Tuesday Toss: Offseason Hot Stove

December 18, 2018
By Evan Lepler

Perhaps it came and went subtly without your knowledge. It is, after all, typically a hectic time of year. But it’s worth mentioning now, just a couple of weeks away from the calendar flipping to 2019. Ten days ago, on Saturday, December 8, marked the midway point of the AUDL offseason, bisecting the 237 anticipated sunrises between Madison’s 2018 championship and next April’s 2019 opening night. If you’re a player who’s reading this while slurping eggnog to wash down a full plate of Christmas cookies, it’s almost time to reintroduce yourself back to the AUDL track.

The third quarter of the offseason has just begun, but as this article on The Athletic recently pointed out, the halftime lead dictates who is winning the game way more often than you think. Even 15 weeks away from April without a specific scoreboard to survey, franchises absolutely should have a sense of how things are evolving and whether, in the build-up to the spring, they are playing comfortably from ahead or more aggressively from behind.

Over the past few months, the AUDL’s offseason hot stove has been relatively quiet publicly, though the successful organizations, undoubtedly, are actively simmering. Titles may be won in August, but the big picture strategizing, marketing, and roster-shaping rarely stops. Several teams have already announced plans for January open tryouts, and others are presumably pursuing free agents, examining both their local and out-of-town options, contemplating who can help them make a substantial and impactful splash.

In the spirit of the holidays, the Toss is here to help. If each AUDL team could receive one perfect gift, what would it be?

Let’s start with the squads that need the most help and work our way up.

Every team in the league won at least three games in 2018, except for the Detroit Mechanix, who endured an ignominious summer as the only winless franchise on the circuit. The MoTown crew ranked last in the league in both goals scored and goals allowed, meaning that no one single present could serve as a complete panacea. It would be easy to say this team needs a cornerstone, someone like Rowan McDonnell, Jonathan Nethercutt, or Kurt Gibson, or maybe all three! Frankly, any team would love to find one of those blue chippers nestled under their Christmas tree. If I was the all-powerful ultimate gift-giver, I would simply bestow the Mechanix with some roster consistency. Despite having 40 different players rostered throughout the season, they Mechanix would frequently compete with a gameday squad of 14, 15, or 16 guys, well short of the 20-person limit. On too many weekends, especially on the road, Detroit was handicapped even before the game’s opening pull, contributing to the Mechanix suffering setbacks by margins of 17, 29, 19, 22, 20, and 22 in their final six road games of the 2018 season.

The Ottawa Outlaws only experienced one road win during their recent 3-11 campaign, however it’s worth noting that their victory outside Ontario came in their season finale at Montreal, largely thanks to a full roster that had not given up. Not only did Ottawa have 20 active players in uniform, but 17 were involved in scores, a striking contrast to Detroit going on the road with only 14 late in the year, requiring several Mechanix players to slog through nearly 40 points in a lopsided loss. For the full season, the Outlaws had 17 different players who competed in at least 11 games; the Mechanix had two.

As for what’s on Ottawa’s wish list, the first thing that came to mind was Doc Brown’s DeLorean, with a functional flux capacitor and moderate supply of plutonium. More than any team, maybe with the one exception of Austin, the Outlaws could use a time machine. Imagine if you could combine the prime seasons of all of Ottawa’s most accomplished veterans and accelerate the growth of the roster’s promising youth. Send the still-dynamic-yet-aging Alexander brothers—combined, Ken and Derek are north of 70—and 40+ year-old big man Andy Ouchterlony back a decade. Hit 88 miles per hour again and venture into the future to give another few years of seasoning and experience for guys like Kinley Gee, Matt O’Brien, Laurent Loiseau, and Adam O’Donnell. The East Division would still be a beast, but the Outlaws are not that far away; Alec Arsenault has flown a bit under the radar as one of the most dynamic downfield presences in the league the last two seasons, scoring a combined 111 goals in 2017 and 2018.

