July 25, 2023
By Evan Lepler
We are exactly one month away from 2023 AUDL Championship Weekend, with 12 teams still clinging to their own championship dreams.
Certainly, some of those aspirations are more realistic than others, but among the determined dozen that qualified for the dance, all are just three or four consecutive wins away from ultimate immortality.
It’s always risky to simply pencil in the favorites, but if the four regular season division winners advance to the semifinals, the matchups on August 25 would pit New York and Minnesota on one side of the bracket, Salt Lake and Atlanta on the other. Of course, it’s important to remember that history definitely gives the underdogs a fighting chance. In fact, before last year, when all four top seeds advanced to Championship Weekend, there were home teams that suffered postseason setbacks in each of the previous five playoffs.
Back in 2018, the New York Empire traveled to Toronto having never previously defeated the Rush. But by embracing the mantra that ‘no one beats the Empire 18 straight times,’ the boys from the Big Apple pulled off the stunner, moving to 1-17 all-time against Toronto and dethroning the team that had won each of the previous five East Division titles.
Five years later, it’s New York that’s seeking its fifth consecutive trip to Championship Weekend. Could the 2023 DC Breeze, despite having fallen in 10 of their last 11 matchups against New York, finally overthrow the Empire? It’s been something that Darryl Stanley’s been plotting for years, and since he’s planning to step away from coaching after the season, this is his final chance.
Interestingly, the other three regular season division champs—Atlanta, Minnesota, and Salt Lake—are all teams seeking their first ever appearance at Championship Weekend. This trio is a combined 18-0 at home this year, however the expectations and pressure that accompany a first-place finish are also beckoning. Furthermore, they still will have to outlast another hungry divisional opponent, most likely one that has experience winning at this stage if the season. In fact, if Carolina can survive the Sol and the brutal triple-digit degree Texas heat, then the Hustle, Wind Chill, and Shred will all be facing opponents that have advanced to the league’s premier event at some point in the last half-decade.
So buckle up and lock in for 11 more eliminations on the road to crowning our 2023 AUDL Champion! For the teams that fall short, hopefully their exits will be less heartbreaking than the cruel Week 13 fate suffered by the Oakland Spiders.
The Full Field Layout
In the 12-year-history of the league, has any AUDL team ever missed the playoffs in a more excruciating fashion?
Maybe the 2021 Austin Sol, who endured three one-goal losses at the hands of the two teams that finished above them. The 2023 Philadelphia Phoenix are also probably still gritting their teeth in despair after coming up short against New York and DC in overtime, not to mention their blown seven-goal lead at Boston that preceded yet another evening of anger and heartbreak at home against the Glory. There are surely several other sad stories of woulda, coulda, shoulda that we could compare.
But Oakland’s agony after suffering back-to-back one-goal losses on consecutive nights, when just a single victory would have extended the Spiders’ season, ranks right near the top in terms of painful missed opportunities across the gamut of AUDL drama.
It wasn’t just that they lost—it was how they lost.
On Friday, they were tied or in the lead for 47 minutes, 57.5 seconds. Seriously.
On Saturday, they stumbled early, but quickly narrowed the gap and seemed ready to pounce against a team that had lost eight straight, only for the gutty Growlers to refuse to roll over. In the closing moments, San Diego’s seasoned vets delivered an unforgettable late-game dagger against Oakland’s athletic but relatively inexperienced youth, sending the Spiders into an offseason of wondering what might have been.
Meanwhile, the weekend was also an absolute emotional roller-coaster for the Los Angeles Aviators. In the first quarter on Friday night, it felt like their Santa Barbara experiment had backfired. The Aviators were broken on four of their first five O-points at San Marcos High School, dramatically dampening the buzz of hosting their first game ever in the city known as the birthplace of west coast ultimate.
With Santa Barbara legend Tom Kennedy—long considered one of the sport’s founding fathers—sitting in the stands and spectating his first professional ultimate game, LA rallied and found a way thanks to Brandon Van Deusen’s game-winning throw that Marcel Osborne squeezed with 2.5 seconds remaining. Mitchell Steiner’s block at the buzzer sealed the deal, but the Aviators were still on the outside looking in as the Spiders shifted to Saturday’s finale in San Diego.
