The Tuesday Toss: The Championship Look
August 1, 2017 — By Evan Lepler
I suppose it’s easy to look like a champion for a single play. In my athletic heyday, even I could do that.
It’s tougher, obviously, to demonstrate excellence for extended stretches. Three breaks in row. A full quarter. An entire half. This requires teamwork, cohesiveness, and confidence.
Since most team sports only require that you be better than your opponent for a defined period of time, champions can experience lulls. These gaps in greatness are natural for imperfect human beings.
Steph Curry can miss seven straight threes. Tom Brady can fall behind 28-3. Jordan Spieth can splash into the water on consecutive shots near Amen Corner. These ultra-determined stars of unparalleled grace and skill can, once in a blue moon, look utterly lost.
But then, like it never left, they rediscover the look. The championship look.
Throughout the 2017 AUDL season, the Dallas Roughnecks won a bunch of games, 11 to be exact. They finished second in the superb South Division, and everyone knew that they were again a championship contender. Yet, for most of the year, they lacked the look.
It appeared for quarters and halves here and there, but it was fleeting. Rarely did the Roughnecks display the dominance that characterized the 2016 campaign, when they went 14-0, with eight wins by double figures.
Between injuries, departures, and perhaps even a sense of being overly entitled, the Roughnecks frequently looked only slightly better than regular during the regular season. Their offense would make silly mistakes, and they did not possess the abundance of depth that helped them be a true juggernaut the year before. They still were good and always considered a contender, but there was certainly something missing.
On Saturday, as the playoffs commenced, the switch flipped. The O-line completed 14 consecutive passes to quickly score the opening goal, with all but one of the throws coming from the trio of Kurt Gibson, Jimmy Mickle, and Brandon Malecek. Then, the defense quickly created a turnover, prompting Chris Mazur and Dylan Freechild to connect for the break that made it 2-0. The tone had been set.
Dallas would break Jacksonville again on the Cannons’ very next O-point, giving the Roughnecks D a pair of breaks in the game’s first five minutes. It was as many breaks as the Cannons’ D would get in the full 48.
Highlights from July 29 between Jacksonville and Dallas.
The Roughnecks would not relent. They won the first quarter 5-3, then replicated that same score in the second for a 10-6 lead at the half. Frankly, the Cannons felt incredibly fortunate to even be that close.
Dallas extended its lead with a defensively dominant third, with the Cannons needing a buzzer beater for just their second score of the period. At 15-8 into the fourth, the Roughnecks finished the thing in style, running off four straight goals to stretch the lead to double digits with less than two minutes to go. As the Cannons’ season came to a close, the Roughnecks moved on with a 22-12 triumph, earning the right to face Raleigh on August 12. For the first time all year, Dallas had given its fans four full quarters of the championship look.
“It felt great to finally play a complete game of ultimate,” said Roughnecks Co-Captain Matt Jackson. “We know that we’re a good team. It feels good to finally play to our potential. Basically we’ve been way too comfortable all season, and we haven’t been playing with any fire or intensity or passion. To be honest, I was a little nervous [entering this game], which was a good thing for us because it made us play to our full potential.”
The emergence of pressure can cause some teams to crumble, but the Dallas Roughnecks don’t appear to be one of them. On the contrary, it looked like they needed that postseason pressure to boost them into top gear. The question now is can they maintain it?
Maybe Saturday’s smooth sailing was simply one final and eventually fleeting championship look for a fatally flawed squad that has to face the 13-1 Flyers on the road in 11 days. Or perhaps it was just the beginning of the Roughnecks’ resurgence, a renewal of the rampage that humbled the rest of the AUDL a season ago.
Only time will tell.
The Full Field Layout
Back on July 7, the Jacksonville Cannons showed signs of the look. In retrospect, however, perhaps it was overstated.
