September 14, 2021
By Evan Lepler
Fueled by cooperation, development, and years of building belief, it actually took an empire to dethrone the Empire.
Long before they ever held a tryout, picked a roster, or played a game, the seeds of a future Raleigh Flyers championship were planted when a fiery and thoughtful midwesterner moved to town. Mike DeNardis came to North Carolina for a job that had nothing to do with ultimate, but his passion, knowledge, and commitment to the sport would help transform a community.
He certainly did not set out with the ambition of becoming the sport’s local emperor, but very organically, that’s exactly what happened. He initially devoted his time to coaching youth and college kids, crafting a pipeline of talent that grew together. Then, he helped coalesce the state’s best players onto a single club team, organized around his leadership, which lifted North Carolina men’s ultimate to a new level of consistent contention. And when the Raleigh Flyers came into existence in 2015, DeNardis had the connections and intentions to create an AUDL champion.
Of course, the journey had several rough bumps in the road. Despite winning 78 percent of their regular season games in their first five seasons, the Flyers always floundered in the playoffs, advancing to the Championship Weekend just once, way back in their inaugural 2015 campaign. The team’s depth and potential always felt massive, but there was a real mental struggle as the painful losses mounted. Atlanta at home in 2016. The trilogy of Dallas defeats in 17, 18, and 19, with two coming at home and also coughing up a six-goal lead in Texas. So many tough memories that were impossible to shake, but a core of veterans refused to give up.
And coming out of the pandemic, the team’s chemistry felt special in 2021, with the right mix of experienced grinders and skilled playmakers, many of whom had come up through the North Carolina pipelines that DeNardis helped organize. Even after enduring four one-goal losses this season, including another pair of double overtime heartbreakers, the Flyers continued to believe that they were the best team, confident they would prevail when it mattered most.
“I think we’ve had more talented teams [than this year], and it was very win-first oriented, where our goal was to win and we had the best players and we’re gonna win because we had the best players, and we didn’t have that team bond, and those are the lessons you learn,” said DeNardis. “You can have a great team, but you need that cohesion, you need those people to believe in each other. Not to say those teams didn’t believe in each other, but the strength of this team’s bond was as strong as it’s ever been. And that’s why, even though we maybe didn’t have the best team on paper, we had the best success.”
Consequently, this might just be the very beginning of the Raleigh ultimate empire. Of the 21 Flyers who took the field in their two games in DC this past weekend, two-thirds were 26 years old or younger. None were older than 32. And the majority had their skills honed under DeNardis’s coaching at either the youth, college, or club levels.
“We’re half-joking, half-serious, like we won this game 10 years ago,” said Anders Juengst, who played for DeNardis at UNC. “It’s really an accumulation of the return on all of those investments.”
And more returns should follow, thanks to the rapidly expanding DeNardis coaching tree. Inevitably, the Flyers’ carefully-crafted feeder system will create more competition and replenish their resources. It was all part of the plan, and the journey reached unprecedented heights this past weekend.
On Saturday night in DC, when the New York Empire were one game away from winning their second straight AUDL title, Raleigh’s systems, depth, and desire, all things that DeNardis helped grow over the past decade, ultimately won the day, and the championship.
“That New York team is great, they’re driven by great players, they have probably better top-end talent than us, but we had the the better team,” said DeNardis. “It’s by far the best team experience I’ve had.”
The Full Field Layout
What a weekend.
The stadium sparkled, the weather was perfect, and the ultimate was magnificent.
We witnessed the first ever overtime in Championship Weekend history, as Raleigh overcame a multi-goal fourth-quarter deficit and prevailed 21-20 in a semifinal thriller against Chicago. One night later, exactly 25 months after New York’s scintillating performance in the last AUDL title tilt, the Flyers were even better, delivering their greatest display when it mattered most.
Whereas the Empire won the 2019 championship with just eight turnovers in their final against Dallas, Raleigh only gave away the disc seven times on Saturday night, a total that includes Noah Saul’s celebratory throwaway as time expired. The Flyers were broken on the game’s opening point, but never again after that, as the Raleigh offense put forth a clinical effort in maintaining possession, prioritizing patience, and executing against New York’s feisty pressure.
