April 25, 2023
By Evan Lepler
- Early season injuries
It gives me absolutely no joy to write that two of the league’s signature stars, Madison’s Kevin Pettit-Scantling and Carolina’s Eric Taylor, are expected to miss significant time in the coming months. Pettit-Scantling, who’s simultaneously been the face and heart of the Radicals’ franchise for years, suffered a knee injury on the last play of practice on Tuesday, April 11. Even after an MRI, it’s still unclear if it’s just a partial tear that might require six to eight weeks of rehab or if it’ll be a season-ending predicament that will keep KPS out until 2024. When the Radicals regrouped this past week to practice without Pettit-Scantling for the first time, his on-field presence, voice, and leadership were all noticeably missing. “Without KPS, we definitely have a lack of identity,” said DeByl. “I can feel it at practice when he was gone. There’s a huge hole in on-field leadership and sense of who we are. But our players are gonna show up and play hard.” The Radicals open their 2023 season this Saturday at Pittsburgh. Concurrently, the Flyers expect to be without Taylor in their home opener against the Breeze. An AUDL champ in 2021 and Second Team All-AUDL performer last year, Taylor has been dealing with a lingering hernia injury since before Championship Weekend last year that now requires an operation. There’s no timetable for his return, but Carolina Head Coach Mike DeNardis remained bullish on his team’s depth and ability to produce wins even without Taylor, his versatile phenom. Suraj Madiraju, Connor Russell, and Trevor Lynch were three names that DeNardis mentioned as individuals who could have more responsibility in Taylor’s absence. “Those guys are youngish guys that are gonna need to step up in a role that they haven’t before,” he said. “They’ve had veteran presence around them that’s not around them anymore, so they’re gonna have to take a bigger chunk of the touches and points on D.”
- Goose Helton's road to recovery
One other name that long-time AUDL fans will not be seeing on the field this year is the former two-time MVP Goose Helton, who’s still recuperating from a serious motorcycle accident that left him severely injured in mid-January. His daily Instagram story updates have tantalizingly chronicled his numerous surgeries and the intense battle to avoid losing part of his leg, an uphill medical journey that he’s still fighting as the season begins. When it happened, the news obviously hit everyone on the Growlers hard, but they’ve continued to train for the season by emulating Helton’s spirit and passion. “I’ve always been amazed with Goose,” said San Diego Head Coach Kevin Stuart. “I always thought I had a strong will, but he takes it to another level. Every time I see him in the hospital, he’s being positive about what he’s gonna do next and how he’s gonna go about it. He’s doing great in terms of his mentality. As a team, I think it happened a week, maybe 10 days, before our first tryout. Goose would wanna be here with us on the field, so all we can do is put forth our best effort and do things how he’d want us to do them [...] He’s with us even if he’s not on the field with us. We’re running the same things he’s taught us over the last four years. I think he’d want us playing at our best, and that’s all we can really do right now. Guys go and visit him after practice, so he’s still part of the group and still part of the franchise, for sure.” Furthermore, Goose’s wife, Kaela, remains Stuart’s Co-Head Coach as the Growlers prepare to open their season in 10 days against Colorado. With Helton out, Montreal’s Kevin Quinlan and Indianapolis’ Cameron Brock will remain as the only two players who’ve taken the field in every single AUDL season.
