May 2, 2023
By Evan Lepler
So, that was fun.
A game-winning buzzer-beater in Pittsburgh, overtime drama in Oakland, and glimpses of greatness from Salt Lake, DC, New York, Atlanta, and Austin, respectively. From coast to coast, Week 1 delivered plenty of action and excitement, offered several significant debuts, and set the stage for a dozen more weekends of riveting ultimate.
And that’s all before we get to the playoffs.
The road to Championship Weekend once again looks like a high-speed freeway, with the Empire and Breeze playing the role of two massive 18-wheelers that both can’t simultaneously fit into the left lane. Everyone else will try to keep up pace with the East’s dominant duo, and several teams, particularly the Shred and the Hustle, are poised to be right in that conversation. The Sol looked sluggish at times, but were far from full strength in their season opener and still escaped a raucous Houston atmosphere with a solid road win.
One must be cautious in drawing too many conclusions from a single weekend, but with only 12 regular season contests, each opportunity provides an important data point on the journey. Even a team like Carolina, whose intriguing new engine stalled in the fourth quarter, just needs a little fuel and some slight tinkering to be right back in the mix going forward.
The AUDL semifinals are 115 days away, and there’s plenty of time for dreams to rise and fall in these next four months. But first impressions are often lasting, and some powerful opening statements were made as the AUDL made its triumphant return.
The Full Field Layout
We will see revamped Los Angeles for the first time this coming weekend, and Toronto’s best roster in a half-decade begins its playoff pursuit with a daunting New York/Boston road trip, but regardless of what those two teams show, it’s hard to imagine that anyone’s leveled up in 2023 quite like the DC Breeze. Even on a day when they clearly didn’t play their best, you could see the foundation of an overwhelming array of athletes, most of whom are skilled, smart, and determined to take the organization where it has never been before.
“I think the second half was just incredible,” said DC Head Coach Darryl Stanley, after the team’s 6-1 run closed out a 21-16 road win over Carolina. “You saw our rhythm pick up right away, and I think, defensively, that’s probably more pressure than we put on consistently compared to last year. I feel fantastic about that. That’s something we’ve been focusing on.”
The Breeze got blocks, but even more notably, clearly flustered the Flyers primary looks. Almost immediately, they broke Carolina’s O-line twice, bolting to a 3-0 lead. Even when Carolina crawled back from a four-goal deficit and tied the game—reminiscent of a similar comeback in the 2021 playoffs that devastatingly halted DC’s hometown Championship Weekend dream—the Breeze held the Flyers to just one goal in the game’s final nine and a half minutes to emphatically earn the victory.
The Rowan McDonnell moving to D-line experiment felt very natural, though the Breeze still reminded everyone that their former MVP can easily go both ways in a meaningful moment, something they showcased when the Flyers’ sideline double-team trap bothered them during Carolina’s comeback.
“Honestly, Rowan coming back over, him picking up the disc, having the confidence to say, ‘hey, you know what, they’re doing this really good double team on the sidelines, let’s have me pick it up,’ and suddenly, there’s a little more calm, a little more confidence,” said Stanley, explaining how the Breeze turned the tide after the Flyers tied it up.
Offensively, DC integrated three new playmakers in Thomas Edmonds, Cole Jurek, and Andrew Roy, and it was clear all three could have big impacts, but no one excelled more than the returning Christian Boxley, who matched a career-high by finishing plus-seven, with three goals, two assists, two blocks, and no turns. As mentioned in yesterday’s AUDL Honor Roll, many on the Breeze have thought Boxley has been the team’s top star throughout preseason practices.
“I had a healthy offseason, so I was able to train a bunch and came into the season in really good shape,” said Boxley. “And my teammates are just giving me the confidence to take the space on the field, hit little away shots, and basically be one of the main drivers of the offense.”
