May 24, 2022
By Evan Lepler
For every team, the road toward Championship Weekend is a nonlinear journey. Even the most talented groups need to gel, learn, and improve in order to reach their peak potential. Ultimately, seasons are generally decided not entirely by who has all the best players, but by which team has increased their level highest when it counts most.
Week 4 showcased the expected excellence from teams like Carolina and New York, although both teams utilized different looks than we’ve seen so far this year. We also saw significant improvement and growth from teams like Philadelphia and Indianapolis, who responded from Week 3 home heartbreakers by transforming their narratives on the road.
The past weekend also revealed the noteworthy shortcomings of some teams that have sizable long-term ambitions. Those shortfalls could be fatal flaws, or they could be temporary speed-bumps, depending on how they are handled in the weeks and months ahead. The Austin Sol, for instance, are fully embracing that knowledge, knowing that their season will be defined not by their Week 4 results, but rather how they respond to them.
There’s not a single team in the league that thinks of itself as a finished product through four weeks. With 95 days until the 2022 AUDL Championship Game, the rate of growth between now and then will likely determine who can hoist the towering trophy in Madison on August 27.
The Full Field Layout
The Austin Sol may have lost twice this weekend, but they might have gained confidence.
That’s not to say they lacked swagger entering their trip through Carolina and Atlanta, but over the first three and a half quarters in both games, they clearly proved they could compete with the South’s pair of established contenders. In each game, Austin was within one midway through the fourth before their opponents came through in the clutch to create late separation. Athletically, they matched up well and flustered their foes with their physical defense.
Before the weekend, Sol Head Coach Steven Naji reminded his team that even if they could not return to Texas with any road wins, they would still fully control their own destiny over the rest of the season. That’s still true, though they must approach their Week 6 home showdown against the Flyers with a significant sense of urgency. The Sol have shown they can be competitive, but now they need to improve—and fast—in order to have a chance of surviving their gauntlet schedule and remain in postseason contention.
“They possess the disc really well,” Carolina Head Coach Mike DeNardis said about the Sol. “They have really smart players. It’s very much like Atlanta. You have to find the little cracks in the armor, and that’s just by attrition. You just have to keep coming after them. They’re a good team. They’re gonna be a problem for everyone.”
Realistically, it’s tough to imagine the Flyers in a more vulnerable spot on their home field than what we saw early on Friday night. Austin stormed ahead 3-0 and led 7-4 after one. In fact, the advantage should have been even larger, with Carolina’s O-line holding on just four of 10 possessions, but the Sol only capitalized on three of their six break chances.
Even with a makeshift O-line that was missing Anders Juengst, Henry Fisher, and (for most of the night) Terrence Mitchell, Carolina still found a remarkable rhythm over the final three quarters. Following a seven-turnover first period, the Flyers only were dispossessed six times over the final 36 minutes.
“We had to figure it out, and we did,” said DeNardis. “Matt [Gouchoe-Hanas] and Sol [Yanuck] are great quarterbacks, and the cutters were super impressive. Trevor [Lynch] and Dylan [Hawkins], man what a problem for everyone else. It’s incredible how good our depth is. It’s really great to have this much versatility and know you’re not out of any game regardless of what happens to you.”
The outcome still remained very much in doubt deep into the fourth, as the margin vacillated back-and-forth between one and two as the teams exchanged 14 consecutive O-line holds for an extended stretch in the second half. The play of the game came with just under five minutes remaining, when Flyers veteran Justin Allen brilliantly anticipated a cross-field swing and soared horizontally for a layout Callahan that gave Carolina a 25-22 lead, its largest edge of the night to that point, with 4:45 left.
“I realized it was in the end zone,” said Allen, “and it doesn’t get better than that.”
Plagued by a 2019 knee injury that zapped some of his patented explosiveness, the now 31-year-old Allen cathartically celebrated the Callahan, which virtually clinched the outcome and, more subtly, reminded everyone that he can still produce some of the most exhilarating highlights in the sport.
“Justin’s been working really hard, and the last couple weeks he’s caught fire,” said DeNardis. “You’re starting to see what Justin can be again. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen that, but his heart, he played super hard all game. He’s just really motivated and wants to fight for spots. He’s an older player and he’s showing us the things he needs to show us to get rostered in these big games because we want a guy with heart, we want a guy that cares, and we want a guy that’s gonna attack offensive players, and that’s what he’s doing right now.”
Allen added that he now feels better than he did before the injury, which occurred in the third quarter of the Flyers’ very first matchup against the New York Empire, nearly three years ago.
