June 8, 2021
By Evan Lepler
Beyond the improbable hand-blocks, buzzer-beating brilliance, and breaking news featuring a former AUDL MVP, the biggest story of opening weekend was simply the return of competition. Across the country, athletes, coaches, referees, broadcasters, and fans rediscovered the magic of our game. Everyone was a bit rusty, but the jitters and nerves were vastly overshadowed by the ubiquitous feelings of pure joy. Just being back on the field and seeing the plastic fly again was glorious.
“It was surreal and perfect,” said Atlanta Hustle veteran Kelvin Williams. “Even with all of the planning and practicing for the last couple of months, it was hard to fully picture actually being back on the field again, until we were on Saturday.”
Across the league, crowds were plentiful and lively, easily surpassing all modest expectations. The fans brought an energy and pressure that gave all teams a lift, even if they were the visiting adversary. In Madison, for instance, a massive audience witnessed unbelievable drama, emotions rising and falling throughout wild late-game developments. Even Wind Chill players, with the vast majority of the Breese Stevens Field attendees rooting fervently against them, felt empowered by the environment.
“Obviously, it’s a fan base against us, but the energy is just super contagious,” said Minnesota Wind Chill Captain Brandon Matis. “It doesn’t feel like an away crowd; it just feels like a crowd that’s here to watch good ultimate. The fact that we haven’t played in nearly two years and then come back to an atmosphere like that, it’s indescribable.”
Inevitably, there were scintillating scores and dynamic D, dramatic wins and devastating defeats, but all those things honestly felt secondary to the primary fact that we were back. That privilege and opportunity to just compete again, to be a part of a team, to battle in front of fans, to root and cheer and boo and laugh with others on the sidelines and in stadiums; it all felt refreshingly normal.
“It feels so good to be back,” said Madison Radicals Captain Kevin Pettit-Scantling. “So so so good. The missing piece to my soul has returned.”
The Full Field Layout
Of course, if you spend enough time in sports, you know that soul-crushing setbacks are part of the grind. There will be satisfying victories, and there will be heartbreaking losses.
What unfolded in Madison on Friday night was one for the ages, an appalling, jaw-dropping shocker that’s still surreal four days later. The Radicals welcomed another electric crowd to their iconic stadium, and all those fans were celebrating victory multiple times in the closing moments until somehow, some way, it all slipped away.
Minnesota rookie Andrew Roy had enjoyed a marvelous game, but his cross-field hammer with less than 10 seconds left soared over the head of his target and out the back of the end zone. The Wind Chill were down by one, the Radicals had the disc, and two seconds remained. The clock had stopped because the disc went out of bounds, but it would re-start on Madison’s throw. As long as the Radicals did not get hand-blocked, the win was secure.
Of course, the impossible happened.
Following a lengthy pause that included the ejection of Wind Chill Head Coach Ben Feldman after receiving his second unsportsmanlike conduct of the game, Madison’s Daniel Garlock picked up the disc and attempted a scoober over the Minnesota double-team. Stunningly, Wind Chill Captain Bryan Vohnoutka timed his jump perfectly and deflected it, leaving everyone in disbelief.
Everyone except for maybe the Minnesota sideline. Savvy Wind Chill Assistant Coach Max Longchamp, who along with Kelsey Percy took over when Feldman got tossed, had already told the referee he wanted a timeout immediately if there was a hand block. Apparently, someone on the bench boldly forecasted the block moments before it incredibly occurred.
“Someone called it on the sideline,” said Matis. “B-Von has blocked so many of us in practice on the mark that we kinda knew it was gonna happen, like if anybody was gonna do it, it was gonna be B-Von.”
The stakes may not have been quite as massive as another famous and historic block at Breese Stevens Field, but Vohnoutka’s heroics probably slot in just ahead of teammate Josh Poterack and a bit behind Seattle’s Donnie Clark in the realm of memorable Madison destruction. Moreover, the Wind Chill had all the momentum after Tony Poletto’s bullet backhand found Roy by the sideline leaning over the front pylon for the equalizer at the buzzer that sent the game into overtime.
