April 27, 2021
By Evan Lepler
Right now, the conventional wisdom says the reloaded Atlanta Hustle are going to Championship Weekend. So are the up-and-coming Pittsburgh Thunderbirds and their star Max Sheppard, obviously. And don’t forget the DC Breeze, led by 2018 MVP Rowan McDonnell, will be there, too—not just as the host, but as a surprise competitor.
All three of these aspiring Atlantic Division contenders have reasons to believe 2021 is their year. But barring an abrupt change in playoff format, it will be all but impossible for all three teams to qualify for the four postseasons spots in a loaded Atlantic that also features New York and Raleigh.
And all three challengers know that.
But five and a half weeks before the 2021 AUDL season begins, this is not the time for naysayers. To the contrary: These preseason weeks are for visualizing potential excellence, focusing on the steps required to get there, and imagining great health, developed rookies, and all the pieces fitting together perfectly.
After all, if teams don’t believe in themselves at this point in the process, really what’s the point?
Welcome to Hype Season, the time of abundant optimism where every team is expecting to be the absolute best version of themselves. It’s a fun time to talk with leaders around the league, as positive vibes permeate every conversation. The unique circumstances of returning to competition following the pandemic are certainly a part of the energy, but trust me when I tell you that this brand of overflowing positivity is entirely typical, a preseason aura that usually lasts right up until the opening pull is actually floating down the field. By the end of game one, though, exactly half the teams return back to earth.
Personally, I always enjoy the preseason chatter. It’s fun to reconnect with folks after a long offseason, absorb the optimistic spirit, and then try to figure out what’s actually gonna happen once the disc is in the air. It’s impossible to know future outcomes, but any sage commentator prides him or herself on making clairvoyant calculations about the season ahead. Hopefully, that’s why you’re here for these carefully crafted words of wisdom.
So without further adieu, I have a few early thoughts to declare.
- There’s a clear top five, and a sizable gap between those five and all other teams.
- Among that top five, there is minimal separation; you could make a case for any franchise in that premier quintet to be number one in my preseason power rankings.
- Beyond that top five, I am very unsure who deserves to be number six, which is to say there are many good teams in the mix that’ll be aspiring to make the jump.
I always brace myself for the inevitable social media chatter from the offended, but despite any incoming chirping, it’s simply not reasonable for any of the excluded to make a case that they’ve been left out knowing what we currently do. That’s not to say there’s no chance of outsiders rising into the true contender conversation in the coming weeks or months, but the snapshot as we see it today, based on my knowledge obtained from countless conversations with players, coaches, and owners throughout the league, is a league with five heavyweights, all of whom should be excellent. It makes figuring out who’s actually gonna win the whole thing mighty difficult.
That was my eureka realization sometime last week, something like “Six weeks away from the season, I have no clue who the championship favorite is.” And that’s a surprising dynamic that I cannot recall feeling in the past. That doesn’t mean the favorite always wins, but there’s usually a team or two that has separated from the pack, at least on paper. This year, that group is five deep, but none of those teams are clearly above or below the others.
Just to visualize it, I decided to try and project what the starting O and D lines might look like for each of these teams. Unquestionably, this experiment will be incomplete and inaccurate, as coaches have not necessarily tipped their hands about who’s on what line, nor should they at this point. But just for the fun of it, here we go!
Projected Starting Offense: Tommy Gallagher, Peter Graffy, Pawel Janas, Keegan North, Jack Shanahan, Pat Shriwise, Joe White
Projected Starting Defense: Von Alanguilan, Ross Barker, Kurt Gibson, Nate Goff, Charlie Furse, Tim Schoch, Drew Swanson
Good Parts: Jeremy Burril (O), Jesse Johnson (D), Jason Vallee (D)
Summary: Based on talent alone, Chicago (and New York) are at the head of the class entering the 2021 season. Head Coach Dave Woods has a handful of sizable personalities and substantial skillsets to integrate as wisely as possible, a process that will certainly include plenty of trial, error, and rethinking in pursuit of reaching their peak potential. You could easily swap Graffy onto D and Gibson onto O. Barker and Goff have both been superb O-line assets in the past, but their dynamic defensive abilities working alongside either Graffy or Gibson immediately vaults the Union’s defense into the league’s elite. And speaking of vaulting, a healthy Alanguilan adds even more entertaining explosiveness for the Chicago defensive seven. There are an endless amount of tweaks and hypothetical lineups, but you get the idea; the Union are loaded and have the look of a final four team, at worst. Furthermore, unlike the four other teams in this conversation, Chicago does not have a peer at its level in its division. Indy, Madison, and Minnesota might all be capable of snagging a win against the Union at some point, but—again, on paper—no one in the Central can come close to matching Chicago’s personnel. Of course, as the legendary Chris Berman used to bark on ESPN’s NFL Primetime: This is why they play the games.
