June 17, 2020
By Evan Lepler
With the 2020 AUDL season on hold, new television partner Fox Sports has chosen to re-air many of the league’s classic games from years past. Next up is the 2019 semifinal between the Indianapolis AlleyCats and New York Empire. Here’s what I most remember about the build-up and aftermath from that particular title showdown.
David vs. Goliath was certainly one way to frame this matchup at the outset, with the scrappy AlleyCats possessing a few rickety slingshots to try and stun the undefeated Empire and their stacked squad of superstars. That’s only slight embellishment based upon their overall resumés, as Indy had narrowly survived the competitive Midwest with a relatively mediocre season-long point-differential (fifth out of six teams in their division). Meanwhile, New York had not necessarily been dominant either in terms of crushing their opponents, but the Empire remained perfect record-wise at 13-0, though all but one of those victories coming by five goals or less. Still, the general public firmly believed this would be a mismatch. Even the AlleyCats seemingly embraced the mindset that they were celebrating their season and giving it their all but also had nothing to lose. Most viewed the official betting line on mybookie.ag, Empire -2.5, as a comically low number, expecting New York to create significant separation and prevail comfortably. Of course, that’s just another reminder of why I don’t gamble.
When the game actually began, the expectation of a New York rout did not seem too far off. Indianapolis clearly arrived ready to battle with everything it had, but the AlleyCats still seemed like a plucky 16-seed fighting an uphill struggle. As good as Keenan Plew, Keegan North, and Travis Carpenter were for certain sequences, they were simply never as dominant as Empire dynamos like Ben Jagt, Grant Lindsley, and Jeff Babbitt. Thanks to their appearance in Championship Weekend in 2018, the Empire also owned significantly more experience collectively on the final four stage, something that revealed itself a number of times throughout the contest.
The feisty wind that afternoon in the South Bay was also a complicating factor, and while I don’t necessarily believe the AlleyCats playing their regular season home games indoors was the main reason they struggled to score upwind, it narratively provided a convenient explanation. In actuality, both teams found it difficult to manage the conditions and create upwind breaks. The Empire, however, were considerably more clutch, especially at the end of the first couple quarters. New York scored the game’s first into-the-wind goal with 13 seconds left in the opening quarter, then closed the half on a 4-0 run. At intermission, a New York -2.5 wager felt like money in the bank.
But as we discussed throughout the telecast, despite their unblemished season, the Empire had not overwhelmed their opponents with brilliant all-encompassing 48-minute performances. And if you only watched this particular game, you would certainly have some skepticism about this team’s trip to the finals of the hypothetical Greatest Teams of All-Time Tournament earlier this spring. Surely, the AlleyCats’ all-around effort and energy deserves some credit for the Empire’s inefficient display, but New York, even on Saturday at Championship Weekend, still felt a bit like it was figuring things out. It was fair to wonder whether the Empire roster was like Frankenstein, a dangerous machine with frightening potential that did not quite work as designed, or if they were a next generation supersonic jet, with limitless capability once the groundbreaking technology and accompanying kinks would get worked out. From that perspective, it’s especially interesting to re-watch this semifinal, understanding that the Empire’s championship performance was one for the ages while their semi was much more of a slog.
While the Sunday showcase was spectacular in a wide array of ways, Saturday’s opening semifinal, if we’re being honest, was not the prettiest game of ultimate that’s ever been played. Of the 40 total players who participated, more than half of them threw at least one turnover! More specifically, 14 competitors had multiple turns, compared to only four of the 40 players who had multiple giveaways in Sunday’s title game. The conditions obviously contributed to this disparity, but both Indy and New York would also admit that they missed a bunch of opportunities unrelated to the windy circumstances. Drops, especially, were crippling to the AlleyCats’ cause. The official stats charged Indianapolis with a half-a-dozen drops; slice those mistakes in half even, and who knows what might have been?
I went through the footage of this entire game last week, and I will say that the fourth quarter is eerily compelling to re-watch. A seven-goal deficit shrinks to three pretty quickly, with more than enough time left for the comeback to continue. By this stage in the game, the upwind/downwind dynamic had shifted into more of a crosswind, which the AlleyCats handled better in order to fight their way back towards respectability. I’m not sure any of us in the broadcast booth ever truly expected Indianapolis to completely overcome the gap and overtake New York, but a genuine suspense lingered in the final minutes more than anyone outside of Indiana would have previously predicted. Furthermore, anyone who decided it was safe to use their New York -2.5 winnings for a random purchase at halftime was probably forced to read the cancellation fine print by the time the final buzzer sounded.
One final numerical nugget from New York’s semifinal. It’s noteworthy to recognize that Jagt and Lindsley were the two cutters that gobbled up immense amounts of yardage throughout the game. In fact, Jagt and Lindsley accumulated more receiving yards than the other 18 members of the Empire combined! Jagt finished the game with 469, Lindsley with 342; collectively, they caught passes for 811 yards, a full field better than the aggregate of the rest of their team, which summed to 691. Granted, that number includes 106 negative receiving yards assessed to Harper Garvey (-61), Beau Kittredge (-28), and Elliot Lee (-17). But still, Jagt and Lindsley’s 811 remains superior to the 15 Empire receivers who caught positive yards in the game (797).
Whereas last year yardage statistics (for both throwers and receivers) were only tracked at the All-Star Game and at Championship Weekend, the expectation is that they will be fully implemented into the league’s new stat platform for all games whenever play resumes in the future. Soon, additional data will educate us more deeply on what these yardage numbers mean, creating more context and enabling more confident conclusions. But even in the early stages of evaluating these metrics, it’s obvious that Jagt and Lindsley’s downfield elusiveness and big-play abilities were monumental for the Empire, especially against the AlleyCats.
Of course, you did not need stats to tell you that.
The AlleyCats-Empire 2019 Semifinal premieres on FS2 today (on Wednesday, June 17) at 6:00 PM/ET