“I know I have to earn it every week, and it’s not easy,” he said. “Trying to compete against these guys, and getting to play against a team like Austin, I just try to bring it with my energy. I think it showed in the fourth quarter there, when we needed a spurt, and I was able to deliver. It means a lot. I just want to keep building. We are a championship team, and I know our young guys believe that; our older guys believe that too; it’s all about that belief that will carry us to the next championship.”
One night later, it was an eerily similar story for the Sol. With six minutes remaining in the fourth, Austin trailed by only one, 21-20, but Atlanta erupted for a late 5-0 run to put the game away, ultimately prevailing 26-21. The Hustle only had 11 turnovers—two fewer than Carolina had the previous evening—as Austin Taylor, Matt Smith, and John Stubbs anchored the Atlanta offense. Defensively, Dean Ramsey, Christian Olsen, and Michael Fairley all produced multiple blocks, and the Hustle D held Austin’s offense to just eight conversions in 17 second-half possessions. In that same stretch, Atlanta’s O scored on seven of nine chances.
“I enjoyed getting downfield and being more of an initiating cutter,” said Taylor, who tossed 11 assists and accumulated 713 total yards. “I was able to receive the disc in more advantageous positions for me to send it to our playmakers. The phenomenal grabs from Karl [Ekwurtzel], Matt, and John were just more of the same of what they do night in and night out. It’s an absolute honor to get to compete alongside these guys.”
Now 2-1, the Hustle play Tampa Bay two more times in the next three weeks before embarking on their season-defining stretch, when they’ll face Carolina twice and then travel to Texas for the always tough Dallas/Austin doubleheader.
As for the 2-2 Sol, they recognize that their playoff hopes could very much hinge upon the course of the next month, starting with their June 4 home game against the Flyers, and then two weeks later during their daunting two-game interdivisional trip to Chicago and Madison.
“This weekend validated many of the aspirations that our team has been building up to this point,” said Austin Captain Evan Swiatek. “Coming into the weekend, we knew that we could hang with the best teams, and [we] proved that for three and a half quarters on both Friday and Saturday. What I’m most proud of is the way we stuck to our convictions through the challenge of facing two Championship level teams on consecutive nights. The team was gritty, supportive, and truly confident in themselves and each other. Some nights you make the play and some you don’t, but we’re looking to be more than a flash in the pan, so we’re quite pleased with how steady the foundation of our team feels. The games ahead are simply opportunities to reinforce that further and spend more wildly good times with one another.”
The original Philadelphia Spinners won 13 games in 2012, and the freshly reincarnated Philadelphia Phoenix mustered nine victories in 2013. But since 2014, the ‘Hot Birds’—as they seem to now be calling themselves—were a combined 19-74 over the course of seven regular seasons, never once seriously sniffing the playoffs.
A heartbreaking home buzzer-beater against Montreal in Week 3 dropped Philadelphia to 0-3 on the new season, but the Phoenix responded with a mighty pair of performances north of the border in Week 4, transforming the East Division narrative and moving deeper into the potential playoff conversation than they’ve been at any other time over the past eight years.
“This weekend was very exciting and felt formative for the 2022 Phoenix squad,” said Mike Arcata, who’s played for Philly since 2017. “[Head Coach] Roger [Chu] and [Assistant Coach] Tom [Glass] have been developing a lot of new principles and strategies over the early part of the season, and I think we saw a lot of pieces finally click into place in Canada. Everyone was on the same page, was putting in high effort in some challenging game situations, and it was exciting to see our team actualize its potential after starting the year with several close losses.”
The Phoenix won each of the first three quarters in Montreal on Friday night, outscoring the Royal 17-9 before ultimately prevailing 19-13 to begin their two-win weekend.
“Our D-line set the tone early in Montreal, especially with their marks,” said Jordan Rhyne, who anchored the Philly offense with 104 completions and 951 throwing yards on the weekend. “It was a pretty windy game, and D-line did a great job making their throwers uncomfortable. Max Trifillis had a huge game and Paul Owens consistently took some of the toughest matchups and won them. We were also three-for-three on scoring end-of-quarter plays, all highlight worthy.”
Indeed, after failing on buzzer beaters at home against the Royal one week earlier, the Phoenix dealt Montreal numerous morale-crushers by coming up with a bunch of huge momentum-swinging scores as time expired. At the end of the first, James Pollard hauled in Jordan Rhyne’s 60-yard shot, and then Triffillis came down with Owens’ 94-yard missile leading into halftime.