Madison received the pull to begin the five minute bonus period, but struggled to maintain possession. After a five-turnover point that lasted almost three and a half minutes, the Wind Chill had a break to lead 18-17. Just over a minute later, another break made it 19-17, and Minnesota prevailed 20-18 in a result that reverberated around the league because of the game’s cataclysmic conclusion.
“I’m just proud of our coaching staff and our players; I should have left earlier apparently,” joked Feldman, who also acknowledged that the refs were right to eject him for his outburst just prior to the block. “We had a couple players really step up big.”
Without Josh Klane, who is still building up his shoulder after offseason surgery, or Brett Matzuka, who traveled to Madison but was a late scratch due to a recent hamstring tweak, Roy, Poletto, and 19-year-old Edina High School alum Will Brandt shined as Minnesota’s primary disc distributors. The trio combined for 184 completions and nine assists with just six turnovers in a game that otherwise was remarkably sloppy, as the two teams piled up 52 total turns over the course of the night. Dylan DeClerck tallied five blocks, repeatedly winning his matchup and swinging the momentum with his athletic maneuvers.
Neither side led by more than two all night long, with the lead flipping back and forth to keep everyone on edge. The Wind Chill led by two at the half, but Madison scored three straight to begin the third. Then, the Radicals led by two after three, only to see Minnesota register three in a row to begin the fourth.
“Friday was a whirlwind of emotions,” said Pettit-Scantling, describing the experience. “We’re back! We’re a little rusty. The fans really missed us! I dropped an easy under pass. That noise, that feeling of scoring at Breese! We’re losing? So many things were the captors of my attention…I do not place blame on anyone. This is even more true with the end of fourth quarter play where we only had to complete one pass. Dan is one of my favorite additions to the starting lineup this year, he played phenomenally the whole game, we put the hot hand in the spot to make the play, it didn’t turn out his way. Could’ve happened to any of us.”
KPS and the Radicals obliterated Detroit 34-10 a day later behind Pettit-Scantling’s +14, earning a split of their first two-game weekend of the season. Finishing the weekend with a win had to ease the pain slightly, but Friday’s finish will not be forgotten anytime soon.
“I think that’s the weirdest game I’ve ever been a part of,” declared Matis, shortly after it ended, “And I’ve been in the league since 2013."
A couple years can elapse, and the world can experience adversity and change, but DC and New York will still give us great down-to-the-wire AUDL battles. Since the start of 2016, the Breeze and Empire have met 14 times, and remarkably, nine of them have been decided by a single goal. That includes Friday’s 19-18 result, in which the Breeze broke the Empire offense with 1:07 remaining to tie the game, only to see one of the many New York superstars make a game-winning play as time expired.
“When the disc went up, I honestly just wondered which of our guys was going to come down with it,” said new Empire Co-Coach Charlie Hoppes. “That was Jack’s second big sky of the game, Jeff [Babbitt] had one, [Ryan] Osgar had one, [John] Lithio and Ben Jagt had a few. It was thrilling to see our guys in the air all night, and that was the perfect capper.”
There were 15 passes on the last point prior to the final prayer, and Jack Williams had not yet touched the disc in this sequence. As the seconds were dwindling, Empire rookie Elliott Chartock was the man who had to pull the trigger on an end-zone shot. For most teams, it would not necessarily have been a high-percentage play. But New York’s downfield weapons had been making difficult contested grabs all game long, and the Breeze, despite their fundamental positioning, steady teamwork, and immense effort, could not thwart the Empire’s last throw. Williams skied the pack, the home team and their fans celebrated, and another chapter of the Breeze-Empire rivalry delivered the goods, as usual.
“Seeing Jack come down with that disc at the end of the game was very classic Jack,” said Osgar, who led New York with eight assists in his Empire debut. “Jack is an incredible playmaker, and it feels pretty damn good to have him on my team.”
