June 7, 2022
By Evan Lepler
There was a time, not too long ago, when the New York Empire struggled to dominate their overmatched competition. Even in 2019, when they finished 15-0 and won the franchise’s first AUDL championship, they seldom compiled four complete quarters of masterful ultimate.
New York improved to 7-0 on Saturday night by stomping Toronto 25-8, a result that carries a bit more weight considering the Rush had just a week ago played DC within one goal. Over their last two games, both on the road, the Empire have outscored their opponents 55-26.
“Something I have been a little surprised by, but am very happy with, is our ability to keep the foot on the gas this year,” said New York’s Ben Katz. “Philly taught us the lesson early, and it’s nice to see that we actually learned from it.”
Compare this recent demolition derby to what transpired in 2019. Yes, the Empire got the victory all 15 times they took the field, but those 15 wins came by a grand total of 52 goals, less than three and a half per game. Last year, New York won 12 games (and lost three), with the dozen victories coming by an aggregate of 42 goals.
Now look at what they’ve done so far this year. In just seven wins this season, only two of which have been at home, the Empire have outscored their foes by 56.
“The big story here is just how badly these players want to win,” said New York Co-Coach Charlie Hoppes. “We think this team has a chance to be extremely special and have a season that we all talk about for a long time.”
To that goal, the Empire are continuing to tinker with their lineups in ways that can feel somewhat jarring, but seem to be working out perfectly. A few weeks ago, for instance, they shifted Jeff Babbitt, one of the top defenders in the league since his debut in 2016, onto the O-line. And then on Saturday the Empire moved Ben Jagt, the two-time reigning AUDL MVP, onto the D-line. Babbitt has produced 17 goals, two blocks, and 1,186 receiving yards in four games on O-line, with just one throwaway. Jagt collected two goals, three assists, and three blocks in 19 D-points on Saturday against Toronto.
“Moving Jagt to defense is definitely a move that’s going to raise some eyebrows, but we think it’s perfect,” said Hoppes. “He is one of the best defenders on our team, and he has the strong capacity to really dominate on a turn. His style of relentless cutting and dynamic throwing has helped to pull our O-line towards the top of the league for years. We are optimistic that our O-line will continue to produce at a high level, and in the meantime we can put the reigning league MVP on a large percentage of our D-points to bring that historic production to those lines. With his stamina and competitive nature, he can play many, many D points, and cross over to O if we ask him to, without a discernible drop in the results.”
Sure sounds like this was not just a one week thing.
“I think it’s going to be a very happy marriage,” said Jagt, describing his feelings on the move.
If not for the two-time reigning MVP shifting lines, the Empire would still have a plethora of other major new developments this past week. Jibran Mieser returned to the team and produced three goals, two assists, one block, and 277 total yards in his first game of the season. Not too shabby.
John Randolph also made his Empire debut less than a week after winning the Callahan Award, contributing three scores in 13 points vs. the Rush. The former Brown University star will certainly have bigger games ahead.
In terms of all-time achievements, 10-year Empire veteran Matt Stevens scored his 300th career goal, joining Cam Brock, Matt Smith, and Jagt as the only players in AUDL history to reach that plateau.
And arguably the team’s leading 2022 MVP candidate, Ryan Osgar, continued his nearly flawless stretch; in the Empire’s last six games, Osgar has produced 30 assists and 15 goals with just two throwaways. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a six-game masterpiece quite like that in the decade-long history of the league.
There’s also the reality that New York won a game on Saturday at Varsity Stadium, Toronto’s primary home since 2013, and a place the Empire had never won before. They also prevailed by 17 goals, the largest margin of defeat the Rush have ever experienced.
AUDL titles are not won in May or June, however New York has the look of a team that’s not simply pursuing a championship, but actually preparing to launch a dynasty.