While the Cannons built an impressive seven-goal lead over the Roughnecks in the first half on that first Friday of July, Dallas’ offense also played incredibly poorly. Jacksonville deserved credit for capitalizing on all of the mistakes, but the Roughnecks fell into their biggest hole in franchise history with a slew of questionable decisions and ugly execution. In saluting the Cannons’ ability to withstand a furious comeback, we probably failed to recognize the greater significance of the second-half rally itself. Dallas lost the game that day, but won the final two quarters pretty convincingly. Heading into the playoffs, the loss might have been exactly what they needed to inspire a much-improved performance from wire to wire.
“I think we all just took serious pride within ourselves to win our matchups,” expressed Roughnecks Co-Captain Chris Mazur. “You don’t just get to play on this field for no reason; you have to earn that. There are a lot of people who want to play on this team. There were a lot of guys who got an opportunity to play throughout the season, and these are the guys we chose for this moment, so we kinda had to play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We never did that all season long. We were just kind of like, ‘oh, we deserve this.’ No, we don’t deserve it. We have to work hard for it. And that was the big difference early. Just from an effort standpoint, that was huge.”
Dallas’ determined and clinical performance was present in almost every facet of the game. Since the Roughnecks started on O, that’s where it began.
Unlike much of the season, Mazur and Freechild were not on the field with the O-line. Coach Patrick Eberle and the rest of the team’s leadership had decided to move them over to D. The return of Kurt Gibson, Ben Lohre, and Thomas Slack, a trio that played only 12 regular season games combined, made this possible. Against the Cannons, Gibson, Lohre, and Slack played virtually mistake free, combining to complete 58-of-59 passes. Though they only combined for two goals and three assists, they played with purpose and showed a commitment to clearing space for their teammates, a fact that everyone noticed.
“We found a really nice combination,” said Mazur. “I love that no one talks about Thomas Slack because he’s the most important person on the team. He’s missed almost the entire season, and if you watch the offense, he’s the reason the offense sings, man. It just sings. That’s what I told the team afterward, that if we all play with the humility that a guy like that plays with—hell, we don’t talk about Ben Lohre enough either. Those two guys, all they do is make space for everyone and make it super easy. So then, Jimmy’s job becomes easier.”
Of course, when some players are willing to value lesser, filler roles, a team still needs other guys to really excel as the superstars. Whereas Mickle had struggled in the two regular season matchups with the Cannons—perhaps because he was trying to do too much—he settled in on Saturday and calmly took over the game. One day after flying from Poland to England to Florida to Dallas, he finished with a game-high five assists and consistently made the right choices that gradually demoralized the Jacksonville defense that was helpless to stop him.
“Jimmy plays so well when he doesn’t feel like he needs to do everything; he knows I feel that way,” commented Freechild, who has been close friends with Mickle since the two were teenagers and made the journey back from Poland with him on Friday. “He played so loose [on Saturday] and so great because he had a sense of confidence…He knew he didn’t have to worry about D because Stan[ley Peterson] and myself and Mazur moved over to D. And that takes a lot of pressure off him. He is one of the best players in the world, so that was awesome to watch him have an All-AUDL game…You get Thomas back. You get Ben back. And that allows players like Jimmy to do his thing. A lot of the reason he played well [on Saturday] was because we had people creating space and had people making good cuts and good decisions and taking pressure off our best players, and that comes a lot from Thomas and Ben.”
Evan Lepler's interview with Dylan Freechild immediately following the Roughnecks' opening round playoff win.
Abe Coffin led the Roughnecks with five goals, two of which were thrown by Mickle. Gibson, Dillon Larberg, and Matt Bennett all finished the game with three assists apiece. Overall, the Roughnecks completed 96% of their passes, a notable bump from the 92.8% rate of the regular season.
While the offense ‘sang,’ the defense roared, contesting nearly every throw the Cannons wanted. Downfield, where Jeremy Langdon and Jordan Huston had been dominant through much of the season, the duo struggled to dictate offensive flow. Langdon and Huston had scored 17 of Jacksonville’s 28 goals in the Cannons win over Dallas earlier in July; in the playoffs on Saturday, they mustered just one goal combined.
