July 18, 2023
By Evan Lepler
Between the electric environments, crazy comebacks, magical moments, and Ben Jagt’s controversial spiking spree, we are not gonna forget the penultimate weekend of the 2023 AUDL regular season any time soon.
Two franchises clinched their first ever regular season division titles, while two others tasted their first triumphs of the year. A pair of overtime thrillers separated playoff contenders from pretenders, and the Detroit Mechanix never-ending losing streak featured a new foe, yet, inevitably, the same result. Most notably, the top two out West experienced the very best the league has to offer, both inside the lines and in the jam-packed stands.
Beyond all the gripping competition, fierce smack talk, and one particularly interesting implementation of the “Integrity Rule,” the real story of the weekend were the ultimate atmospheres that greeted the New York Empire out in Colorado and Salt Lake. Over 4,000 engaged and energized fans strolled through the turnstiles for the pair of interdivisional showcases, creating genuine buzz and providing a transcendent stage for the league’s greatest dynasty to exude excellence.
“These stadiums are incredible,” said New York’s Ryan Osgar, saluting both Colorado’s Marv Kay Stadium and Salt Lake’s Zions Bank Stadium. “And the fans, it was really electric. We kinda feed off of that, though. We’ve kind of embraced the villain role.”
Indeed, the invigorated Empire consciously veered toward their unique brand of evil as the visiting antagonist, but their playmaking brilliance overshadowed most negative perceptions. Overall, their breathtaking mastery of this sport earned them their 25th and 26th consecutive wins, overcoming two tremendously talented opponents and a pair of hostile hometown crowds, which one certain New York superstar enjoyed relentlessly stoking like a hot coal on a campfire.
“It was calculated, because I want to fire my team up,” said Ben Jagt, speaking specifically about his wild second-quarter spiking extravaganza on Saturday night. “So I will go up to the limit, and I’m so confident that I can hold myself back later in the game; it’s not like an emotional decision to keep spiking. I want to get my team fired up.”
In one of the most stunning sequences ever in an AUDL game, Jagt was suddenly ejected from Saturday’s showdown against the Shred, following his three-spike taunting torrent toward the Salt Lake sideline after skying McKay Yorgason for an Empire second quarter score.
But in an equally astonishing turnaround, Shred Head Coach Bryce Merrill chose to reinstate Jagt back into the game, utilizing the Integrity Rule to overturn the ejection. It was shocking, fascinating, and riveting as it unfolded in real time.
“I think Jagt was making a business decision there,” Merrill said at halftime, with a perfect inflection that was simultaneously serious and seeping with sarcasm. “I think he’s absolutely gassed. He’s sucking cans of oxygen, and I didn’t want to give him an easy out on the field. So I want him to be out here for the second half and see if he can play all four quarters with the Salt Lake Shred.”
Jagt remained in the game, made his own personal history by recording his 300th career assist, and caught a buzzer-beating goal as time expired on New York’s 23-19 win.
“Ben’s a little crazy,” said Osgar. “He probably shouldn’t spike it three times. I don’t really endorse that, but Ben’s gonna do what he does [...] We’ll probably tell Ben to just chill out a little bit.”
After Saturday’s game, Jagt made it clear that he did not regret any of his choices and that he appreciated the Salt Lake crowd. He added that as long as everyone doesn’t think he’s a dirty player, he’s absolutely fine being considered the villain.
“There was one person in the high-five line who didn’t high-five me,” he said. “Everyone else is high-fiving. It was the same with [Alex] Atkins [on Friday in Colorado.] We were talking a lot of smack; that’s just how it is.”
Jagt was not surprised to receive an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his actions, but did not feel an ejection was warranted. While he did not embark on another over-the-top spiking barrage, he continued to blow heckling kisses toward the booing ShredHead fans following future scores. He finished the night with four goals, two assists, one block, and no turns, and the two-time MVP wore a big grin on his face as he strolled out of Zions Bank Stadium.
“We just came out and said we’re the best team and we’re gonna show everyone that we’re the best team,” said Jagt.
The Empire’s pursuit of ultimate immortality will continue into the playoffs, as New York strives to become the first back-to-back AUDL champion since the Spiders in 2014 and 2015. Opponents and fans may dislike Jagt’s actions and attitude, but until someone snaps their winning streak, it’d be foolish to expect anything different.
The Full Field Layout
For just the third time during their current 26-0 stretch, the New York Empire trailed at halftime on Friday evening against the Summit. Colorado led 7-6 following a defensive-oriented first half, where both O-lines struggled to find consistency.
“I think it was us adjusting to throwing in the altitude in the first half,” said Jeff Babbitt. “I think we had some sloppy turnovers on the O-line. When the sun went down and we sort of adjusted mentally for the altitude, I thought the O-line looked really crisp.”
After a 10-turn first half, New York navigated the third and fourth quarters with only three giveaways. Up 12-11 with 12 minutes left, the Empire D-line bombarded the Summit with four devastating breaks, seizing control and turning a nail biter into another comfortable win for the reigning AUDL champs.
