Tuesday Toss: Empire Excellence

August 30, 2022
By Evan Lepler

To paraphrase the late football coach Dennis Green, they were who we thought they were. A juggernaut. A superteam. Maybe not quite invincible, but pretty darn close to it. 

Even after falling short against the Flyers in the AUDL Championship game last year, the New York Empire were, at worst, a 1-A, 1-B preseason co-favorite heading into the spring. When Carolina lost Allan Laviolette to a torn ACL and New York added Antoine Davis from Atlanta and Charles Weinberg from Minnesota, the scales of public perception further tilted the Empire’s way. Then they signed Callahan Award winner John Randolph in early June, along with bringing back former New York standout Jibran Mieser. Even with a bunch of other intriguing top-tier teams in the mix, the Empire, with bought-in superstars like Jeff Babbitt, Ben Jagt, Ryan Osgar, and Jack Williams leading the way, undoubtedly had the highest ceiling, and they showcased that brilliant level over that course of eight dominant quarters in Madison. 

New York only gave the disc away 19 times in 96 minutes of ultimate, easily the fewest turns for a champion in the semis and finals in AUDL history. The Empire defense produced 15 breaks, while the offense surrendered only three. 

Final combined score: New York 44, Opponents 30. In the end, the greatest Championship Weekend ever was overshadowed by probably the greatest team ever. 

The Empire’s master class in Madison capped their second perfect season, though this campaign was far more dominant compared to the undefeated title run in 2019. Three years ago, the Empire’s 15 wins came by a grand total of 52 goals. This year, New York outscored its opponents by 115. The ’19 team had one victory by more than five; the ’22 Empire had eight, including both of their Championship Weekend results over 12-1 Carolina and 13-1 Chicago. 

Honestly, the East Division final against DC was trending toward a similar lopsided status with New York up by five in the third quarter, before the Breeze rallied to tie the game late. The Empire still prevailed on Jagt’s birthday buzzer-beater, but the closeness could have shaken New York’s confidence heading into Championship Weekend. 

Playoff Jack, the MVP of the weekend, wouldn’t let that happen. 

“I was trying to crush that narrative,” said Williams, a second-year Empire Captain who tied the AUDL record with 18 assists in the postseason. “I was like, ‘F that.’ We were up five in the third quarter. No discredit to DC, they’re an incredible team, they’re a top four team for sure in the league. I was like, we were up five and we had a bad end of the third quarter, and then things got tight, things got weird, and it ended up being as close as it possibly could be, and I just tried to make sure our team didn’t waver in any of our confidence and knew that we were coming in as the best team in the league. We should play like it and act like it and not feel like we need to fix anything or do anything extra because we’re as good as we need to be.”

With their belief and swagger intact, the Empire thrived despite encountering immense defensive pressure. Both Carolina and Chicago had moments were they flustered New York, but the champs handled those challenges with uncommon poise and creativity. Whereas they struggled a bit when DC forced Osgar out in the East Division final, they adapted effectively in Madison, to the tune of Osgar leading the team in goals on the weekend. 

Even with such narrow windows, New York completed a higher-percentage of passes than their  league-leading 95.3 percent clip. The Empire went 510-for-529 in their two Championship Weekend victories, a scintillating completion rate of 96.4 percent. 

Their stars were great; their role players were excellent too. Emotionally, they were centered, focused, and together. They took care of business, with power and finesse, serving two very capable contenders their biggest losses in years. The Union hadn’t been beaten by that many since 2019, the Flyers not since 2018. 

They chased history, caught it, and spiked it, becoming the first AUDL franchise to record multiple undefeated seasons. This may be only the beginning of the Empire’s dynasty. 

“As soon as you win, you immediately wanna feel this feeling again,” said Williams, about 30 minutes after the final buzzer sounded. “It’s already starting to wear off. I just wanna win another one already. Seems possible that we could run it back, so that’s the goal.”

The Full Field Layout

Despite the sparkling stats and the cavernous final margins, it genuinely was not as easy as the scores made it seem. In fact, after the first possession of the final, an 18-throw hold that took two minutes and one second off the clock, the Empire knew that Chicago’s D-line would be a menacing opposition.