While Williams and fellow Empire returners Babbitt, Jagt, and Conor Kline all registered multiple goals, the most common scoring target was another newcomer playing his first AUDL game. Lithio—hyped in this column as a prominent rookie to keep an eye on last week—led New York with six goals, including several contested snags that showed off his ability to win one-on-on battles in the air.
The Empire may have made enough highlight reel snags to survive their opener and win their 16th consecutive AUDL game, but Osgar asserted that he and his teammates still have significant room for improvement.
“It was extremely sloppy on our end, and we are hungry for more opportunities to get better,” he said. “Mainly it was a just a handful of miscues and contested hucks, but we came down with basically all of them because we have so many playmakers. We are definitely still working out some of the kinks of our offense from a spacing and flow perspective.”
For the first time in his 55-game AUDL career, DC star Rowan McDonnell did not throw or catch a goal, but the Breeze still challenged New York to the final buzzer thanks to stellar disc movement from Zach Norrbom, Jonny Malks, and Jacques Nissen. That O-line trio combined for 124 completions in 125 throws, with Norrbom going 47-for-47 with four goals, four assists, and a block, tallying a game-best +8.
The Breeze don’t have to wait too long for another shot at New York. After traveling to Raleigh this weekend and hosting Boston the following Friday, DC will host the Empire on July 2.
While Minnesota-Madison was nuts and DC-New York was super competitive to the final buzzer, one could argue the greatest game in Week 1 transpired in Atlanta, as the Flyers and Hustle required overtime for the first time since the rivalry gave us the insane and unforgettable “snake in the grass” moment back in 2015.
On Saturday, the Hustle again required defensive heroics, but these did not feel miraculous. Quite the contrary, Atlanta’s athletes set the tone early and got multiple blocks against many of Raleigh’s top cutters. Former Flyer Jakeem Polk, now with the Hustle, denied a deep shot to All-Star Jacob Fairfax on Raleigh’s opening O-point. Later in the first, JP Burns blocked a deep pass for Fairfax’s fellow All-Star Flyer, Henry Fisher. Those moments set the tone, and the Hustle held Raleigh to just four goals in the entire first half.
“I thought Brett Hulsmeyer, Jakeem Polk, and JP Burns all put in fantastic defensive performances,” said Matt Smith, who led the Atlanta offense with four goals and 327 receiving yards. “Brett plays in the zone quite well and is a million feet tall, especially when he lays out. Jakeem can actually match Fairfax’s athleticism, which is a big gain for us, and JP did an amazing job sticking to the game plan on Henry Fisher and limiting his impact.
“On the other side of the disc, it was clear that having a healthy Parker Bray was a difference maker. I also get the sense the long ball might be making a comeback in Atlanta. We were able to drag a lot of help defenders because the threats are real: Antoine [Davis], Eli [Jaime], [John] Stubbs, and Hayden [Austin-Knab] are all fantastic deep threats, and with Austin [Taylor], Player [Pierce], and Mac [McClellan] behind the disc you have the firepower to get it out there.”
The Atlanta hype feels very real following their 19-18 overtime victory, despite the fact that they nearly gave the game away. Eric Taylor, Matt Gouchoe-Hanas, and Sol Yanuck almost willed the Flyers to a crazy comeback, but late in the game the Hustle defense delivered a couple more key blocks to close it out. Polk again thwarted a potential game-winning throw to Fairfax in the final seconds of regulation, while Hulsmeyer, who finished with four blocks on the game, intercepted Raleigh’s final throw with less than 10 seconds left in OT. Christian Olsen was also lauded for his defense on Flyers hybrid Allan Laviolette, while Smith authored two epic and memorable skies, victimizing Justin Allen in the first half and Terrence Mitchell for the first goal of overtime.
“If I’ve learned one thing from eight straight season of being on a team with Matt Smith, it’s that he is going to make the play,” said Kelvin Williams, whose time with Smith dates back to their Alabama club connection. “Whenever I see a disc floating near him, I’m always thinking that he’s going to find a way to come down with it, and he does almost all of the time. Matt may be 32 now, but he’ll be flying for a long time.”