“As we work towards our very high ceiling, it sets a standard for everyone involved to see the two-time reigning league MVP, an all-time great in our league, get excited about moving to D without a second thought, and to see an iconic defensive powerhouse who loves playing defense dig in with the O line,” said Hoppes. “It speaks to the leadership and pride of these players to not get hung up on roles and status, and to just do what the team needs at the highest levels. There is a very good energy right now on the team, and it really is great to be a part of.”
New York hosts DC on Friday night, and while the Breeze have enjoyed some recent success against the Empire, the challenge has never been greater.
The Full Field Layout
Week 6 featured the busiest slate of the season. Everyone except San Diego took the field. There were plenty of thrillers and more than enough blowouts.
Collectively, it was a fascinating weekend that reshaped the races in all four divisions.
To be clear, both teams played at a tremendously high level and had just nine turnovers apiece with less than 15 seconds remaining on the fourth quarter clock. Austin led 21-20, but Carolina’s Terrence Mitchell had the disc on the goal line, seemingly one throw away from scoring the equalizer that would beckon overtime.
A travel call against Mitchell, his fourth of the game, stopped the clock and left him about 11 yards from the end zone. Even with the wild wingspan of 6’7” Sol defender Ethan Pollack on the mark, the tying goal felt inevitable.
But then Pollack swatted down Mitchell’s up-line backhand!
The Carolina sideline erupted, begging the refs for a foul. The whistle never blew.
One completion later, the final seconds disappeared, as did the Flyers blemish-free season.
“Looked like a foul to me,” said Carolina Coach Mike DeNardis, who was standing very close to the play by the sideline.
Mitchell agreed. “He hit it before I threw it,” he said.
Pollack acknowledged that it was close, but he believed the block was legit.
“I’ve looked at the replay a couple times,” said Pollack. “It’s bang bang. As a defender, I’m not watching the disc in that situation, so for me that call is tactile. The contact with the disc obviously creates a different sensation when it’s in someone’s hand vs. after it’s been released. It felt like I was knocking a disc that had been released…I wasn’t block-hunting, but definitely shading inside since any throw up the field could have tied the game. Terrence trying to come inside with a backhand there gave me a better shot at it, whereas I think a forehand gets off clean.”
Mitchell indicated that he was not mad at Pollack for choosing to not invoke the Integrity Rule. He was more perturbed at the travel call that nullified a reset and halted the Flyers’ flow.
Certainly, one play did not decide the game, though the drama definitely climaxed in that marquee moment. Overall, it was an exhilarating battle. Both offenses completed 96 percent of their passes and converted 71 percent of their possessions. The Flyers were 6-of-9 on their hucks, but the Sol were 12-for-13, with Mark Evans, Kyle Henke, and Elliott Moore all making some clutch grabs over defenders. There were only 19 turnovers between the two teams over 48 minutes, the second-fewest of any AUDL game this season. (Week 1’s New York at DC battle featured just 18 turns.)
Austin Head Coach Steven Naji suggested before the game that one or two red zone hiccups could be difference. The Sol were 14-for-14 near the goal line, while the Flyers were 11-of-13, including the giveaway in the final seconds. After Saturday, Austin’s now converting 91.4 percent of their red zone opportunities, the best rate in the league.
At 3-2, the Sol have put themselves in position to contend with the 5-1 Flyers and 3-1 Hustle in the South. It’s too soon to boldly declare that Austin’s firepower will certainly surpass Carolina and Atlanta, but the Sol showed that their ceiling is high enough to hang with these more established powers.
“I think going into the season, we knew that we could play at this level, but we just didn’t have one of these wins under our belt,” said Naji. “Anytime you get a chance to play a defending champion, it’s a special night. You have to step up, and our guys did step up. There’s only two [playoff spots] in the South. You have to win against these teams. You can’t back down.”
