August 23, 2022
By Evan Lepler
We’ve never seen a Championship Weekend lineup like this before.
After a captivating divisional round, the four teams who’ve been the best all season long have officially booked their tickets to Madison, where the semis and finals truly have a sizzle unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed.
A decade ago, during the first AUDL season, the last four teams standing had a combined 24 losses entering the playoffs. Of course, there were only eight franchises and a 16-game regular season back then. Might as well have happened in 1912 rather than 2012. Professional ultimate really has come that far over the past 10 years.
For additional perspective, here are the total number of losses for the four semifinalists every year in the history of the league:
Back in 2016, when Dallas and Madison both arrived to Championship Weekend undefeated, the quartet of division champs still had a combined seven defeats. This year, it’s less than half that.
It’s easy to look at New York and Carolina, a rematch of the thrilling 2021 title game, as the headliner, but Colorado and Chicago truly feels like a marquee matchup too, especially with how well both the Summit and Union played offensively this past weekend.
So prepare yourself for the pinnacle of our sport. Narratively, there are countless gripping stories. Athletically, the quality of the competitors will be unprecedented. Geographically, there’s no better place for this transcendent event than Breese Stevens Field in Madison.
The epic showcase is just three days away.
The Full Field Layout
The New York Empire enter Championship Weekend as the top seed, the presumed favorite, an undefeated 13-0 juggernaut that’s gone 40-3 overall since the start of the 2019 season. But after Saturday’s great escape against DC, the Empire aren’t looking as immortally invincible as they previously appeared.
Seemingly cruising with a 13-8 lead midway through the third quarter, New York’s pursuit of routine victory unraveled against a relentless Breeze roster that continuously brought a massive amount of pressure.
“I think what they do is they keep pressure on,” said New York Co-Head Coach Charlie Hoppes, discussing DC’s defensive effort. “Our team, especially offensively, is used to just maintaining this excellence, and eventually it wears down the defense, like a running back in football. You just grind and complete passes, and then in the fourth quarter, you have them wound down. They are able to just keep pressure on us always.”
Thanks to a wild third quarter buzzer beater sequence, culminating with Moussa Dia collecting a prayer of a 50-yard forehand from Jasper Tom, the Breeze were somehow only down two, 15-13, entering the fourth. Then, DC held on seven throws over 32 seconds to begin the final quarter, inching back within one. What had once looked like a brewing blowout had suddenly become two immensely proud, talented, and desperate teams, both looking to keep their seasons alive.
“We never stopped doubting that the comeback was gonna happen,” said Breeze veteran David Bloodgood. “It was just, at what point is it gonna start? Even when we were [five] goals down, it never felt like we were out of the game.”
The fourth quarter unfolded as an incredible battle between intensity and attrition. DC missed two chances to tie it up at 15-all, but patiently converted the equalizer a couple points later after Tom’s amazing dump defense flummoxed New York’s usually reliable reset. Rowan McDonnell, who rarely left the field in the fourth, found AJ Merriman to tie the game at 16-all with 2:46 left, the game’s first tie since the score had been 2-2.
“[The comeback] only started because I think the O-line started to get smooth,” said Breeze Head Coach Darryl Stanley. “Once the O-line started to get smooth, I feel like, alright there’s the baseline, we’re steady on one side. And I felt like all game we were bringing enough defensive pressure. I think, honestly, [when we were trailing by five], it would be hard to say I fully had great strong belief, but I said ok, at least I'm getting what I need here now. We got that steady, and I think there was defensive pressure there all game. It just needed to convert to something. And we got enough offense there from the D-line O [...] And at that moment, I thought we were gonna win.”
But New York never lost their belief either. The Empire could have fallen behind after a turnover on the very first point of the game, but Jack Williams’ bookends saved his team from an early deficit. With the season on the line with 17 seconds left in a tie game, the disc found Williams again, and the Team USA superstar delivered another legendary throw.
He caught the blading forehand from Elliott Chartock with just three seconds left, about 30 yards from the goal-line near the Empire bench, and he coolly launched an air-bending cross-field backhand, intentionally hanging it high in the air so his tall teammates would have a chance to be heroes. When it first left his hand, however, he didn’t think it was perfect.