Smith was also 16-for-16 throwing, suggesting that while his interview questions may occasionally exit the playing field, every one of his upline tosses indeed remained in bounds.
Seven On The Line
- Back in May, I speculated that Week 2’s Atlanta-Boston showdown might feature a pair of desperate 0-1 teams, a notion I am delighted to be wrong about. Turns out our next Free Friday Frisbee showcase offers an amazing matchup of unbeatens atop the Atlantic, with the Hustle and Glory set to square off in Boston’s historic first AUDL home game. Like the Hustle, the Glory are also 1-0, and Boston thoroughly thrashed Pittsburgh in their Week 1 road trip, using a 4-0 run in the final 66 seconds of the first quarter to take a lead they would never relinquish.
Rookie Orion Cable skied a crowd with 1:06 left in the first to tie the game at four, and a combination of Thunderbirds miscues and Glory ingenuity led to three more breaks in the final minute, giving Boston a 7-4 advantage after one. Tannor Johnson’s lefty toss while lying on his tummy found Jonah Kurman-Faber at the buzzer to cap the end-of-quarter barrage in perhaps the kookiest highlight of the entire weekend. By the conclusion of the fourth, the Glory had won each and every quarters, prevailing 29-21 in aggregate and looking very much like a national contender in their first game in franchise history. “I think a really big part of how the game progressed, we could start to sense there was a little frustration on the Pittsburgh side as we took a lead,” said Boston handler Ben Sadok, whose all-around excellence included 463 throwing yards, 272 receiving yards, and a game-high +7. “Maybe it was less of a celebration and more a sigh of relief,” he added, regarding the team’s feelings postgame. “We did it, we got one game in, and it was a win. I imagine each game will get more challenging as we go along.” Sadok also raved about the Glory’s defensive effort, which featured 12 different players recording a block and 11 breaks in 15 chances. Boston switched multiple defenders on Pittsburgh superstar Max Sheppard throughout the game, limiting Sheppard’s damage to two goals and four assists.
- It’s interesting to note that after this coming Friday night, six of the eight Atlantic Division teams will have a least one loss. That’s a reality because the four 1-0 teams all intersect with one another to start Week 2, with Boston hosting Atlanta and New York traveling to Philly.
The Phoenix are naturally excited for a measuring stick matchup against the defending champs, feeling confident following their excellent second half against Tampa Bay in their season opener. While 10 of the 11 teams that led at halftime went on to win in Week 1, the Cannons could not hold their 9-8 edge through two quarters as the Phoenix found their form in the third. “I think the biggest thing that changed from the first half to the second half was the tempo of the game and us dictating that,” said Philly star Sean Mott, who led the Phoenix with 386 throwing yards, 41 completions, and four assists. “In the first half, we had jitters, and who wouldn’t after all that time off, but the biggest thing I saw was the willingness to adapt and the hunger to go take control in the second half. Two plays that stand out to me that got the crowd going were when Nate Little had his layout goal and when Paul Owens hit James Pollard deep to take the lead for the first time.” Little, a 21-year-old West Philly-native making his AUDL debut, made multiple plays that had social media buzzing after the game, which became a comfortable 21-16 triumph for the Phoenix. Philly outscored Tampa 13-7 in the second half. “I would say the biggest thing I took away from this is that we still have a lot of young talent in this area that needs to be developed but is coming along nicely,” said Mott. “We as the leadership need to do a good job in leading them in the right direction, and after the first game, I think we’re on the right path. Oh, and Alex [Thorne] is still an elite center handler, by the way; 31-for-31, can’t ask for much more.”
- The Chicago Union’s season opener mostly lived up to the lofty preseason hype, with the new and improved Central Division favorite storming out to a 9-2 lead and coasting to a 20-12 over the Indianapolis AlleyCats on Saturday night in Elmhurst.
