Rush Dominate Empire

June 19, 2018
By Louis Zatzman

Toronto completed their perfect weekend with a 25-18 rout over the New York Empire. Most importantly, Cam Harris returned to form after an iffy outing against D.C. He threw five assists and was even a lynchpin in retrieving the disc after an offensive turn; Harris led the team with two blocks. 

The blazing afternoon heat was matched by the Toronto Rush’s start to their game. Bretton Tan matched up against New York’s star handler, Harper Garvey, and denied any possible reset pass. With the stall count rising, and Tan mirroring every cut Garvey attempted, the reset pass hit the ground. Tan immediately broke for the endzone and caught the game’s first goal. The second D-Line matched the first, adding another speedy break point for good measure; as has become custom in 2018, Toronto led 2-0 before the first minute of the game had even elapsed.

Tan continued his impressive play from Toronto’s Saturday game against the Ottawa Outlaws. Asked about Tan’s ability to lock down Derek Alexander on Saturday and then Harper Garvey on Sunday, coach Sachin Raina answered simply, “that’s what the best defender is supposed to do.” 

Though a Jeff Babbitt flick huck allowed New York to reach the scoreboard, Toronto’s offensive line ran a clinic on their first offensive line. Andrew Carroll faked an in-cut, and Marques Brownlee bought it. Newcomer Hugh Knapp secured an easy pass on the break side, and he threw Carroll a huck near the endzone. A few dump passes later, Cam Harris found Connor Armstrong for the easy goal to put Toronto ahead 3-1.

As New York’s offence settled in, Toronto’s offence slipped up. Cam Harris and Thomson McKnight crossed their wires, and a huck flew towards no one while Harris cut towards the disc. New York converted to tie the game at 3-3. After a Toronto hold, the Rush defence applied some pressure, offering a pair of chances at the endzone; however, a laser flick flew just past Ben Pries despite his layout, and New York eventually scored for another tie at 4-4.   

Toronto’s pull plays continued wreaking havoc on New York’s defence, as Cam Harris threw a half-field assist to a wide-open Carroll. More solid offensive play from both sides brought the score to 6-6, as the 37 Celsius weather seemed to slow defenders’ legs and allow extra space for throwers to hit their targets. 

A Nate Hirst flub, practically dropping the disc instead of passing it to his reset, allowed New York to notch another break score and take their first lead 7-6. Jeff Babbitt uncharacteristically dominated with his throws instead of his vertical, throwing a pair of assists to anchor New York’s D-Line. Toronto couldn’t convert with 10 seconds remaining on the clock to end the first quarter, and New York took its lead into the second frame.

New York’s defence locked in on the first point of the new quarter, forcing Toronto to throw dozens of passes in a two-minute point. Though discombobulated at times, the Rush offence was up to the task, keeping possession all the way down the field before Nate Hirst and Connor Armstrong ran a quick give-and-go for the score.

Hirst, Armstrong, and newcomer Hugh Knapp are quickly becoming key contributors on the offensive line. The adaptability of offensive mainstays Cam Harris, Andrew Carroll, and Thomson McKnight mean that players with such stylistic and age differences can still succeed together.

“Especially working with Connor [Armstrong] in Australia [on Team Canada], him and I were very close, the two main handlers. We do the same things,” said Knapp about his success on offence thus far. “Same with Nathan [Hirst]. I feel like it's super easy for me because the Toronto scene, and these guys, I'm looking around in the huddle, and I'm like damn, these guys are so good. It's pretty awesome. Pretty lucky to be on the O-Line.” 

“The very first moment [years ago] we were on the field together, we threw one of those inside breaks without even thinking about it,” said Hirst of Knapp. “We were just on the same wavelength. Knowing that he's going to be there makes that throw so much more confident. I can just step out and take it. With some other players, it's more difficult... I know what space he likes.” 

All three of Hirst, Armstrong, and Knapp finished with at least one assist and goal each. 

Despite the success of the youth scene, Harris is still a major piece for the offence. He threw a majestic hammer to McKnight for a score midway through the second quarter. After a poor outing in his last game against D.C, Harris was off to an impressive start even by his standards; he threw 4 of Toronto’s first 8 assists. 

Both defences continued their relative inability to create break chances, let alone convert them. Nick Dacquisto had an easy block for Toronto, but the disc popped up after Dacquisto’s failure to catch his D, and the Empire easily scored. On the other side, Hugh Knapp couldn’t corral a pass from Carroll in the endzone, but Armstrong retrieved the disc on a failed New York huck. Later in the point, Hirst gracefully floated above a pair of Empire defenders for a catch and threw an easy pass to Ben Burelle to tie the game at 10-apiece. 

