September 7, 2021
By Evan Lepler
My goodness, how the AUDL playoffs continue to deliver the drama!
Raleigh trailed by four and New York was down as many as five, but those deficits just set the stage for two tremendous comebacks in the Atlantic Division playoffs this past weekend, providing two memorable and meaningful results that will certainly shape the conversation for some time. Or at least until the New York Empire take the field against the San Diego Growlers on Friday at 4:00 PM/ET and something else bonkers happens.
The Flyers’ second-half precision and Empire’s late-game heroics were the top headlines from Labor Day Weekend, as both teams delivered the goods when it mattered most and showcased their superpowers in various ways. The Raleigh Flyers were just masterfully efficient, prioritizing possession on offense and hassling DC’s handlers more effectively than any of the Breeze’s previous opponents. Meanwhile, New York’s biggest names rose to the occasion when it was absolutely necessary, with all of the Empire’s all-stars delivering clutch and unforgettable sequences that quite literally swung the result away from Atlanta.
Consequently, the semifinals are set, and the upcoming ultimate is tantalizing. After narrowly surviving on Saturday night, New York now gets an opponent it’s never faced before, as the San Diego Growlers arrive at Championship Weekend coming off their greatest win in franchise history. The Empire have the stars, but the Growlers have the superior depth, along with a collective determination to take the next step forward after their 2019 semifinal setback. Raleigh and Chicago presents another first-time AUDL matchup, but these two ultimate cities are full of intriguing connections, and either the Flyers or Union will reach the title game for the first time in franchise history.
So that’s the current picture, with Chicago, New York, Raleigh, and San Diego having fought through the gauntlet to get to September 10 at Audi Field in Washington D.C. For the first time in 25 months, Championship Weekend is upon us, and inevitably the intensity, urgency, and drama will all continue to crescendo through Saturday night’s culmination.
I can’t wait, and I hope to see you in DC!
The Full Field Layout
On Friday night in DC, the Breeze registered back-to-back breaks on the opening two points of the second quarter, creating an 8-4 edge after 15 and a half minutes of game action. Obviously, the Flyers did not panic.
“We sort of have this mentality of the game’s gonna have it’s up and downs, and we have this knack for pulling it out or coming back or persevering, so oddly enough we were confident that we were going to make a run and it was still our game,” said Raleigh’s Matt Gouchoe-Hanas.
Indeed, the Flyers responded almost immediately, completely shifting the momentum with a 5-1 rampage that evened the score at 9-all by halftime.
Seth Weaver, who will face his old team in Chicago’s semifinal, also summarized it well.
“We say it’s not a Raleigh Flyers game unless we go down early, so we were right where we wanted,” said Weaver.
From there, the Flyers took their first lead with 8:46 left in the third when Weaver scored on a short pass from Elijah Long, and Raleigh never trailed again, crushing the Breeze with patience and pressure down the stretch. DC hung in there and traded punches to keep the game tied at every number from nines to fifteens, but the Breeze offense struggled down the stretch, scoring only three goals in the fourth quarter as Raleigh used a 3-0 run to lead 18-15, ultimately prevailing 19-16 to clinch their first Championship Weekend appearance since 2015.
“Still got a couple games to go, but it feels nice after the last couple years of having the Dallas monkey,” said Mike DeNardis, who’s coached the Flyers every year since 2015. “It’s nice to get here and especially the way we did it, going down 8-4 and just keeping our heads down and knowing we could fight through a game, and as long as we executed the game plan, we could go on these great runs, and we did.”
Early in the game, Raleigh threw several errant hucks, missing open receivers in the deep space to the delight of DC, who intentionally overplayed certain cutters under to try and compel the Flyers to launch the disc long. But Raleigh settled down and only had three turnovers in the entire second half. For the game, the Flyers managed a season-low 10 turns, even against the feisty DC pressure.
“We held them to 19 points despite a season-low turnovers,” said DC Captain David Shields after the game. “I think the sabermetrics inside that show they were playing good offense and we were playing good defense. We were tight on them, we were making things really tough for them. We played our game until the very end, and their game was better today.”
One thing Raleigh did to put pressure on DC was sprinkling top offensive players from their D-line onto the O-line throughout the game. Both coaches agreed that this strategy paid off.
“Having different offensive players rotate in a little bit didn’t let them lock totally into their matchups,” said DeNardis. “So we run our seven [O-line starters] a couple points, and then we throw Eric [Taylor] in there or [Eli]’Jah [Long] in there or Noah [Saul] in there, and I think mentally it’s hard because now they’re adjusting all their matchups or they’re thinking about slightly different matchups, so they can’t lock in all the way, and I think that actually helped us a ton down the stretch.”