“It’s been a long-time coming this season,” said Jacob Fairfax, who paced the Flyers with five goals in the finals. “We haven’t played a perfect game offensively all season, so I mean, we were definitely due to have this kind of performance.”
Against an Empire defense that had produced a season-best 15 blocks on Friday against the Growlers, the Flyers only allowed their opponent to register four blocks on Saturday, New York’s smallest defensive output of the year. Astonishingly, Raleigh completed 97.7 percent of its passes (298-of-305), the highest completion rate for any AUDL team playing in an outdoor game the entire season.
“We’ve got reset handlers who can get open all night, and that enables us to take very few risks on offense, and I think that was the key to the game for us,” said Juengst, who completed all 33 of his throws, caught four goals, and dished three assists in Raleigh’s championship victory. “We’re the most talented O-line in the country.”
Indeed, the Flyers were phenomenal on offense, but the defense came to play too, complementing Raleigh’s possession-oriented O by limiting New York to 16 scores, the Empire’s lowest total of the season.
“You saw what Atlanta did against them, and we took a page out of their book,” said DeNardis. “We tried to keep them unbalanced by putting a lot of soft pressure on and then put hard pressure on [...] It was just trying to keep them on their toes by giving them different looks and stuff they haven’t seen before. I think that paid dividends at the end when we just decided to ramp the pressure up.”
The Empire still completed 96.3 percent of their passes and only turned the disc over 10 times, tied for their second-fewest turns in a game all season, but New York struggled to look completely comfortable against Raleigh’s D-line depth, which produced some incredibly timely blocks en route to their championship-clinching victory.
“We just like to play gritty, person-to-person defense, and I think that’s what worked best for us,” said Noah Saul, the Flyers’ long-time leader. “Our team is so deep that we had pretty much two full D-lines, we just alternated most of the game, and that allows us to go hard when we’re out there. You know you’re not playing every D point, so when you’re out on the field you can go really hard on your matchup. We had a couple zone-y points that slowed them down and maybe threw off their rhythm a little bit, but at the end of the day I think it was the gritty, man-to-man defense that did it for us.”
Along with DeNardis, Saul has worked tirelessly to build the Flyers’ collective belief, providing a consistent motivational voice in nearly every huddle since 2015. Postgame on Saturday, DeNardis was quick to deflect praise of his leadership onto Noah’s shoulders.
“Everyone loves him and everyone wanted to win for him,” said DeNardis, who’s been coaching Saul since his college days at UNC. “There are so many people that we wanted to win for, but he’s the lynchpin of this community. And he’s a magnet for everyone because he’s just a kind person and he’s a great guy and he found one of the biggest keys of our season to unlock that and get over the mental hurdle. A lot of people would have quit going through the stuff that we went through, and he was one of the guys that was just like, put my head down and learn and grow and absorb and get some of these new guys and get them mentally tough for these moments.”
Among those newish guys were the trio of young Carleton stars that first joined the Flyers in 2019. Sol Yanuck and Henry Fisher both grew up in North Carolina, honing their skills at the youth level under DeNardis and his coaching protege, former Flyer Jonathan Nethercutt, but Eric Taylor came to the Carolinas without much of a plan beyond wanting to play ultimate. It was Saul who helped Taylor get a job and find his home on the team. That off-the-field assistance led to a friendship that transcended the lines, bolstering the team’s chemistry and on-field ability.
Taylor’s skills have long been top notch, but his late-season shift to D-line really helped change the course of the Flyers’ season.
“Mike called me [after the first New York game] while I was driving to a friend’s house, and he’s like, ‘Hey I’ve got an idea,’ and he proceeded to lay out this description that we had some good matchups for Ryan [Osgar], AD [Alex Davis] played really well on him, but we really don’t have this top stopper, which is something I did in college a lot and I like to think I can still do a little bit,” said Taylor. “I got to cut my teeth guarding [DC’s] Rowan [McDonnell] and that was a great challenge, and obviously I didn’t get all of them with Jack [Williams], you never can, but hopefully I provided at least a little bit of limitation to give us the edge that we needed to win.”
