May 9, 2023
By Evan Lepler
There have only been 17 games played, with 127 regular season contests remaining, but the early separation is noticeable and noteworthy. Even though three teams are still 0-0 and everyone still has between 75 and 100 percent of their seasons still ahead of them, we’ve witnessed many significant and meaningful results over the past two weekends.
Perhaps no early-season statement was bigger than Minnesota overcoming a four-goal deficit at Indianapolis. In a Central Division race where margins are expected to be super small, the Wind Chill’s narrow road win felt like a game we’ll still be talking about in July.
Same thing could be said about Salt Lake’s five-goal comeback at Portland, paving the way for the Shred’s successful sweep through the Pacific Northwest, lifting the Utah team to 3-0 for the second straight season.
Two weeks in, six teams are at least 2-0, and the Week 3 schedule generously bestows upon us four different battles between unbeatens this coming weekend, one in every division.
The obvious marquee matchups are Austin at Atlanta on Friday in a battle of 2-0 South Division leaders, along with New York at DC on Saturday in the eagerly-anticipated FOX Sports Game of the Week.
Of course, let’s not disrespect the Oakland Spiders, who, at 1-0, have their own chance to rise into the contender conversation by defeating 3-0 Salt Lake on Saturday night in the East Bay. And while some might have their Central Division eyes on Indy at Chicago in the Union’s first contest of 2023, don’t forget that Pittsburgh at Detroit—a matchup between teams that went a combined 5-43 over the past two seasons—is technically a clash between two undefeated squads, the 1-0 Thunderbirds and the 0-0 Mechanix.
(Detroit’s gotta cherish their undefeated status as long as they possibly can, right?)
Now, the folks in Philly don’t wanna hear about the standings through two weeks. The Phoenix made the playoffs last year despite an 0-3 start, so they have plenty of reason to still believe that road setbacks against the league’s top two teams are far from disqualifying. Similarly, the San Diego Growlers, who lost their season opener at home this past Friday, were reminding themselves in the postgame huddle that they once lost their home opener in a season where they later advanced to Championship Weekend, reinforcing the message to everyone that plenty of opportunities remain.
But across the entire landscape, urgency only ratchets upward in the weeks ahead. The teams that have stumbled early are almost in must-win situations already, while for some others, it’s time to get a little greedy.
The Full Field Layout
The Hustle are one such team that should be feeling greedy right now, determined to bank as many early victories as possible.
Before the season began, Head Coach Tuba Benson-Jaja examined the Hustle’s schedule, saw three straight home games against Indianapolis, Carolina, and Austin, and immediately felt that his team had to be at least 2-1 before hitting the road in Week 4.
After impressive back-to-back wins against the AlleyCats and Flyers, the Hustle have set a solid foundation. But a win over the Sol on Friday would cement Atlanta’s status as a true title contender.
“We have so much more growth to do,” said Benson-Jaja. “They know it and have been holding each other accountable in many ways since Friday’s game.”
Against the Flyers, Atlanta led virtually wire-to-wire, but still struggled to put Carolina away until the late stages of the game. They were only broken twice in four quarters, but one of those breaks came midway through the fourth and inched the Flyers within one. Leading 19-18 with six-plus minutes left, Atlanta scored five of the last six goals to finish the job with a flurry, much like DC did against Carolina the previous week, as the Hustle prevailed 24-19.
“I was very impressed with how efficient and methodical the Atlanta offense was at possessing the disc,” said Flyers Coach Mike DeNardis. “We had them in several tight spots, but they almost always found a way to exploit a small crack in our defense.”
Through two games, Atlanta’s averaging just 9.5 turnovers per contest. No other team in the league has had a single-digit turnover game yet this season.
“Part of the push for this win was to get the mental hurdle off our backs,” said Benson-Jaja. “Many of the players that joined the franchise last year had never beaten the Flyers. So this was an important game for us in that regard. I needed them to see that it was possible.”
Hustle big man Brett Hulsmeyer continued his tremendous start with four assists, two goals, one block, and a team-high 598 total yards. He also played an astonishing 31 points, eight more than anyone else on Atlanta. Rookie Liam Haberfield enjoyed a breakout game too, tallying five assists, three goals, and 522 total yards. Jacob Fairfax produced a game-high 690 total yards and dished five assists for the short-handed Flyers, who dipped to 0-2 for the second time in three seasons.
Of course, the last time Carolina started 0-2, the Flyers rallied to win the AUDL Championship.
Both the Hustle and Flyers host Austin this weekend, with Atlanta aiming for 3-0 and Carolina yearning to avoid 0-3, though Carolina has the benefit of getting the Sol on Saturday in the second day of the back-to-back.
Meanwhile, Austin knows how vitally important this coming weekend could be to how they ultimately finish in the South Division. It’s the only time during the regular season that the Sol are leaving Texas.
“Absolutely I’m looking forward to playing maybe the toughest road doubleheader in the league this year,” said Austin’s Kyle Henke. “I want the gut check, I want to see what we’ve got in us, and I’m expecting to learn heaps about ourselves and where we need to be come August.”