Unaware of DeNardis’ comments, Breeze Head Coach Darryl Stanley made almost the exact same assessment, while also praising the amount of pressure that Raleigh was able to maintain on DC’s dynamic handlers.
“Honestly, I think they did a really good job using all the tools they have in their toolbox,” said Stanley. “Eric Taylor, Elijah Long, I felt like their ability to mix that up and decide who was gonna come in was just enough to throw us, to stop us from locking into the matchups we wanted to lock into. I think their defense on our offense, incredible work in the reset space. We had beaten them a lot with up-lines two weeks prior, and this game I think they did a much better job of clamping that down.”
Sol Yanuck compiled a game-high 615 yards, with three goals, three assists, and one block, while Connor Russell had three blocks and David Richardson produced two. Combined, Russell and Richardson registered more blocks (5) than DC had as a team, as the Breeze mustered just four blocks against the Flyers all game long. DC’s Jonny Malks, who had zero turns in 120 throws against Raleigh in the Breeze’s pair of one-goal wins over the Flyers during the regular season, threw for 524 yards but also had three throwaways in 60 tosses. Rowan McDonnell threw five assists, but also had four throwaways, an uncharacteristic performance after he had just 14 incompletions in 548 throws over the course of 12 games this season.
Consequently, the Atlantic Division’s regular season champs were denied the chance to compete in their marquee hometown event, and the Raleigh Flyers, after suffering five consecutive playoff losses from 2015-2019, not to mention the four heartbreaking one-goal losses they endured this summer, finally have made their triumphant return to the AUDL’s greatest stage.
“It’s somewhat surreal,” said Gouchoe-Hanas. “It’s really emotional. It’s been an emotional year, an emotional season, and it was a big moment for the team for sure.”
One night later, at an alternate venue necessitated by the serious and scary flooding that plagued much of the northeast, the New York Empire looked completely out of sorts in the first couple quarters. It was an unfamiliar setting and a disorienting first-half performance from the defending champs, who fell behind by five as the visiting Atlanta Hustle delivered a near flawless display of defensive execution after a turn.
“Both of our defensive lines got breaks in the first quarter,” said Atlanta Head Coach Miranda Knowles. “The offense was cranking, Austin [Taylor] was hitting on his shots, Player [Pierce] was distributing, JP [Burns] was playing so well.”
At halftime, the Hustle were 8-for-8 on hucks and 5-for-6 on break chances. In retrospect, it just was not sustainable.
“A lot of our individuals were playing better than maybe they actually are,” said Knowles. “And it’s very hard to do that for two halves of an AUDL game, especially when Jack [Williams] and [Ben] Jagt just kept playing all the points. We just couldn’t match them.”
Incredibly, Williams appeared on the field for 27 of the game’s final 31 points, providing a steady playmaking presence and a defensive mindset that helped the Empire transform a 12-7 deficit late in the first half into a 17-all tie by the late stages of the fourth. With his otherworldly performance between the lines and constant leadership throughout the night, Williams seemed to will his team toward a crazy comeback.
“Jack Williams in the huddle all night said ‘we’re gonna be down two at the end of the third, shit’s gonna get weird, and then we’re gonna come out and win it,’ and he was absolutely right,” said New York veteran Matt Stevens. “Never a doubt in his mind the entire game.”
Of course, Williams did not do it alone, and the Empire almost certainly would have lost at the end of regulation if not for Jagt’s defensive heroics. After a confusing sequence where he was called for a foul on a deep shot to Atlanta’s Elijah Jaime that ended up being nullified by a timeout call that preceded the throw, Jagt found himself a step behind the Hustle’s big man Brett Hulsmeyer as both raced toward the disc that Taylor had launched toward open deep space to prevent a stall. It looked like Hulsmeyer was in position to haul in the game-winning score, but at the last possible moment Jagt left his feet and soared for the ridiculous layout block that kept the score tied.
“They both lost their footing, and it was a footrace,” said New York’s Jeff Babbitt. “I thought we were beat. [Hulsmeyer] won the foot-race, and Jagt said, ‘Not today!’”
That was just the beginning of Jagt’s game-saving heroics. After Atlanta reclaimed the lead at 19-18 on the first point of overtime, the Empire responded with their own hold before Ryan Drost’s block set up the O-line to potentially take the lead. A timeout brought all of New York’s top stars onto the field, and a Ryan Osgar huck found Babbitt on the goal-line, needing one more throw surge ahead.
“I had just chalked up,” said Babbitt. “I wear a lot of chalk on defensive points, I had just chalked up when I caught that huck from Osgar, and when I threw the forehand, it just stuck to my hand, and I thought, that’s gonna be the first turnover for me of the year, and it’s gonna be the most important one.”
