May 2, 2023
By Evan Lepler
- New year, same New York domination
The Empire endured the elements to bombard the Philly Phoenix in their 2023 season opener, earning their 16th straight win with a low-scoring 17-8 win that, quite frankly, didn’t even feel that close. The visitors actually had two break chances on the game’s opening point, but Jack Williams found Ryan Osgar to begin the scoring, and the Empire cruised to an 8-1 first quarter lead in the miserable cold and rainy conditions.
Philly actually scored four straight in a short spurt that spanned the two halves, but they only scored four other goals outside of the string over the rest of the game. “That was a terrible game with the weather, truly a mess,” said New York Co-Head Coach Charlie Hoppes. “Glad we played through it, and glad it’s over.” The Empire offense, which converted nearly 70 percent of its possessions into scores in 2022—best in the league—slogged through the bad weather with just a 40 percent rate this past Saturday. But the New York D-line stymied virtually all of Philly’s intentions, keeping the Phoenix below 20 percent in a staggering display of domination. “Really a fantastic performance from our D-lines,” said Hoppes. “Our second D-line—not that we call it that—was only scored on once all game in nine points played. Wild stat. Seven breaks and an end-of-quarter stop, I believe [...] The defensive pressure was outstanding, and the ability to convert breaks in those conditions was really very impressive.” For the entire game, New York produced 11 breaks, surrendering just three. “Definitely not the performance we were looking for to start the season,” said Philadelphia’sJames Pollard. “They had great handler defense and a last-back defender at the top of our stack, and we played right into it. It wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before, but we let them dictate how we played versus the other way around [...] The one bright spot was our D-line’s defense. They made New York work and constantly generated turns.” Williams, Osgar, and John Randolph all finished plus-five to pace the Empire, while CJ Colicchio churned for a game-high 324 total yards in his Phoenix debut. Solomon Rueschemeyer-Bailey and Elliott Chartock anchored New York’s backfield, combining for 77 completions and just three throwaways, while their Phoenix counterparts, Alex Thorne and Jordan Rhyne, struggled to the tune of just 57 combined completions with seven turnovers.
- Salt Lake’s New Look
Though the Shred sometimes struggled to convert breaks efficiently in 2022, they always produced plenty of blocks, leading the entire league with 172 in 14 games, including the playoffs. In Friday’s opener against Seattle, however, only one of their top five D leaders from last year was in the lineup. Enter new additions Everett Saunders and Eugene L'Heureux, along with relatively unheralded returner Scott Kaltenecker. Each member of that trio recorded multiple blocks, the Shred produced 13 blocks and 11 breaks, and Salt Lake looked pretty darn similar, for better or worse, to the team that went 10-2 a year ago as they walloped Seattle 28-20 in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains.
“Obviously, we had a lot of shoes to fill after the offseason departure of so many key players,” said Shred Coach Bryce Merrill. “And with Tony Mounga and Chad Yorgason out, we knew we’d be looking at a few players to step up and make the plays. Everett Saunders had a couple tone-setting blocks early. Gene L’Heureux got some blocks and kept the disc moving well. Kyle Weinberg pulled really well. Jimmer Dahl and Simon Dastrup helped us move well on the turn. They’ve all committed to improve their scoring efficiency on the turn this offseason, we were still a ways off of the mark in that regard, so I look forward to them being more accountable to that in future games.” Offensively, newcomers Elijah Jaime and Grant Lindsley integrated seamlessly, scoring five and three goals, respectively, while Jordan Kerr overcame one early errant forehand to still produce five assists, two goals, and one block. Sean Connole also continued his ascent, producing a game-best 663 total yards, along with four assists and two goals. Lindsley acknowledged that he was not too familiar with Connole before joining the Shred, but raved about his new teammate after the game. “He’s good,” said Lindsley, emphatically. “I really liked him. He’s also a really clear voice for play-calling and getting the O-line on the same page. He’s a little of that standard Utah type of player, where he can handle, but he’s also cutting deep. He’s a good hybrid all-around dude.” More familiar with Kerr’s reputation, Lindsley felt they worked well together in their first opportunity. “I felt we had some good moments of chemistry,” he said. The Shred will keep developing that chemistry this coming weekend, when they hit the road for Portland on Friday before a rematch at Seattle on Saturday.
- Grant Lindsley’s remarkable return
Forget about the numbers, which were solid, or the result, which was a win. Half a year after a brutal on-field collision left Grant Lindsley hospitalized, concussed, and uncertain over whether he’d ever play again, the two-time AUDL champion showed the ultimate world his steadfast determination on Friday night, returning to compete for the first time since an ambulance rushed him to a San Diego hospital last October.