“On the first point, we came out and I was like, this is going to be a battle,” said Babbitt. “They really brought it; nothing was easy, and O-line after that first point when we scored, we just came over and we were like this is how it’s gonna be all night, and we need to expect that and we just need to be really good with our resets, really disciplined in spacing; we know what they’re trying to make us do and we are super talented and we can fight through it, but it’s gonna be a battle. We just kind of went with that mentality all night and we fought our way through it.”

How exactly were the Union approaching their matchup against the Empire offense?

“The game plan was force everyone out,” said Chicago Assistant Coach Sara Gnolek, after the game. “We said there’s gonna be no deep help. Don’t expect deep help. And as the back of the stack [defender], don’t help deep [...] Tight on the handlers, we don’t care about poaching the lanes on pull plays.” 

The Union successfully slowed the Empire down, but despite the relentless pressure, they rarely took away the disc. 

“They threw so many stall-five throws,” said Gnolek. “I thought they were gonna [mess] up one of those back-shoulder arounds.”

As a 26-year-old rookie AUDL assistant, Gnolek seemed to have a grasp on increasing the Union’s odds, only to watch New York consistently wriggle out of trouble. 

“How do you adjust on the handlers to stop the back shoulder around when you’re stopping the dishy, you’re stopping the upfield throw, and everyone on their team can hit that fadeaway shot?” Gnolek asked, rhetorically. “You can’t take away everything. It feels like at that point, you have to rely on tricks, like we’re gonna look from someone at the front of the stack to try to make a play on that. Or we’re gonna change the mark or whatever. I felt like our D was really good. They played a really good game on offense. They didn’t crack mentally at all.”

New York also showed that they didn’t necessarily need Osgar, Williams, and Babbitt to bring their usual brilliance. They all did, of course, by the end of the night, but every hold the offense converted in the opening quarter involved either Solomon Rueschemeyer-Bailey, John Lithio, or Charles Weinberg catching or throwing the goal. Weinberg, who averaged 2.25 assists per game in the regular season, tossed five dimes in the final, including a pair of hucks to Lithio. 

“Lithio, when he cuts deep, it’s just how do you resist throwing that?” said Weinberg. “And tonight they were just connecting well. They took a similar approach to other teams, pushing me and Ryan out, giving space for Lithio and Babbitt under. Kudos to them for doing a great job coming under. I think we just got more and more comfortable with me and Ryan getting pushed out, and then figuring out ways to still get it under and then distribute to the big guys. It took a couple games, but we figured it out.”

After the game began with five consecutive O-line holds from the two teams, New York tallied back-to-back breaks, transforming a tight 3-2 on-serve score into an early 5-2 edge. Up 7-4 after one quarter, the Empire broke again to start the second, and the lead never shrunk smaller than three the rest of the way. 

Late in the third, though, it felt like Chicago’s potential comeback actually had teeth. After trailing 15-9, the Union produced their first two breaks of the game, slicing the six-goal gap in half with just 46 seconds remaining in the third. Scheduled to receive the opening pull of the final frame, there was a clear roadmap to maybe get within two and seriously threaten New York’s grasp on the title. 

If only the Empire didn’t have the sport’s best buzzer-beating thrower and buzzer-beating receiver on the same line. 

After 10 short quick passes slowly moved the disc near midfield, Williams uncorked another majestic and memorable backhand bomb. Sixty yards downfield, Babbitt skied over Asher Lantz’s dynamic defense for the two-handed snag, increasing the New York lead to four heading into the fourth. 

“I have a lot of confidence in those positions,” said Babbitt. “I’ve done it a lot. I know Jack, the second he got that disc, was looking for me. And I said, ‘alright, I gotta get this. I think we can put ‘em away.’”

Just like three years ago when Babbitt’s buzzer-beating score in the championship game against Dallas gave the Empire meaningful momentum as the third quarter concluded, the big man’s heroics were also the beginning of the end for the Chicago cause.

“They’re the best end of quarter team in the league, probably ever,” acknowledged Union Captain Ross Barker. “They got Babbitt, Lithio, Jagt, the best you can do is get a body on them. They can all jump, but you can’t let them go untouched. I thought Asher made a helluva play. Babbitt, it’s Babbitt. Even after that, I went and encouraged Asher, like ‘that’s amazing, that’s what we want, keep doing that, don’t give up.’”