“The true story was the D-line just kicked butt all night,” added Babbitt. “They really earned it for us. That Bretton Tan Callahan with [five] minutes left in the game, I knew it was over. Such a momentous play right there.”
Indeed, Tan’s Callahan with 4:54 left made it 17-12, and the Empire prevailed 19-15.
“[We played] a good three quarters,” said Summit Co-Head Coach Tim Kefalas. “Not scoring that one at the tail end of the third to make it 12-12 receiving in the fourth was pretty tough, and then, their D just ratcheted up the pressure. They scored three or four in a row defensively, and it’s hard to recover from that. They’re a good team, super athletic. Pretty happy with what we did overall through the first three, but that athleticism kind of wore us out by the fourth.”
Even in defeat, members of the Summit remarked how they cherished the opportunity to play New York in front of such a tremendous crowd. Officially, the attendance was 1,922.
Truthfully, it felt like more.
“That was the most people by far that I’ve ever played in front of,” said Colorado’s Alex Atkins. “So it was really exciting. It was a great challenge. I think, as a young team, those kinds of experiences are just gonna be invaluable going forward in the franchise’s history.”
It was impossible not to notice the steady back-and-forth chirping between Atkins and Jagt throughout the night.
“By far more [chirping] than I’ve ever experienced,” said Atkins. “The first time I touched the disc, Jagt’s in my ear talking to me. It’s insane. Never experienced that before. I try to keep it respectful in terms of no hard feelings at the end. He’s not gonna be my best friend going forward, but I’m not gonna hate on the guy.”
Jagt said he appreciated the battle, both verbally and athletically.
“It was really fun,” said Jagt, after Friday’s game. “We went toe-to-toe. Always fun talking shit and getting some back. Kins played really well. Talking smack back and forth was really fun. The atmosphere was fun, and finally we focused on ourselves, and I think our fitness really showed through.”
All the Jagt drama is interesting, but it should not overshadow the absurdly high level on display in both games on New York’s trip, particularly Saturday’s battle of unbeatens in Salt Lake City. Against the Shred, the Empire created an early lead, but Salt Lake managed to keep it close. It was a two-goal game early in the fourth and the Shred provided plenty of pressure, but the Empire would not crack. New York only turned the disc over once in the final 12 minutes, ultimately winning 23-19.
“I think when the moment’s bigger, we just kinda lock in and focus even more,” said Empire handler Elliott Chartock. “So you’ll see in close games, the closer it is, the cleaner we generally play. We came out loose, but then by the third, fourth quarter, we just locked in and play our game.”
Many members of the Empire marveled at Salt Lake’s crowd, which officially measured at 2,235, the largest attendance for any AUDL game so far this season. Much like the night before, it felt like even more.
“It definitely was [the best crowd I’ve played in front of],” said Shred cutter Jace Duennebeil. “There were multiple times where I was just walking the sideline, and I would look up there and I would just have to smile because it was just so cool to see the whole crowd there.”
Duennebeil’s emergence as a dual-threat playmaker was one of Salt Lake’s big stories of the night. The Utah-alum has been proficiently catching goals all season long, but he also tossed a career-best five assists against the Empire in a breakout performance.
“It was like a dream, honestly,” said Duennebeil, who finished with five goals, five assists, and no turns. “I had nerves all throughout the week, and then I kinda stepped onto the field and all the nerves just went away, and I just kinda went out there and balled out.”
In the end, however, it was not enough to lift his team to victory. The Shred generated the exact same number of break chances as the Empire, but while Salt Lake went 3-for-8, New York went 6-for-8. That, to put it very simply, was the difference in the game.
“We had a couple golden opportunities that we [weren’t] able to punch in,” Merrill said at halftime. “That’s our youthfulness coming out.”
Should they meet the Empire again at Championship Weekend, the Shred certainly feel like they have the athleticism and the will to compete with New York.
“I think we’re there,” said Salt Lake’s Elijah Jaime. “I think we’re on this level. We can compete with them on a good day. And, the thing is, New York will never have a bad day, so we just have to rise up to that level.”
While New York and Salt Lake dueled in the Game of the Week, other critical contests that were even more consequential in the East and West playoff pictures were unfolding coast-to-coast, eventually resulting in the sixth and seventh overtime games in the AUDL this season.
The Philadelphia Phoenix sure do have a knack for making their top rivals work, particularly when the Hotbirds are at home. Philly used a dominant 6-2 second quarter to create an 11-8 halftime lead on the DC Breeze, but it would not last. The Breeze rallied back and overtime beckoned at 18-all. In the five-minute period of bonus ultimate, the Phoenix failed to find the end zone once, and DC escaped with a 20-18 overtime victory.
“To be frank, it was a tough loss to swallow,” said Philly’s Calvin Trisolini. “We started strong, we were winning the energy game and had better focus of the first few points, but DC played an impressive game from start to finish [...] In OT, they executed when it matters, and we couldn’t do that this time.”