Was there ever any doubt that he’d be back? “There definitely was,” he admits. “The thing I learned about [traumatic brain injury] is just how unpredictable the duration of the symptoms can be. Some people that I talked with still were having to cover their windows with towels because of light sensitivity like 18 months after the injury. And so, I was like ‘I don’t know how long this is gonna last.’ I was still getting painful dizziness probably three months after the injury whenever I would lie down flat. And so it was just constantly monitoring and then judiciously pushing as much as I could. Fortunately, as soon as the symptoms abated completely and I got medical clearance, I was like, well maybe I can play again. I kind of suspended hope and despair while I was waiting to see what happened with the symptoms.” Wait, just how can someone suspend hope and despair? “Trying to stay in the moment, I guess,” Lindsley said. “Trying not to let my mind get away from me, cause if I allowed myself to really start thinking about quitting frisbee, which I did, that just became sad. I’m not ready to retire, I’m not ready to go out like that either. I get a lot of meaning and purpose from the sport, and I don’t want to give it up yet.” Lindsley looked right at home on Friday night for the Shred, despite the fact that he just met many of his new teammates right before the game. He finished with three goals and three assists in 22 points played, with 344 total yards and just one turnover. “Bryce [Merrill] told me [before the game] I had three free turnovers in the first quarter, which was nice,” said Lindsley. “Luckily, I had none. I definitely had one bad around flick that got away from me and one backhand that got away from me but was completed. Overall, I think I did solid.” He felt nervous before the game started, but once he was out on the field running around, all the muscle memory came back and felt natural. Following an offseason of focused training even after the injury, Lindsley, who turns 34 later this month, showcased his trademark speed and elite change-of-direction that have made him one of top players in the sport throughout his career. Even in the wake of the his severe head injury, he dialed back in to his workouts astonishingly quick. “This has been by far the most regimented offseason I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’ve had a pretty strict, structured six workouts a week for about five months now. I held up pretty good. Having back-to-back this weekend will be test number two.”
Atlanta routs Indy
One of the weekend’s most anticipated matchups quickly fizzled into a one-sided beatdown as Atlanta ripped off seven scores in the first nine points to begin Saturday’s interdivisional contest against Indy. The AlleyCats only broke the Hustle O-line once all night long, while Atlanta dazzled with just seven total turnovers across four fantastic quarters, outscoring Indy in all four periods en route to a 23-14 victory.
“For a home opener, I don’t think it could have went better,” said Hustle Head Coach Tuba Benson-Jaja, via the team’s Instagram. “We’ve had a real big emphasis on energy in the preseason, being engaged for four quarters, and the team really responded.” Atlanta’s three primary handlers—Christian Olsen, Austin Taylor, and rookie Liam Haberfield—combined to complete 135-of-137 passes, while 13 different members of the Hustle scored a goal, led by Matt Smith’s five. Brett Hulsmeyer, Dean Ramsey, and former Empire Mike Kobyra all had multiple blocks, with Hulsmeyer tying Kelvin Williams’ single-game Hustle record with six, the first of which came on the AlleyCats’ opening O-point, when he skied the league’s all-time goal-scoring king Cameron Brock to deny Indy’s equalizer. Brock did finish with a game-best six goals, bringing his all-time total to 580, but the Cats were consistently outplayed by a Hustle team that looked elite. “We got stomped,” said Travis Carpenter, on his Facebook page. “Atlanta is an excellent team, I was very impressed with them from top to bottom, and they exposed some things we need to work on as a team. I have a lot of confidence and faith in this team and glad we got a growth opportunity right off the bat.” Indy opens its home slate against Minnesota this Saturday, while Atlanta continues its three-game season-starting homestand by welcoming Carolina for a fascinating Friday night affair.
Wait, did Karl Ekwurtzel just throw a flick?
In 33 career AUDL games prior to Saturday, Atlanta’s Karl Ekwurtzel had only produced more than 13 completions on five occasions. He rarely if ever attempted to throw a flick. Nicknamed Karl Endzone due to his tremendous goal-scoring ability, the muscular cutter often looked tentative with the disc, choosing to throw backhands with both hands rather than ever trying a forehand. But that’s all in the past after a preseason chat with new Hustle Head Coach Tuba Benson-Jaja. It was the team’s second tryout, and one of Ekwurtzel’s backhands popped in the air, prompting the conversation. “You work out so much, and you’re such a great personality for this team,” Benson-Jaja told him. “You throw backhands great, but I know that you, at this level, have more to your throws that can get out.” Tuba actually made Ekwurtzel hold hands with Hustle Captain Austin Taylor and said to his top handler, “It’s not acceptable for you to be best friends with him without making him a better and more confident thrower.” Benson-Jaja recalled a similar situation during his playing career, at a time when he was struggling with his throws, when mentor and friend David Snoke would go every day to play racquetball for an hour and then work on throws. Well, Ekwurtzel’s renewed confidence was on display in Atlanta’s opening win, as he completed 14-of-15 throws, including several forehands. He also caught three scores and was second only to Matt Smith in receiving yards among Hustle cutters. “He’s a baller, so he was like, challenge accepted,” Benson-Jaja said last month. “The new Karl you’re gonna see, he’s literally unstoppable.”