The Union managed a hold to open the fourth, but 16-13 did not feel nearly as close as 15-13 would have been had Chicago gotten the stop in the closing seconds of the third. Consequently, the Union were forced to take some chances outside of their normal offensive structure, and New York’s D-line pounced on the uncharacteristic choices over the final 10 minutes. The Empire went 4-for-6 on breaks in the fourth quarter, matching their output from the opening three quarters combined, en route to a 22-14 victory. Ethan Fortin tossed three fourth quarter assists, leading the Empire’s D-line as the top O-line stars began celebrating on the sideline. 

“What really was the key there was that we were able to use our depth, and they had to use the same 15 or 16 guys,” said Empire Co-Head Coach Anthony Nuñez. “The bottom of their roster only got two or three points. We were able to grind them out and tire them out.”

Indeed, while the bottom five on the Union roster all played three points or fewer, the bottom five on the Empire roster all played at least eight points. 

“The depth is why we are as good of a team as we are,” said Williams. “It’s definitely a team of “stars,” whatever that means, but there really should be coverage of all 20 of our players, and even our bench guys. That’s why the team is so good, it’s because the team is so deep. And when we go against each other at practices, the level of play is so intense. There’s no easy matchups, there’s no easy wins. We just get challenged in such an incredible way every week, and after every single practice that we have, I feel like I’m a better player than when we started.”

As a great teammate, it’s understandable that Williams would focus on everyone else. But deep down, he, along with everyone else on the Empire, knows the truth.

“He’s the best player we have in the sport right now,” said Empire Co-Head Coach Charlie Hoppes, talking, of course, about Williams. “And part of the reason for that is he can do anything. It doesn’t always show up, but it’s really fun for those of us that see it every day in practice. It’s fun when everybody gets to see it. It’s special.”

Seven On The Line

  1. Nuñez and Hoppes, the pair of Empire Co-Head Coaches who took over prior to the 2021 season, both were crying tears of joy in the immediate aftermath of the championship victory, the first of the kind for each of them. “I’ve been playing ultimate and coaching ultimate since 1994,” said Nuñez. “Won tons of youth stuff, including two youth national championships, but nothing feels like this. Because these guys are all great. It’s a huge family. It’s not just a team; it’s a family.”

    On the gameday set, Hoppes extemporaneously shared all that was going through his mind as he watched the celebration unfold. “I was looking around at our guys and was thinking about the times when they were frustrated with each other or frustrated with me, the times on long road trips or whatever, it was hard and they worked hard,” said Hoppes. “I was thinking about Anthony Nuñez, an amazing coach. I’m so proud of him. I’m so proud to work with him [...] All the people who’ve touched all of our lives in ultimate.” When they took over in the shadow of Bryan Jones’ 2019 AUDL Coach of the Year performance, there were understandable questions about how the leadership transition would flow. When DC took the Empire to the brink in the East final, it was natural to wonder about the dual coaches. To their credit, they were both reflective, honest, and grateful following Saturday’s victory. “Certainly, there’s been a lot of rough roads, including parts of last year, including parts of this year even,” said Hoppes. “When we’re as good as we are and we hold the standards that we set for ourselves so high, you’re on the tight-rope. And there’s just a lot there. I live in central Pennsylvania [...] To coach elite level ultimate I have to travel, and I live three and a half hours from where we practice. And I go every Wednesday and back and every Saturday and back [...] I think I put over 12,000 miles on my car. It’s a lot of sacrifice, but everyone’s doing that version of their thing for this team, and that’s why it feels so good. My story’s one thing, but there are 31 player stories like that [...] Our leadership style is very collaborative. It’s how we exist as co-head coaches. But it’s more than that too. Every Monday, we have a leadership meeting with our three captains, with Matt Stevens, our GM, and we talk through all of it. The decisions to shift players around, the game planning that we build, it’s not me, it’s not Nuñez, it’s this group effort of very intelligent, thoughtful people that are invested in the people in the team. And how can we be the best we can be for each other. How can we be the best in the league. And at a certain point, it’s how can we push the boundaries of the way ultimate’s been played. I know that’s a really lofty goal, and there are times this season we did achieve that, and that’s sort of a surreal feeling. Hard to put into words. It’s not one person or two people [...] It’s a group effort.”
  2. The Chicago Union certainly have nothing to be ashamed of, finishing the season 13-2 and making their first trip to the title game in franchise history. On Friday night against Colorado, the Union crushed the Summit, 19-14, allowing just five goals in the first half in a wire-to-wire win.