Officially, Taylor had no blocks in the finals, but his pulls and pressure were absolutely pivotal, not to mention his clutch two-handed snag of Fairfax’s cross-field hammer that gave the Flyers a two-goal lead with three and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Davis delivered two important Ds, while Yanuck, Seth Weaver, and Tim McAllister each registered one, with McAllister coming up with a huge early layout swat on Williams that seemed to change the tone of the game.
After trailing 13-11 late in the third, the Empire scored the equalizer less than a minute into the fourth, but Raleigh answered with a 14-throw response, punctuated by Fairfax finding Fisher for a rare deep score—the two teams completed only seven hucks across the 48-minute game. On the next Empire possession, the Flyers’ intense defense pressure incited a Williams throwaway, and then Raleigh successfully hucked once more, with Connor Russell finding Tim McAllister for the break that upped the lead to 15-13.
New York never possessed the disc with a chance to tie again, as Raleigh closed out their 19-16 victory and euphorically stormed the field as time expired to begin celebrating this unprecedented North Carolina ultimate moment.
“When D-Rich catches basically the sealing goal with a cast on his hand, it’s like a movie,” said DeNardis. “It’s like something that’s just a dream. In all the years and all the guys who’ve battled through Flyers and Ring and men’s [ultimate] in North Carolina, there have been so many hardships, especially in the past four or five years where we’re so close, and to get it and the way we got it, it’s incredible and it feels so amazing."
“Our fans and the people who’ve been in the Raleigh frisbee community—men’s, women’s—everybody has been, in spite of the difficult stuff, they’ve just been so supportive and so awesome for our organization. I’m really happy for the fans to give them this and for the people who came before us that didn’t get one of these. It’s for a lot of the people who worked really hard and we saw the retirement thing in that five to six year time-span when we were suffering a lot of tight losses when we thought we could have won. So a lot of this is for them.”
Seven On The Line
- The Raleigh Flyers became the third AUDL team to win a championship despite four regular season losses, joining the 2015 San Jose Spiders and the 2017 San Francisco FlameThrowers. No other team ever won a title after finishing fourth in their division, but there had never been a landscape like this season’s SuperAtlantic, with eight teams packed into a single standings. Of course, all four of Raleigh’s losses came by one goal apiece, with three of the four requiring overtime and two going to double overtime. In a season where everyone lost at least two games, the Flyers were the only team in the league to never lose by more than one goal.
- The New York Empire became the second AUDL team to fall in the finals one season after winning the title, joining the 2013-14 Toronto Rush, who went a perfect 18-0 in their inaugural ’13 season before losing to San Jose in the ’14 title game. The Empire had won five straight playoff games before Saturday night, when the Flyers earned their first ever win over New York.
- For anyone who’s tried to pull before and struggled, here’s Eric Taylor’s advice on how to execute one of his full-field hanging floaters: “It’s rhythm, not power. Stay relaxed, and don’t run into it. Walk into it, do a little spin, and get it to go. And if you notice, almost all really great pullers [have] super relaxed shoulders.” It’s as simple as that!
- Great seasons for the San Diego Growlers and Chicago Union both concluded in disappointing fashion, as the two franchises remained winless in their second ever trips to Championship Weekend. The Growlers were frustratingly flummoxed by New York’s morphing defenses, which used multiple looks to disrupt San Diego’s cutter-to-cutter throwing precision. The Growlers played through 10 turnovers in the West Division title game against Dallas, but surrendered 19 turns in Friday’s semifinal against New York. Meanwhile, the Union are the team that will probably lose the most sleep over what happened in DC, considering Chicago led Raleigh by two with less than three minutes remaining in Friday’s second semifinal. Pawel Janas and Ross Barker both had superb seasons, but costly throwing errors down the stretch basically invited Raleigh into overtime, where the Flyers capitalized and survived. Janas had eight assists and Barker had eight goals, but the key mistakes were all they could contemplate as Raleigh advanced in overtime.
