM/ET and the Aviators and Shred getting underway an hour later.
Of course, on the very next night, Saturday, August 12, just one hour will separate the starts of the East and Central finals too, as we’ll witness the next climactic chapter between DC and New York, starting at 7:00 PM/ET, followed by Indy and Minnesota to cap the weekend.
After 148 games, we’ve got just seven left, and we’re definitely getting to the good part.
Coming up later today in “Seven on the Line”, extensive reaction from DC-Boston and Indy-Chicago, a brief exploration into the oft-invoked concepts of trust and chemistry, and the story behind Matt Jackson’s new cookie monster celebration.