No non-playoff team finished 2018 with greater optimism than the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, who closed the year with three consecutive wins following a 1-10 start. Though it helped to have the final two games against winless Detroit, there was also clear development from a young roster under a first-year coach, highlighted by their dramatic overtime victory at Minnesota. Only four players in the entire league—Seattle’s Mark Burton, Chicago’s Pawel Janas, New York’s Ben Jagt, and Philadelphia’s Sean Mott, all of whom made 2018 All-AUDL squads—were involved in more total scores than 23-year-old Max Sheppard, and Jimmy Towle, who is two months younger than Sheppard, also delivered a breakout performance as one of the five individuals across the AUDL to average at least three and a half goals per game while seeing the field in at least 12 contests. Looking forward, the Thunderbirds obviously possess a bunch of tantalizing talent from the Pitt pipeline, guys like Sam VanDusen, Dillon Tranquillo, and Noah Robinson, but if we’re being honest, all of these potential young stars would be greatly enhanced by the presence of Pitt’s all-time on-field alpha. That, of course, is the superstar Tyler DeGirolamo, who registered 28 goals and 86 assists in just 11 games in 2015 but has only played four games in three seasons since due to various injuries and life circumstances. In 2019, the Thunderbirds could get no better gift than a healthy, committed DeGirolamo, who is still nine months shy of his 30th birthday. Whether his body or mind are desiring to be Pittsburgh’s difference-maker again remains to be seen; it’s entirely possible that, despite the Toss’s magical powers, this is a gift that may not be available.

Snakebitten in close games, the Tampa Bay Cannons’ 2-8 record in contests decided by three or less prevented them from contending for a playoff spot in the South Division, arguably the toughest division in the AUDL, last year. The Cannons, who finished 4-10, knew that 2018 was a transition year in a variety of ways, from the actual Florida city they called home to the roster shifting younger and away from veteran standouts like Cole Sullivan, Mischa Freystaetter, and Jeremy Langdon, who collectively helped lead the Cannons to the postseason in 2017. This is not to say the most recent Florida faction lacked talent. If anything, Tampa Bay had too many disc dominant stars and not enough complementing experience and athleticism surrounding them. Bobby Ley and Andrew Roney anchored the attack as ably as any backfield duo on the continent, but too often they were missing their downfield strikers. The quartet of Nathan Vickroy, Tyler Kunsa, Billy O’Bryan, and Michael Fairley combined to play only 29 of a possible 56 regular season games, and often their absences left Ley and Roney responsible for a little too much. Still, the pieces are in place for this team to compete, and surely the home crowd should improve in year two in Tampa. Gift-wise, wouldn’t it be nice if this team had a 6’7” veteran presence to employ on both sides of the disc? Maybe Freystaetter will return to Florida one day. For the present, however, this team badly needs some defensive depth, ideally that’s capable of handling the disc after a turnover. Unfortunately, it’s a little bit like a child saying how they want a pony. The pony is usually an idea based in fantasy more than reality. If they were allowed to simply pluck one player off someone else’s roster, a guy like LA’s Chris Mazur could fit in well. You could also imagine a veteran workhorse like Madison’s Andrew Meshnick making a big difference on the Cannons’ D-line.

Come to think of it, Mazur or Meshnick would likely boost any team they joined, in particular a squad like the Chicago Wildfire, who endured—in captain Pawel Janas’ words—a disastrous 5-9 campaign littered with disappointment. Kurt Gibson, Ross Barker, and Nate Goff were all standout players from winning teams that joined Chicago in 2018 with the presumption that the Wildfire might challenge the reigning Radicals in the Midwest. Instead, the Wildfire struggled to play with any consistency against good teams, costing them repeatedly in close games; they went 5-0 against Detroit and Pittsburgh, but 0-9 vs. their division’s three playoff representatives. Five of those nine losses came by three or less, but that offered no consolation or morale boost for a franchise that has now missed the playoffs three years in a row. The good news is, unlike the Mechanix and Thunderbirds, the Wildfire have stars already in place. In particular, Janas threw for a ridiculous 182 goals over the past two years, including an AUDL single-season record 97 assists last year. Michael Pardo, who has hauled in 52 of Janas’ scoring shots since 2017, also led the Wildfire in blocks last year. But here’s the bad news: it’s never a great sign when a team’s defensive standout played primarily on offense, as was the case with Pardo, who awaited the pull rather than launching it for nearly 83% of his points last year. If Windy City Santa cannot supply some additional defensive firepower, along with playmakers who can convert turns into breaks, the Wildfire will again ask their stars to do too much, a formula that has yielded mediocrity the past couple years. One gift that the Wildfire franchise has already received is confirmation that the franchise will play its home games much closer to the city than in past years. Recently, they announced a deal to move from Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium in Naperville to Langhorst field in Elmhurst. Though still outside of Chicago’s downtown area, the new venue is considerably closer, a shift that will make it far easier for most players and fans alike to get to the games.

