May 31, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
1. Minnesota Making A Push
The Midwest has suddenly shifted, becoming fertile grounds for unexpected playoff seeding. With the Madison Radicals’ (6-1) highly visible defeat at the hands of the Flyers, divisional opponents are chomping at the bit. The first and most obvious result is that the Indianapolis AlleyCats (7-1) are now the leaders of the Midwest Division. They’re still paced by veterans Cameron Brock and Keenan Plew, though Rick Gross is the team’s foremost MVP candidate.
The Minnesota Wind Chill (4-2) are equally thrilled by the sight of a Madison defeat.
“It's always nice to see Madison lose,” said Greg Cousins.
At 4-2, Minnesota is suddenly only 1.5 games behind the Radicals for second place in the division. Minnesota plays Indianapolis this week – Stadium’s Game of the Week. Minnesota’s schedule will only become more meaningful after that. They play Madison next week, and after a pair of games against Detroit and Pittsburgh, Minnesota will face the Chicago Wildfire (2-4), Madison, Indy, Chicago to close the season. This week is the start of crunch time for Minnesota.
With star Greg Cousins playing on the D-Line this year, Minnesota has the horses to match up with Indianapolis’ league-leading offence. Cousins will likely guard one of Indy’s most dominant throwers, either Plew or Travis Carpenter. He’ll look to push them out of the backfield and try to match his athleticism against theirs.
Though established stars like Cousins and Josh Klane continue to play brilliantly for Minnesota, the team’s strength on the season has been driven greatly by players new to the team and those given new responsibilities.
“One [pleasant surprise] that comes to mind immediately is Michael Jordan. He's always been a very talented player who hadn’t really had a chance to step into the spotlight. With some of our guys moving over to [the] D-Line, he's had a chance to really shine and show he can play with anyone,” explained Cousins.
“And [Bryan Vohnoutka], of course, he's really stepped up,” continued Cousins. “He wasn't doing everything, wasn't up to his potential last year, but we are really starting to see what he can do and what he can bring to the field.”
Other, less-heralded players have been instrumental on the D-Line. In both of their second years with Minnesota, Colin Berry and Charlie McCutcheon have stepped into more important defensive roles and more active offensive roles after a turn.
Vohnoutka and Jordan have paced the offence. Vohnoutka is third on the team in assists, with 16. He leads the team in goals, with 21, and Jordan is in second, with 20. Vohnoutka will likely initiate most of Minnesota’s offensive sets, as All-AUDL cutter Ryan Osgar won’t be available. The Wind Chill aren’t making any excuses, and they’re confident that their offensive pieces will adapt.
Minnesota’s opportunity to rise in their divisional standings blossomed as Raleigh buried Madison, and Cousins is aware.
“We need to make our presence known, as a team, right now,” he said.
2. Outlaws Lurking
With two wins over the renewed Philadelphia Phoenix (2-5-1) – despite a bitter overtime loss to the rival Montreal Royal (3-3) – the Ottawa Outlaws (2-4) are still in the thick of the playoff hunt. Before the season, Mike Lee told me that the team was not entering the season focusing on small goals, such as improvement around the edges; they wanted to make the playoffs, and players were working harder than ever before in their lives to do so. Don’t look now, but the same Ottawa team that went 2-12 in 2017 is one strong weekend away from great positioning to make the East playoffs.
Ottawa will play their first game of the weekend in New York against the presumed second-best team in the division. New York butchered Ottawa in their first matchup, winning 28-16 behind an incredible effort from the D-Line. Jeff Babbitt (3 blocks), Ben Katz (1 block), and Marques Brownlee (2 blocks) were fantastic, outscoring the Outlaws 5-4 when on the field together, despite primarily defence.
Regardless, Ottawa still likes their matchup. They will have more information on the Empire in this second game, which should result in the Outlaws being able to put up more of a fight.