The most memorable one, however, might have been Pollard’s 87-yard prayer to a bidding Mike Arcata at the conclusion of the third, when the Royal mismanaged the situation and rushed what could have been their own last-second shot before Philly dramatically countered.
“I think that buzzer-beater play was a great example of the cohesion we experienced this weekend,” said Arcata. “Everyone knew what to do with our end of quarter defense to prevent a late score. I saw Montreal’s shot go up early, so I immediately left the handler space for the end zone. James was aware enough downfield to rush to the disc and put up a huck.”
Indeed, it was a microcosm of Philadelphia’s improved chemistry.
“I had a good seven mile per hour tailwind, so I knew the disc would easily make it to the end zone,” said Pollard, who produced four goals, nine assists, and three blocks on the weekend. “After the release, I looked downfield to see Arcata and was just waiting to see what happened. Our team erupted when he came down with it.”
One day later, however, the Phoenix struggled to match their Montreal energy against Ottawa.
“At the end of the first quarter, when we were down 7-4, Roger just told us that we aren’t playing bad per se, but playing slow,” remembered Pollard. “He went on by saying that’s expected because we had a game the night before and were not fresh. That second quarter, we cleaned up the offense a little and the D-line found their legs. I remember looking at the halftime score and we were down by one. You could feel the energy around the team. We knew we had more to give and hadn’t played well yet, so we knew by cleaning some stuff we would be able to take control and dictate the game the way we wanted.”
Clearly, the Phoenix still had fuel left in the tank. They also had Greg Martin.
“A huge part of Philly getting the win was that we just couldn’t find an answer for [Martin],” said Ottawa’s Geoff Bevan. “The fact that he came down with a significant number of difficult jump balls effectively sealed the win for them.”
Martin set an AUDL record for receiving yards in a game, accumulating 658 on just 21 catches, eight of which went for goals. He scored six of his goals in the second half, during which Philly built a four-goal lead before hanging on for the 23-22 victory.
“I had no clue how many yards or goals I had,” said Martin. “I was just playing to win. I felt pretty focused and fresh all day Saturday. We have a lot of depth and talent and it shows. Anyone can go off any given quarter.”
Humility aside, it was an epic effort from Martin, who now has recorded 70 goals over his past 16 games dating back to the start of 2021.
“We just let Greg eat,” said Pollard. “There was a moment when our D-line was on the field late in the second quarter where Greg brought myself and Brandon Pastor into a huddle. He looked at us and said, ‘There’s not a single defender taller than 5’9” guarding us. We should be attacking deep as much as possible.’ That’s what we did.”
Idle this coming weekend, the 2-3 Phoenix have five of their final seven games at home, starting on June 4 with an absolutely massive matchup against Boston. The playoffs are still months away, but after winning two road games on the same weekend for the first time in Phoenix history, Philadelphia is absolutely in the mix.
“We are a unique team that is still polishing our skills and strategy,” said Martin. “There are very established good teams in our division, but none of them are getting better at the rate we are. This weekend was about coming together as a team and having fun doing what we all love.”
Seven On The Line
- It was a tough weekend for the Canadian teams, as Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto went a combined 0-4. On Friday night in Boston, the Glory converted 11 breaks in 15 opportunities en route to a 23-13 victory.
The Rush were only down three midway through the third, but Boston closed the game on an 8-1 run. “I was particularly impressed by Tannor Johnson,” said Toronto Captain Phil Turner. “He never seemed to get flustered even when it felt like we mounted the pressure on their O-line. He also never seemed to waste energy on the field and only activated when it was the right time or Boston needed him.” After missing the Week 3 New York game, Johnson returned with three goals, five assists, and one block in the win over the Rush, as the Glory snapped their three-game losing streak and improved to 2-3, tied with Philadelphia for fourth place in the East.
- One night later, the Rush met a New York team that introduced a notably different look. With no Jack Williams or Charles Weinberg, the Empire moved Jeff Babbitt onto the O-line. It was far from an unprecedented maneuver—Babbitt played more O-points than D-points 11 times in his previous 70 AUDL games—but it was still intriguing. Would the defense miss him? Statistically, not really, as the Empire still created 16 breaks in 23 chances in their 31-17 rout.
Offensively, Ben Jagt scored eight goals with three assists and 571 receiving yards, while Babbitt was involved in five scores and 309 receiving yards. Ryan Osgar went 25-for-25 with 595 total yards, three goals, and three assists, while John Lithio also caught three goals and threw five others. “I plan on being flexible and make other teams face as many stars on as many points as possible,” said Empire Co-Head Coach Charlie Hoppes, noting how New York succeeded against Boston in part by flexing O-line standouts over to D. “I have depth at the top of the roster as well, and so I’m trying to use that when I can.” The only team in the league with a doubleheader in Week 5, 4-0 New York now hits the road for a Friday-Saturday trip to Montreal and Ottawa.