The Seattle Cascades compiled the exact same 5-9 record as the Wildfire, but contrasting preseason expectations put Seattle’s 2018 slate in a very different perspective. The Cascades’ roster constitution included an uncharacteristically high number of teenagers, either still in high school or recently graduated. Helping to guide the youth movement was a mix of the intriguing college kids and a few veteran stalwarts, none more notable than Burton, who recently made it clear that, after some personal uncertainty about his playing future, he will in fact be returning in 2019 with the expressed mission of surging Seattle back into postseason. Burton, who turned 32 in October, wants to be the Peter Pan of ultimate, claiming that he never wants to grow up. The reality, though, is that these days Burton brings an effective and crafty old-man game, using guile and experience to out-angle his opponents more frequently than he out-athletes them. Alas, Burton’s return as a reliable handler and savvy mentor to the group that’s a decade his junior is a gift that the Cascades had hoped for. As for another present to unwrap, it sure would boost Seattle’s defense if Khalif El-Salaam returned after sitting out a year. One wonders if Burton, who has consistently and with great success teamed up with El-Salaam playing mixed club ultimate, can convince the athletic speedster, who just turned 25 in November, to make his return to the pro field this spring.

With a renewed commitment from many of the area’s top players in 2018, the Philadelphia Phoenix vigorously defended their homefield, dropping just two of their seven home games in a season that ended at 5-8-1 overall, giving the franchise its highest win total in five years. Since rising from the ashes of the first AUDL Champion in 2012, Philly has improved steadily after winning just three total games in three seasons from 2014 to 2016, taking a significant step this past summer, one they believe will set them up for a postseason run in 2019. Mott has emerged as a bona fide star, honored as Second Team All-AUDL after compiling 90+ scores for the second straight season, joining Janas and Burton in the exclusive club of productivity in back-to-back years. But the Phoenix were way deeper than just one player, which enabled them to battle the East’s top teams much more competitively than recent years. Mott was joined on the AUDL’s All-Iron team by a pair whose leadership extended far beyond gameday. Of course, Philly General Manager Mike Arcata and Player/Coach Trey Katzenbach were invaluable on the field too, as Arcata registered 32 goals with 37 assists while Katzenbach’s legendary decision-making, to the tune of a 98.2 percent completion rate, constantly set the tone. Part of me wants to gift the Phoenix a new division, given that Toronto and New York are both among the league’s best, while DC, Montreal, and Ottawa aren’t slouches either. It’s a tough sell to think of Philly in the Midwest, though, even if they might immediately become the second-best team in that region, behind only the defending champs. In terms of areas to improve, one thing does stand out. The Phoenix scored did not score an abundance of quick goals, averaging about 14 completed passes per score. Only Detroit and Tampa needed more, on average. For sure, part of this was a byproduct of Katzenbach’s conservative approach along with some tough weather conditions that the Phoenix endured throughout the season, but I can’t help but contemplate that the Phoenix could really use another top hucker. If New York’s Harper Garvey magically appeared in a Philly jersey next season, for example, that would be one heckuva present.

Oh, Montreal Royal, what might have been? At 6-4 and threatening DC for second place in the East following the Royal’s nailbiting 23-22 win over the Empire in New York on June 23, it certainly appeared that Montreal was postseason-bound. But four games later, the Royal’s 2018 season ended with a frustrating thud, at 6-8 and out of the three East Division playoff spots. In retrospect, the Royal’s midseason surge may have been a bit of fool’s gold, considering that the early résumé included a pair of somewhat fluky one-goal wins against Ottawa and a pair of painful losses to Philly. It’s hard not to root for the Royal. From their cool jerseys to their international flavor, and of course their amazing fans, they are the epitome of what a professional ultimate team ought to be. They have a bunch of very good players and have built up their depth to compete with anyone on the league on any given day. But what they lack is what they need, and that is a superstar. It should not be a hard sell: ‘Come play in a great city in front of super passionate fans with some of the top players from France and Colombia. All you can eat poutine after every win!’ Of course, acquiring a star is easier said than done, and developing a star is even harder. Quentin Bonnaud, who will be 23 when next season starts, could become that guy. But my hunch is he’s destined to be a superb complementary piece. Instead, imagine if someone like Raleigh’s Jack Williams moved to Montreal. That would be a transformative transaction, and he would quickly become royalty among Canada’s top talents. With no evidence that it’s even being contemplated, however, it will have to be a Christmas miracle.  