- Sol’s second half tames Havoc
Blustery conditions, missing contributors, and Houston’s opening game adrenaline all combined to force 22 Austin Sol turnovers on Saturday night, but the Sol still outscored the Havoc 13-7 after halftime to ultimately prevail 24-18 in the first of four meetings this season between these two Texas teams. “Going into the game, we knew that it was supposed to be pretty windy and that that could act as an equalizer,” said Austin’s Jake Radack. “Coming out of the gate, our defense was a little surprised by Havoc’s willingness and ability to work the disc in the wind, especially John Shelley’s upwind hucks and Mark Baldauf’s handler movement.” Houston actually built a 10-6 lead midway through the second quarter, but Austin rolled 18-8 the rest of the way, including a 10-2 spurt spanning the halves that completely changed the game. “Matt Armour’s greatest early in the third quarter was unreal,” said Houston’s Connor Ughetta. “I thought I had gotten a D to get my own turn back, but Matt made a sick play, Reese Bowman skied for the catch, and they punched in the break. Coach Bex [Forth] said it was probably the best greatest she’d ever seen.” The Sol offense finally found its form after halftime too, orchestrated by Radack, Evan Swiatek, Mark Evans,Kyle Henke, and former Breeze Duncan Fitzgerald, who impressed mightily in his Austin debut. “Duncan was someone we had little information on, and he exposed us in the handler space,” said Houston’s Ben Lewis. “He is fast and athletic.” Lewis also mentioned Swiatek as a typically challenging matchup. “Evan was his usual self,” he said. “No matter how much you try to game plan for him, he is still going to get his. The worst part is he is a nice guy. Even if you wanted to dislike him, you can’t.” The Sol were not thrilled with their overall performance, but still thankful to escape with a relatively comfortable road win. “It certainly wasn’t what we wanted from our first game, but we were happy with our resilience,” said Radack. “My main message to the boys was that all the talk about having the easiest schedule in the league means nothing, and we could lose any of these Texas games if we don’t show up. The division won’t be handed to us. At the same time, we are using these first two games to try and prepare for Week 3 against Atlanta and Carolina. Looking at the big picture, we want to make the regular season as boring as possible; take care of the Texas teams and San Diego and battle it out against Atlanta and Carolina to lock up the one seed. We feel strongly that no one can beat us in Austin.”
- Liftoff in Houston
Unlike all three expansion teams a year ago, the Houston Havoc could not begin with a win. But members of the organization still beamed with pride about what they’ve built in such a short time. Originally slated to join the league in 2024, the AUDL hit the turbo-boosters on the Havoc’s entry midway through the past offseason, and they delivered a competitive effort inside a sparkling, state-of-the-art stadium in front of approximately 700 fans.
“Management’s 15-month plan turned into a three month plan over the winter, and you would never know it,” said Ughetta, who caught the Havoc’s first ever score. “I have been so impressed with how well run the team has been. It is special getting to play in your hometown with so much friends and family able to support you. And we have an incredible stadium with a jumbotron, drew a large, loud, hyped up crowd, and I feel like the quality put on for a first game ever was impressive.” Lewis, who’s played previously for both Austin and Dallas, was similarly delighted to finally be able to play in his hometown. “We wish we could have come away with the victory, but the biggest takeaway was the growth we all experienced as a team,” said Lewis. “Games are full of momentum swings and it’s how you handle those moments of highs and lows that will determine the outcome. Unfortunately, our highs didn’t outnumber our lows on Saturday, but Coach Bex was proud of how we mentally stayed in the game. Coach Bex emphasized that our execution errors during the game are ones that can be easily fixed. Confidence, confidence, confidence will be the key moving forward.” Idle this coming weekend, the Havoc get their second chance when they travel to Dallas on May 13.
After just seven contests in Week 1, the action expands with 10 games coming up in a busy Week 2. This includes four Friday nighters, with five more on Saturday and Philly visiting DC on Sunday. Overall, it should be another compelling and educational slate, highlighted by Pawel Janas making his Los Angeles Aviators debut against the reigning West Division champs in the FOX Sports Game of the Week.
In five years with Chicago, Janas produced 396 assists in just 69 games. He passed by the legendary Goose Helton to become the league’s all-time assist king in last year’s playoffs, and he certainly will become the first player in AUDL history to throw 400 scores. He’ll likely cross that threshold on Saturday night against the Colorado Summit.
Way more meaningful than the numbers, of course, is how Janas and the Aviators actually look against vaunted Colorado, who are talented, deep, and also will be coming off a Friday night battle against San Diego. There’s been a presumption to throw Los Angeles into the postseason picture, in part because of Janas’s arrival along with other interesting signings, but after going 9-15 over the past two seasons, the Aviators are still a team that needs to prove they belong. A win over the Summit would immediately boost LA into a different tier of credibility and contention.
“It feels to me like it’s the biggest game in Aviators’ history,” LA Head Coach Jeff Landesman said back in April. “It’s a new era…The league expects us to be better this year than last year. There’s a lot of pressure. We have a lot of good players, but it’s about building chemistry. In my tenure, it’s the biggest game we’ve played.”
Should be a ton of fun. Just like Week 1.