June 8, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
The AUDL should be afraid of the Raleigh Flyers. Even though the Flyers entered the 2018 season as overwhelming on-paper favourites, Raleigh had their problems early on. After the first few weeks, the team sat at 3-2 with no lopsided victories to its name.
“We knew as a team that we were underperforming,” offensive coach David Allison explained, simply.
Only a few weeks later, Raleigh traveled to Washington D.C. and laid an egg in the first half against the Breeze. Their offense managed only eight points before halftime, and though they staged a miniature comeback, they ended up losing the game. The DC loss set a fire beneath Raleigh.
“Everybody was maybe overconfident in their ability to go up to D.C. and just kind of handle D.C., the way D.C. had been playing up to that point,” said Allison. “Going up there and getting our tails kicked, in a sense, especially right out of the gate, I think was motivational for the offense, for sure, but for the team as a whole.”
“Coming into [the Madison] game, we were two weeks removed, but still pretty frustrated, with the way we played in D.C.,” said Flyers defensive star Noah Saul.
In the month since Raleigh’s loss to DC, the team has had its share of lopsided victories. The Flyers walloped the Madison Radicals at Breese Stevens Field before more than doubling up on the Austin Sol at home. What changed?
First and foremost, availability has been spotty for the Flyers. Offensive stars Jacob Fairfax, Jonathan Nethercutt, and Bob Liu have missed a variety of games. Even without them, the Flyers still have more talent than practically any opponent on paper, but the team has been trying to incorporate new pieces. Mischa Freystaetter and Liu are both new offensive players, with Andrew McKelvey and Jakeem Polk new to the defense. The team is learning how to play together, so missing a few players steepens the climb towards wink-wink on-field chemistry.
“With O-Line, especially, having a couple pieces missing can really affect the overall flow of how you play,” said Nethercutt.
The Madison game represented Raleigh’s first opportunity to play a starting offensive lineup of Kiron Allen and Liu handling, Fairfax, Jack Williams, and Freystaetter cutting, with Brett Matzuka and Nethercutt flitting between both positions. The team opened up their offensive system this year, adding an extra handler position, which has benefited Allen and Matzuka greatly.
The season thus far has acted as a crucible for Raleigh’s development; a difficult, front-loaded schedule, combined with a changing roster from game to game, has been the fire that’s hardened Raleigh. When stars like Nethercutt or Fairfax miss games, Williams is pushed into a pure handling role. He’s succeeded, but the Flyers are at their deadliest offensively when all the best players perform the right skills in the right roles.
Take a trio of stars: Liu, Williams, and Fairfax. One thrower, one hybrid, and one deep threat. They’ve only managed to play 61 offensive points together on the season, but they’ve converted a near-perfect 54 goals, or 88 percent of their opportunities. For comparison’s sake, the 2016 Dallas Roughnecks, likely the greatest AUDL team of all time, only converted on 78 percent of their offensive points. The offensive points shared by Beau Kittredge, Kurt Gibson, and Jimmy Mickle were only converted 82 percent successfully. The Flyers have the talent to be shatter offensive records when their players are available, in the correct roles, and know instantly what the other is going to do.
They’re getting close.
Raleigh beating Madison and Austin taught that the Flyers are at their offensive best when Liu, Allen, and Matzuka are handling together. They are offensive hubs who value possession of the disc like most players value highlight skies. They are masters of shifting small angles on the field, methodically improving the team’s offensive positioning with every pass and cut. They will not turn it over, and they hit players in stride, moving forward. It’s easy to turn the corner on a catch thrown from a Flyer handler.
Freystaetter and Fairfax are monster targets downfield, both deserving of a defense’s top defender. They have terrific reset or continuation throws, so a defense cannot hope an opportunistic double-team will force turnovers from them.
Nethercutt is the howitzer of the line, with more range on his hucks than any other offensive weapon, and with hammers that hit receivers in the chest from more than fifty yards away. He can act as an initiation cutter or a reset option, but defenders will always need to take a few steps closer to their marks whenever Nethercutt catches the disc.
And yet Williams has been the Flyers’ best offensive player on the season. He’s first on the team in assists, with 38, and only one behind the team leader in goals, with 29.
“He's no longer just an explosive, athletic receiver,” said Nethercutt. “He's very capable as a thrower, and not only that, but he's also a really talented mover around the disc. He's got that ability to understand how his movement impacts the entire offense, and impacts his defender when he's in the handler set, just like he does in the downfield space.”
Williams began his career as a cutter who would jump over defenders. But when Xavier Maxstadt and other handlers graduated from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Williams was forced into a pure handling role.
“The usage rate that Wilmington had for him last year gave him a lot of experience to do a lot of different things,” explained Allison, also a coach at UNCW. “[He was no longer] just…one of the most dangerous cutters in ultimate. Coming back and handl[ing] for years at Wilmington will certainly teach you how to throw in the wind.”
Now if a defense puts a deep defender on Williams, he’ll take the threat into the backfield and dice up the defense with his throws. A deep defender matching up with handlers is a win for the offense. If a defense throws a jitterbug handler defender on Williams, he will comfortably beat them in the air, and Nethercutt will always deliver the disc to the right place.
Williams has uncanny chemistry with everyone on the field, especially Nethercutt in the backfield and Fairfax in the deep space. In only five games played alongside Nethercutt, he’s caught six goals thrown by the devastating handler, and Williams has dished 10 of his own to Fairfax in the six games they’ve both attended.