Though the Flyers were surely disappointed by the non-call and the result, Carolina’s not exactly contemplating their own demise as a championship contender. It’s been over 1,000 days since they lost a game by multiple goals, something that has not happened in their last 21 games. Furthermore, they walloped Dallas 26-18 on Friday night to begin their weekend, showcasing an elite offensive fluidity in both games. Alex Davis produced 13 goals and four assists in the two Texas tilts, while Matt Gouchoe-Hanas completed 107-of-108 throws for 992 throwing yards, just to mention a couple of Carolina’s O-line standouts. But DeNardis did emphasize that the Flyers still have plenty to focus on looking forward.
“We need to sharpen up on execution from our D-line offense and O-line defense,” he said. “We also had some uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns in the bigger space that quite simply led to too many easy goals.”
The Flyers are back home this weekend to host Dallas in the FOX Sports "AUDL Game of the Week", while the Sol return to action with their highly anticipated interdivisional doubleheader road trip to Chicago and Madison on June 17 and 18.
How bout the Hotbirds!
After starting 0-3, the Philadelphia Phoenix improved to 3-3 with their 24-22 victory over Boston on Saturday night, making a slew of timely plays to hold off the Glory on the second night of their back-to-back. Although Montreal still presently sits a half-game ahead of Philly for third place in the East Division after the Royal’s 24-21 triumph over Ottawa last Wednesday, it’s the Phoenix who’ve taken over control of that playoff spot thanks to their recent surge. They will have the tiebreaker in any head-to-head situation against Boston or Montreal, and they are definitely trending in the right direction.
“We are learning to play better together every game,” said Phoenix veteran Matt Esser.
In reality, the Phoenix are not far from being 4-2 or even 5-1. Their three losses came by a grand total of four goals, including a one-goal buzzer-beating heartbreaker against Montreal. But they avenged that result one week later and also reversed their result against Boston. They still have to play DC twice and host New York one more time, but Philly has unquestionably elevated its play, winning three straight in the same season for the first time since 2018.
With Phoenix stock rising, Boston’s is dropping. The Glory fell to 2-5, including 0-4 on the road, following their winless weekend at DC and Philadelphia. They were competitive in both games, but the absence of several key offensive standouts made life significantly tougher. The Glory have a road-map back to .500 if they can win their next three against the trio of Canadian squads, but Boston then would be staring at matchups vs. DC and at New York to try to qualify for the playoffs.
“We should start to have some of our key players back for the rest of the year, hopefully,” said Boston’s Brendan McCann. “I do think those DC and New York games will be more interesting than they look on paper right now.”
The Central and West Division playoff races were also impacted by a couple very close games this past weekend.
On Friday in Pittsburgh, Madison closed on a 3-0 run to sneak away from the Steel City with a dramatic 20-19 victory. Had the result gone the other way, the Radicals would be 3-2, the Thunderbirds 3-3 and right in the mix. Instead, Madison rose to 4-1 and dropped Pittsburgh to 2-4, as the Radicals scored the go-ahead goal with just eight seconds left.
“It was exhilarating, and we stormed the field,” said Madison’s Kevin Pettit-Scantling. “Then we realized there were eight seconds left. We put a kill line out to eat the buzzer-beater. They faltered on their fast break and couldn’t get the throw off in time. We’ll take it.”
Much like Jagt and Babbitt switching lines for New York, it felt noteworthy that Pettit-Scantling played more offense than defense for the first time in his 114-game career. He played 19 O-points and 3 D-points against the Thunderbirds, finishing with five assists, two goals, and 25-for-25 passing, shifting lines for a couple reasons. Firstly, his lingering heel injury has made it tougher to produce the level of D he expects. Secondly, the Radicals have been short O-line handlers, particularly since rookie handler Kai Marcus suffered a torn ACL. Hence, Madison has been forced to adapt.
“Nobody is beholden to a specific line, and expect more crossovers in the games to come,” said Pettit-Scantling.
The Radicals journey to 3-0 Chicago this Friday. It’s a game they won’t be expected to win, but Madison does have a history of playing the Union tough.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Aviators also snatched a one-goal win on the road by escaping Portland with a 21-20 victory. Unlike the Radicals, the Aviators played with the lead for the entire second half and hung on late for the important result.