From the Flyers perspective, they are lightyears away from pressing the panic button. The team definitely felt different without the absent Matt Gouchoe-Hanas helping to orchestrate the offense, not to mention Eric Taylor and Liam Searles-Bohs both missing due to injury. Furthermore, they are still developing their new identity, especially defensively, without long-time leaders Noah Saul, Justin Allen, David Richardson, and Tim McAllister, who all retired in the offseason. But Coach Mike DeNardis liked his new team’s passion and grit, even if it wasn’t always accompanied by great execution.
“I don’t think anyone doubts the talent and upside of this particular team,” said DeNardis. "But we know we need to execute better. We did set out to play with a lot of energy and think we did accomplish that goal, especially during the comeback.”
Frankly, it’s easy to say something hasty like, the Flyers need to win either in Atlanta this Friday or the following weekend against Austin to avoid an 0-3 start, but truthfully, even if Carolina stumbled through a winless three-game stretch, the team would still be the heavy favorite to earn the South’s third playoff spot over Houston and Dallas. Considering the Flyers already won a championship after starting a season 0-2, it’s not hard to fathom Carolina using the initial chunk of the season to get reps for its impressive young cadre of talent and eventually being right in the mix come July and August.
Meanwhile, the Breeze open up their home schedule this Sunday against Philly, prior to another highly-anticipated FOX Sports Game of the Week on May 13, when the Empire make the trip back to the city where they last lost.
Both Madison and Pittsburgh understood the importance of their Week 1 result, amidst a Central Division that feels as wide open as ever. For two teams that missed the postseason a year ago, they knew this outcome would say a great deal about their 2023 potential.
“I would say the main story of the game is just about the two teams in the Central Division trying to figure it out,” said Thunderbirds veteran Max Sheppard. “Both teams have something to prove with relatively new rosters.”
The teams traded a handful of breaks, but indeed, neither could gain any meaningful separation throughout the 48-minute battle alongside the Monongahela River. Pittsburgh led 7-4 early in the second, but a 3-0 response from the Radicals tied the game at sevens, commencing a couple quarters of counter-punching that saw the score knot at every number from seven-all to 17-all. Madison persevered through a nearly 8-minute long, seven-turnover marathon point to surge ahead 17-16, but the Radicals missed another break chance with around two minutes left that could’ve doubled the lead. Instead, the Thunderbirds countered, with Sheppard recording the D and the dime on a scoring throw to Alex Thomas with 46 seconds left.
Another Madison execution error on what turned out to be the game’s final point gave the Thunderbirds the last chance, and after a timeout, Sheppard worked more of his magic.
“During the timeout call, it was all about trust and following our system,” he said. “Our coaching staff has been preparing us for months for situations like this, and it paid off.”
The disc found Jonathan Mast near midfield with just a few seconds left, and he saw Sheppard in the middle of the end zone, near multiple defenders. There were other Thunderbird targets in other corners of the end zone, but Mast, who missed all of 2022 with a knee injury, made the obvious choice.
“There wasn’t much time to think,” said Mast, who led the Thunderbirds with 51 completions. “I glanced toward the back left of the end zone and for a second contemplated throwing the hammer, but then I saw Shep with his hand up in the middle of the end zone. Shep just has another level in those high intensity moments; you gotta give him an opportunity! Soon as the disc was in the air, I saw Shep take a few gather steps and knew he had it. I say that, but there’s still that moment of disbelief when you see he actually pull it off. One on three, no less!”
With no time left, the Thunderbirds euphorically stormed the field after the buzzer-beating walk-off win, while the Radicals were stunned in demoralized disbelief.
“I thought we played the final play pretty well and we had a three-on-one in the end zone,” Madison Coach Tim DeByl told Radicals writer Ryan Baker. “And Sheppard’s just a great player and made a play against three of our guys.”
“Being completely honest, I thought I didn’t have any shot at catching that goal," said Sheppard. "Madison defenders are gigantic and are very talented at the end of quarter situations.”