    On Saturday against New York, they played with similar precision on offense and pressure on defense, but the Empire were simply able to handle it. “I’m very proud of this team,” said Barker. “Obviously, the score doesn’t reflect it, but mentally we never gave up on ourselves. I think we applied a ton of defensive pressure all game long. Hats off to New York. They played a near perfect game, especially in the first half, and we had a few too many mistakes, and they capitalized. You always want the championship. It’s the elusive thing you’re always chasing, and that entire game, I believed in our team. As crazy as it sounds, even with two minutes left in the game, I never gave up.”

  3. One interesting under-the-radar subplot throughout the weekend involved Chicago’s star handler, Pawel Janas. And I’m not referring to how he became the league’s all-time leader in completions on Friday night, although that did happen, with Janas passing Toronto’s Thomson McKnight for the top spot.

    In his non-ultimate life, the AUDL’s all-time assist king began a new chapter in July, becoming a professor of economics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Anytime I’ve asked about his future playing status, he’s deferred comment beyond saying that he’s only focused on the upcoming weekend, and he doesn’t know what he’ll do down the road. So there’s nothing official, and he did sign a three-year contract with the Union prior to the 2021 season, but there was a growing sense that maybe, perhaps, Pawel’s time with Chicago has come to an end. “I desperately wanted to win a championship for him,” said Barker, who’s been Janas’s teammate since 2018. “He’s one of the players who truly deserves it. He turned around a Chicago program that was nothing. He played there when no one else in Chicago that was good wanted to play. I have so much respect for that guy. He never complains. He just grinds all the time. He’s just a wonderful human being. He needs to win a championship at some point in his career, and I thought this was the year we were gonna do it for him [...] Technically, we have him under contract for one more year, but if he chooses to stay in California and play there, no hard feelings. He’s given so much to this program. I’m gonna do everything I can to get him back, even if I have to pay out of my student loans to get him back. We’ll see.”

  4. There’s an interesting debate to be had about who was actually the second best team in the AUDL this year—tune into Wednesday night’s season finale of AUDL Weekly for the actual conversation on the topic—but certainly the Carolina Flyers have a case. The reigning champs went 12-2, winning the South Division title for first time since 2015, and would have dodged the Empire until the final if they had focused on running up the score more against Tampa Bay and Dallas. Certainly, they were disappointed with their performance against New York on Friday evening, but the Flyers’ youth movement situates them well to continue to be a championship contender in the coming seasons. Of the 20 players that saw the field on Friday, three quarters of them are 27 years old or younger.

    Contrastingly, among the Empire’s 20 Championship Weekend participants, only five are 27 or younger, and that includes Williams, who turns 28 in less than a month.

  5. I do believe it’s a lazy narrative to simply declare that the West Division cannot compete with the rest of the league. But it is true that the West has gone 0-4 at Championship Weekend since San Francisco won the title in 2017. The San Diego Growlers went 0-2 after their pair of division titles, the Los Angeles Aviators were blasted in a true road game against Madison back in 2018, and this past Friday, the Colorado Summit saw their incredible inaugural season conclude with a subpar showing against Chicago. The O-line, in particular, just could not find a rhythm, scoring on less than 50 percent of its total possessions, easily its poorest effort of the year. Defensively, Cody Spicer produced a pair of blocks, but the rest of his D-line mates had two blocks combined, with Alex Tatum and Felix Pronove tallying one apiece. It was a bit bewildering to watch the Summit struggle so extensively against the Union, but that single disappointing night far from outweighs the magical 12-1 expansion campaign that preceded it. The largest crowd in the AUDL this season was Colorado’s West Division clinching fan experience against Salt Lake, with over 2,100 people packing the Summit’s University of Denver home. It absolutely looked like a future Championship Weekend setting. I’m very intrigued to see what the Summit will do in year two.

  6. Speaking of phenomenal crowds, the Madison fans who packed Breese Stevens Field this weekend deserve a huge shout-out! Without question, it was the largest Championship Weekend crowd at a venue that did not feature the home team competing, easily surpassing Montreal in 2017, San Jose in 2019, or DC in 2021. There were pockets of New York, Chicago, Carolina, and Colorado fans, but local Madison Radicals fans outnumbered the rest, and they were loud, respectful, and appreciative of the remarkable level of play that we all witnessed. Sure, the games could have been closer, especially late into the fourth quarters, but if you go back to re-watch either Empire game, and you ignore the score, nearly every single point featured outrageous levels of defensive pressure, offensive execution, and more than not, a plethora of thrilling throws and crazy catches. Truthfully, the final spreads did not fully represent just how close and competitive the ultimate proved to be.