Indeed, Babbitt, who played the vast majority of his points for the Empire’s D-line, had literally completed all 70 of his throws this season up to that moment, and his awkward release transformed an easy floater into a sinking grenade, only for Jagt to accelerate, layout, and somehow snag the trailing edge disc with one hand a split-second before it would have hit the turf. The spectacular catch gave the Empire the 20-19 lead with 2:31 remaining in OT, and New York never relinquished control from there.
Still, the Hustle tied the game with six seconds left out of their own timeout, when Taylor hit Pierce with a speedy backhand to even the game at 21-all. But Atlanta’s defense malfunctioned as the overtime clock expired, with five deep defenders all misreading Williams’ final prayer.
The Hustle could only helplessly watch as Williams’ backhand huck floated over their outstretched arms and into Osgar’s grasp, giving New York the exhilarating 22-21 overtime victory. The Empire stormed the field in euphoric celebration, while the Hustle were suddenly eliminated in excruciating fashion.
“I think they all read it poorly, but that’s not when we lost it,” said Knowles, analyzing the final play. “We lost it at the end of regulation on Jagt’s D on Brett. That was our chance to win the game. Brett made us believe he could catch it by running past Jagt, but he tried to clap-catch it, and gave Jagt an opening.
“I had nightmares about it," Knowles continued. "Ben Jagt was getting layout Ds in my dreams. It was terrible. But props to Jagt. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play a game like that.”
Knowles also added that even if the overtime buzzer beater had been blocked, the Hustle had not broken the Empire’s O-line since the first half, and New York would have received the disc in double overtime.
“We hadn’t gotten a break on them in over an hour,” said Knowles. “That wasn’t gonna happen [in double OT], I don’t think.”
Williams played 39 points, while Jagt played 37 and Osgar played 28. No one on Atlanta played more than 26. Williams finished with a game-high 730 yards, while Jagt and Osgar each finished plus-9.
“You trust your best players in the biggest moments,” said Stevens. “At this point, I don’t even doubt these guys, I just know they’re gonna go out there and make plays.”
“I’m relieved and I’m excited and I’m pumped and this team’s super ready [for Championship Weekend]. I hope we can just start the game a little clearer and maybe carry a lead and not have to make a comeback.”
Seven On The Line
- The remnants of Hurricane Ida stormed through New York on Wednesday and left the Empire’s home stadium flooded, damaged, and unplayable. Without Fosina Field in New Rochelle, the organization began a frantic search to find a new spot to host their Saturday night playoff game. “We called about 40 venues, and this was the one that took us,” said Stevens. “The other option was Delaware, which obviously wasn’t a good one.” Wondering if there was a small town in New York named Delaware, I asked him if he indeed meant the state of Delaware? “The state of Delaware,” he answered. “It was the next closest field we could find, but thankfully we didn’t have to go with that option. Between the floods, field availability, and everything, it was the only other field we could find in this region. We didn’t know how we were gonna make it work, but it was the only option we had [until Granite Knolls Park came through.]” Granite Knolls Park, on the edge of Westchester and Putnam Counties about an hour north of the city, offered a very different feel than the Empire’s primary home, but fans still showed up, food trucks were present, the atmosphere was lively, and Fulcrum Productions still managed to execute a national television broadcast basically on the fly.
Just another week in the world of professional ultimate logistics.
- After Friday night’s game in DC, I made a point to go interview Raleigh’s Seth Weaver, who spent the 2019 season playing for Chicago and will be facing his old team for the first time this Friday night. Of course, I asked what he was most looking forward to about getting the chance to battle the Union. “Pawel’s gonna get locked up!” he said while laughing. “That’s what I’m looking forward to!” I quickly asked if I could quote him and he replied, “Oh yea, I’m gonna text him [shortly] and tell him that.” When I saw Chicago’s Nate Goff later in the weekend and asked about his feelings on facing his former team—Goff played for the Flyers in 2017—he just grinned with enthusiasm, fired up for the opportunity to match up against many of his old mates. Considering the stakes, personalities, and inevitable on-field chatter that’ll be chirped throughout Friday’s contest, the Raleigh-Chicago matchup already feels like a rivalry game even before the opening pull.
