July 26, 2018
Does a hefty victory over a bitter rival in Ottawa’s final game of the season redeem an otherwise disappointing year? It depends on how you define their goals.
The Ottawa Outlaws entered 2018 with their eyes on the playoffs. They knew that their top-end talent could rival any other teams, with Derek Alexander as the team’s premier handler and Alec Arsenault its top cutter. Alexander actually finished third in the AUDL in assists, notching 66. Arsenault finished fourth in goals, compiling 51. The best players did their jobs.
The Outlaws believed going into the season that the depth would make a leap. The young additions, who were forced into larger roles in 2017, would be more comfortable in the new season, and Ottawa would benefit. This was largely true, and several players took huge leaps in their responsibilities and success.
“Aidan Hayter went from, he was on a practice roster, to playing in a couple games, to all of a sudden, he was almost in the regular 20,” said captain Nick Boucher. “A couple guys who were more role players, who had to step into bigger roles this season, guys like Paul Mensah, Matt O'Brien, who in past years were just speedster specialists, we asked them this season to do a little bit more. You need to get involved in plays a little more. You need to take on harder matchups. You need to get involved on the offensive side a little bit more.”
However, Ottawa by and large didn’t convert its improvement into victories. Many more games were closely contested, as compared to 2017, but the Outlaws only upped their win total by one game. In only its third game of the season, the Outlaws led the visiting Montreal Royal by a wide margin in the fourth quarter, but Montreal staged a furious comeback and won the game in overtime. A full five games this season were lost with margins of only 2 points or fewer. Montreal defeated Ottawa in overtime again later in the season.
“I'll remember both losses to Montreal forever. Those were pretty agonizing defeats,” admitted Boucher.
Ottawa’s final game of the season came in the form of a cathartic beat-down of Montreal, topping the Royal 32-25 in Montreal. Both teams were missing key rotation players, which meant both had to give even larger roles to their youthful contingents. Ottawa dressed several players whom had only previously played in a handful of games between them.
“Now all of a sudden, we're dressing 5 or 6 guys who had never played. All the guys who had played had to step into bigger roles on the offence, or [become] main players on the defence now,” said Boucher. “It's Montreal, we want revenge, but we're going to have to rely on a bunch of guys who we haven't really used all season… They had a bit of the same thing going on, where they had to have players who hadn't stepped into roles, having to step into roles. It was really, really rewarding to see all our [young] players look much more comfortable, and have a big impact on the game, while their players didn't seem to be able to rise to the challenge. Again, that just somewhat speaks to the level of growth we've had in our younger players throughout the season.”
Scott Graham was one of those players who found success for Ottawa in the final game. His first-ever AUDL game came the week before, when Ottawa was massacred by a league heavyweight, the Toronto Rush: “It was a pretty abrupt entrance to the AUDL for me,” laughed Graham. “I've been watching the AUDL for a couple years, and some of these guys in Toronto - and Ottawa - are guys that I've been looking up to, and thinking wow, I want to be like them, they're heroes.”
With his first game already under his belt, Graham was more comfortable against Montreal. On only the sixth point of the game, Montreal threw the disc away, and Graham was the key receiver moving the disc down the field before scoring the break goal to put Ottawa ahead 4-2. He cut in multiple times, pushing the Outlaws down the field. Eventually he caught an easy pass for a score.
“I was nervous just catching it,” admitted Graham. “It wasn't a catch under a lot of pressure, or [catching] a super hard throw, or anything. But I was thinking, what if I drop my first point in the endzone? That [would be] embarrassing. As soon as I caught it, the whole team celebrated.”
“It was a confirmation to me,” he continued. “I belong here, and I'm a good player. I can swing with these big boys, you know?”
The Outlaws entered the 2018 season looking to make the playoffs, but consistent improvement across the roster is no small consolation prize. Did beating Montreal then redeem the season?
“I think it totally did,” confirmed Graham. “For me, it not only redeemed the fact that I'm good enough to start playing, and I'm going to get an opportunity next season, perhaps, to play some more. It also redeemed the fact that we're in all these games. Any other throw [in our close losses], we're going to win, and we're going to go to the playoffs. It's something we showed, is that we have it all together, and if it goes our way, we're going to do great things as a team, as a franchise.”
“It's a very rewarding feeling to see those [young] guys making big plays in big moments, just to see how far they've grown, and feeling that you've been a part of their evolution of their play. It's pretty rewarding to see,” agreed Boucher.
Though the team hasn’t talked about it yet in depth, the sense is that the veterans will be geared up and ready to go next season. No one is yet discussing retirement. The feeling is that the Outlaws face a task unfinished; they are better than they showed in 2018. They want to refocus on small features of the game, winning games with effort in all 48 minutes rather than requiring heroics in the last 5.
“It's not really one big moment that has cost us a game, or has won us a game,” said Boucher. “It's hundreds of small moments, where if you don't execute all these tiny things perfectly, then you end up having to rely on these big, last-chance scenarios, rather than just being able to take over the game from top to bottom, because you're able to win all these miniature scenarios.”
Like Graham said, if one extra throw had been completed, or one additional disc caught in a variety of Outlaws games, they could very well be in the playoffs right now. With the performance of Ottawa’s affiliate players, former practice players, in the team’s final game of the season, there’s a vivid path to future success for the Outlaws.
“[The Montreal game] gave us a lot of confidence going into next season, and future seasons, because it was so many of the young, unproven guys that had success,” affirmed Boucher. “If we can have those guys continue to grow at the level they were, plus bringing back a bunch of our normal, mainstay, top players, then all of a sudden, we can field a 20-25 man crew that we believe can compete with everyone. That's what the last game gave us.”