It was sad to see the San Francisco and Nashville franchises fold their operations this fall. I always cherished the opportunities to travel to the North Bay, and while I unfortunately never saw an ultimate game in the Music City, I did see the NightWatch in person once and very much enjoyed conversing with their organization’s personnel through the years. It will be interesting to see how these departures impact the competitive balance of their respective divisions, and no team should experience the benefits of their farewells more than the San Jose Spiders, who won back-to-back AUDL titles in 2014 and 2015, and have made the playoffs just once since. Since the team’s founding in 2014, the Spiders were constantly competing with the FlameThrowers in pursuit of their share of Bay Area talent. Unquestionably, there’s enough players in the ultimate hotbed to fill up multiple teams, but a variety of factors have gone into who has played where. More than a few players have the distinction of suiting up for both the Spiders and FlameThrowers, with a smaller handful winning titles with both organizations. Now, of course, the Spiders have the territory, adding an interesting wrinkle into the already uber-competitive West Division, where just two games separated second place from last place in 2018. San Jose finished in the middle of that clogged pack at 6-8, one game shy of San Diego in pursuit of a playoff berth. To give Spiders owner Andrew Zill credit, he and his staff have done a tremendous job cultivating a fan base that shows up to Foothill College to support the squad regardless where the team is in the standings. Obviously, expectations are high for positive results heading into 2019, and the Spiders, with the gift of a few additional former FlameThrowers, should be right in the mix.

The Atlanta Hustle remind me a little bit of the Montreal Royal. They are athletic and innovative, have an array of exciting young players, and seem to be building something real. But unfortunately, they still feel like the little brother of their biggest rivals, a byproduct of having been involved in plenty of competitive games where they have ultimately fallen short. An advantageous early schedule and some late-game clutchness enabled the Hustle to win four of five to start the spring, but a 1-6 record against the South’s three eventual playoff teams left Atlanta an unsatisfied 7-7. The Royal comparison goes further in that the Hustle have a bunch of guys in the good to very good range, guys that most any team would want to have in the rotation. But who’s the go-to-guy with the game on the line? Who’s the alpha who will command the disc and distribute accordingly? Matt Smith has one heckuva career highlight reel dating all the way back to his 2012 Rhode Island Rampage days, and Smith could very well be an All-Star for the Hustle this summer, but the almost 30-year-old is more steady and reliable than he is dominant. Similar story for handlers like Austin Taylor, Kyle Stapleton, and Christian Olsen. As a coach, you would want any of them to have the disc in an important spot, but you are not confusing them with Nethercutt. The holiday hope for the Hustle is that Parker Bray, who led his team with 41 assists last year, may be able to take the next step, combining his limitless potential with a sense of the moment to help Atlanta ascend back into the postseason for the first time since 2016. At 23-years-old, Bray has the tools to be the breakout star the Hustle need.

Speaking of little brothers, the Austin Sol are Seth Curry. This is a promising team filled with interesting, likable players, but let’s acknowledge the truth: it’s hard to think of Seth, who has played parts of five seasons in the NBA, without instantly remembering, ‘oh yea, it’s Steph’s baby bro.’ Even when Seth scored 31 points in an overtime win for the Dallas Mavericks on February 9, 2017, everyone still knows his place in the hierarchy relative to the three-time NBA champion in the family. There is one difference, however. While Seth will always be Steph’s junior, the Sol need not be relegated to second-tier status behind their Dallas brethren forever. How can they escape the Roughnecks’ shadow? For starters, by beating them one time. Despite this author’s prognostications to the contrary, the Sol could never quite get over the hump against Dallas owner "Big" Jim Gerencser’s bunch, falling to 0-12 against their Lone Star State neighbors. The games have more than occasionally been close and competitive, but the Roughnecks have always been superior by the final buzzer. This is not meant to belittle the Sol. They are a fantastic organization that have given us a bunch of exhilarating moments, including a thrilling Game of the Week buzzer-beater and the greatest Greatest in AUDL (or the possibly sport's) history, both occurring last season courtesy of wunderkind Kyle Henke, who won’t even be 21-years-old until next June. The best Christmas gift for the Sol would be one that simultaneously dinged Dallas, like if Henke’s Texas Tech bro Carson Wilder gave a WWE-style twist to the narrative and returned to Austin. It’s not unfathomable, but it does not seem that likely either. Until something drastic changes, it just seems like no matter how great Austin’s holiday might be, Dallas’s will surpass it.