Projected Starting Offense: Abe Coffin, Jay Froude, Henry Furuta, Matt Jackson, Connor Olson, Thomas Slack, Carson Wilder
Projected Starting Defense: Chase Cunningham, Dan Emmons, Kyle Henke, Zach Marbach, Kai Marshall, Kaplan Maurer, Chris Mazur
Good Parts: Dalton Smith (O/D), Matt Armour (D), Griffin Miller (D), Chris Larberg (D), Hunter Taylor (D), Brandon Malecek (O)
Summary: Dalton Smith is not included among the top 14 because it’s unclear if his current life circumstances will permit him to participate in more than a small handful of games, but despite that, Dallas’ depth remains dynamic and intimidating. The Roughnecks’ other options have all made big plays in previous Championship Weekends, and returning versatile champions like Jackson and Mazur, who can both excel in virtually any role, gives Dallas an awesome infrastructure of options. Perhaps the lone reason for pause with the Roughnecks is the fact that they still haven’t had their first full team practice—their opening minicamp weekend is just a few days away—but there’s every reason to believe that returning stalwarts like Coffin, Froude, and Wilder will all strongly resemble their standout selves from 2019. If anything, the Roughnecks’ youthful core is now arriving at its prime, a scary proposition for opponents. Marbach and Miller are just 26, Maurer and Furuta are only 25, and Olson, insanely, won’t even turn 23 until mid-August; that’s also less than two months after Henke, who joins Dallas after three seasons with Austin, will have celebrated his 23rd birthday in June. Suffice to say, the Roughnecks look loaded again, though there’s a certain amount of mystery in wondering how they’ll fare on the road against west coast opponents when they travel to California and Seattle for their first regular season action in the pacific time zone.
New York Empire
Projected Starting Offense: Elliott Chartock, Ben Jagt, Conor Kline, Ryan Osgar, Matt Stevens, Ryan Weaver, and Jack Williams
Projected Starting Defense: Jeff Babbitt, Marques Brownlee, Mike Drost, Ryan Drost, Ben Katz, Matt LeMar, and Matt Weintraub
Good Parts: John Lithio (O), Ryan Holmes (D), CJ Ouellette (D), Sam Feder (D)
Summary: While it has not been explicitly reported, my understanding is that the Empire will not have Harper Garvey or Grant Lindsley on their 2021 roster, leaving New York without two of its top offensive studs from the 2019 championship run. Add in Bryan Jones’ departure and you begin to worry about team’s future prospects. But those qualms are quelled rather quickly when you realize that the Empire have seemingly filled those substantial absences with suitable replacements. If you slot Chartock—a former USA U-24 national teamer who averaged nearly 50 completions and almost four assists per game with San Francisco in 2018—into Garvey’s role and envision Osgar calmly replacing 95 percent of Lindsley’s downfield production, maybe even more, then New York remains in excellent shape. New coaches Charlie Hoppes and Anthony Nuñez have had Jones’ full support throughout the transition, giving them a rather comfortable entry point into the otherwise tricky coaching situation at the helm of a recent undefeated champion. I worry slightly about New York’s depth, particularly if one or two of the team’s superstars endure a nagging injury, but Empire leaders believe their depth could actually be a strength. I’m not sure if I buy that, but we shall see. Their schedule will be a double-edged sword in that department, though; New York has zero doubleheader weekends, but they also have zero bye weeks over the course of the 12-week season, the only team in the entire league without a single weekend off from June to August. One last note: you have probably never heard of John Lithio, but the 6’5” AUDL rookie out of Hope College will not be unknown for very long once the season starts.