Coaches with new teams
As the season begins, shout-out to the five new head coaches in the AUDL. Tuba Benson-Jaja takes over in Atlanta; he also steered the Jacksonville Cannons from 2015-17. On Saturday, Benson-Jaja will match wits with another rookie leader, as Drew Shepherd takes the helm for Indianapolis. Elsewhere, Alex Lemieux seizes control in Montreal, Jerome Price ascends to the top job in Dallas, and Bex Forth became the first head coach in Houston Havoc history. While neither Lemieux nor Price have games this weekend, Forth and the Havoc will begin their inaugural season as a largely unknown entity. Only a handful on the Houston roster have previous AUDL experience, but Forth, who has kept information about her tactical plans close to the vest throughout the preseason, did say that she’s not necessarily concerned about her team’s limited AUDL reps. “Experience is an interesting one because people always talk about experience and it’s the same thing as when people talk about chemistry, as if it takes an incredible amount of time to be able to get it,” said Forth, during an interview with Adam Ruffner and Daniel Cohen on the “Swing Pass” podcast. “I don’t really believe in either of those things. I think experience helps most in calming nerves, so the more you’ve been in that environment, the less excitable you might be. Our opening game is going to be fascinating because experience, in terms of how we play and how we react to play, I’m not worried about it in that respect, but the jazzed up feeling of playing in front of your friends and family for the first time on this stage, that’s where experience is going to show. And it could show up in a very positive way, the players are just so jazzed up they explode, or some could hide, and those are the thing we just don’t know. We don’t know which players are going to shine under the spotlight and which ones are going to be more subdued. It’s a big question mark, and obviously people are interested in what kind of team we are, and a lot of it will come down to that.”
Steady out West
Perhaps you noticed that amongst the new coaches, none of them were out West. In fact, at least one of the primary coaches for each of the seven West Division teams is back for 2023. Preseason favorite Colorado reunites co-Head Coaches Mike Lun and Tim Kefalas, who have even more talent to tinker with than last year, adding former Dallas standouts Kai Marshall and Connor Olson, along with strong former Seattle defender Noah Cookman. But they’ll be the first to say that talent doesn’t guarantee anything. “We gotta figure out how to integrate folks into the culture,” said Kefalas. “It’s easy to get caught up in preseason power ranking type stuff, but we just wanna stay internally focused. Aspirationally [sic], we believe we’re as talented as any team in the league, but that doesn’t mean anything.” Along with the Lun/Kefalas duo in Denver, Bryce Merrill returns to lead Salt Lake in its second season, and John Thornton’s reprising his role in Portland, looking to improve upon a mighty disappointing 2-10 inaugural campaign with the Nitro. Suffice to say, he expects year two will be different. “There won’t be any blowouts this year the way we experienced last year,” said Thornton. “We’re gonna put a competitive team out there every single time and not have these big changes from one game to another.” Xtehn Titcomb is hoping Seattle will have a similarly renewed commitment to roster consistency, and the Cascades do bring back Jesse Bolton as one of the three coaches, along with newcomers Kelly Johnson and Casey Ikeda. Dan Silverstein, who took over the Spiders in the middle of the 2019 season, returns for his third full season as Oakland’s Head Coach, while Jeff Landesman is back for LA and Kevin Stuart/Kaela Helton again steer San Diego.
DC and Carolina prepare for next chapter in rivalry
Can a single game change the trajectory of a franchise? Darryl Stanley thinks so. In thinking about the next chapter of the DC-Carolina rivalry, the Breeze head coach remembered how transformative their first win over the Flyers felt five years ago. “That 2018 game,” said Stanley. “With Nethercutt’s behind-the-back flick, Rowan’s 10-goal bonanza, that game is probably my favorite game of the whole series. It made no sense in such a good way. And for us to come out with the win there was pretty improbable and pretty important for that season, and honestly maybe it was the turning point for our franchise. We weren’t really in a good spot, home against Toronto and home against Raleigh.
Those are two wins that, if we don’t win those, we don’t make the playoffs, and if we don’t make the playoffs, I just don’t know if the Breeze’s story is the same in 2019 and beyond.” As DC and Carolina meet for the sixth time ever on Saturday in North Carolina, the rivalry feels as fascinating as ever, in part because it’s so multi-layered. “My appreciation for the rivalry between our two teams is pretty high,” said Stanley. “It goes into college level, it goes into the amateur level, it goes pretty much everywhere, I feel like we’re always putting ourselves up in the DMV area against what’s coming out of [North Carolina], and it’s hard. In the AUDL, specifically, those games have been pretty fire.” In the previous five meetings, DC has three one goal-wins, while the Flyers have victories by two (in overtime) and by three (in the playoffs when they trailed by four in the first half).