“Everyone on the sideline, including me, thought I threw it straight into the stands,” said Williams. “From our angle, it didn’t look like it was coming back at all. It was in the air for like 12 seconds. I thought I threw it out of bounds. But it came back in.”
Of course it did.
And of course, Ben Jagt was there waiting for it in the end zone.
“I couldn’t see who was in there; it was just a pack of 10 people because it hung up for so long,” added Williams. “I knew we were gonna come up with it cause we got [John] Lithio and Jeff [Babbitt] and Benny. I knew we had a really good chance, but it’s Ben’s birthday, so it had to be that way.”
With two MVPs and one AUDL title already on his résumé, it’s hard to believe that the 6’6” Jagt had never before caught a walk-off game-winning buzzer beater, but the disc found his outstretched hands with no time left, and the entire Empire organization erupted onto the field euphorically.
“Everyone else went up a little early, and thankfully my height served me well this time,” said Jagt, who also celebrated his 30th birthday on Saturday. “I was elated. I’ve never caught one of those, so it was a little surreal when it just sticks in your hand. I’ve had a few bounce off my hands, but that one stuck and boy does it feel good [...] We just played one of the best teams in the league, and we’re going to Championship Weekend on a buzzer-beater!”
New York’s 19-18 victory over DC was the 12th one-goal game between the two franchises in their past 23 meetings, dating back to July of 2014. Understandably, while the Empire joyously stormed the field, the Breeze were stunned by such a sudden, devastating sequence.
“Heartbreaking,” said Bloodgood. “We put a lot of size on this team to try and really counteract that. It’s just a shame that we lose on a jump ball after playing great defense all second half.”
For the record, while the Breeze were hoping Williams’ last toss would sail errantly out of bounds, not everyone on the Empire sideline agreed with Jack’s claim that his final throw looked immediately wayward.
“No way,” said Hoppes. “Jack is maybe the best buzzer-beater thrower in the sport. And buzzer-beater catcher. He’s good at a lot of stuff, as it turns out.”
No one knows that to be true better than the Breeze, who were victimized by a Williams’ buzzer-beating snag in last year’s season opener. The Atlanta Hustle are also familiar with his late-game heroics, as their 2021 postseason dreams ended on Williams’ overtime hail mary, which was caught by Ryan Osgar as time expired.
For the second straight year, the Empire did not play their best in their divisional playoffs, but still prevailed thanks to some heart-stopping heroics from their brightest stars. At 13-0, New York is attempting to be the first team in AUDL history to complete two perfect seasons.
“Everyone else is chasing a championship,” said Paul Stevens, co-owner of the Empire. "We’re chasing history. Two 15-0 seasons. I like to be chasing history.”
The Empire will see a familiar foe on Friday night, and the Carolina Flyers are actually hunting history too. The reigning champs are looking to be the first team since the 2014-15 Spiders to go back-to-back.
Carolina’s 22-20 victory over Austin on Saturday evening was not quite as close as the final score indicated, considering the Flyers never trailed and always led by multiple goals over the game’s final three quarters.
“We were pretty much in control the whole time,” said Carolina Head Coach Mike DeNardis. “I think they played as well as they have against us, but our game plan worked well and we had our best players. We controlled the pace and narrative the whole time. It felt good. It’s what you want in a championship game, especially at your home stadium.”
Charlie McCutcheon’s exciting bookends in the closing seconds of the first quarter gave the Flyers a 6-3 lead, which grew to 7-3 after Ethan Bloodworth’s block to start the second led to Eric Taylor finding Elijah Long deep. Carolina only broke Austin two more times the rest of the way after earning three breaks on the Sol’s first six O-points, but the Flyers’ smooth offense mostly scored without too much trouble.
It certainly helped to get Anders Juengst back on the field for the first time since May 7.