The final stats were a testament to DC’s small-ball, possession-oriented style. The Breeze went an efficient 5-for-6 on their hucks, while the Phoenix were 8-for-14. In the red zone, DC converted on all but one of its 17 chances; Philly had a pair of red zone giveaways, which are always especially costly against the Breeze.
“On the offensive side of the disc, I think this was our first game of the season with all our guys healthy and playing together,” said DC’s Jacques Nissen. “So that was exciting [...] We also hit a groove midway through the game and started to get comfortable against their force middle defense. Shout-out Tyler Monroe for some great grabs in the deep space all game.”
The Breeze’s victory officially secured the two-seed in the East and also left the Phoenix contemplating a season of missed opportunities. Saturday was Philly’s second overtime loss of the year and the fifth time that the 5-6 Phoenix fell by three or fewer.
“Folks certainly had high expectations going into this season, and frankly, I believe the 2023 Phoenix have shown immense growth over the 2022 Phoenix, regardless of making the playoffs or not,” said Philly Coach Roger Chu. “I think back to Giannis’s response to a reporter asking if his season was a failure because he didn’t win a championship, and his words ring very true to me. Undoubtedly, in sports, winning is the ultimate goal. But I’d argue that the winding journey leading up to winning is what makes sports meaningful.”
Philly has to endure a long offseason before getting another shot at the Breeze. The Los Angeles Aviators, after their excruciating collapse against Oakland on Saturday, only have to wait three more days for an important rematch.
Late in the third quarter, the Aviators possessed the disc with a 17-11 lead, seemingly completely in control on the road against the Spiders. But that’s when everything suddenly flipped, and by the midway point of the fourth, Oakland was in front 18-17 after scoring seven straight goals.
“Still not really sure what happened,” said Aviators Coach Jeff Landesman. “Saturday’s loss was one of the most heartbreaking I have ever been involved with and will probably sting forever.”
The pain will soften more quickly if Los Angeles can bounce back and beat the Spiders this Friday, but Oakland’s 20-19 overtime victory in Week 12 rendered the Aviators as partial bystanders in their playoff pursuit. Even if LA can win on Friday, the Aviators will miss the postseason unless the Spiders also lose in San Diego on Saturday.
Of course, one team’s excruciating collapse is another’s epic and exhilarating comeback. After a rough first few quarters with plenty of errant throws, drops, and sloppy Spiders ultimate, Oakland caught fire late.
“In the first point out of half, Robin Vickers Batsdorf got a huge layout block on [Pawel] Janas, and we all felt the tides begin to turn,” said Spiders Coach Dan Silverstein. “The dam didn’t break fully until the fourth quarter, but I think it was simply a force of will from the players and the team [...] I think it’s easy to look at the Spiders, see how they fall behind, and think: ‘That’s a young team playing inconsistent.’ I see a team that doesn’t give up and routinely fights back in the second half, even when things are looking ugly at the time. That’s a young team playing above its age.”
Even though the Spiders were missing star handler Mac Hecht, several other players stepped up, including two who were making their AUDL debuts. Despite the fact that they hadn’t played in a game all season, Kyle Lew contributed two assists and two blocks, and Matt Barcellos tallied four assists and a block.
“Kyle Lew and Matt Barcellos have both been with our program since the start of the season,” said Silverstein. “Like many of our players, they are young, and in fact both are still in college…We were very excited to have them on the team, and their play this weekend was stellar and speaks to exactly why we wanted them on the team. Although they’ve joined the team later into the season, they’ve been out to a lot of our practices and learning sessions previously, and I’m not at all surprised to see them slot in successfully.”
Sean McDougall led the Aviators with six assists, two goals, and two blocks, while Everett Shapiro caught six goals, but the individual numbers meant absolutely nothing after the difficult fourth quarter and overtime.
“Yea, that game was pretty rough,” said McDougall. “Probably one of the most painful ones I’ve experienced, to be honest. If you ever watched the movie ‘The Replacements’ and remember when Keanu Reaves gives the explanation of quicksand, it kinda felt like that, where the more you struggled, the worse it got.”
Oakland only needs one win on their upcoming SoCal doubleheader weekend to clinch a playoff spot, but the Spiders also know that two wins will earn them the two-seed and a home game against Colorado. While half of their 2023 home games have gone to overtime, the Spiders are 5-1 in Oakland this season, with no losses in regulation.
“Home field advantage [in the playoffs] would be huge,” said Silverstein. “Teams routinely come to Oakland and have their worst offensive game of the year.”
Coming up later today in “Seven on the Line”, Atlanta and Minnesota clinch division titles, Indianapolis earns a home playoff game, and two proud teams joyously discover the feeling of victory for the first time this season.
Photos by Wade Bricknell, Daniel Cohen, Roxanne Duennebeil, and Sloth Jackson