“In Santa Barbara, I was confident and in the driver’s seat,” said Van Deusen. “That game-winner felt natural. It was a different story in San Diego. I felt helpless. I wanted to strap on some cleats and get back out there. It is super nerve racking watching your fate in someone else’s hands. Luckily for us, Travis Dunn got some clutch hands.”
Indeed, the final stake in the Spiders’ heart came when Dunn’s seventh assist of the night angelically floated toward Steven Milardovich, who sprinted exuberantly in celebration while holding up the game-winning grab toward his teammates, Growlers fans, and Van Deusen, who shared his and the Aviators’ joy with the entire world. The whole sequence captured the essence of sports, exhilaration and euphoria for the SoCal scene, pain and disbelief for Oakland.
“Sports is the highs and lows of emotions,” said Spiders Coach Dan Silverstein, following Friday’s narrow loss in Los Angeles. “Last week, we got to experience the high and this week we get to experience the low, and that’s just sports. It’s frustrating and it sucks, but we get to experience it together.”
Over the course of the entire season, three of Oakland’s 12 games went to overtime, with the Spiders going 2-1 in those contests. Four others were decided by one in regulation, in which they went 2-2, with both setbacks coming in succession on a weekend when just one win would have meant more ultimate.
“With 50 percent roster turnover from last year and a ton of AUDL rookies, many of us didn’t really know what to expect from the team coming into this year,” said Oakland’s Walker Frankenberg, who tallied 10 goals and three assists on the weekend. “I think we all feel like we have yet to have a game where we played a full four quarters up to our potential. While for this year, it meant going 4-3 across seven one-point games, I think that we definitely laid the groundwork for what’s to come, and one thing we all definitely echoed, both going into the weekend and coming out of it, was that excitement for that.”
Meanwhile, the Growlers understood that their 2023 season fell short of the new San Diego standard, but Saturday’s sweetness, even if their LA rivals were relishing it a bit more, provided a pleasant stepping-stone toward the offseason.
“Even though in AUDL the Aviators are our rivals, there is a lot of pride in the SoCal ultimate community,” said Milardovich. “And beating teams from the Bay Area is always meaningful and satisfying.”
Time ticked down, and the Santa Barbara-native who helped organize the Aviators' appearance at San Marcos High School made eye contact with Van Deusen, who had the disc on the doorstep with about seven seconds left. Moments later, Michael Kiyoi’s storybook finish was literally floating in the air on the break-side of the end-zone stack.
But another one of Santa Barbara’s hometown heroes, Marcel Osborne, a 2018 UCSB alum, raced in to snatch Van Deusen’s rising backhand just before the buzzer. Even if it was intended for Kiyoi, the veteran, who’s affectionately nicknamed “The Sultan” bore no hard feelings.
“Brandon Van Deusen came up to me after the point and said, ‘that was definitely to you,’” said Kiyoi. “He was like, ‘I had flashes of Mr. K., Mr. Kiyoi catching the game-winning goal and just the crowd going nuts,’ and I saw it too because we made eye contact, and then I saw the last second Marcel coming in and I kinda backed off because the worst thing that could’ve happened was we hit each other and no one catches it.”
Even without hauling in the game-winning buzzer-beater, it was still an incredibly special night for the Aviators, their crew of Santa Barbara residents, and, particularly, the 37-year-old Kiyoi, who has spent the past 13 years working as the Instrumental Music Director at San Marcos High School. Dozens of his students were there to see Mr. K. make big plays all night long.
“It was a dream come true,” said Kiyoi. “We’ve been discussing this for years, ever since the AUDL came to the west coast. I’ve been planting the seed with administration, the athletic director, and finally we made it happen. It was great.”
Even after LA’s go-ahead goal, the Spiders still had the last-second opportunity for the equalizer, and the Aviators’ regulation victory felt especially precarious after Garrett Santi’s pull slipped out of his hands, soaring immediately out of bounds which gave Oakland possession in the middle of the field, 20 or so yards away from the end zone.