“I think that Saturday night was one of the most fun nights of frisbee I’ve ever played,” said LA’s Aaron Weaver, who made his 2022 season debut against the Nitro. “There was definitely some magic in the air. You could feel the energy as soon as we arrived at an empty Providence Park. There’s a certain level of hype that is baseline when you play at such an epic venue. Then you add in the rain element, which is its own sort of fun challenge with ultimate frisbee. Then you add the diehard Nitro fans causing crazy audio chaos, and that’s just a recipe for some epic ultimate. We were vibing with all of it.”
Despite the constant rain, the Aviators converted six of their eight break chances on the night. Portland had more opportunities, but only went 4-for-14 in those situations. Undeniably, LA had the more balanced offense: Portland’s Leandro Marx and Jack Hatchett combined for 13 assists, while 14 different Aviators tossed at least one goal for Los Angeles, led by Michael Kiyoi and Marcel Osborne, who each had three apiece. Matt Miller produced a game-high 744 total yards, along with five goals, arguably his breakout performance for the Aviators, who improved to 2-2 on Saturday night.
“This win was huge for us, and my adrenaline was still rushing well past my bedtime,” said Miller.
The Aviators’ adrenaline dissipated on Sunday in Seattle, however, as the Cascades stormed past LA 23-14. Consequently, the weekend concluded with the Aviators, Nitro, and Cascades each with two wins apiece in the West, though all presently on the outskirts of the division’s top three. Seattle’s ability to rebound from its 0-5 start by winning two straight has introduced a new wrinkle into the race.
“Really happy to see our hard work and effort pay off,” said Cascades Captain Mark Muñoz. “I was most pleased to see how adjustable our squad was. We pressured LA enough to make them look at their third and fourth options.”
Playing his second game of the season for Seattle, Matt Rehder produced four assists, two goals, and three blocks. Adam Simon and Jack Brown also had strong days for the Cascades’ O-line, which LA only broke once in 14 opportunities. It was the fewest breaks that Seattle has allowed in a game since June 30, 2017, when they were only broken once in a 31-10 win over Vancouver.
“Seattle’s D-offense felt very fast in the second half,” said LA’s Miller. “They would move the ball off a turn so quickly, not allowing us to set up any kind of pressure defense.”
The Cascades are idle in Week 7, but will look to extend their winning streak when they venture to Oakland and Colorado on consecutive nights in Week 8. The Aviators and Nitro will reunite quickly, as Portland travels to Los Angeles this Friday before continuing south to San Diego on Saturday.
As for the Portland perspective following consecutive setbacks, optimism still reigns, though they are not ignoring their struggles.
“Our games the last two weekends were really frustrating,” said Nitro cutter Leandro Marx. “The positive takeaway is that it still feels like we control our own destiny. Our losses ultimately boil down to execution errors on offense. Other teams haven’t really been taking the disc away. We’re just giving it to them. Defense has been doing their job and generating breaks. Our situation leaves me optimistic that we can clean it up, turn it around, and have a great weekend down in SoCal.”
Seven On The Line
- As for the current top two in the West, Colorado and Salt Lake both won comfortably over Oakland, beginning with the Shred’s 30-21 victory against the Spiders on Friday.
Aside from Jordan Kerr’s continued brilliance, the most notable development might have been Ben Green’s debut, in which he recorded six blocks, scored two goals, and assisted another in his first game action since spraining his MCL a week before the season started. “I was doing a lot of sulking, to be honest,” said Green, remembering the injury that prevented him from playing in Salt Lake’s first four games. “Having to sit on the sidelines during practice and knowing it’ll be more than a few weeks before you can get out is tough on the mind. Suiting up for this game, I felt I had this secret that no one in Salt Lake knew, except for maybe Joe [Merrill]. Nobody here had ever seen me actually play.” Almost immediately, Green impacted the game, taking advantage of Oakland’s early error with a diving interception and quick assist. It was more of the same throughout the game, with Green’s D-line recording 11 breaks in 17 chances.