“The first half was the best we’ve looked since at Atlanta in June,” said Carolina’s Sol Yanuck. “D-line was super efficient, O-line was attacking and standing up on D as needed. Anyone who pays attention knows how much talent ‘Ders has, and I think our offense just has some natural lulls in our movement, spots we get a little stuck, and he’s just so elite at getting us back on track with his legs and also with where he decides to put the disc. Takes a huge load off of me and Matt [Gouchoe-Hanas], lets us always play from a position of strength.”
Meanwhile, with Juengst back on offense, Taylor played even more defense. DeNardis did say that the two were not directly related, as Taylor would have anchored the D-line even if Juengst had not returned, but he would have likely had to cross over more. With Carolina’s offense humming, Taylor, who played 78 percent of his points on offense during the regular season, played 75 percent of his points on D-line on Saturday against the Sol, launching full-field corkscrew pulls and then leading the counter-attack after a turn.
“That guy was about as locked in as I’ve seen him in years on Saturday,” said Yanuck, talking about Taylor’s defensive effort. “We’ve got a lot of really talented defenders, but having Eric out there allows everyone to slot into a matchup that’s more ideal for them [...] Out D-offense is also a huge strength of ours, so adding E.T. to be that punctuation mark, providing that finishing touch, feels like a real strength of our group.”
The Flyers slowed the Sol offense throughout the night by forcing them to work. Austin had gone 11-for-12 on hucks in their June victory over Carolina, but this time around the Sol only attempted seven, converting five.
“It was obviously a focus to make them grind, make them play on our schedule,” said Yanuck. “We know we’d win the backfield battle if we could force them to engage there. Simply the fact that they only threw seven hucks—probably three of which were Kyle [Henke] throwing hammers, was a big indicator of a successful execution of the game plan.”
Henke (plus-10) and Evan Swiatek (plus-9) both enjoyed strong individual games, and the Sol only endured 14 turnovers for the game, tied for their second-fewest in a game all season, but they could never truly fluster the Carolina offense enough to threaten a late comeback.
“In our postgame debrief, we did call Saturday night a failure,” said Henke. “We didn’t do what we traveled to do, and that was disappointing. Our eight unforced turnovers vs. their two was the difference. That being said, the season as a whole was not a failure. Anyone from the outside could see we were a fun and dynamic squad, and it was absolutely that. This season was on pace, if not better, than what our expectation was going into the 2022 season. We expect more for ourselves going into 2023.”
That brings us to the next exhilarating chapter between the Empire and the Flyers, adding to the recent lore between New York and Carolina across the ultimate spectrum.
“They’ve beaten us twice in three games,” said DeNardis. “We beat them in the one that mattered the most. And now we have our fourth matchup in the past three seasons. It’s gonna be super exciting.”
Am I crazy to look at Chicago and Colorado as pretty similar teams? Seriously, they have so much in common.
Dynamic and accomplished center-handlers? Check. Young, athletic defenders who can get multiple blocks? Definitely. Savvy veterans who can steer the ship for multiple breaks? Absolutely.
Furthermore, both of these teams are tremendously streaky. They can look mediocre one quarter and then be a buzzsaw in the next. We saw that particular trait in abundance during their respective five-goal playoff wins over the weekend.
Let’s start with the Summit’s 26-21 triumph over the Salt Lake Shred on Saturday night. This was no smooth, start-to-finish domination; rather, it was a turbulent, choppy donnybrook between two expansion franchises that were both so fired up to be there competing for the West Division title.
“It was truly a fun game,” said Salt Lake’s Joel Clutton. “I think we put ourselves in a good position to steal that game from Colorado. We knew it was going to be a dogfight with multiple momentum shifts.”
Indeed, the Shred never panicked when they were down 5-1 out of the gate, a deficit that they overcame almost immediately, tying the score at 10-all later in the half. But Colorado never succumbed to the Salt Lake momentum, refusing to let the Shred take a lead.
Matt Jackson had a huge game offensively for the Summit, but his biggest contribution came on a Shred break chance with the game tied late in the third. Chad Yorgason’s 70-plus yard bomb toward Ben Green looked like the potential go-ahead score, but Jackson elevated for the staggering catch-block to preserve the tie game into the fourth.