“It was a rough game,” admitted Jacksonville Assistant Coach Beth Vavrica. “The players were working hard, we saw glimpses of how we could turn the game around, but it never came together. We came out flat and weren’t able to generate the push to get the momentum back. The wind was a factor. We weren’t considering it as much as we needed to, and some of the throws that are 80-90% throws without the wind resulted in turns.”
Whereas the Cannons had led the league with their 94.8% completion rate throughout the regular season, they converted just 89.4% of their throws on Saturday. Part of that, undoubtedly, was the wind. It also had a lot to do with Dallas’ defense. But perhaps even more impactful, especially early in the game as the Cannons struggled to settle in, was the absence of superstar quarterback Bobby Ley.
Ley attended a funeral in Florida on Saturday afternoon and then flew to Dallas to arrive in the early evening. By the time he was cleated up and loose, he had missed the Cannons’ first eight offensive points and the deficit had already swelled to five.
“We had to make adjustments to the lines for the first half without Bobby Ley, but we’ve been making adjustments all season,” said Vavrica. “Moving players around had some effect on both O and D lines, but it wasn’t the reason we played down.”
During certain stretches of the game, it felt like Mischa Freystaetter was singlehandedly trying to keep Jacksonville in it. With an array of spectacular grabs and calm throws, the 6’8” tower may have provided the top highlights of the night. But even he admitted that the Cannons did not compete with right mentality to knock off the defending champs.
“Honestly, we just played scared,” said Freystaetter, who led the Cannons with four goals and three assists. “We came out really flat in the first quarter, and we just folded under the pressure. There’s nothing more to it than that…It’s unfortunate, but it happens in sports…It was disappointing.”
Failing to advance does not necessarily mean the season was a failure for Cannons. They doubled their win total from five in 2016 to 10 this year and reached their preseason goal of a playoff berth. The abrupt exit will sting for while, no doubt, but by the end of August, Jacksonville will be just one of 11 teams that inevitably lose a playoff game in 2017.
“The Cannons will grow from this,” remarked Vavrica. “We have been in a growth mindset all year, and that put us in position to win some games and make it to the playoffs. We had the commitment and buy-in this year, and that translated to a successful season. We’re going to take what we learned from [Saturday’s] game and shape our offseason and preseason goals. I’m proud of the team’s mettle and know this will fuel their motivation to get ready for next season.”
While Jacksonville plans for 2018, Dallas is making reservations for Raleigh.
“I’m so hyped for that,” said Mazur. “Ever since losing to them, it’s been like that’s all I’ve been thinking about, just wanting to play that team again, and being so bummed that we didn’t get another chance in the regular season.”
With the Flyers and Roughnecks consistently ranked as the top two teams in the league over the last few months, only one will be able to represent the South at Championship Weekend in Montreal. The South Division title game is scheduled for Saturday, August 12 at 1 PM at Wake Med Soccer Park.
“I don’t feel like either of us got each other’s best look, so this is kind of a new game,” said Freechild. “This is winter-takes-all, and neither of us really know what to expect. Obviously, we’ve played each other the last two years and scouted each other. But I think this is gonna be an interesting game in that I don’t really know what to expect from them. We kinda got ran into the ground in that second game, and the first game was not ultimate [because of the 30 mile-per-hour winds.]
“So as far as what I’m ready for, I’m ready for just a grind. I’m ready to focus on ourselves. Attack the game tactically and with humility and with honesty, and really try and implement a sense of championship play and a sense of championship mentality.”
Basically, he’s describing the quest for the championship look. Delivering the same type of dominance in consecutive high-stakes playoff games is no easy task, but if any team can do it, it’s probably the defending champs.
Back in the preseason, the Roughnecks’ signing of Austin’s Joel Clutton was thought to be a critical domino in the AUDL arms race, bolstering Dallas’ determination to repeat. As the season progressed, though, Clutton’s role on the roster was relatively insignificant after he got hurt during his collegiate campaign.
“I have been injured since the Saturday of the Stanford invite with a lower lumbar sprain,” said Clutton, who was the University of Texas’s Callahan nominee in 2016. “Unfortunately, I put off most of the AUDL season in order to rehab for the college season, but it has been a struggle getting back to 100%. It was a frustrating spring in general. I wasn’t able to play most of the college season and wasn’t able to contribute to the Roughnecks as much as I wanted. The Austin Sol game two weekends ago was the first time I felt close to full strength in a while.”
Though he only appeared in four games during the regular season, Dallas confidently activated Clutton for the postseason opener against Jacksonville. And while he did not dominate the stat sheet, anyone who watched the game realized the impact he made guarding some of the Cannons’ top cutters. He spent much of the game chasing around Jeremy Langdon, who averaged more than 32 touches per game in the regular season. On Saturday, Langdon only touched the disc 11 times. Langdon scored once, dished a completion six times, and fired four throwaways.
“Last game, Langdon got easy unders and initiated their flow,” explained Clutton, who developed his toughness playing hockey growing up. “I thought I could make their offense harder by disrupting the first cut. I think the team executed the defensive plan well. Everyone was hyped for this game, and it showed in our defensive intensity.”
Clutton finished the game turnover-free and with one D, completing all five of his throws. The stats were modest, but his influence was felt.
Adding Gibson, Lohre, and Slack back to the offense were all noteworthy too, but Clutton’s return of injury gives Dallas a weapon that it did not have last year at this time. With size, speed, and confidence, he’s just another guy who seems to fit right into the Roughnecks mission.
The Greatest (Ultimate-Related Social Media Post of the Week)
If you haven’t already done so, please read Hugo Sowder’s well-written and personal feature on Raleigh Flyers Head Coach Mike Denardis.
Social media alerted me of Sowder’s work on Sunday evening, and it is a touching and enlightening tribute that revealed a lot about the character of both the subject and the author. Scribed in honor of Denardis’ 40th birthday, it offers plenty of anecdotes to illustrate how a commitment to coaching has shaped the last decade of his life. And, obviously, how he’s helped shape the lives of the many who have learned from him.
Really well done, Hugo. Thanks for creating a fine piece of ultimate journalism.
On Friday afternoon in Charlotte, I sat comfortably in an exit row when the captain made a worrisome announcement.
To paraphrase: “Folks, I’m not sure how this happens in the age of computers, but we accidentally boarded too many passengers for this flight. We have one more passenger than available seats on the plane. We’re very sorry about the mistake.”
Immediately, I began contemplating what I might do if “The Hunger Games, American Airlines Edition” were to begin. But fortunately, it seemed they had already identified the individual who would willingly be leaving the aircraft. Thankfully, it wasn’t me.
It took a few minutes to get the jet-bridge back to the door so one passenger could deplane. Sadly, these few minutes were costly, as a thunderstorm rolled in shortly thereafter, forcing us to sit on the runway while a small pocket of fierce weather raged through. Later, the pilot basically admitted that, if not for the boarding error, we probably would have gotten above the storm before it hit.
Consequently, instead of landing around 5:45 PM, we safely touched down in Dallas around 6:45. I mean, whatcha gonna do?
Seven on the Line
1. Raleigh Coach Mike Denardis turned 40 on Sunday, a landmark that was celebrated with friends on Saturday night. Of course, that did not mean he missed the Jacksonville-Dallas game! “You think I stop working on my birthday?” he responded, after my suggestion that he probably would just catch the replay sometime this week. “We had a nice viewing setup during the 40th party on Saturday night outside of So*ca, which is Sean Degnan’s new restaurant. Hugo played the tribute video during the party and it was really moving.” Amidst the good times, he still mustered some observations from the Roughnecks 10-goal win. “It was slightly windy,” he began. “Jacksonville played their worst game of the season, and Dallas punishes mistakes, so kind of a perfect storm for a lopsided victory. As far as our game, I’m really excited to play Dallas. We’ve clearly gotten better over the course of the year and this is another difficult test in our short history. The challenge will certainly be made easier with the support of all our fantastic fans.”