On a team full of All-AUDL caliber talents, Williams has dominated the statistical categories. It takes special leaders in Nethercutt and others to not be concerned with statistics.
“Maybe our best skill as a group is that none of us care how the job gets done, but all of us care that we get the job done,” said Nethercutt. “Maybe what's most amazing is that Jack is still having such a great statistical year with all of us being happy to spread the ball around. He just does such a good job of finding the right spaces at the right time, that even though we're all more than happy for anyone to score and anyone to assist, he can still be in the right spot so often.”
That doesn’t even include Jonathan Helton, Jacob Mouw, or Terrence Mitchell. They’re three freak athletes who play offense as well. When available, Helton is as dangerous a weapon as Nethercutt or Williams.
Despite the mix of talent and athleticism on the Raleigh offense, the team’s defense has been equally successful. They’ve already held teams to 20 points or fewer in a game six times this season. Raleigh’s defense has the chops to compete with the offense.
“They definitely get tested at practice. I'm sure of it,” said Noah Saul. “If one [line] gets up, there's no let-up. We try and really grind the other [line] out, and vice versa. It's always trying to push each other to the breaking point. It's fun to battle.”
Noah Saul is as pure and talented a thrower as anyone else on the team, including Liu or Nethercutt. Last year, Saul played occasionally on the D-Line, but was generally an offensive handler. Matzuka had carte blanche as a defensive quarterback in 2017. This year, Saul has thrived as the leader of the defensive line after a turn, with as many assists – 22 – as offensive handler Bob Liu.
With a stable of athletes on the D-Line, Raleigh started out the season playing fairly vanilla person defense, counting on their athleticism to win games. It’s been generally successful, but not to the level the team has expected of itself. As players have become more accustomed to playing together, Head Coach Mike DeNardis has added tricks to the team’s performance, and it’s paid off massively against Madison and Austin.
“The last couple games, we've tried to vary our looks on both sides a little bit more, and it's yielded positive results. Zones, it's various looks that aren't purely matchup defenses. Even if we matchup, we may give a junk look for a few counts, as opposed to coming down in straight person. The marks will vary a little bit, how we mark, but in general, just trying to keep an offense on their toes more than we have been,” explained DeNardis.
Raleigh’s defense set much flatter marks against Madison, hoping to force any hucks to come out floaty or angled – no straight-line deep shots. Meanwhile, downfield defenders parked themselves underneath cutters, disallowing any short passes and switching to maintain positioning. They baited deep cuts, trusting in their ability to make up steps with the disc in the air, especially considering the disc would have to take indirect routes to cutters due to the flat marks.
The Flyers are at their most dangerous after they break an offense. Most broken teams will roll out a second offensive line or even a defensive line on the next offensive point; usually, lesser players will receive the disc for Raleigh’s opponents if Raleigh’s defense scores a point. Raleigh, meanwhile, will frequently play a stronger defensive line after a break.
Nethercutt, Williams, and Fairfax played defense on the second point after Raleigh broke Madison to start the game. Nethercutt and Freystaetter shared a defensive line just before the half. Both resulted in breaks for Raleigh.
When Nethercutt and Freystaetter share a defensive line, Raleigh has scored 64 percent of the time on the season. That’s almost as efficient as the undefeated Toronto Rush’s actual offensive line, which has scored on 67 percent of its chances. Nethercutt and Freystaetter haven’t been scored on while playing defense together since their second game of the season, on April 7th.
“It's a great asset to have, where if a pure D-Line gets a break, we can pull a couple O-Line guys over who are more tweeners,” explained DeNardis. “Once that gets going, once that engine gets revving, the pattern kind of repeats. Once we get a couple breaks, we tend to get more breaks.”
Even though Raleigh has had the league’s most difficult schedule to this point, the players are glad for it.
“It's better to front-load [the schedule] and deal with all your struggle and adversity at the beginning,” said Nethercutt. “For a team like us, it's good for us to get ahead and figure out early where our weak points are, and where our challenges are going to be, because that gives us the whole season to address them.”
Raleigh’s problems seem to have been solved. Though the native North Carolinians may not know Freystaetter’s tendencies perfectly, they have clearly learned massive amounts about the giant cutter. Nethercutt doesn’t just know where Freystaetter likes his passes to land, but also the shape and pace of the passes. Liu settled onto the team as comfortably as if it were an old La-Z-Boy. Players on the team knows their roles, and the system is working.
It seems quite unlikely that Raleigh will be able to catch Dallas for first place in the division and earn the ensuing bye in the first round of the divisional playoffs. The Flyers don’t care. Raleigh lost last year to Dallas in the second round of the playoffs after a bye in the first round. As long as they make the playoffs, Raleigh is completely unconcerned with their seeding.
Nethercutt said it best.
“The regular season's irrelevant, except for qualifying for the playoffs.”
What matters is how Raleigh is playing by the time they get to the playoffs. With the offense setting efficiency records and the defense stringing together breaks like shells on a Puka necklace from the 90s, Raleigh is ready for the games that matter. They have four games left, all against Nashville and Atlanta; they won’t face another team the calibre of Madison or even Austin in the regular season.
Even though it’s been a struggle to reach this point, Raleigh is glad they’ve taken the long road. They’ve learned more this way. And the AUDL has learned, over the last few weeks, that Raleigh should be feared by the time the playoffs roll around.