  7. At last check, Marques Brownlee’s “NEW YORK IS AUDL CHAMPIONS AGAIN” tweet had over 500 retweets and north of 23,000 likes. On Instagram, his identical post has been heart-tapped more than 104,000 times. None of this is new for Brownlee, of course, who’s fame as a web video producer focusing on technology far exceeds his reach as an ultimate star, but the now two-time AUDL champion does hold a unique Championship Weekend record. At the moment, he’s the only player in AUDL history who has both caught and thrown a buzzer-beater at Championship Weekend. Last year, he finished the first quarter against San Diego by connecting with Mike Drost as time expired. In this season’s semifinal, Brownlee was the target of Ben Jagt’s quick flip, which he secured as the buzzer blared. Coincidentally, both of these scores gave his team a three-goal lead after 12 minutes, setting the tone for relatively convincing semifinal victories. Before Saturday’s final, I mentioned this quirky record to Marques, and he nodded his head approvingly. “Versatile and clutch,” he said. “I like it.” We witnessed two buzzer-beaters in 12 quarters at Championship Weekend 11, with New York also scoring on Williams’ shot to Rueschemeyer-Bailey at the end of the first on Saturday. Technically, Babbitt’s third quarter score came with one second left. The pair of actual buzzer-beaters was right on par with what we’ve seen historically, with an average of two buzzer-beaters coming in each Championship Weekend since 2013. In 108 quarters in the semis and finals since then, there have been 18 goals scored with no time left on the clock. Curiously, only one of those 18 goals has ended a half. The 17 others occurred as time expired in the first or third quarters.

The Hammer

For me, it’s always bittersweet to see an AUDL season come to a close. 

Traveling to broadcast the best ultimate in the world for four straight months is an incredible thrill, a genuine honor, and also a legitimate grind. I definitely will miss the feeling of catching a plane to a great game this coming weekend, but the chance to stay home and enjoy more time with my family is something I’ve also been coveting as the season’s wound down. My oldest daughter turns four on Thursday, my youngest will be two in December, and my patient wife deserves a break from doing the heaviest lifting around the house each weekend. 

The end of the season also fills me with gratitude toward so many people around the AUDL. Our production crew, led by Luke Johnson, Ian Lunger, Aunie Benson, and Roman Jennings, puts in a truly insane amount of hours to make our Game of the Week broadcasts go, and without them, I wouldn’t have the chance to do what I love. Furthermore, I’m fortunate to work with an awesome group of analysts, who always make me smarter with their enlightening perspectives. 

The coaches, players, and owners around the league are my true heroes. Seriously, their dedication is what pushes the AUDL forward, and their willingness to selflessly share their stories, insights, and time with a badgering broadcaster throughout the season is the only reason that I can cover the league the way I do. Every week, there are so many rich and compelling tales from the fields, and I’m humbled by most everyone’s trust in empowering me to share their experiences, reflections, and takeaways with the world. Along the way, I develop connections with smart, talented, and accomplished ultimate folks from coast to coast, and these relationships are something that I truly cherish. 

Quick shout-out to Adam Ruffner and Daniel Cohen. Those two dudes are smart, clever, and detailed ultimate minds, and the league is fortunate to have them. I enjoy their weekly debates on AUDL Weekly, and their other multimedia content always informs in new and creative ways. Also, Adam probably deserves a Nobel Prize for editing, formatting, and publishing this tome every Tuesday. 

Lastly, to everyone who reads the Tuesday Toss and watches, reads about, or follows the AUDL: THANK YOU! Your passion helps to fuel this entire endeavor. This column, in particular, is a mountain of a task each week, but I believe it’s vitally important to chronicle our history, which I’ve tried to do to in this space every season since 2015, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of words through the years. Hearing kind comments about the work is always appreciated, and it serves as a reminder how we are growing as a league each and every season. 

But that’ll do it for 2022! Congrats to the undefeated New York Empire, and thanks to everyone who’s helped us survive and thrive into the AUDL’s second decade!

I’m looking forward to 2023 already.