- Of course, Raleigh Head Coach Mike DeNardis also has Chicago roots. “I gotta go after the hometown,” he said, excitedly, following the Flyers’ win over DC. He also offered a serious assessment of why he feels his Flyers are well-suited to keep their momentum rolling heading into their semifinal showdown. “I just think we’ve been pretty battle tested this year, and I think they’ve had maybe one or two, and I think that experience is gonna give us, in my opinion, a leg up at the start because they haven’t been in the pressure-cooker that we’ve been in for the entire season, and I think that’ll pay dividends, especially in the beginning when there’s a lot going on, and a lot of energy and atmosphere and people may be a little bit nervous because it’s a big situation. Strategically, we have to plan for them like we plan for DC. It’s a good team, they have really good talent, really good players, and we just have to figure it out like we did with [the Breeze.]”
- In the first semifinal, San Diego and New York will also be squaring off for the first time ever, so I wondered how familiar the Empire would be with the Growlers? “I watched a few games of them,” said New York’s Jeff Babbitt. “I watched this past game against Dallas. They’re a talented team. I think that in some ways their offense runs similar to Atlanta’s. They shoot the ball a lot, they have a lot of good throwers, they’re really fast. I’m excited for a really good matchup against them.”
- While the Growlers don’t have any former New York players on their team, a San Diego win over the Empire would create some fascinating matchups in the final, regardless of whether the Flyers or Union advanced. Growlers Captain Goose Helton has played for both Raleigh and Chicago in his career, including his 2013 MVP season in the Windy City. Perhaps even more significant is the possibility of the Flyers finally getting to the AUDL Championship game and then finding their former MVP Jonathan Nethercutt standing in the way of a title. It’s hard to fathom the emotions heading into a Saturday night showdown between Raleigh and San Diego, realizing that either the Flyers or Nethercutt will finally experience the glory while the other will devastatingly fall short.
- Of course, the two semifinals this Friday are not the next AUDL games on the schedule. On Thursday, on the eve of Championship Weekend, the Toronto Rush and Montreal Royal will meet for all the marbles in the Canada Cup finale, capping their abbreviated eight-game season with a climactic one-game playoff in Quebec. It certainly is a tad strange that a 3-5 Rush team could potentially upend a 6-2 Royal squad in just one game and claim the title when Montreal’s gone 4-0 against Toronto over the past couple months, but that’s the nature of postseason ultimate. I’m not a huge believer in the often-made coach’s claim, ‘It’s tough to beat the same team X number of times in a season,’ since usually, if one team is superior, they can indeed win many consecutive meetings. But there’s no doubt that the Rush have improved since starting their season slowly, and they could absolutely claim superiority heading into the winter just by winning this single battle in Montreal. As bizarre as it could be, the Rush could be Canada Cup champs at 4-5 if they can beat the Royal on Thursday night.
- The Rush still needed to beat the Outlaws in their regular season finale to earn a ninth game this Thursday, and Toronto edged Ottawa 24-22 on the back of an unbelievable hucking performance. The Rush converted all 16 of their hucks in Saturday’s road win, as Cam Harris threw for 708 yards, the fourth-most in any AUDL game all season.
Adding in his 341 receiving yards, Harris totaled 1,049 yards, the third highest total of the entire summer, behind Nick Boucher’s 1,223 and Austin Taylor’s 1,049. Amazingly, 452 of his 708 throwing yards came on his eight scoring tosses, each of which registered somewhere between 41 and 72 yards. Four of the eight assists were at least 66-yard bombs. Andrew Carroll paced the Rush with four goals and 404 receiving yards, while the Mackenzie brothers—Iain and Mike—combined for six goals and 642 receiving yards. Geoff Bevan finished a career-high plus-10 for the Outlaws with seven assists, three goals, and 41 completions without a turn, but the Outlaws, after a promising 2-0 start to the season, were on the wrong side of the outcome for the fifth time in their last six games.
DC, here we come! (I guess this will be my third trip to DC in the last four weeks, but that hardly mitigates my gusto!)
I am super excited about the games, the venue, and also the wall-to-wall coverage that we are planning, with analysts Charlie Eisenhood, Bryan Jones, Tyler Kinley, Adam Ruffner, Ian Toner, Megan Tormey, and others all set to contribute to our Championship Weekend extravaganza. We’ll have extensive pregame and postgame shows streaming on AUDL.tv and Facebook live, and our first live broadcast will be Thursday night at 6:30 PM/ET, as we preview the weekend and set the stage for the Canada Cup culmination, which is scheduled to start at 7:00 PM that night.
Unlike past years, I legitimately believe any of the four remaining teams could hoist the championship trophy on Saturday night, and the suspense feels appropriate for this historically competitive AUDL season. New York could very well become the first team since San Jose in 2014-15 to go back-to-back, or we could witness Chicago, Raleigh, or San Diego finally taking the title. Either way, it should be an absolutely fascinating weekend of high-stakes ultimate, with legacies on the line in so many different directions.
Thanks for watching, reading, and I hope to see you at Audi this weekend!