Feeling the sun, Toronto decided to play its second D-Line. The line notched several defensive stops, but they couldn’t complete more than a pass or two without giving the disc back to New York. After an Empire huck flew too far, coach Sachin Raina used a timeout to put his offence on the field. With three minutes left in the half, a Burelle scoober seemed to have no intended target, but Hirst flew out of nowhere to pluck it out of the air. He followed suit with another scoober to Knapp, putting Toronto ahead 11-10. 

After New York equalized, Cam Harris elevated over Marques Brownlee in the endzone to give Toronto another lead. The next point saw a missed swing pass from the Empire, and the Rush used their final timeout of the half to ensure the break. With the floodgates open, Anatoly Vasilyev intercepted an early New York pass to add yet another break for Toronto. With only a few seconds remaining in the half, Marques Brownlee stylishly elevated above Toronto defenders to pull New York back into the game. Toronto led 14-12, but the third quarter has traditionally been when the Rush pull ahead of their opponents. 

The second half began exactly the same as the first, as Brett Tan caged Harper Garvey in a defensive vault, forcing a misthrow from a secondary handler without a reset available. Leading 15-12, another mistake from New York – this time unforced – allowed Masek-Kelly to air a backhand huck to Ben Pries. The rookie expertly absorbed contact from both sides as he leapt above both defenders for his first ever AUDL goal, likely one of the most stylish first-career-goals in Rush history.

While New York’s offence held, after a variety of turnovers, Toronto’s offence smoothly worked their way down the field. Andrew Carroll’s in-cuts especially created the breathing space for Toronto whenever stall counts were rising. 

Unfazed by an Empire break, Toronto easily scored on their next offensive possession via a Masek-Kelly dish. Back on defence, Masek-Kelly threw another assist to push Toronto ahead 19-15. Huynh had leapt ahead of an in-cut for the block, and he recorded the bookends from Masek-Kelly’s pass. Yet another break on the following point put Toronto in the driver’s seat, which they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the game. New York couldn’t convert with a few seconds remaining, and Toronto took their 20-15 edge into the final quarter. 

Toronto didn’t let up from there. After an offensive hold to start the quarter, Toronto scored a quick break. New York kept the score from ballooning into a complete disaster, as Beau Kittredge jumped over Jonathan Edwards for a much-needed Empire score. New York managed to pull the game to a more-manageable deficit, only down 23-18 with four minutes left in the game. Toronto’s offence made a few boneheaded errors, as several calls from the refs went against the Rush. It seemed as though the Empire would record another break, but Edwards redeemed himself and leapt over double coverage to right Toronto’s ship. 

Another late highlight was provided via an endzone catch from Iain MacKenzie, who dunked over an Empire defender with two hands, giving the Rush a 25-18 lead to end the game. 

With almost their full roster available against the Empire, the Rush proved just how dominant they can be. With Isaiah Masek-Kelly back on the D-Line, their offensive flow was far superior to their flow only the day before against Ottawa. 

“Having [Masek-Kelly] back on the D-Line certainly helps. The biggest thing we addressed yesterday was it seemed like everybody was deferring in the first quarter. We cleaned it up, figured out who it was. Today, if you did defer, Izzy was going to take the lane, and we could go from there. That worked out pretty nicely,” said Raina. 

When Ben Oort’s dislocated thumb heals – he is currently doubtful for Toronto’s D.C rematch next weekend – coach Raina will have some difficult rotation decisions. The current offensive line of Armstrong and McKnight handling alongside cutters Knapp, Harris, Burelle, Hirst, and Carroll worked smoothly. Oort is a deep cutter, and his explosiveness, timing, and size can’t be replicated by anyone else on the Rush offence, especially with Carroll and Harris splitting initiation cutting duties. Furthermore, Adrian Yearwood will return from a minor calf injury. He is an O-Line handler, though he’s comfortable shifting into the stack. 

“I [might] come back and handle with Connor and Thomson,” Knapp guessed as to what full health would mean for the rotation. “[It] doesn't matter. [Playing] defence would be fun. I could open up a few more hucks and stuff.”

My guess is that Hirst and Knapp will lose some, but not all, minutes with the O-Line – though they’ll still play a hefty chunk of minutes with the defence – when Yearwood and Oort are healthy. Regardless, Toronto boasts an embarrassment of riches, and it’s certainly a good problem to have.