“Matty’s plays near the end of the third—and all game—were unbelievable,” said Colorado Coach Tim Kefalas. “I felt that he was our best player on O for this game. His play, both offensively and defensively, is the exact kind of energy the team needed in that moment.”
Salt Lake star Jordan Kerr also had a strong performance with seven assists and over 600 total yards in front of the massive Colorado crowd, but his only turn of the contest came on the opening point of the fourth, when the Shred received the pull with another chance to take their first lead of the night. After Kerr’s throwaway, Alex Tatum’s ensuing huck also looked doomed, but Clutton, who impacted the game positively in so many dynamic ways, inadvertently deflected it toward the Summit cutter, Nick Snuzska. Two throws later, Seth Faris hit Mathieu Agee for the first of five fourth quarter breaks.
“We felt like that was the beginning of the end,” said Kefalas. “I know it seems lucky, and I won’t argue it wasn’t, but I’m a firm believer in maintaining a challenging cognitive load for our opponents—varied looks, rotating marks within a point, heavy switches—so when the late game rolls around and the brain can’t process through quite as well, mistakes start to compound.”
Colorado outscored Salt Lake 9-4 in the fourth quarter, though the game felt way closer than the five-goal final margin. Shred leadership lauded the Summit’s success, even if they also realized that a few plays here and there could have dramatically altered the outcome.
“All credit to Colorado for being the better team on the field three times [against us] this season, and especially in the moments that mattered most,” said Salt Lake Head Coach Bryce Merrill. “So much talent and poise from that group of players and coaches—it’s easy to see the culture they’ve built and how that repeatedly buoyed them in big moments this season. They were ready for a decisive game, and more specifically for a decisive fourth quarter, on their path to Championship Weekend.
“Part of me sees a world where we finish that break at the end of the third—after a monster defensive bid from Jonny Hoffman in the end zone—and start with a hold in the fourth go up by two. Instead, Matty Jackson came up clutch with a huge block to prevent the break. [Snuzska] then got a great hustle play on a second chance disc to secure a break to start the fourth. And we got rattled and turned it on three or four rushed red zone attempts as the Summit locked up back-to-back breaks.”
For the game, Colorado’s offense only turned the disc over five times, which leads to another similarity with Chicago. The Union O also had just five turnovers in their game against Minnesota. But while the Summit D-line had nine breaks in 14 chances against Salt Lake, Chicago’s D-line offense struggled mightily for much of their game against the Wind Chill. They went just 1-for-5 in the first quarter and 3-for-13 in the first half, enabling Minnesota to keep it close for much of Sunday’s Central Division final.
“I was not expecting so many turnovers from our D-line,” said Union Head Coach Dave Woods. “That was uncharacteristic for sure, and not fun!”
At halftime, Chicago’s O had only turned the disc over once, while Minnesota’s had given it away 13 times, but the score was still 10-8, with the Wind Chill very much still in contention. But the Union D-line converted five breaks in eight chances in the second half, heeding the words of their coach who was less than pleased during the halftime chat.
“It was pointing out, ‘you guys have turned it over on upwind hucks on the same third of the field, jamming it in the jam hole near the end zone instead of bouncing it off the sideline,’” said Woods, recalling his mid-game message. “We said we needed to possess the disc to get breaks. We’re not doing that. Let’s possess the disc in the second half.”
The Wind Chill registered their first break of the game to get within one at 12-11 with 5:35 left in the third, but Chicago countered with a confident 42-second hold, followed by three straight breaks, to go ahead 16-11 just over three minutes later. Unlike last year’s playoff South Side playoff showdown, there would be no fourth quarter fireworks or massive momentum changes down the stretch, as the Union ultimately prevailed 21-16.
“Some of our core guys just didn’t have a great night on offense,” said Minnesota Head Coach Ben Feldman. “We knew we’d have to play an A-game to come in here and win, and ultimately, we had to find ways to force more turnovers and take pressure off our offense and just didn’t find those opportunities. Hats off to them. They didn’t give it to us. We forced a lot more throws on the average point, but they didn’t give the disc away. They played really well.”