- The Spiders put up more of a fight against the Summit on Saturday, but Colorado still never trailed in a 22-16 victory.
Though just a two-goal game at halftime thanks to the Spiders beating the buzzer in each of the first two quarters, the Summit outscored Oakland 7-3 in the third to create more substantial separation. “It was a solid win,” said Colorado Co-Coach Tim Kefalas. “A bit sloppier on our end from what we would have liked.” Jonathan Nethercutt and Jay Froude each had a pair of throwaways, but they also combined for seven goals, five assists, and 860 total yards. Danny Landesman, Matt Jackson, and Quinn Finer all tallied three assists apiece, while Alex Tatum recorded three blocks and a couple goals.
- Now, the 4-0 Summit and 4-1 Shred meet again in Salt Lake, another Friday gem on the Week 7 schedule. Just 10 days ago, Colorado rallied from three down at the end of the third to escape with a 21-20 win in Denver, setting the stage for a high-stakes rematch in Utah. “The Shred are superbly athletic and both teams will be closer to full strength for this game,” said Kefalas. “It seems like they have a great home crowd; that’ll be an interesting wrinkle for us. Cody Spicer did a great job on Kerr—and he still threw eight assists—when we played last, but we’ve got a bit more understanding of how effective he is at throwing from specific spaces on the field, so we’ll work hard to limit those looks in the rematch. I think everyone’s excited to see Froude vs. [Joel] Clutton again, no matter who you are.” Considering that Oakland just played both the Summit and Shred on consecutive days, the Spiders have an interesting perspective on Friday’s marquee matchup. “Either could make noise at Championship Weekend if they’re on their game,” said Oakland’s Jackson Stearns. “For Salt Lake, it all starts with Kerr. We knew it last year, but he’s an incredible person and player—in that order—that makes his teammates better while being the smoothest, most controlled player on the field most points. He has all the throws, is great in the air, and almost never makes a poor decision. Beyond Kerr, Salt Lake is really athletic, seems to have great chemistry and team buy-in, but may be a little raw tactically. Colorado, while they’re also very athletic, I think their strength is the AUDL poise and experience Nethercutt, Froude, and Jackson bring to the team. Those guys helped the rest of the team close the door against us in the third by staying composed. While their younger players are talented, I don’t think they’re 4-0 without that veteran leadership. For now, I’d say both Salt Lake and Colorado are very evenly matched, and home-field advantage may be the deciding factor. I give Salt Lake the nod athletically and in terms of depth. I give Colorado the nod tactically and experientially.”
- Along with New York and Colorado, the Chicago Union are the third team in the league still undefeated. In their first game in four weeks, the Union improved to 3-0 with a 28-20 win in Detroit, extending the Mechanix’s half-a-decade losing streak to 55 straight games.
Although Chicago only led by one with 7:29 left in the third, the Union closed the contest on a 12-5 spurt to stay perfect and work out the kinks before Friday night’s matchup with Madison. “It felt great to be in a game again,” said Chicago Captain Ross Barker. “Beforehand, we were laughing to ourselves how we were 2-0 and Montreal had already played like seven games.” Indeed, the schedule now picks up considerably for the Union, who will have 10 games in 57 days after playing just twice in the first 36 days of the season.
- Hanging tight near the top of the Central standings alongside 3-0 Chicago and 4-1 Madison: the 3-1 Minnesota Wind Chill, who routed the now 3-2 Indy AllyCats by 15 goals on Saturday in St. Paul.
The Chill actually trailed 7-6 midway through the second quarter, but then crushed the Cats 22-6 the rest of the way. Bryan Vohnoutka and Michael Jordan both finished plus-six, while Quinn Snider, Colin Berry, and Rocco Linehan all went plus-five. In the Wind Chill backfield, Andrew Roy, Josh Klane, and Tony Poletto combined to complete 99-of-101 passes. With home games against Pittsburgh and Madison on June 11 and 25, respectively, the Wind Chill have a great chance to be 5-1 when they travel to Chicago on Friday, July 1.