Projected Starting Offense: Jacob Fairfax, Henry Fisher, Matt Gouchoe-Hanas, Allan Laviolette, Terrence Mitchell, Noah Saul, Eric Taylor
Projected Starting Defense: Justin Allen, Josh Hartzog, Elijah Long, Tim McAllister, David Richardson, Seth Weaver, Sol Yanuck
Good Parts: Connor Russell (D), Alex Davis (D), Anders Jeungst (O), Matthew McKnight (O), Shane Sisco (D), Jacob Mouw (O/D), Walker Matthews (D)
Summary: Most of the familiar faces are back for the Flyers, and the youth infusion continues to position Raleigh well as a perennial contender. Whereas Fisher, Taylor, and Yanuck were Raleigh’s three gifted AUDL rookies in 2019, the Carleton kids will absorb even more responsibility in 2021. Beyond that trio, the younger talent is super tantalizing too, accomplished college champs like Matt Gouchoe-Hanas, Elijah Long, Walker Matthews, and speedster Alex Davis. Raleigh also adds another exciting young prospect in former Chicago defender Seth Weaver, who is just 22 and coming off an impressive rookie campaign with the Wildfire in 2019. Like past years, the Flyers should overwhelm opponents with their collective athleticism—Fairfax, Mitchell, and Richardson, oh my!—and tremendous depth, often able to still win games on the road when missing something like nine of their top 12 players thanks to their system and deep reserves of skills. With Dallas removed from their division, and only one regular season matchup with the Empire, it feels easy to pencil Raleigh in for double digit wins. Their consistent regular season achievement is worthy of immense praise, but let’s be honest, regardless of whether they go 12-0 or 9-3, Raleigh will be judged by how it fares in the postseason, especially against the other teams in this ultra-elite group.
San Diego Growlers
Projected Starting Offense: Travis Dunn, Lior Givol, Wes Groth, Goose Helton, Paul Lally, Tim Okita, Michael Tran
Projected Starting Defense: Greg Cohen, Khalif El-Salaam, Max Hume, Dom Leggio, Steven Milardovich, Jeff Silverman, Will Turner
Good Parts: Nate Pettyjohn (O/D), Zac Schakner (D), Kyle Rubin (D), Casey Wu (O/D)
Summary: Along with El-Salaam, Cohen, and Givol, I really like San Diego’s signing of Paul Lally, who registered 110 goals and 109 assists in his five South Division seasons, three with Nashville and two with Atlanta. At the moment, among the 43 players in AUDL history who have recorded at least 100 goals and 100 assists, only Lally and Philadelphia’s Sean Mott have never competed in a playoff game. While Mott remains with his hungry yet underdog Philly team, Lally’s postseason drought almost certainly will end this summer, as he could reasonably step into the retiring Sean Ham’s role as a downfield goal-scoring striker on San Diego’s offense. Of course, that’s assuming Givol did not beat him to that job already; the 2021 Growlers will actually be the first team in AUDL history to pick up multiple players who have previously scored 50 goals in a season with other teams. It’s mighty fun to talk about all the additions and how they will be integrated, but San Diego’s backbone is unquestionably its foundational returners, veterans like Dunn, Milardovich, Leggio, and to a lesser extent the ageless Helton, who may be 37 and just a second-year Growler but was still appointed Captain. Furthermore, Kevin Stuart is back for his sixth season as San Diego’s Head Coach, and the veteran leader is the only head man from the AUDL’s last Championship Weekend still roaming the sidelines for his team. That continuity, dedication, and experience should serve the Growlers well as they look to prove they can compete with Dallas and the rest of the league’s best.
Seven On The LIne
So let’s grant the premise that the difference between the best team and the fifth best team might just be microscopic. Five and a half weeks away from the season, that’s a pretty compelling top tier.
The thing is, the next tier is larger, and maybe even more tightly-packed. If the difference between one and five is minuscule, the separation from six to 12 could be even smaller.
Here, alphabetically, are seven teams that could potentially make the case to be the league’s sixth-best team heading into the season.
- Atlanta Hustle: Are they ready to make the leap? They’ve brought the vast majority of the band back together, along with adding potential impact contributors like Antoine Davis, Michael Fairley, and Tyler Kunsa. Perhaps even more importantly, Parker Bray is apparently healthy again. And Eli Jaime is poised to perhaps swing some AUDL fantasy leagues. Head Coach Miranda Knowles has plenty of weapons to organize, but finding the right combinations and coalescing to the highest level are still steep challenges for the team with the longest postseason drought among these seven candidates.
- Boston Glory: Obviously, that last nugget about playoff droughts does not include the Glory, who at long last will be making their AUDL debut on June 5 in Pittsburgh. It was six weeks ago that I labeled Boston as the league’s most mysterious team, and unfortunately little has changed on that front. The Glory, either intentionally or as a matter of circumstance, are not winning Hype Season. But they remain in the mix to be leading this tier for many of the same reasons I outlined in the Tuesday Toss on March 16. The city and region are packed with talent, and if the organization can bring the right pieces together, Boston could absolutely rise into the New York/Raleigh mix in the Atlantic. At the moment, however, with little positive public momentum, it’s just as easy to envision the Glory dipping into the bottom quadrant of their eight-team super division.