Nate Goff set the tone with an awesome layout block to deny an AlleyCats score on the game’s very first point, and the Union delivered a balanced and steady all-around performance that sent a strong message to the rest of the league. It certainly is premature to seriously compare a 1-0 Chicago squad to any of the league’s great past champions, however I could not help but appreciate the many key contributions from the Union’s role players, names that may not have been on the pregame marquee but a bunch of dudes that still made positive impacts throughout the game. Drew Swanson and Tim Schoch both made magnificent plays on defense, while Eli Artemakis and Jason Vallee both finished +3 and fit in very well alongside the team’s more established stars. For just the ninth time in his 42 career games, Pawel Janas did not lead Chicago in assists, a sign that the team would be more balanced around him, though he still dished three scores while quietly accumulating 303 throwing yards. Ross Barker tallied four goals and four assists, while Kurt Gibson looked far healthier than when we last saw him attempting a late-season return from injury in 2019. Pat Shriwise, Peter Graffy, and Keegan North were all solid in their Union debuts, though my primary takeaway from the game was that none of them, nor any of the returners, needed to do anything superhuman to help Chicago survive against a fatigued Indy team. This Saturday, in a battle against fellow 1-0 Minnesota, will be a much stiffer test for the Union.
One could argue that San Diego’s army of newcomers made a bigger splash than Chicago’s, carrying the Growlers to a 19-16 road victory over Los Angeles.
While the ageless veteran Goose Helton gobbled up stats with four assists, two goals, and two blocks, San Diego Coach Kevin Stuart heaped praise upon many of the team’s newest signees when describing the keys to success. “Paul Lally (57-for-59 passing) really anchored our backfield,” said Stuart. “Greg Cohen (two blocks) and Hunter Corbett (three blocks) are still really good; both are invaluable to our defensive line; a lot of timely blocks as the game went on. Lior Givol (six goals) has been a great fit for us on offense. And Nate Pettyjohn (one goal, one assist, one block) had a few explosive plays, a great huck in the first quarter, and a layout block later in the game.” The Aviators got off to a strong start, punching in the game’s first two points and holding a 5-4 lead after one, but San Diego countered with back-to-back goals to begin the second and never trailed again. The two SoCal teams will collide again in San Diego this weekend. “We never really separated from LA, and I expect the same this coming Sunday,” added Stuart. “It’s always going to be a battle when we play LA.”
While San Jose and Seattle did not reproduce an opening day overtime like their 2019 classic to start that season, the Spiders and Cascades did deliver another entertaining battle that remained in doubt late in the fourth. “Very competitive throughout,” said San Jose’s Justin Norden, whose 542 throwing yards more than doubled anyone else in the game. “I thought we had it as we were coming back and tied it at 17. There was a ton of momentum for us at that point, and our D-line, highlighted by Jace [Bruner] defending [Mark] Burton the whole game, was getting blocks and converting. We just had some misses, miscues, drops, and throwaways that were uncharacteristic, unforced errors. Take those away, and I think the game looks very different.” From 17-all with 5:34 remaining, the Cascades answered with a 7-4 blitz during the hectic stretch run. Seattle’s Manny Eckert scored three of his five goals during this winning stretch, as the Cascades prevailed 24-21 under the Space Needle at Memorial Stadium. Like the SoCal pairing, San Jose and Seattle reunite in the Bay Area this weekend.
Meanwhile, the two Texas teams experienced an anticlimactic opener in Dallas, as Mother Nature halted the proceedings with an epic thunderstorm after just two points. Surprisingly, it was visiting Austin that bolted ahead 2-0, delivering back-to-back breaks in a sizzling start. The Roughnecks were eager to respond, but that will have to wait for Week 2’s rematch in Austin. Ironically, it was a former Sol star’s mistake that helped Austin immediately jump in front prior to the stoppage. “I felt heavily responsible for the team looking like it came out ‘flat’, having dropped the disc on the first possession,” said Kyle Henke, who was making his Dallas debut after scoring 75 goals with 60 assists in his three seasons as a member of the Sol. “There were 20 guys on the sideline chomping at the bit to take the field, and I knew we were capable of punching back. The positives that came out of this whole thing were with the Sol now having shown their hand defensively, we can better prepare, and our team gets a mental reset, with the opportunity to go into this next game having gotten the jitters out…All in all, it’s a sucky way to start for both parties, but the Roughnecks are coming out better because of it.”