“We've gameplanned a little bit differently for it,” said Outlaws Captain Erik Hunter. “It helps that we've now seen them play. We didn't really have much to go on going into that game. We didn't know how they were going to use Beau, what their system was going to look like. We've got a little bit more information now to kind of gameplan against them and bring a system forward.”
Ottawa’s offence struggled in the first matchup, but they will need to dominate for the Outlaws to have a chance against the Empire’s meat-grinder of a defence. Derek Alexander is a superstar thrower, and the cutting trio of Alec Arsenault alongside the Loiseau brothers has the legs to compete against anyone.
“I still think we have the edge on our O-Line,” said Hunter. “When I look back at that game in particular, Alec didn't have a great game, and Karl had to drop out of it due to a knee issue. Those things don't happen, and we might have a very different game… I still think that Karl and Alec and those guys [on the offence] still have the edge over that team.”
Watching Babbitt and Arsenault do battle in the deep space is the AUDL’s version of LeBron James and Kevin Durant trying to dunk on each other; Ottawa-New York has the potential to be catnip for Frisbee fans.
If Ottawa is able to prevail against New York, a great scheduling quirk will have them playing Philadelphia the next afternoon. Why so interesting? Ottawa has twice hosted Philadelphia this season on the second day of a back-to-back; now the visiting Outlaws will find themselves in that same cumbersome position in Philly. Regardless, not even scheduling has the Outlaws worried about the game.
“I think that's a team we can beat, and I think that's a team we've proven we can beat,” explained Hunter. “The guys know that now. I don't want them to be complacent because of that, but at the same time, I think a little bit of confidence going into day two on a double-header weekend isn't a bad thing.”
Two wins would put the feisty Outlaws at 4-4 and in the thick of the playoff race in the East.
3. Sol Not Setting...Yet
After a second loss this season to the suddenly fiesty Nashville NightWatch (3-3)—and their third loss in four games overall—the Austin Sol are now 4-4 and in fourth place in the South Division. Austin lost the games it had to win against Nashville, proving true Mike DeNardis’ prediction a few weeks ago that the NightWatch would surprise some opponents this year. If Austin is going to make the playoffs, they’ll now need to beat some teams that they weren’t expected to.
Of course, Austin had an unimaginably thin roster last week against Nashville. Due to a combination of injuries and a variety of fathers not being able to travel, the Sol were without a majority of their starting O- or D- Lines.
“Not having the dads and not having all the injured folks put us in a tough spot,” said Sol Head Coach Bjorn Schey.
Several plays who were actually cut from tryouts had to be signed in order to put bodies on the field. That problem will not rear its head this weekend in Austin’s double-header, as the team should have the majority of its roster.
Austin’s return to relevancy will start this weekend against Raleigh. Raleigh will always be a tough test, and just to make the road a little harder, Austin will face them without offensive star Ethan Pollack. The Flyers just deconstructed the Radicals. Austin, of course, has experience against Raleigh, beating them in late April by a score of 25-23. Chase Cunningham led the Sol with 8 assists. Raleigh is something of a different beast now, as Mischa Freystaetter seems to have discovered in the past 2-3 weeks how to properly fit into the Raleigh superteam. Neither Freystaetter nor Jon Nethercutt played against Austin; furthermore, Raleigh threw 20 turnovers against Austin last time around – can Austin count on the same number?
Austin will try to force turnovers by playing person defence and making sure that their opponents aren’t given time to consider their options on the field. Raleigh beat Madison at their own game: slow and thoughtful. Austin will try to speed up the game
“I ilke person because your best defence against players like [Bob Liu and Brett Matzuka] is to make it really hard to get the disc. That was our focus last time, and we got a couple Ds on the dump against them, and that's gonna be our focus this time, trying to deny them. Because they're not physical players, and not let them see the field with the disc, because that's when they can hurt you,” said Schey.