- DC Breeze: This team has a track record of playoff participation, an excellent coach, and a former MVP. So why am I presently feeling lukewarm on the Breeze? With the exception of Jasper Tom, who played sparingly for the Thunderbirds in 2019, DC has not added any noteworthy pickups from other teams in the league. Rowan McDonnell has carried massive responsibility on his shoulders successfully in seasons past, but the Breeze will need to utilize other plans of attack beyond the Rowan Show if they plan to extend their postseason streak to five consecutive seasons. For the record, I am super excited to see how Jacques Nissen and Garrett Braun will fare in their second year alongside McDonnell on the Breeze O-line. I’ll be watching that very closely. You should too.
- Madison Radicals: Head Coach Tim DeByl remains cautiously optimistic about his 2021 Radicals, hopeful that a fresh feel and several relatively unknown impact additions will surge Madison back into the Championship Weekend mix. The final four was a staple for the Rads in each of the franchise’s first six seasons, culminating with the 2018 title that preceded an unceremonious nosedive in 2019. The good news is the frustrations from two years ago are seemingly just as distant as the 2018 coronation. Consequently, the Radicals have something of a blank slate, with a small crew of vets accompanying an intriguing and sizable group of newcomers. After Chicago, the Central Division feels wide open, and with the Breese Stevens mystique along with DeByl’s savvy strategies, it would not feel too crazy for Madison to rise right back into top tier conversation.
- Minnesota Wind Chill: Don’t hold me to this, but the Wind Chill would currently be my pick to sit sixth in a preseason power poll. A year ago, they arguably would have been in the top five in the weeks before the season, oozing optimism after signing Matt Rehder from Chicago and Brett Matzuka from Indy, not to mention Mark Lloyd from Toronto for the franchise’s first Winnipeg spectacular. In present times, though, the Winnipeg trip has been kiboshed, it feels doubtful that any of the team’s Canadian talent will get to play this season, and generally the team’s momentum has stalled. Quite a rise and fall in the hype department with no actual action. The reality is that Minnesota has also added some key former contributors like Charlie McCutcheon and Colin Berry, while maintaining many of the exciting individuals who set the foundation for the presumed success that never transpired in 2020. Furthermore, continuity in leadership, with Head Coach Ben Feldman and Captains Bryan Vohnoutka and Brandon Matis all back in the same roles, has me optimistic that Minnesota will have the firepower to challenge Chicago in the Central.
- Pittsburgh Thunderbirds: Max Sheppard. Max Sheppard. Max Sheppard. Max Sheppard. Max Sheppard. Max Sheppard. Max Sheppard. Does anyone else play for this team? Actually, the answer is yes, despite Sheppard’s obvious importance and profile as a team leader after his dominant 2019 campaign. And as much fun as it will inevitably be to watch Sheppard make outrageous plays look easy for Pittsburgh in 2021, the Thunderbirds’ ceiling will certainly come down to the team’s supporting cast. At the moment, it’s not entirely clear what that group is going to look like. Thomas Edmonds and Jimmy Towle are expected to return as Sheppard sidekicks, and the franchise has announced the additions of Tristan Yarter and CJ Colicchio, but it remains to be seen whether Pittsburgh will build enough depth around its superstar to be a true contender in the Atlantic, where the Thunderbirds will have exactly zero easy road trips traveling from western PA.
- San Jose Spiders: There’s a chance I’ve been drinking too much Spiders Kool-Aid, but I have been continuously intrigued by San Jose’s personnel additions and general purpose over the past month. The team has already had several practice weekends and just exudes positive energy, the type you would expect from a group of passionate disc diehards who have been deprived their ability to chase plastic for far too long. Among the many dudes I admit I’ve never heard of, the Spiders keep churning out roster announcements that I like, from returning Keenan Laurence, Marcelo Sanchez, and Justin Norden, to introducing Jordan Kerr, Jacob Miller, and Jake Thorne. Sawyer Thompson and Mark Lin are world champions, Steven Chang is a past AUDL champion, and if only a third of the team’s remaining roster of relative unknowns can competently fill in supporting roles, the Spiders have the look of the third best team in the West, and maybe even one of the top six or seven in the whole league.
It’s been 625 days since the Empire edged the Roughnecks in the 2019 AUDL title game, but the absence of ultimate is nearly over.
Opening pulls for the 2021 season will be launched in 38 days! Can’t wait!