Even though Chicago only completed 4-of-11 hucks, the Union recorded 15 blocks, five more than any other team produced over the weekend. Rookie Nick Pappas tallied four, while Jace Bruner, Jason Vallee, and Tim Schoch each had two apiece. Joe White struggled to transform turnovers into goals as a D-line quarterback in the first half, but provided critical handling and playmaking for the D-line in the second half, enabling the Union to comfortably prevail.
“Last year was a lot more euphoric because it was such a big comeback,” said Chicago’s Ross Barker. “We played a little sloppy, but dominant enough to walk away and return to Champs Weekend.”
Seven On The Line
- The 2022 AUDL Championship Weekend schedule is set. Colorado and Chicago will square off at 6:00 PM/ET on Friday, with New York and Carolina tentatively slated to start at 8:30 PM/ET. Both semis will air exclusively on AUDL.tv. Saturday’s title game will begin at 8:00 PM/ET, airing live (and exclusively in the United States) on FOX Sports 2.
- Could Pawel Janas throw his 400th career assist at Championship Weekend? It’s definitely within reach, after Janas became the first player in AUDL history to record his 391st assist on Sunday afternoon in Chicago.
He finished with six dimes on the day to surpass Goose Helton for the top spot on the league’s all-time assist chart. “It doesn’t matter,” said Janas after the game. “Glad we got the win; I don’t care about the record. I will say that it means everything to me to break it in a Chicago uniform, but the record itself is meaningless.” Clearly, and understandably, Janas values team success far more than his individual numbers, but the fact remains that it took him just five years to become the most prolific goal-thrower in AUDL history. The record-breaking toss came on a fourth quarter hammer to Barker, one of his main targets over the past several seasons. “
Talk about a perfect throw,” said Barker. “I didn’t move. I was uncovered because of the way their defense was set up there. But even a hammer you expect to maybe move a few yards or something. I just stood there and it was right to me.” Interestingly, as the only Colorado native on Chicago’s roster, he’ll be battling against the Summit for the first time this Friday in Madison. “I just want to beat them,” said Janas. There’s nothing more than I want than to beat my friends and all the younger people that’ve gone through the University of Colorado program. I’d love to teach them a lesson about how to play at Breese Stevens, and that’s what we hope to do [...] They like to spread the field, and they won’t be able to do that at Breese Stevens. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. It’s swirly. It’s the midwest. It’s a heavy air. It’s humidity. They don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s gonna be great. Hopefully, they don’t adjust.”
- Not to completely reject Pawel’s point, which does have some merit regarding the atmospheric difference from Denver to Madison, but Colorado does have a slew of players with Breese Stevens experience. Jay Froude and Dave Wiseman are both former Radicals, while Matt Jackson and Jonathan Nethercutt have played at Breeze Stevens Field as Radical opponents. No matter how many fans make the trip from the Rocky Mountains, it’ll be hard to replicate the home support that the Summit felt at the University of Denver this past Saturday, where over 2,100 fans packed the stadium. “It really was surreal,” said Colorado Captain Joe “Smash” Anderson. “Might have been the largest crowd I ever played in front of.” That’s saying something for the 36-year-old Anderson, who competed in the AUDL’s first season back in 2012 as a member of the Connecticut Constitution. “It was a dream come true to play professional ultimate when I first started,” he said. “Then it was a dream come true to be the official captain of a pro team. Now, 10 years later, I am more thankful than ever to still be playing and leading at this level.” Anderson had a pair of hand-blocks and skied for a thrilling snag of a hammer to help Colorado’s cause against the Shred, and now he’s giddy with excitement about the chance to compete at Championship Weekend. “I have never been to Madison before,” said Anderson. “I have seen those past championships and how cool the event is. I’m just proud to be a part of it. We are going to leave it all on the field. We are going to show the league our joy.”