One other tidbit regarding Friday’s South Division duel: Atlanta is expecting to add Mischa Freystaetter into the lineup for the first time, as the big man will take the field for his first AUDL game since July 27, 2019.
The Indianapolis AlleyCats returned home from their humbling Week 1 loss in Atlanta, determined to rediscover the taste of victory. But after quickly bolting to a 4-0 lead against Minnesota, the Wind Chill stormed back and spoiled Indy’s home opener with a thrilling 23-21 win, sending the AlleyCats spiraling to 0-2 with a tricky trip to Chicago on tap next.
“That was a helluva game and a satisfying result to start the season,” said Wind Chill veteran Josh Klane. “Clearly there was rust and some nerves to kick off the season, especially considering we were playing a strong squad who have been playing together forever. Additionally, we knew this game was going to have a big impact down the road, so I think we simply just needed a few points to settle down and get into a rhythm.”
Broken on their first three O-points of the game, the Wind Chill finally stabilized and were broken just once more the rest of the day. Minnesota finished with only 10 turnovers over the four quarters and converted seven of their 10 break opportunities in the clutch.
“I don’t feel as if there was one moment that shifted the tide, rather after the first four points of the game our offense was incredibly clean and made few mistakes despite the pressure and height of the Indianapolis defense,” said Minnesota’s Dylan DeClerck.
DeClerck and Tanner Barcus each registered three blocks on the Wind Chill D-line, while Marco Dregni was widely praised for his contributions on offense, finishing with five goals, two assists, and 445 receiving yards. Indy veterans Keegan North, Rick Gross, and Cameron Brock all accumulated significant yards and numerous scores, but each had multiple throwaways, which left the AlleyCats certifiably frustrated in the aftermath.
“We will lose every game until we decide to play pro ultimate instead of college ultimate,” said Brock. “We’re losing games between the ears. I can deal with being physically outmatched, but we’re just playing backyard ultimate, and nothing is worse than losing in a way that’s so controllable.”
The AlleyCats, one of the two remaining AUDL franchises from the league’s inaugural 2012 season, have never before started 0-3, and they’ll have to win at Chicago, something they haven’t done since 2018, to avoid further frustration. Minnesota gets to bask in the glory of the comeback victory for another 11 days before hosting Pittsburgh on May 20.
“With championship aspirations, all we are focused on is getting better each week, and we’re looking forward to continuing to build as we head towards our home opener,” said Klane.
The reigning top two in the West certainly looked like the division’s standard bearing duo again this past weekend, as Colorado and Salt Lake both swept through their doubleheader road trips with two wins apiece. The Summit led by as many as seven in both of their SoCal contests, ultimately prevailing by a combined 10 goals—seven and three, respectively—against the San Diego Growlers and Los Angeles Aviators, while the Shred required an epic comeback on Friday against Portland prior to their second shredding of Seattle in as many weeks.
“We weren’t prepared for Nitro’s intensity,” said Salt Lake’s Sean Connole, trying to explain the Shred’s slow start that had them down 8-3 after 12 minutes in Portland. “I think many of us were still distracted by Utah Wild’s crushing loss to Oregon in overtime [in the preceding Western Ultimate League game at the same stadium]. We weren’t expecting force middle. We had some chemistry and connection issues. Portland wasn’t phased and was feeding off the energy.”
The Nitro still led by four with less than three minutes remaining in the third, but Portland’s offense faltered as the Shred made a critical 7-1 run, transforming an 17-13 deficit into a 20-18 lead with less than four minutes to play. Salt Lake’s O-line did the rest, completing one careful pass after another in the closing moments to seal the deal, never again providing Portland with the shot at an equalizer.
“We put the D-line in a position that they hadn’t experienced much last season, and they rose to the challenge to chip away at the lead each quarter,” said Connole.
A super satisfying road result for Salt Lake doubled as a demoralizing home defeat for Portland, the Nitro’s 10th consecutive loss since starting last year 2-1. Portland travels to Los Angeles and San Diego this coming weekend, with all three teams desperate for their first wins of the year.
Those SoCal teams forced 42 Colorado turnovers across the two games, but had little to show for it as the Summit more often than not avoided breaks when their O-line erred. The Growlers and Aviators combined for 25 break chances against Colorado, but managed just nine breaks. Contrastingly, the Summit orchestrated 20 breaks on 38 opportunities in their two-game sweep, in which Jonathan Nethercutt threw 15 assists and eight different Colorado players created multiple blocks.
“We came out with a lot of good energy,” said Summit Co-Head Coach Tim Kefalas. “A lot of our preseason practices and minicamps have been wildly windy or really cold and rainy, so it’s been hard to get a lot of good reps, but despite all that people came out and player super hard."
Colorado’s next four contests are all at home with games against Seattle, LA, and Oakland preceding the Summit’s first 2023 showdown against the Shred, which is exactly one month away on Friday, June 9.
Coming up later today in “Seven on the Line”, East Division intrigue, Callahan craziness, and a curious road-trip ritual you would never expect.