- Like Toronto, the Seattle Cascades also came up empty on their southward road trip, though the ‘Scades gave both San Diego and Los Angeles a scare. On Saturday against the Growlers, Seattle never trailed by more than three, and a Marc Muñoz break with 5:04 remaining inched the Cascades to within one at 19-18. But San Diego immediately responded with a 3-1 spurt and prevailed 22-20.
“Credit to Seattle; they were missing some guys and came out and played loose and made it a much closer game than we were hoping for,” said San Diego Captain Paul Lally, who completed 57-of-58 throws and led both teams with 582 total yards. “They looked to strike quickly all game, and when we weren’t prepared we were burned by it.” According to the official stats, Seattle completed all 13 of its hucks; San Diego also had a 100 percent huck completion rate, though the Growlers were just two-for-two. “Zeppelin [Raunig] and Muñoz both had particularly good games both in execution and providing energy for the team,” said Seattle’s Tarik Akyuz, who himself recorded four blocks against the Growlers and seven total Ds for the weekend. Still, the Cascades only traveled with 18 players, including player/coach Jesse Bolton, as opposed to the acceptable 20, which might have been the difference down the stretch. “We certainly outlasted them with our legs,” added Lally. “We had the more stable offense in the late game…Our defensive standouts include Michael Tran and Reggie Sung for getting some great blocks, and Bryce Lozinski for shutting down his matchup almost the entire game.” San Diego has now won three straight games, but the Growlers are still far from where they want to be. “We feel we have one of if not the most talented rosters in the West and continue to play close games,” said Lally. “Looking at the division and league as a whole, it’s clear we need to keep elevating to go on the championship run we plan to make.” San Diego is off until June 11, when they host Portland, beginning a season-defining stretch with four of five games against the West’s highly-touted expansion teams.
- Shorthanded and fatigued, the Cascades were still mighty close to earning their first win on Sunday in LA. But the hometown Aviators were hungry too, following their own 0-2 start with losses to Salt Lake and San Diego. Seattle scored the first two goals, but that early 2-0 lead would represent the largest lead of the game for either side. Close the entire way, the Aviators and Cascades were tied 12 times, including at 18-all with with 56 seconds left. LA was on offense and used a nine-throw, 53-second possession to score the game-winner, with Michael Kiyoi connecting with Nate Ransom on a 59-yard toss with three seconds left to give LA the 19-18 victory. “I got downfield and saw that time was getting low,” said Ransom. “I saw Kiyoi set up an open under and timed my cut for the end zone for his throw, and he put it on the money.” On the very final point, Garrett Santi’s deep pull on the final point prevented Seattle’s last-second prayer from reaching the end zone. “It also helps having 6’9” Jake Baumer back sitting in the end zone,” said LA’s Sam Cook. “If a shot had made it all the way, I’m confident that Jake would have come down with it.” While the Aviators were overjoyed to prevail and improve to 1-2, the Cascades dipped to 0-5 despite competing respectably in both SoCal matchups. “Definitely upset with how the last few games have ended, but we are all still hungry for our first win,” said Muñoz. “Roster consistency has definitely been hurting us a bit, but we are all still looking to be better every day.”
- Elsewhere out West, the Portland Nitro survived their road trip by defeating Oakland 26-22 on Saturday night.
The Nitro were down 8-7 and engaged in a back-and-forth battle before closing the first half on a 5-1 run, after which they never trailed again on the evening. Leandro Marx continued his scoring spree by compiling seven goals, five assists, one block, and 485 total yards, outlasting his opposition yet again. “Leandro is pretty amazing because he doesn’t have the outrageous athletic ability, but he just works so damn hard,” said teammate Eli Friedman, who also scored six goals and threw two assists in the Nitro win. “He’s a puppy dog who wants to play every single point and has enough energy to actually do it.” Tom Doi also had his first breakout performance for Portland, leading the team with 363 receiving yards while scoring four goals and dishing two assists. Oakland’s Keenan Laurence produced seven goals and 613 total yards, but the Spiders endured seven costly red-zone turnovers and fell to 0-2.