- A bit more on New York’s game-winning buzzer-beater. On the line, the Empire took their final timeout to go over the plan with 17 seconds left. “The discussion [was], they’re gonna give us a lot of space because end-of-quarter defense is just typically soft, a little bit, so were knew we could catch a few under and then put it,” said Jagt. “And then we were looking to go one side and then opposite, so when I saw Jack going to that side, I knew he was gonna put it [across the field].” It’s hard to imagine the Empire executing better under the circumstances, though DC had the vision of actually winning the game on that last point of regulation too. “It’s a balance there between trying to see if I can get a quick turn and maybe get a quick away goal,” said Breeze Coach Darryl Stanley. “When that didn’t happen, we want to get back. And I think the trouble with that mentality as opposed to just maybe playing a truly prevent defense is that you’re not in a perfect position downfield there. You kinda gamble a little bit. You hope that that pressure brings a worse throw. Honestly, I just thought if I could blitz them there, I don’t even have to go into OT, and I might get a turn, and I might get another one of those Moussa crazy [blocks with] two seconds left, pick-up, throw, someone’s running and off we go. I guess we leaned a little too far forward.” As for the final throw, Williams claimed that his job was easy. “Everyone in the league can throw a little floaty one to big receivers,” he said. “Everyone gives me credit for the throws; it’s the easiest thing in the world. You just throw it up and then someone comes down with it [...] For whatever reason, it always finds my hand, and then I have the easy part. I just put it in the end zone.”
- The New York-Carolina matchup is spicy and delicious for so many reasons, but Jack Williams’ connection to the Flyers is obviously near, or perhaps at, the top of the list. He grew up in Hickory, North Carolina, started playing ultimate at UNC-Wilmington, and competed as a member of the Flyers from 2015-18. Furthermore, while he’s been a member of the Empire since 2019, he has remained club teammates with many of the current Flyers whom he’ll be matched up again with this weekend. “It’ll be fun, as always,” said the now 27-year-old Williams (He’ll turn 28 next month). “I think we both anticipated that we’d have to play each other eventually to win the ship, so might as well get it out of the way early. I’m excited for it. Hopefully, we’ll have the upper hand this time.”
- As a part of our expanded Championship Weekend coverage, all four teams will participate in gameday press conferences on Friday, starting at 12:00 PM/ET. The tentative plan is to have two players and a coach from each team to field questions and share their perspectives in order to preview the semifinals. These will be live-streamed for fans to watch. Also, Ian Toner will be anchoring the pregame/halftime/postgame coverage, where he’ll be joined by a pair of AUDL dignitaries on a revamped Gameday set. Cameron Brock, the AUDL’s all-time goal scoring king, and Darryl Stanley, the Head Coach of the DC Breeze, will join Toner for analysis, reaction, and wall-to-wall coverage throughout the weekend.
- After having the honor of calling games in New York and Chicago this past weekend, I am beyond excited and grateful for the privilege of being at the mic for all three contests that are coming up in Madison. This will be my eighth Championship Weekend for the AUDL, and I’ve never been more pumped for a final four. My rotating crew of game analysts will include Charlie Eisenhood, Bryan Jones, and Megan Tormey, who collectively bring an extraordinary wealth of institutional knowledge and ultimate experience. Eisenhood’s been covering the league since 2012 and was on the call for last year’s title game, Jones called the 2018 final and became the AUDL Coach of the Year in 2019, while Tormey has been a part of Championship Weekend broadcasts every year since 2013. It’s truly a superb group, and it should be an unforgettable couple of days chronicling the next batch of history.
Heading into Championship Weekend, I find myself wondering what the next iconic moments will be. Thinking back, my mind immediately conjures images of Will Chen’s full-field buzzer-beater for Seattle in 2016; Kevin Pettit-Scantling performing CPR on the frisbee after his incredible end-of-quarter snag in the 2018 title game; Jeff Babbitt overpowering the pack for his own sensational sky as time expired in the third one year later. Just to name a few.
Every possession will be precious, but games are still four quarters long, and all four teams have proven that they can rampage on a season-shifting multi-break run at any instant. The pressure only mounts as each game progresses, and unquestionably, games will have a different, daunting, invigorating feel if they are close down the stretch.
We’ve got just three games left in our 2022 AUDL journey, but it sure feels like we’ve saved the best for last.
See everyone in Madison!