- Certainly, the Montreal Royal deserve a loud shout-out, as they also overcame a two-goal fourth quarter deficit to beat the Toronto Rush 19-18 in the finale of the Canada Cup. Over the final seven-plus minutes, the Royal outscored the Rush 5-2 to improve to 5-0 against Toronto in this abbreviated season. Let’s pause for a quick second and reflect on that: the Toronto Rush, who went 42-2 in their first three AUDL seasons and 78-8 in regular season action from 2013-18, suffered five straight losses to the Royal this summer, a streak that actually extends to six dating back to 2019. The pandemic has understandably shifted priorities for many and provided access to reasonable excuses for poor or varying levels or performance, but it still has been somewhat shocking to see Toronto experience these results. Perhaps it makes more sense to simply salute Montreal, which the Royal unquestionably deserve. They keep unearthing new contributors, and last Thursday’s revelation was 22-year-old Nabil Chaouch, who caught six goals after averaging less than one goal per game in his first 19 AUDL appearances, in which he scored 15 times. Jakob Brissette totaled 467 throwing yards in the final, orchestrating the Royal offense to another thrilling home win in front of their loyal and devoted fans. I cannot wait to see the Canadian teams rejoin the rest of the AUDL in 2022.
- Aside from the teams that lost, Championship Weekend was a feel-good culmination for everyone, the finish line to a grueling AUDL season that was two years in the making. The players, coaches, and owners obviously deserve considerable credit for grinding through the pandemic to bring ultimate back this summer, but the most brutal schedules belonged to the behind the scenes broadcasting production crew, specifically Luke Johnson, Ian Lunger, Ashley Kouba, and Roman Jennings, four individuals who handled back-to-back doubleheaders every weekend for over three months. Enduring super tricky travel and outlasting inevitable exhaustion, they all were the unsung heroes of presenting the 2021 AUDL season to the masses. If you enjoyed any “Free Friday Frisbee” or FS2 Game of the Week telecast this summer, you’ve got Luke, Ian, Ashley, and Roman to thank. Rest up, friends. We’re hitting the road again next spring!
- By the way, how’s this for competitive balance: since 2015, the AUDL has had six different champions in the past six seasons. Concurrently, 19 franchises have made the playoffs in this six-year stretch, while 11 different teams have competed at Championship Weekend. This year, all seven playoff games were decided by four goals or fewer, a testament to the tremendous level of ultimate that we’ve experienced over the past three weekends. Has DraftKings set championship odds for 2022 yet?
Also since 2015, the Tuesday Toss has been my way of chronicling and anthologizing the thrills and drama of the AUDL, and to paraphrase the great Billy Jean King, it’s a pressure and a privilege.
Most weekends, I’ll arrive home from broadcasting sometime on Sunday, and from there the clock is ticking toward Tuesday as I strive to capture the key stories, narratives, and emotions from the recent ultimate action. Obviously, I could not do this alone.
Countless players and coaches provide enormous help on a regular basis, offering invaluable perspective and context that continuously fuels my desire to catalogue the most important moments on and off the field. Without this overwhelming generosity in terms of time and insight from so many contributors, this column would be a shell of itself, if it existed at all.
Personally, I remain extraordinarily grateful to have the opportunity to travel, call great games, and write about this still-growing and fascinating league. It’s an amazing honor, and I do not take it for granted.
I’m also excited for a bit of a breather, though the AUDL offseason just opens up the calendar for other intriguing broadcasting endeavors. I’ve got football this Saturday, field hockey this Sunday, and a slew of other sports on the schedule over the next few months.
But I’ll also be counting down the days to 2022 while contemplating the many storylines that remain front and center. A few questions on my mind looking into the future: How will Raleigh’s identity change now that the Flyers have won? Can New York’s top-level talent reclaim the trophy that they held for 25 months until Saturday? Will San Diego and Chicago be able to take the next step? Which of the two Texas teams will have the future edge? What can DC and Atlanta do to finally reach a Championship Weekend? How might expansion or realignment impact the competitive landscape as we currently know it?
These are all topics to explore down the road, and it sure will be fun to dive back in when the time comes.
But for now, that’s a wrap on a wildly entertaining 2021 season.
Congrats to the Raleigh Flyers, and thank you for reading, watching, and enjoying ultimate.
For both the Flyers and the AUDL, best is still ahead.