The sibling rivalry comparison continues when discussing the San Diego Growlers, who share a similar regional combativeness with their SoCal comrades in Los Angeles. The Growlers have beaten the Aviators several times, of course, but there’s no question that LA has the upper hand heading into 2019, following a triumph in the two clubs’ first-ever collision in the postseason this past July. Despite the defeat, the Growlers still are basking in their best season ever, buoyed by a First Team All-AUDL breakout performance from emerging star Travis Dunn. Their 7-7 regular season mark felt about right, though it could have been quite different if not for three losses by one and two others by two. Only Tampa and Ottawa had as many setbacks by such small margins. As much as any team in the league, with the possible exceptions of Toronto and Madison, the Growlers have maintained their local core and counted on the development of young players to grow into reliable contributors. This general continuity, while still sprinkling in some key under-the-radar additions like Wes Groth, Michael Tran, and Sean Ham in 2017, and Tim Okita and Scott Radlauer in 2018, has built a solid infrastructure that should keep the Growlers in contention heading into their fifth season as a franchise. The best gift for them would be their first winning campaign, which they could accomplish by again winning seven games this summer (as the AUDL season shrinks from 14 games to 12).

In a season bookended by one-goal losses, the Minnesota Wind Chill’s 2018 campaign can be characterized as both exciting and disappointing. There were moments when the Wind Chill had the look of a team that could challenge Madison, like when Colin Berry’s buzzer-beating snag gave Minnesota a 16-14 lead at Breese Stevens Field through three quarters on June 8. They had lost by just one against the Radicals at home earlier in the year, and they were on the brink of snapping Madison’s ridiculous home streak against Midwest foes. But the Twin City team collapsed in the final frame, eventually falling 20-17. Later in the season, in another trip to Wisconsin, the Wind Chill were walloped by 11 in a non-competitive showing that suggested there was still a big gap between Minnesota and the reigning Midwest champs. There’s definitely a common theme that has developed with several of these teams, where they are fairly comfortable playoff contenders while remaining a couple significant rungs shy of true championship contention. Like the last half-dozen teams mentioned in this article, the Wind Chill have an attractive roster with depth and explosiveness. With athletes like Berry, Greg Cousins, Jimmy Kittlesen, and Charlie McCutcheon, the Wind Chill were able to generate blocks. Too often, however, sloppiness would plague Minnesota after forcing a turn, causing them to miss out on critical opportunities to seize control. The Wind Chill still led the entire league in goals per game with 25.5, however they only managed 17, 19, and 24 in three losses to Madison, while inflating their numbers thanks to scoring 34, 34, and 37 in three routs over lowly Detroit. Looking ahead to 2019, Minnesota should again have plenty of firepower. The young Grey Duck products will be another year older, and this core could keep the Wind Chill in the mix for a while. As for a holiday gift, it sure would be nice if a few of Carleton College’s many blue chippers settled underneath a Twin City tree. There’s a ton of local talent around Minneapolis and St. Paul, but the gents studying in Northfield may be the most gifted disc-ers of them all.

Sports can be mighty cruel sometimes. The DC Breeze enjoyed three of the greatest wins of the 2018 regular season, eking out narrow one-goal upsets against Raleigh and Toronto and handing their rivals from New York an embarrassing 10-goal thrashing in their regular season finale. But overshadowing all three of those outcomes, of course, is the brutal postseason washout, losing 19-15 to the same Empire team that they had beaten 29-19 on the same field just seven days earlier. Adding insult to injury, DC’s cleats are probably still damp five months later, a result of the nonstop torrential downpour that completely changed the game, transforming the competition from ultimate to some other disorienting battle for survival that happened to include 175 grams of plastic. Despite DC’s devastating conclusion, the Breeze’s late-season run remains an important building block, as they earned victories in six of seven games to finish 8-5-1 and earn the two-seed in the improved East. Behind AUDL MVP Rowan McDonnell and the steady coaching of Darryl Stanley, the Breeze registered wins over arguably the two most talented teams in the league in Raleigh and Toronto. They also fostered a new generation of players, mixing and matching college kids from across the Atlantic Coast Region into their rotation as the season wore on. That diverse group, hailing from Maryland and Georgetown, Virginia and Virginia Tech, William & Mary and Mary Washington, among others, is the gift that the Breeze must continue and cultivate toward the future. Their division is daunting, but DC, who has clearly illustrated its ability to beat anyone when at its best, has the foundation to remain relevant for many years ahead.