But the AUDL’s 2019 All-Star Game MVP delivered another heroic highlight for his all-time reel, and the Thunderbirds found themselves 1-0 for the second straight year. They haven’t been 2-0 since 2017, and they’ll aim to get there by giving the Detroit Mechanix their 63rd consecutive loss this Saturday in Michigan.
“For the team, a first home win carries a lot of excitement going into the next couple games,” said Sheppard, who produced five goals, five assists, and one block in Pittsburgh’s dramatic victory. “We will continue to grow game-by-game, taking nothing for granted.”
The other thrilling Week 1 finish came in the East Bay, where Seattle and Oakland were always within two goals of one another all game long. The Spiders won each of the first two quarters 7-6, but their 14-12 halftime lead vanished courtesy of the Cascades’s 4-2 edge in the third.
“Both offenses were super effective at getting quick holds throughout the game, with defenses on both sides struggling to mount much pressure and, when they were able to get the disc, struggling to score,” said Oakland’s Mac Hecht.
Whereas the two teams combined for six goals in the third, they each scored six in the fourth, sending the West Division tussle into overtime, tied at 22-all. Seattle had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but Khalif El-Salaam’s huck into a crowd got knocked down by Keenan Laurence, putting five more minutes on the clock.
The Cascades converted first in the OT, with El-Salaam dishing his eighth assist of the weekend to Kenny Lane III to cap a quick 48-second possession. But the Spiders countered by connecting on 19 consecutive throws, earning the equalizer on Hecht’s short toss to Chris Lung, tying the game at 23.
Then, after a trio of turns on the next point, Oakland used its timeout to get the O-line back out there, and Hecht again went to Lung, this time with a magnificent and diabolical scoober, to give the Spiders the lead with just 42 seconds left.
“He saw me looking to the break side, and it looked like he was open, so I threw it to him,” said Hecht, matter-of-factly, about his ninth assist of the day, which ultimately became the game-winner.
Brandon Fein, one of the longest tenured Spiders who was playing in his 92nd career AUDL game, produced his 95th career block in the game’s closing moments, rejecting Garrett Martin’s backhand and enabling Oakland to run out the rest of the clock in a 24-23 overtime triumph.
Lung finished with six goals, two assists, and two blocks, while Hecht accumulated 701 total yards, the highest single-game total of anyone in the league this past weekend.
“I feel like I’ve already started to build a ton of chemistry with the people on the Spiders’ O-line,” said Hecht. “Keenan is always in the right spot downfield and is great at keeping his head up, and same goes for Max Williams, Gavin May, and other downfield guys. Evan Magsig and Walker Frankenberg have been great in the reset and front of stack spots, but definitely want to give a shoutout to Chris Lung, who has a knack for finding soft spots in defenses and really understands spacing and finesse surrounding vert offense, partially because he’s a terrific thrower as well.”
As for Seattle, El-Salaam, Martin, and second-year stud Zeppelin Raunig all had their moments of brilliance—in fact, that trio combined for 22 assists, 13 goals, and six blocks on the road trip—but the Cascades fell just short of securing a split on their opening two-game expedition. Following their eight-goal setback on Friday in Salt Lake, the ‘Scades were clearly way more competitive against the Spiders, yet still saw their record stumble to 0-2.
“I think the line changes we made in the second half of the Salt Lake game yielded more success, and continuing them on Saturday and executing our game plan allowed us to take Oakland to the brink,” said Seattle coach Jesse Bolton. “My message to the team was that we’ll see that team again, and we’ll be ready.”
The next game for both teams is a home matchup against Salt Lake, as the Shred hit Seattle and Oakland the next two Saturdays, respectively. The Spiders haven’t started a season 2-0 since 2015, the year of the franchise’s last championship.
“This is a super young team that doesn’t really know/understand how good they are,” said Hecht. “Wins like this help to build confidence and give the swagger needed to have that winning mentality in the games that matter.”