June 1, 2023
By Shaggy Shragis
The Philadelphia Phoenix (1-4) are hosting the 2021 champion Carolina Flyers (3-2) in the AUDL Game of the Week on Fox Sports 2. Philadelphia is looking to build on their out of division win at Pittsburgh last weekend, while Carolina will be coming off a back-to-back as they face the DC Breeze on Friday night. This is a big weekend for both teams. For Carolina, they have a chance to avenge their opening loss to the Breeze, and pick up some wins before a grueling final stretch. For the Hotbirds, it is a chance to wiggle their way back into the playoff race, and prove to the league that they are in fact that good.
These two teams have met once before, a 23-11 dismantling on the part of the Flyers, and Philly’s worst loss of the 2021 season. The Hotbirds look quite different from that 2021 squad, and just two players from that O-Line—Sean Mott and Greg Martin—are playing offense for the 2023 Phoenix. Carolina has changed drastically as well, with four of their top five players from that game—David Richardson, Henry Richardson, Josh Hartzog, and Seth Weaver—not on this 2023 Flyers team.
Despite a string of notable retirements from the Flyers, North Carolina’s ability to churn out elite ultimate talent continues to be unmatched through the league. Top defensive stars have shifted seamlessly to the offense, and each year a crop of talented highschoolers and college students rotate into the Carolina defensive core, earning valuable minutes until they too eventually become polished members of the O-line. Last year saw Alex Davis and Trevor Lynch shift to the offense, and this season has seen Suraj Madiraju and Elijah Long join them. The Flyers also return Anders Juengst, an elite scorer who missed the entirety of 2022 due to injury.
Carolina will also bring back players missing due to conflicts with the 2023 college season. Alex Davis, Suraj Madiraju, Matt Gouchoe-Hanas, and Liam Searles Bohs all missed their previous game against Houston as coaches for the 2023 college champion UNC Darkside, while Matthew McKnight and Kevin Pignone were playing for Darkside. Nearly an entire line of elite talent will slot back into the lineup this weekend. Philly has a college star of its own: Gavin Abrahamsson—a freshman at UMass who started for the second place college nationals team—returns to the lineup this weekend. In 10 games for the Phoenix last season, Gavin played defense and wracked up 7 goals and 7 blocks, including a crucial D in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see where Gavin slots into Philadelphia’s top notch defense.
Speaking of defense, Saturday will be the toughest test for the Hotbird defenders. Carolina is a uniquely opportunistic team, with each member of their offense scoring about two goals per game. Philadelphia has shown themselves capable of limiting individual performers (see the recap of Eric Witmer’s performance against Max Sheppard) and had a sterling performance against DC, another team that spreads the disc around. The Flyers are a step up from that however, and it will be interesting to see how the defense adjusts. It will require not just athleticism, but impressive mental defending, and this could be the game where wily defender Eric Nardelli cements his status as all time block leader (he is currently tied with Matt Esser).
One area to attack the Carolina offense is in the endzone. Despite having the second best attack in the league, the Flyers are 17th in red zone efficiency, one spot below the Phoenix. Justin Keller and Paul Owens will both play key roles here, pressuring the resets for Carolina’s handlers while maintaining the force. 76%—the Flyers’ endzone conversion rate—is shockingly bad. Philadelphia holds teams to the fewest hucks per game, so Carolina should have several red zone opportunities. If Philadelphia holds them to just three goals per four attempts, it will go a long way towards a Hotbird victory.
Philadelphia’s offense will need a supreme performance to solidify that win. The trend line is going up, with the past two games being the two most efficient offensive outings for Philly, but the Hotbirds are still second to last in the league in offensive efficiency. That requires patience from James Pollard and control for Jordan Rhyne. Both players are completing below 90% of their throws this season: James on overeager hucks, and Jordan on mistimed swings and unders. J&J Airlines will need a pristine performance to provide cover for the defense to do what they’ve done as well as anyone this season: get breaks. The return of Greg Martin should help. Greg had 7 goals in his last home game, and provides a dynamic downfield target for all the Hotbird huckers. Carolina has been average against deep shots this season, and a repeat of the electric 12 for 12 hucking performance against the Empire at home would make Phoenix fans very happy.
Pulling will play a major factor in this game. Bladey roller pulls dragged the Flyers’ back into their game against DC, and Carolina has no shortage of crafty throwers capable of plopping a pull in the back of the endzone and having it roll out. The Hotbirds have struggled with the new pulling rules, floundering in the endzone against their last three opponents on discs that rolled out of bounds. Philly needs to figure out what to do against good pulls in order to be successful this season. Sean Mott was effective catching the pulls against New York, but a specific and intentional offensive set will be required to work the disc off the sidelines and get it downfield.
It's hard to see Philadelphia conquering Carolina, a team that has never missed the playoffs since they came into the league in 2015. But it was equally hard to see the Hotbirds take the Empire to overtime, or turn the DC game into a one point contest. The Flyers will be coming off a Friday night doubleheader against those very same Breeze, a team they will be thirsting for revenge against, and Philly could present a bit of a trap game. Plus, the league becomes much more interesting if the Phoenix win. 18-17 Philadelphia victory to kick off Hotbird Summer with a bang. Go Birds!