Speaking of cruel conclusions, the Raleigh Flyers still must be aching from their stunning 20-19 heartbreaker in the 2018 South Division final, a game that the Carolinians led 12-6 early in the second half before yielding an improbable 14-7 Roughnecks’ rally that vaulted Dallas back to Championship Weekend. It was the wild capper to a mind-bending season for the Flyers, in which they alternatively looked unbeatable one week and disheveled the next. It’s ironic that many felt the Flyers would have been the heavy final four favorites had they advanced to the semifinals in Madison, but the fourth-year franchise could not get over that so clearly visible yet vexingly confounding hump. Heading into year five, the Flyers are still 43-13 all-time in the regular season and abundantly stacked with talent. There have been whispers about maybe some of their premier talent moving on, but nothing concrete to report. It stands to reason that perhaps a shift in some personnel, whether it’s a change in roles or an infusion of other fresh Triangle-area talent, could end up jolting the Flyers in a positive fashion. It would be overly simple and flat-out incorrect to say that Raleigh’s game got stale last year, but certainly the weight of expectations wore on many in the organization, especially when Dallas peaked at exactly the right time to ride some clutch moments and fortuitous bounces to, depending on your frame of reference, an epic victory or a crushing defeat. Here’s a newsflash, which doubles as Raleigh’s holiday gift heading into 2019: at the moment, the Flyers are not the South Division favorites. Is this a desirable removal of a burdening cloak or simply that itchy sweater that your great aunt bought you that you’ll never wear? For Raleigh, it probably depends on who on the team you ask. The Flyers will still feel pressure heading into the spring, as the sting of missed opportunities past lingers like a low fog. Raleigh will be well-equipped to burn that fog away, but it won’t go away on its own.

Just the fact that they are being written about after Minnesota, DC, and Raleigh in this article, the Indianapolis AlleyCats are undoubtedly beaming with pride. Though a power rankings would presumably have at least the Breeze and Flyers ahead of the ‘Cats, Indy’s 11-win season lifts them into loftier territory. As I frequently try and explain to the many people who cannot understand why I am so fascinated with sports, it’s all about context. Considering that Indianapolis had gone 5-9 in 2017 and had missed the playoffs three years in a row, the winning eruption of this past summer looks even stronger juxtaposed against that backdrop. And though the AlleyCats never really threatened the Madison Radicals in the Midwest final, Indy still strolled away smiling, even giddy. After all, they had snapped their 16-game losing streak at the hands of the Radicals, sarcastically and goofily bellowing that ‘no one beats the AlleyCats 17 times in a row!’ Set aside the reality that Madison pummeled Indy by nine goals on two separate occasions at Breeze Stevens Field In late June and late July, the real triumphs of the 2018 AlleyCats’ campaign were the their 3-0 mark against Chicago, their 3-0 tally against Pittsburgh, and their 2-1 ledger against Minnesota, which included a 20-19 postseason victory over the Wind Chill on July 21. Forgetting about the Madison moments, those eight victories against the Wildfire, Thunderbirds, and Wind Chill, three longtime divisional nemeses, left no doubt that the AlleyCats were the second-best squad in their division. And for a community like Indianapolis, without the same ultimate lineage of their rival towns, that was a great gift that they are surely still cherishing many months later.

The Toronto Rush, for better or worse, have created a context that’s completely sideways compared to Indy. For the Rush, regular season excellence is expected, a standard so ambitious that the team’s 11-3 mark of 2017 was somewhat alarming, considering they had only dropped four regular season games in the previous four seasons combined! Then they redefined expectations again with their final four performance in Montreal, dethroning Dallas and taking San Francisco to the brink in a wild 30-29 final. Though they still were searching for their second AUDL title, the Rush had regained the look of a squad that could match up well with anyone across the league. All was back to normal for the 2013 AUDL champs in 2018, with a 13-1 regular season slate blemished only by a one-goal loss at DC. Heading into the playoffs, the Rush were calm and confident, as likely as anyone to hoist the trophy and snap their five-year drought of coming up short at Championship Weekend. And then, in the biggest shocker of the entire 2018 season, the Rush suddenly were gone, evicted from their pursuit in a low-scoring, 18-17 struggle against New York. Like Indy against Madison, this was the Empire’s first win against the Rush, snapping a ridiculous string of 17 straight Toronto wins in the series. But unlike the Radicals, who avenged their midseason stumble, the Rush had no recourse, aside from waiting and wondering what might have been. Presumably, Toronto’s core will return with a similar focus and fierce vengeance with which it has exuded throughout the past six regular seasons, to the tune of 78-8. The holiday gift is no surprise, but the Rush will enter the 2019 season knowing they will be back at their long-time venue Varsity Stadium at the University of Toronto, which was unavailable last year due to renovations. When the new season’s schedule is announced, the first thing I will be looking for is New York at Toronto. Note to the AUDL: consider this my official demand, errr, request to cover that game.