Austin will go into the Raleigh game with the same strategy as last time, even though Freystaetter and Nethercutt will change the Flyers’ look. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Austin has a Sunday game against the Tampa Bay Cannons, who dwell in the basement of the South with a 1-7 record. The Sol will have to be careful; they have played the best teams well so far on the season, but they’ve played down to lesser opponents. Losing to Tampa Bay would make their path to the playoffs much more difficult.
Schey is focused on team health and spirits to maximize their chances in Tampa. Eat well and get a good sleep.
“I'm confident that if we're happy and healthy going into that second game, we'll come away with it,” speculated Schey.
A 1-1 record this weekend would be acceptable, keeping Austin in contention with Atlanta (4-3) and the surprising Nashville (3-3) for the third spot in the South. 0-2 would be a tough hole to climb out of while racing against two other teams for the last playoff spot.
4. San Francisco's Confidence
The San Francisco FlameThrowers (3-4) have a difficult two-game weekend coming up, but the team remains confident. The FlameThrowers haven’t had many games with all of their stars available, but they’ve performed at a high level whenever the top of the roster is healthy and playing.
When Marcelo Sanchez, Antoine Davis, and Lior Givol all play together on the offence, the team converts at a 76 percent success rate. That’s higher than San Francisco’s 2017 conversion rate of 74 percent. They still have the top-end talent to compete with anyone.
San Francisco has not yet been healthy. New addition Hunter Corbett has only played in two games. No one on the roster has played in all seven games.
For the upcoming two-game weekend, San Francisco projects to have most of its rotation players available. They’ll play the two leading teams in the West, first at the San Diego Growlers (4-4) before traveling to face the division-leading Los Angeles Aviators (6-2). All three teams will have great availability up and down the rosters. San Fran will be missing only Byron Liu and Corbett, among its stars. Trevor Purdy will be unavailable for San Diego, and neither Eli Friedman nor Chris Mazur will be playing for San Francisco.
Though San Francisco lost to San Diego 25-21 the first time around, there are several reasons why the FlameThrowers are expecting a different result. First and foremost, None of Sanchez, Greg Cohen, Eli Kerns, or Davis played in the first game against San Diego. For an already top-heavy team to lose four of its top five or six players greatly limited their margin for error. That won’t be true this time around.
“We're feeling pretty confident coming into the San Diego game,” explained Lior Givol.
Last time around, the FlameThrowers led the Growlers coming into the fourth quarter, despite missing a chunk of their roster. When the FlameThrowers are at full health, they like to play Kerns and Cohen on the D-Line to maximize break opportunities. In fact, scoring from the defensive side has been the team’s weakness all season; the offence has been one of the league’s most efficient.
“Our biggest struggle this season has been converting breaks,” explained Givol. “We've been generating some stops, whether just forcing a turn, a few blocks here and there. But especially early on, we were really struggling to punch those in, to the point that we often wouldn't get breaks unless we sub in our O-Line, and that's something that we've really improved on the past few games. I think that's gonna be the biggest factor for us.”
In the first matchup, Devon Williams had success matching up with San Diego’s initiating cutter and most important offensive piece, Travis Dunn. Williams and Kerns will handle the majority of that matchup. San Francisco felt like it contained Dunn well in the first game, and he still collected 3 assists and 4 goals without a single throwaway or drop. If the FlameThrowers can limit Dunn further with Kerns now available, they have to like their chances.
Los Angeles is another beast, with more talent across the entire roster than any other team in the West. Givol admitted that the FlameThrowers offence hasn’t felt consistent pressure from defences on the year, and Los Angeles will be an opportunity for San Francisco to play against top-notch, highly athletic defenders.
San Francisco won’t run their stars into the ground, and San Francisco expects to have a variety of young players step into larger roles on Sunday. We haven’t had too many looks at San Francisco with a complete roster on the season, but this weekend is a chance for San Francisco to flex their muscles.
Setting the Stack is a weekly AUDL column written by Louis Zatzman (@LouisZatzman). For feedback, you can reach him at email@example.com.