2. While the Cannons only scored 12 goals, less than half of their season average, Mischa Freystaetter still authored a slew of remarkable plays, even to the astonishment and appreciation of his opponent. “Those catches by Mischa were insane,” said Mazur, when asked about Jacksonville’s buzzer beating scores at the end of the second and third quarters. “They looked like Randy Moss from Tom Brady back in ’07. That was nuts. Amazing. Really, really impressive.” I mentioned on the broadcast that Freystaetter pulled off the rare feat of both catching and throwing a buzzer beater in back-to-back quarters. While it’s not something that’s easy to research, I couldn’t remember ever seeing it before. The catch at the end of the first half, with Jacksonville initiating out of a timeout with less than two seconds to go, was particularly exciting, though Freystaetter made it sound like it was just another play. “I knew it was coming to me,” he said. “Andrew Roney, who had the disc, he looked at me, and I knew it was coming. I saw the disc go up in the air an I knew I was gonna come down with it. I was just trying to fire up my team at that point. We were struggling, and I was hoping that would build some kind of momentum into the second half.” Freystaetter scored all three of Jacksonville’s goals in the second quarter after assisting on two of the three in the first 12 minutes. But his buzzer beaters could not swing the momentum, as Dallas scored the first goal of the third and fourth quarters after Freystaetter’s heroics capped the previous period.
3. Another fun storyline on Saturday was Gibson vs. Gibson. Several times, Dallas’ Kurt was on offense being chased by younger brother Chris, playing for the Cannons. “It’s good to see him back [after the injury],” said Chris. “I think I did alright [against him]. “He kinda could break me at will, but that was kinda the strategy to give him the I/O flick, and I think we got a couple of turns off it.” There was indeed a short inside flick break early in the game where Kurt overthrew his target in the end zone for a turnover. “That was not a good pass,” Kurt said afterwards, matter-of-factly. Kurt, playing just his second AUDL game of the season, did say that he felt much better than he did in his season debut a couple weeks prior. “Both these games, in the first quarter my throws have not been where they usually are.” But he quickly settled in and found his rhythm, even against an opponent who knows him as well as anyone. That’s not meant to harp on Chris, of course, as Kurt has clearly established himself as one of the most unguardable guys in the sport. He expects to be out there against Raleigh, and one wonders who among the army of Flyers defenders will give Kurt their best shot.
4. Thinking about Saturday’s game a few days later, two defensive plays especially stand out. Firstly, Jay Froude’s trailing catchup sky of Jordan Huston late in the third quarter was just another example of Froude’s propensity for making absurdly athletic plays look routine. It was his second D of the day—his first was a layout block in the end zone in the first half—giving him 31 Ds on the season. Only New York’s Jeff Babbitt has more in the entire league. Secondly, Matt Bennett’s skying interception over Bobby Ley on a floaty swing pass late in the fourth quarter was the exclamation point to Dallas’ defensive effort. Bennett immediately pivoted and hit Chris Larberg for the goal, giving the Roughnecks a break just 11 second after their previous score, which also was a break. It was a great example of the type of play that the Flyers must avoid if they are going to knock off Dallas in a couple weeks.
5. Stepping away from the Cannons-Roughnecks tilt—I spent a good deal of time last week studying and breaking down some of the individual numbers from around the league at the end of the regular season. Consequently, here are a few observations: firstly, there were 96 players in the league that completed a pass and finished with the year without a single throwaway. Of this group, only 16 had at least 30 completions. DC’s Zach Norrbom holds the distinction of completing the most passes without a turnover, as he went 75-for-75 on the season. Looking a little deeper, though, Norrbom’s 100% rate was not nearly as impressive as the campaign that Philadelphia’s Trey Katzenbach put together. At 46-years-old, Katzenbach may not be the high-flying threat he was in his 30s, but his abilities to play super-solid, turnover-free ultimate are still very much alive. In the 2017 season, Katzenbach finished with a 99.2% completion rate, converting 258 of his 260 throws. Among all players who finished the season with at least 76 completions, Katzenbach’s passing percentage was #1.