From the New York Empire perspective, 2018 was a whirlwind of frustration and exhilaration. They coughed up an opening night lead at home against the Rush, perpetuating the narrative that they would never beat Toronto. They won their next three, including Jeff Babbitt’s buzzer-beating snag against DC in early May, but then dropped four of the their next five, looking lost, confused, and destined for self-destruction. At 4-5 following their June 23 collapse against the Royal, the Empire were barely treading water. And even after closing the regular season with a 4-1 run, the one spoke loudest, a double-digit Game of the Week meltdown against DC that rendered New York as an inferior team. Or so we thought. Presumably, if you’re this deep into an ultimate article a week before Christmas, you’re diehard enough to already know what transpired next. They outdueled the Breeze in a DC monsoon on July 21, then erased the pain of 0-17 all-time record against Toronto entering the game with the breathtaking 18-17 result north of the border in the 2018 East Division championship game. And just like that, the New York Empire improbably were headed back to Championship Weekend for the first time since 2014. The storylines were plentiful, from new Head Coach Eileen Murray finding her voice to relentless winner Beau Kittredge somehow steering another franchise into the final four for the fifth straight year. And then there was Jagt and Babbitt and Garvey and Marques Brownlee and Ben Katz—nobody’s stock climbed like Katz. Suddenly, this group that looked like a bunch of wayward pieces became a team, with veterans like Matt LeMar, Mike and Ryan Drost, and Matt Auletta also playing key roles. Frankly, their 2018 semifinal loss against Dallas feels a bit like an afterthought. New York absolutely could have won had they made about four fewer mistakes, but just making it to Madison was momentous for the Empire. Interestingly, the stakes are now raised in 2019. They have finally beaten Toronto once, but can they do it again? They have stepped into the semis, but are they capable of taking the next step at Championship Weekend, from Saturday to Sunday? The Empire will certainly embrace this new brand of pressure, which, in itself, is a precious gift. They matter. They are a championship contender. See you in Toronto.  

Since the Empire had technically been a semifinalist before—prior to the AUDL having four distinct divisions—the Los Angeles Aviators were the lone newcomers to last August’s Championship Weekend after their emphatic and complete demolition of their west coast competitors. Though LA had suffered a pair of narrow, early setbacks in their interdivisional trip to Texas, the Aviators quickly established themselves as the class of the West Division, setting the tone with convincing wins against every potential pacific threat. With a deep, committed, and versatile roster, Los Angeles learned from its occasional mistakes and methodically took care of business, securing the regular season crown when burgeoning MVP candidate Sean McDougall made a wild buzzer-beating snag in San Francisco on June 24. Considering Los Angeles had prevailed at San Jose the previous day, the Aviators became the first team to ever sweep a two-game weekend road trip in the Bay Area with wins over the Spiders and FlameThrowers. (And as it turns out, they will be the only team to ever achieve this feat.) They calmly out-executed their SoCal rivals in the 2018 West Division championship game to earn their way to Madison, where, outside of a miserable start to the first quarter, they represented themselves reasonably well, forcing the Radicals to make key plays down the stretch to close them out. It was a very solid next step for LA, that has made a habit of improving every season. The Aviators won five games in 2015, nine in 2016, 10 in 2017, and 12 in 2018 (including playoff wins the past two years). Considering the shortened 12-game schedule that’s on tap in 2019, it will be mighty tough for the Aviators to win 13 this season. But the fact that it’s not out of the question speaks to the strides the Los Angeles organization has made, the gift of sustained relevance in the competitive West. Here’s to the Aviators bringing their top notch mascot “Ace” to Championship Weekend this August, if they are fortunate to return.