Lastly, Detroit. Oh, Detroit. The Mechanix were actually very competitive for the first 18-plus minutes on Friday night in Indy, playing the AlleyCats dead even through the first 20 points of their season. But a pair of 4-0 bursts late in the first half and early in the second sent Detroit spiraling toward an insurmountable deficit, and the Mechanix never recovered on Friday or at any point in their Madison matchup on Saturday. After the 10-10 tie midway through the second quarter against the Cats, Detroit was outscored 54-21 the rest of the weekend. This is not meant to pile on the clearly still-struggling Mechanix program, but part of the job is marketing milestones, even when they are not necessarily positive developments. In that regard, Detroit has now lost 40 consecutive AUDL games, dating back a victory over Chicago on April 29, 2017. Yesterday, incredibly, marked 1,500 days since the Mechanix’s last win.
Three quick thoughts on the Week 2 schedule:
- Atlanta-Boston should be fantastic on Friday night. I can’t wait. And in a bit of under-the-radar breaking news, the Hustle have signed former league MVP Dylan Tunnell to compete this weekend against the Glory. Tunnell, now 37, has had a legendary ultimate career, from his high school stardom at Paideia to a brilliant college career at Georgia to winning the AUDL MVP Award as a 32-year-old in 2016. He also represented the US in the World Games, the sport’s most prestigious international event, in both 2009 and 2013. Another former US World Games athlete, Hustle Coach Miranda Roth Knowles, was high school teammates with Tunnell, and the two have remained good friends ever since. When she realized that Atlanta only had 19 players available for their Boston trip, she called Tunnell, who now lives in western Massachusetts, to see if he’d be open to adding some depth and experience to the sideline. He agreed, setting the stage for his participation this Friday night. “His family’s gonna come and watch, and this will probably be the last time he plays in front of cameras,” said Knowles. “I think he was very flattered and immediately very nervous. This was like three weeks ago, and he was like, ‘I gotta get to the track right now.’”
With Boston looking as strong as they did in Week 1 and the Glory scheduled for a doubleheader trip to DC and Raleigh in Week 3, the Week 2 Saturday showdown between the Breeze and Flyers suddenly feels far more urgent, particularly with each of those teams already suffering a setback this past weekend. The last time DC traveled down to Raleigh, back in 2017, the Flyers overcame a five-goal deficit in the second half and prevailed 23-21 in overtime. One year later, DC edged Raleigh 25-24 in the rematch, a game remembered for Jonathan Nethercutt’s behind-the-back flick and Rowan McDonnell’s unreal all-around performance to earn the Breeze victory. Between the history, the urgency, and the current talent on both squads, Saturday’s clash has the makings of another memorable battle.
First place in the Central is up for grabs in Chicago in an early-season statement game for both the Union and the Wind Chill. And while the two sides are both different (and better) than their respective 2019 versions, the history still matters. Dating back to 2018, five of the last six meetings between Chicago and Minnesota have been decided by three or less, with half of them decided by just one. Janas exploded for a career-high 12 assists in his last matchup against the Wind Chill, but it still was not enough, with Minnesota prevailing 27-26 on June 1, 2019. Thanks to their headline-filled offseason, Chicago carries the burden of expectations and pressure into this contest, but the Wind Chill should have the athletes and throwers to be competitive and potentially steal one on the road if the Union are at all shaky. As I told multiple members of the Union when they asked me about Minnesota, I thought the Wind Chill were able to handle Madison’s zone defense alright with their calm and sharp throws, but it will be a very different challenge for the Wind Chill offense to match the one-on-one athleticism and pressure that defenders like Goff, Graffy, Schoch, Swanson, and Van Alanguilan can put on an opponent throughout a game. I am super excited to see how Minnesota deals with this on Saturday night.