Phoenix looking for upset versus reigning champs in New York
Of course, both the Breeze and Flyers are still living in a land that’s currently ruled by the Empire. DC and Carolina are two of the top challengers, but the scars from last August are real. New York ended DC’s season at the buzzer of the East Division final, and then the Empire overwhelmed the Flyers in the semifinals at Championship Weekend before stomping Chicago to seize the title. New York enters Saturday night’s season opener against Philadelphia riding a 15-game winning streak, and the Empire have won 10 consecutive meetings against the Phoenix even though Philly has given New York a couple scares. “We always play Philly weird,” said Empire Co-Head Coach Charlie Hoppes. “For whatever reason, we always play a little wonky against them. I don’t know what it is.” While the Empire expect to reach an even higher level than their undefeated 2022 team, the Phoenix are also eagerly anticipating the opening weekend challenge. “There’s nothing like going out and having to compete at your highest level to start the season,” said Philadelphia Head Coach Roger Chu. One wrinkle to Saturday’s opener is the fact that Phoenix handler Jordan Rhyne, who led the league in completed hucks per game last season, will be on the field. He missed both meetings against the Empire last year. “Pretty stoked to give it a shot,” he said, via the team’s recent Instagram story. “I think our team has improved. Been looking really sharp in practice. I think we’re a little dangerous. First game, we’ll see how it goes.”
Mechanix look to end multi-year losing streak in 2023
While the Empire look to keep their winning streak intact, the Detroit Mechanix are still plugging away in pursuit of their first victory since April 29, 2017. Detroit will debut its 2023 squad on May 13 against Pittsburgh, seeking to end a staggering 62-game losing streak. Somehow, someway, Brent Steepe, the owner and head coach of the Mechanix, continues to believe. “I’m very happy with where we are,” said Steepe. “We don’t even really talk about breaking the streak anymore.” Steepe acknowledges their have been frustrations during this difficult journey, but remains undeterred in his belief that he and his team can compete in the AUDL. “You can’t have success without failure,” he said. “I’ve been the coach that’s broken a 1,000-day losing streak. Nobody else has done that; nobody else knows what that feels like. I’ve already done it, so it’s not like I’m chasing after this feeling or this thing that I haven’t already done. Yea, the streak is bigger. But we’ve already been there.” Astonishingly, Steepe indeed helped the Mechanix end a losing streak that lasted 29 games and exactly 1,000 days, spanning from wins on July 7, 2013 and April 2, 2016. The franchise actually went 4-10 in 2016, but has gone 1-63 since, including 62 consecutive losses since their 23-14 win over Chicago on April 29, 2017. When they take the field against Pittsburgh in a couple weeks, it will be 2,205 days since their last time tasting triumph. “I am proud of the people that come in and take serious heat for being a member of the Mechanix,” said Steepe. “It is not for everybody. It is a tough culture. I’m very demanding as a coach and an owner on my gentlemen because I know it gets the best out of them.” Meanwhile, the rest of the teams in the Central Division (and Toronto) are doing their best to avoid the ignominious distinction of suffering defeat at the hands of the Mechanix. “They fear us,” said Steepe, “and that’s exactly where we want to be, because they don’t want to be the chumps that lose to Detroit.”
Alrighty, it’s time for some super meaningful, all-important preseason predictions. As an omnipotent ultimate oracle, I’m here to gift you the full season results before they happen.
Remember, these picks should be taken super seriously.
Are you ready? Excellent.
After 144 regular season games, including 576 quarters, 11 overtimes, 29 Callahans, and (at least) four Jeff Babbitt buzzer-beaters, here’s what you can expect the standings to look like.
New York, 10-2
Salt Lake, 7-5
Los Angeles, 7-5
San Diego, 4-8
Opening round: New York over Toronto, Indianapolis over Minnesota, Atlanta over Carolina, Salt Lake over Los Angeles
Division championships: DC over New York, Chicago over Indianapolis, Atlanta over Austin, Colorado over Salt Lake
AUDL Semifinals: Colorado over Atlanta, DC over Chicago
AUDL Championship: Colorado over DC
I know these prognostications may foist immense pressure on some and provoke testy motivation from others, but I truly hope everyone enjoys and cherishes a tremendously exciting 2023 season!
Talk to you on AUDL.tv this Saturday night!