- As for the AlleyCats, you could call them the greatest team in the league. Although perhaps “greatest” should be in quotes. Despite their disappointing result, it was the second time in three weeks that Indy’s offense utilized a thrilling greatest near the goal-line. This time it was Carter Rae making the crazy jumping catch and overhead no-look pass that ended up with Cameron Brock for the AlleyCats score. “I [cut] up-line and actually expected to be looked off,” remembered Rae. “Once the throw went up, everything was kind of second nature. I did feel like there was an AlleyCat close by, and that is why I didn’t throw it far. Luckily, Brock was there, per usual.” Although the greatest was exciting, it also laid bare the reality that Indy has twice required Superman moments to convert in the red zone. “We can hold easier than that,” said Rae. “As for learning it was on SportsCenter, it didn’t feel real. Still doesn’t feel real. I would give it up for a win against the Wind Chill in a heartbeat though.”
- A potential upset percolated throughout the first half on Saturday night in Florida, as the Tampa Bay Cannons outscored Atlanta 4-3 in the first and 6-5 in the second. Down 10-8 at halftime, however, the Hustle scored five of the first six goals in the third quarter, and Atlanta never trailed again. The underdog Cannons clearly covered the eight and a half point spread, but still fell to 0-5 on the season following Atlanta’s 18-16 triumph in a game that included 55 total turnovers, the most of any game in the league this past weekend. Dating back to last year, Tampa Bay has now dropped 13 of its last 14 games, with the only win coming against a shorthanded Hustle squad early last August. The road ahead does not get any easier for the Cannons, considering their next four games consist of nothing but Atlanta and Carolina.
There’s no question that the AUDL game is becoming tougher to officiate. Even as refs gain more experience, the action is only getting more athletic, faster, and feistier. Competitions at the highest level should be contentious, but it’s vital to remember that the onus remains on the players to embrace integrity.
To the credit of the majority of the players in the league, this is happening. Carolina’s Matt Gouchoe-Hanas, for example, utilized the Integrity Rule to give possession back to Austin late in the fourth quarter of a super tight game on Saturday night, a decision that certainly impacted the final result.
Of course, there are also lapses.
LA’s Aaron Weaver, a 2019 All-Star who retired before the 2021 season before choosing to return this year, shared his thoughts on his first weekend back competing in the league.
“We had some interesting moments this weekend regarding spirit,” said Weaver. “Something I feel strongly about as a youth coach is trying to bring that element of playing as hard as you possibly can as respectfully as you can. Early on in my pro career, I really enjoyed the leeway we got with referees not being able to see every foul. But as I’ve aged and the emphasis on dangerous plays has really grown, I think that AUDL players in general can step up and start using integrity more often. These pro leagues are the most visible games to younger players, we’re the ones setting precedents. If we truly are elite, then we need to collectively step up with our integrity. We’ve played a couple teams now where players have admitted they fouled us afterwards but chose not to use the Integrity Rule, and I think that’s just such a whack mindset to take and a terrible example to set.”
Personally, I have also noticed how an early moment in any particular game can set the tone for conflict or a more conciliatory spirit. There’s obviously a very fine line between intensity and integrity, and those two interests are not mutually exclusive. Intensity and integrity can absolutely coexist.
“Shane Worthington and I had a conversation after the Seattle game,” added Weaver. “We had a play where I tripped on Shane’s feet and then Shane ended up dropping the pass. There was no foul call, and it was certainly incidental contact, but I chose to call the foul on myself because if I’m not there then Shane catches the disc no problem. He found me after the game and let me know that he respected the call, appreciated my integrity, and felt that his team could have done more on that front. Little by little, if people choose integrity, we can be force multipliers and avoid situations like professional men’s soccer players flopping super hard to get calls.”
Amen to that.