- Aside from Philly’s victories up in Canada, you could make the case that the most impressive Week 4 road win came courtesy of the Indy AlleyCats, who improved to 2-1 with their 20-16 triumph in Pittsburgh. It was a particularly important response after letting a five-goal lead slip away at home against Madison the previous week. “Coming into Pittsburgh, we were angry for all the right reasons,” said Indy Coach Will Drumright. “We owned that we made mistakes that let Madison walk away with that game, and we had to do better. Accountability was the call to action for everyone.” The AlleyCats pounced early, led 5-2 after the first, and never once trailed in the game, though the Thunderbirds would not go away either. Early in the fourth, with Pittsburgh trailing 15-13, a throw from Ben Landry intended for Levi Jacobs near the front corner of the end zone strayed toward the sideline, giving Jacobs a chance to make the greatest play of the day. Pun absolutely intended. “The Levi greatest happened in slow motion and I had a front row seat for it,” said Drumright. “I remember yelling ‘greatest greatest! Throw it! C’mon Levi!’ It was a huge play for us, and Levi really gave us the energy boost that we needed.”
Jacobs flung the disc back over his head, where the league’s all-time leading goal scorer, Cameron Brock, was completely wide open.The AlleyCats D-line registered breaks on their next two points to create a five-goal edge midway through the fourth that all but put the game away. Jacobs finished with a game-high six assists, along with two goals, one block, and 492 total yards. Interestingly, each team’s offense scored on exactly 14 of 25 possessions, while each team also had precisely 10 break chances. Indy went 6-for-10 with their break opportunities, while Pittsburgh’s D-line went 2-for-10. “The confidence level is higher this week after a win, but it’s something that we are more measured with this week as well,” said Drumright. “We had much more of a ‘prove it’ attitude as a team right now. We are glad to walk away with wins, but we know that we have to be able to do it continuously.”
- The under-the-radar undefeated team in the league right now is certainly the Madison Radicals, who will put their 3-0 mark on the line this Saturday against Minnesota in the "AUDL Game of the Week" on Fox Sports' FS2.
This past Saturday, the Radicals experienced an early hiccup against Detroit, falling behind 2-0 before leading 8-6 after one, 14-8 by halftime, and 21-12 through three. Despite missing arguably eight of their top 10 players, including captain Kevin Pettit-Scantling, the Rads still won by nine on the road, 27-18, to hand the Mechanix their mind-boggling 53rd consecutive loss. “Looking at our last two games, it’s pretty clear that we have continually started slow,” said Madison’s Jack Kelly, who scored a game-high six goals. “I wouldn’t say that there was much doubt at any point [against Detroit] though. We have traveled east in the division pretty shorthanded for years. [Head Coach] Tim [DeByl] and [Assistant Coach Jake] Spiro do well with creating a system that we can just work into the muscle memory of new and athletic players, and that system gives us our depth so that we don’t have to worry too much.” Josh Wilson threw six assists and competed 40 of his 41 throws, while Luke Marks produced three blocks along with his three assists and a goal. As for the Mechanix, Detroit finished with exactly 23 turnovers for their third consecutive game. Despite the early break, they finished just 2-for-20 on break chances and are now just 4-for-55 on break chances (.072) on the season. “What an exciting first few minutes against Madison,” said Detroit Head Coach Brent Steepe. “It takes a spark to start a fire, let alone an inferno, and we see these sparks more and more often and earlier in the game. Next, we need to be consistent and constant. Many times we have incredible quarters, yet we have not been able to play four of them in any one game to our potential. We have had great runs of offense, which was a big challenge for us last year. Our defense has shown only moments of brilliance this year so far.” Detroit’s next chance to break the streak arrives this Saturday with a home game against Indy.
Like every single AUDL team, I am also striving to improve every time I don a headset or type a sentence. It’s a journey that’s constantly inspired by the excellence I seek out from my mentors in the industry.
It is slightly demoralizing to know I’ll never write as gracefully, poetically, or poignantly as the iconic Roger Angell, but I can still treasure his literary genius and view it as the unreachable standard. Genuinely, there’s a real joy in admiring greatness, and that’s been a feeling I have coveted anytime I read Angell’s work.
This past Saturday, the legendary baseball writer passed away at age 101. I cannot fathom being as good my job as Angell was at his.
My brief Tuesday Toss tribute obviously pales in comparison to the masterful memories painted by scribes like Joe Posnanski, Tom Verducci, and Thomas Boswell, among others, but I did want to encourage anyone and everyone to check out some of his Angell’s impeccable prose. Even if you’re not a writer and don’t like baseball, you’ll undoubtably marvel at his ability to bring language to life.
As a lifelong sports fan, I’ve particularly loved this particular passage: "It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”
Rest in peace, Roger, and thanks for the inspiration.
May we all keep improving and caring in the weeks, months, and years ahead.