“In retrospect, maybe I should’ve called a timeout and drew something up,” reflected Mac Hecht after his last throw was blocked by LA’s Mitchell Steiner, “but maybe then they would’ve double-teamed, which makes that throw all the harder. The play is either throw a knife to a spot or throw up a moon ball to one of the big guys, and I saw a spot that I thought was open and missed by like three inches, and I’ll live with that and be frustrated by it and watch it over and over again. That’s one that I’m gonna be thinking about a lot. I want that one back.”
It was also interesting to hear Steiner’s perspective of the critical game-concluding sequence.
“I was just watching the thrower’s eyes,” he said. “I watched him scan the field, and I tried to make it look like there was a little bit of a window to that corner, but my hips were pointed right there, I was expecting him to throw to that spot, and I just took off as soon as he let go and hoped for the best…I thought I had it the whole way.”
Considering how the Spiders had led by as many as five goals and never trailed until there were 2.5 seconds left, this was clearly one of the most improbable results across the AUDL this season. From the Los Angeles perspective, the initial celebration was muted a bit by the reality that they still needed San Diego to pull off the Saturday upset too, but it was unquestionably a magical night, especially for the Santa Barbara contingent.
“The crowd’s energy, you could tell they’ve been waiting for this game for a really long time, so that was awesome to have that support,” said Steiner. “And I’m just glad we didn’t blow it at the end for them.”
When the Atlanta Hustle won at Carolina 10 days ago to clinch the South Division’s regular season crown, the AUDL chose to flex to a different “Game of the Week,” but the Flyers and Hustle still produced another dramatic chapter of their marvelous rivalry. Seeding in the South may no longer have been at stake, but both teams still battled with fierce conviction, and it sure looked like everyone coveted victory.
“Going into Saturday night’s game, it was tempting to fall into the mental trap of looking ahead to the playoffs,” said Atlanta’s Austin Taylor, “but we still felt like there was a lot on the line: going undefeated at home, winning the season series against Carolina, and most importantly, getting more reps together and continuing to grow towards our ultimate goal.”
Hustle Coach Tuba Benson-Jaja also pointed out that Atlanta had gone 0-3 against Carolina in 2022, and a primary goal of the 2023 season was to improve against the Flyers. They were 2-1 heading into the finale, and obviously another win would be particularly satisfying.
“[Going] 2-2 [against the Flyers this year] would have been reasonable, but 3-1 sounded better,” said Benson-Jaja, “and once we got our win in Carolina last week, we wanted to target our season closer.”
The Hustle opened the night with back-to-back breaks, built a 6-2 lead, and never trailed for a single second throughout the game, yet they still required five more minutes after Carolina’s comeback necessitated overtime.
“Lots of self-inflicted wounds in the first quarter,” said Flyers handler Sol Yanuck, “but when we committed to lateral ball movement and made a few spacing adjustments, things really felt like they clicked back in for us against the matchup D of Atlanta.”
Each team was missing several key players, but many of the stars were out there making jaw-dropping plays. Carolina’s Jacob Fairfax capped the third quarter with a ridiculous buzzer-beating sky, and Atlanta’s Brett Hulsmeyer scored five of his six goals in the fourth quarter and overtime, basically taking over when it mattered most.
“Fortunately, we had the X-factor in Brett, who took over in crunch time,” said Taylor, who tallied eight assists and went 7-for-7 on hucks.
The Hustle now await the winner of this Saturday’s showdown between the Flyers and the Sol, another contest that feels like it will likely go down to the wire. Four of the last five meetings between Carolina and Austin, including both recent matchups in Texas, have been decided by three or less.
“Austin has had months to brainstorm for how to take us down, so I’m very excited to see what levers they pull, what they identify as the weak points in our game,” said Yanuck. “But this season has largely been a struggle against our own inconsistency, so I think the feeling we’re taking away from Saturday is one of improved connectivity and trust, which will be the deciding factor for us this weekend. Our defense will always give us a chance to win.”
Coming up later today in “Seven on the Line”, Boston officially claims a playoff berth, Madison’s 2-0 weekend, Canada’s 0-4 weekend, playoff previews, and more.