We’re down to the final two, the only teams in the league that have never missed a Championship Weekend in their respective franchise's tenures. Ever since they joined the AUDL in 2016, the Dallas Roughnecks have been a juggernaut. From the perfect inaugural season behind a silly and overwhelming amount of five-star talent to the past two years of a more team-oriented but still insanely-skilled squad, the Roughnecks have gone 38-4 in the regular season and 44-6 overall, with one championship, one semis’ loss, and last summer’s finals’ setback. Team owner Jim Gerenscer committed massive amounts of resources to his franchise early on, and the dividends have clearly been sensationally successful. Interestingly, 11 players have seen action in all three seasons: Brandon Malecek, Matt Jackson, Dillon Larberg, Dalton Smith, Reid Bacon, Chris Larberg, Dan Emmons, Casey Hogg, Zach Riggins, Thomas Slack, and Kai Marshall. Among that core, Dillon Larberg missed almost all of 2017 while Bacon, Hogg, and Riggins have been in and out of the lineup, usually on the fringe of the top 20. It’s actually amazing how the Roughnecks have replaced talent, going from Jimmy Mickle, Dylan Freechild, Cassidy Rasmussen, Kittredge, Kurt Gibson, and Mazur to Jay Froude, Chris LaRocque, Wilder, Kaplan Maurer, and Kevin Richardson, seemingly without missing a beat. And then you factor in the impacts that young additions like Connor Olson, Zach Marbach, and Griffin Miller made at Championship Weekend. The Roughnecks astoundingly and successfully transitioned from a ridiculous super-team to just a super ridiculous team, with Wes Nemec smoothly taking Patrick Eberle’s place on the sideline to boot. If not for injuries to Richardson and Emmons on semifinal Saturday, the Roughnecks might have spoiled the Radicals’ party on Sunday. Of course, we’ll never know, and Madison played great and absolutely deserved its moment, but there’s no question the stars aligned in the perfect constellation for a Radicals’ coronation. The Roughnecks will have their hands full in the South as they try to get back to Championship Weekend again, however the potential return of Abe Coffin, who missed the entire 2018 season with a wrist injury, could give Dallas yet another game-changing presence. As for a holiday present, Coffin’s return is on the short list for most important player ‘acquisitions’ for next year, if he’s able to return healthy and replicate his 2017 form.

I wonder how many readers actually digested the previous 6,500-some-odd words, or how many Madisonians simply scrolled straight down to the dessert. Yes, the Madison Radicals are still basking the glory of their first AUDL Championship, an accomplishment that was certainly sweetened by the suffering that the organization endured throughout the five previous unsuccessful final fours. While Peter Graffy served as a critical anchor on offense, revitalizing the stagnant Madison attack when he moved from D to O midseason, it was Kevin Pettit-Scantling who absolutely became the face of the Radicals’ success. A self-made athlete and self-appointed captain, KPS not only made the signature play of the weekend—his buzzer-beating catch to conclude the third quarter on Sunday, which he punctuated by pretending to give the disc CPR—he also became a symbol of why Madison finally won. In a league often dominated by offense, where critics love to complain that the rules are too friendly to the receiving team, the Radicals went against the grain and dominated with their D, flummoxing Los Angeles and Dallas with some dynamic athleticism, yes, but even moreso with a calculated game-plan that challenged the opposing handlers and cutters in ways they did not frequently see. Orchestrated by Head Coach Tim DeByl and Assistant Coach Jake Spiro, the cadre of Madison defenders, KPS and beyond, collectively played with a passionate desperation, while maintaining their composure and purpose. The Roughnecks still completed 96 percent of their passes in the title game, but the stats did not showcase their general discomfort, especially when playing from behind against the patient and precise Radicals, who were executing a vision that had been percolating for half a decade. Madison vets Thomas Coolidge and Meshnick each registered two blocks officially, but the only numbers that really mattered were 20-16, a final score that evoked memories of the Seattle semifinal stunner at Breese Stevens from 2016. What once was an unrecoverable collapse has now become a critical token of the team’s wild journey, and the Madison Radicals head into 2019 as defending AUDL champs. I wonder if DeByl has compiled a spreadsheet with every player’s ring size. Perhaps the only thing sweeter than championship champagne is the coveted jewelry that follows.

Happy holidays, everyone! Thank you for reading, and see you in 2019!

The Tuesday Toss is published weekly on theAUDL.com during the season and occasionally during the offseason. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler