May 23, 2023
By Evan Lepler
In any sport, there’s no doubt that consistent winning builds belief. When a team has experience closing the deal in a tight game and repeatedly succeeds in tricky situations, that matters. It’s a big reason why toppling the New York Empire, even on an underdog’s best day, is such a daunting endeavor.
For the second straight week, New York’s lengthy winning streak strolled precariously close to the cliff, only for the Empire to savvily sneak away from another road test with a thrilling overtime victory. They are equal opportunity dream crushers, yielding glimpses of hope—both to previously undefeated DC and still-winless Philly—before unleashing their attack dogs and earning the desired result. Again and again.
“I’ve developed a lot of confidence in this team over the past few years and our ability to win these close games,” said New York’s John Lithio. “We have so many great players and a clutch, game-changing play can come from anyone at any time.”
New York trailed by two at halftime against Philly, the Empire’s first multi-goal deficit at the half since September 4, 2021. They won in overtime that night too.
You come at the king, you best not miss.
Saturday against the Philadelphia Phoenix was the fourth time in New York’s last 30 games that they trailed after two quarters. As you might expect, they are 4-0 in those games and 6-0 in their last six contests that ventured into overtime.
With their 19th consecutive victory on Saturday, the current New York crew now owns the top winning streak in franchise history, besting the 2019-21 Empire run of 18 in a row. Consequently, they are now chasing Dallas, and then Toronto.
All-Time AUDL Win Streaks
30 - Toronto Rush | 2013-14
23 - Dallas Legion | 2016-17
19 - New York Empire | 2022-Present
18 - New York Empire | 2019-21
17 - Oakland Spiders | 2014-15
New York’s remaining schedule, which includes two matchups against 3-0 Boston, another battle with 3-1 DC, and interdivisional showdowns against Atlanta, Salt Lake, and Colorado, who are presently a combined 12-1, is far from a cakewalk. But If the Empire can run the table all the way to another title in 2023, they would match the earliest Toronto Rush teams at 30 straight heading into 2024.
Pushed to the brink in back-to-back weeks, the Empire have appeared mortal for moments, but perfection perseveres.
The Full Field Layout
By all accounts, Philly’s home opener was not a case where New York competed lethargically against an inferior opponent. The Phoenix committed a season-low 17 turnovers, denied the Empire on seven of their 10 hucks, and only were broken three times in regulation.
Devastatingly for the folks in Philly who were ultra-determined to knock off New York, it still was not enough.
“Philly is always a team that can ride extreme highs,” said New York Co-Coach Charlie Hoppes. “They’ve had those bursts in all of their games this season, and this game they put it all together and sustained it. Their deep game was as good as any team could hope for.”
Indeed, the Phoenix attempted 12 hucks and completed them all, the best big throwing performance we’ve seen in the AUDL so far this season.
“I’ve been around James [Pollard] for a long time and had the pleasure of coaching him, and that was the best I’ve ever seen him play,” said Hoppes, praising Pollard’s eight score, four-huck, 682-yard night.
“[He’s] called Big Game James for a reason,” said Philly’s Greg Martin.
Of course, many of New York’s superstars were spectacularly clutch too. Ben Jagt tallied three blocks, Jack Williams dished seven assists, and Jeff Babbitt dominated with nine goals.
“Babbitt is a wrecking ball with the best throwers in the league around him,” said Martin. “Unless the AUDL allows more physical defense, the game is just set up for him to score 5-10 yard goals every time. He is also one of the smartest defenders and that is huge to have for their turnovers.”
The Empire certainly have come to expect Babbitt to always deliver, and he usually does.
“None of his recent production is surprising,” said Lithio. “He makes a lot of incredible plays, but he makes them so consistently that my reaction is typically along the lines of ‘Ho-hum, Jeff is about to sky three people, we’ll chalk this up as good offense.”
In the game’s climactic moments, the Empire veterans, along with a New York rookie, came through when it counted most.
“After we tied it 14-14 with about three minutes left in regulation, I heard someone on our sideline say, ‘this feels like a Ryan Drost point,’” said Lithio. “And sure enough, a minute and a half later, he came up with a layout block. Then, of course Jack made that weird-but-perfect high-stall huck to [John Randolph] to finish out that point. And then Bretton Tan made a heads-up play in OT to peel off his person and make a play in the air to seal the game for us.”
The 18-16 overtime victory was a combination of joy and relief for New York, while Philadelphia again was forced to handle heartbreak.
“That loss is really tough,” said Martin. “The biggest difference was converting at the end. Simple as that.”
Through the pain, the Phoenix are also able to see the growth that their head coach has relentlessly preached.
“The reason we played close and we’re even winning that game at one point was because the mindset Roger [Chu] built in us,” added Martin. “Any disappointment from Saturday night is gone. The only thing we can do is become stronger, closer, and more experienced with every game. I think New York is very, very lucky to have played us early in the season.”
The Phoenix head to Pittsburgh this weekend for an interdivisional opportunity against the Thunderbirds, while the Empire are off until Friday, June 2, when they travel to Boston and put their 19-game winning streak on the line against the 3-0 Glory.
The Madison Radicals can feel Philly’s pain.
Opening the season with a Week 1 road game at Pittsburgh preceding a Week 4 trip to Indy, the Rads have been victimized by a pair of last-second scores in two demoralizing one-goal losses. After Max Sheppard skied for the Thunderbirds’ exhilarating winner with no time left back in late April, it was AlleyCats legend Cameron Brock hauling in Carter Rae’s perfectly angled back corner forehand with one second left on Saturday at Grand Park, propelling Indianapolis to the 22-21 triumph and again leaving the Radicals in stunned disappointment.
The AlleyCats actually could have prevailed without such suspense, but coughed up a three-goal lead with six-minutes to play. Jake Carrico’s Callahan tied the score at 20 with 3:13 remaining, but after each team held one more time, Indy set up their game-winning march with 35 seconds left.
“As for the last throw, I got the disc and realized I didn’t have a mark,” remembered Rae. “I turned and saw Cam throw his hand up and without hesitation let it fly. As I released that disc I felt like I put it where only Cam could get it or it was going OB. I’ve had some solid luck throwing to Cam at [end of quarter] scenarios.”
For Brock, his 586th career goal—most all-time—was certainly one of the most emotional moments of his illustrious 11-year AUDL career, coming just one day after the birth of his new daughter, Sofia Jo Brock.
“I found myself thinking about my three kids, especially Sofia, who was born just over 24 hours earlier, and Jonah, who we lost in 2021,” said Brock. “I nearly broke down in tears.”
AlleyCats coach Drew Shepherd credited Brock’s wife, Casey, as the team’s MVP, while also recognizing their families’ help in making Cam available to play in the game.
Meanwhile, Madison encountered a familiar feeling, having suffered yet another last-second loss.
“They have an O-line that has played together for years, and it showed on this point,” said Radicals veteran Josh Wilson. “They worked it down the field and when the clock was low they put up a shot to the one person that seems to always come down with the disc. I wouldn’t say we made a defensive mistake, but I don’t think there was a player on our line that wouldn’t want a redo of that point.”
The Radicals feel they’re two plays away from being 2-0, but that’s little consolation as they return home at 0-2.
“We can’t keep putting ourselves in situations where we are defending the end zone to preserve a tie with no time on the clock,” said Madison Coach Tim DeByl.
The Radicals will now seek to replicate Indy’s turnaround. After starting 0-2, the Cats are 2-2 following consecutive wins and face a team that’s lost 63 straight in their next game a week from Saturday. Madison, meanwhile, opens its home slate at iconic Breese Stevens Field this Saturday against Chicago, a FOX Sports Game of the Week between two teams that are both still hunting their first victory of the year.
“With how young our team is, we are only getting better this season,” said Wilson. “So while we did not start the way we wanted, we have the time and talent to get where we need this season. We cannot wait to have another great game against Chicago this weekend.”
With the disc in the air and the final seconds ticking down, it sure felt like the Oakland Spiders were headed to overtime for their third consecutive game.
The eight-legged outfit had let a four-goal fourth quarter lead slip away on Friday night in Portland, and Jon Snyder’s forehand toward the back of the end zone had an open target. But instead of the equalizer, it was just another tough moment for a Nitro franchise that’s struggling to catch a break.
Painfully, the disc deflected off the outstretched hand of Portland’s Tom Doi, enabling the Spiders to rejoice after a 24-23 victory.
“I had a clean look at the disc, and I just dropped it,” said Doi.
Asked whether the multiple lines in the end zone might have impacted his concentration in the moment, Doi refused to make any excuses.
“I think anytime we drop a disc, we are always looking around to find something else to blame, lines on the field, the communication between players, wind, etc. Unfortunately, at our level of play, we can really only blame ourselves for the lapse in focus. Fortunately, I was surrounded by great teammates to give me the needed support after the game.”
For the Nitro, it was another missed opportunity, the organization’s 13th consecutive loss dating back to last year. The Spiders, in contrast, were focused on the three quarters of contagious energy they brought to the game before nearly stumbling in the fourth.
“Celebrating every point, being loud on the sideline, supporting our brothers next to us—this energy that we’re so great at bringing directly translates to our play on the field, and so our focus was to come with that from the tip,” said Oakland rookie Walker Frankenberg. “For three quarters, we executed on that perfectly.”
One day later, the Spiders’ second game of the weekend pitted them in a rematch against a Seattle squad that Oakland had narrowly escaped against in overtime back in Week 1. At the outset, the Spiders’ O-line barely got to play, which was perfectly fine with them.
“If I have to go out on the field in between quarters to warm up my throws again, that’s a great sign for our defense,” said Frankenberg. “We came out with high energy, got blocks, forced tough shots, and most importantly, capitalized off their turnovers and converted at a level we haven’t yet. And the scary part is that we all know we can do more.”
The Spiders opened the game with four straight scores and led 7-2 after 12 minutes, stretching the lead as large as seven in the second half before winning 24-20 against the Cascades, capping Oakland’s second sweep of their Pacific Northwest trip in as many years.
“One of our messages from this weekend was ‘we roll hella deep,’” said Spiders Captain Evan Magsig. “This came out in a couple ways, through our traveling support and simply the depth of our team, and how lines and players stepped up at different times this weekend.”
Winners of three of their first four games for the first time since 2017, the Spiders have another daunting doubleheader road trip coming up in early June, as they travel to Salt Lake and Colorado for showdowns against the still undefeated Shred and Summit, respectively.
Meanwhile, something’s gotta give when the 0-4 Nitro and 0-5 Cascades collide a week from Friday in Portland.
Coming up later today in “Seven on the Line”, Boston and DC both prevail north of the border, Carolina’s gaining momentum, the best in the West stymie LA, and much more.