6. Another nugget I unearthed (and mentioned on the broadcast): among the top 25 finishers in the plus/minus category from the regular season (+58 or better), only three of them had more assists than goals. They were Seattle’s Mark Burton (81 assists, 36 goals, +88 overall), San Francisco’s Cassidy Rasmussen (54 goals, 32 assists, +66 overall), and Raleigh’s Jonathan Nethercutt (71 assists, 13 goals, +63 overall). This, I believe, is an illustration of why Burton, Rasmussen, and Nethercutt all belong on the All-AUDL First Team for 2017. Plus/minus is an illuminating category, but like most statistics in ultimate, it is an imperfect measure of greatness and impact. The evidence suggests that surehanded downfield cutters who don’t attempt that many ambitious throws can rack of a great plus/minus much easier than handlers or initiation cutters who often look long and take more chances with their shots. Among the AUDL assist leaders, Chicago’s Pawel Janas finished #1 with 85 assists, but his plus/minus was +21. Minnesota’s Josh Klane finished fourth in the league with 63 assists, but possessed a season-ending plus/minus of +18. This is not meant to diminish Janas or Klane, both of whom a) played in the unforgiving winds of the Midwest and b) assumed gunslinging roles that their teams needed. Rather, it is an argument for the quality of Burton, Rasmussen, and Nethercutt. If you’d like to help me in my MVP considerations, please don’t hesitate to shoot an e-mail to AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. I’m really not sure of the best strategy to differentiate these three and a handful of other standouts from the 2017 season, and I’d love to be lobbied.
7. One other statistical leftover that didn’t make it into the Toss last week. Back in May, DC Breeze teammates Delrico Johnson and Rowan McDonnell made a friendly wager over twitter concerning who would finish the season with more Ds.
One game to go; Who you got? pic.twitter.com/bjUcHSbiLv— R̶I̶C̶O̶ (@Skyinflatballaz) July 21, 2017
Entering the final Saturday of the season, McDonnell led Johnson by two, but McDonnell joked that he was “a little worried after being demoted to the O-line.” One of his O-line mates, Tyler Monroe, chimed in by saying, “we’ll turn it plenty for you,” though that did not actually happen. The Breeze completed 97% of their passes and only turned it over nine times in the entire game. Johnson registered three Ds in DC’s 23-20 win over Philly, surpassing McDonnell by one for the team’s season lead. “Unfortunately, the game was too close to root for the other team when they threw to Rico,” McDonnell said after the game. “He had a couple of great blocks. I’m happy they weren’t gimmies; he earned all three.” When the bet was made in May, Rico’s terms were the “loser must post a picture of themselves in a romper.” Said McDonnell after the finale: “I’ll pay up, although we need to figure out exactly what that means.”
Like this past weekend, there’s one AUDL playoff game on the docket. Pittsburgh and Minnesota split their two regular season meetings, and the rubber match will unfold on Friday evening at Sea Foam Stadium in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The survivor will face the Madison Radicals, who have been the last Midwest team standing every season they’ve existed.
A year ago, the Thunderbirds narrowly escaped with a 20-18 result in their opening playoff game, which they hosted. Since 2015, when the Pittsburgh franchise first took the field, the Thunderbirds had won all six meetings against Minnesota until the season finale, when the Wind Chill sacked them 19-13 in a sloppy offensive game in the Twin Cities.
Highlights from the last matchup between Pittsburgh and Minnesota.
Whether that was just a blip in Pittsburgh’s consistent dominance or a genuine turning of the tide in the rivalry, this Friday will reveal the truth.
The Tuesday Toss is published weekly on theAUDL.com during the season. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler