Tuesday Toss: It's Playoff Time

August 9, 2022
By Evan Lepler

The two words that kept popping up when I spoke to multiple AUDL coaches on Monday were experience and variance. Both are dynamics that could decide who advances this weekend in the opening slate of postseason action. 

Starting this Saturday, there will be 10 games in a 15-day span to determine the next AUDL champion. Five teams are just three wins away from a title, while the six teams suiting up this coming weekend will need four victories to shock the world and hoist the trophy. 

In the East and West Divisions, respectively, the opening round experience mismatch is wild. Almost everyone on the DC and San Diego rosters have competed in past AUDL postseasons, while very few individuals on their two opponents, Philadelphia and Salt Lake, have ever sniffed playoff ultimate. In the Central, Minnesota looks like a clear favorite over Indianapolis on paper based upon the gap in regular season results, but the Wind Chill are still 0-5 all-time in the playoffs, while the AlleyCats have several players who advanced all the way to Championship Weekend in 2019.

How much does experience even matter?

“I don’t think it should be understated, the value of these big game experiences,” said Chicago Union Head Coach Dave Woods, who will be facing the winner of Saturday’s Indy/Minnesota clash. “The AUDL games are fun and exciting on their own, but the regular season games just do not quite compare to that postseason excitement and energy.”

While experience in itself is something that can be quantified, its actual value is impossible to decipher. You can add up the number of previous high-leverage elimination-game reps that each team has among its active 20-man roster, but those numbers can never fully capture the mental toughness, confidence, and belief that are present when the disc’s actually in flight. Quite simply, you cannot measure clutch, and you never know whether a postseason rookie will rise or shrink in the moment until it happens. 

But if all the pieces do come together, with the systems and athletes aligned and functioning at the highest level, the inexperienced teams can still create magic with their abilities. 

“The Phoenix definitely have a little smash mouth vibe to them,” said New York Empire Co-Head Coach Charlie Hoppes, who awaits the victor of Saturday’s Philly/DC showdown. “There’s a lot of trusting their athletes, trusting their throwers, making big plays on both sides of the disc, really crowd friendly kind of ultimate that’s also high-variance.”

There’s that other word. Variance. 

When discussing a team’s potential for greatness or disappointment, high variance means a greater ceiling. Of course, the flip-side is also true, as the term also includes undercurrents of inconsistency. 

The Phoenix twice had their chances to knock off 10-2 DC, illustrating that they can compete with the Breeze. But the Phoenix are also the only team in the playoffs that also lost multiple games against teams who finished the regular season under .500. 

Hoppes did add that he feels this Philly squad is a very different team now than they were back in May, when they started the season 0-3. 

“I think, especially the back half of the season, they’ve done a lot of great work to raise their floor and become more consistent,” said Hoppes. “And so they still have a lot of the high-flying element, but also the lows aren’t nearly as low; they’re just so much more consistent. That’s a really interesting development for the rest of the division.”

Often in ultimate, hucks can dramatically increase variance. Philly completed 119 hucks on the season, the second-highest total in the league, and they were the only team that launched more than 20 hucks in a game multiple times. Among the 24 other franchises, 18 of them never attempted 20 or more hucks in a game even once. 

Back in Week 10, on a night when the Empire were idle, Hoppes actually attended the Breeze-Phoenix battle in Philadelphia, and he sensed the home team hooking DC into an aerial battle that was not entirely typical for the Breeze.

“Found it interesting that Philly’s defense was able to, to some degree, drag the DC offense into the huck game, and I think that was sort of a vibes thing, where it just sorta felt right to be shooting the disc all over the place, and also an X’s and O’s thing, where that was the thing that was available,” said Hoppes. “DC always does a great job of taking what’s available. I thought that was an interesting thing for Philly, and I think if they’re able to do that successfully again, that’s a good thing for them."

“On the other side, DC has played a lot of big games against a lot of excellent teams and won many of them over the last number of years," Hoppes continued. "Philly’s had a really great season and has a lot to be proud of. They haven’t had these sorts of big games over the course of the franchise’s history very often at all. That experience is invaluable. Having coached teams like that, I know that it’s hard to do something you’ve never done before…I would assume that a lot of people have DC pegged as the favorite. I think that’s probably right. I think if Philly wins that game, though, they’re gonna be no less dangerous of an opponent for us because they’ll have gotten over that hump.”

It’s a very similar dynamic for the Salt Lake Shred from an experience standpoint. Plus, the two-time reigning West Division champs appear to be peaking at the right time. The San Diego Growlers are riding a four-game winning streak, in which haven’t trailed in the second half of a game for a single second. They’re playing their best ultimate down the stretch, especially offensively, where they’re holding at an 81 percent rate over the past four games. 

“The last time we played them, they were really stingy with the disc,” said Colorado Co-Head Coach Mike Lun. “The first thought about San Diego is that they have good size, but the big thing is their experience. They have a lot of veterans in this league [...] I think that experience is gonna make a big difference since they’ve been here and they’ve seen just about everything a team can throw at them at this point of the season.”

The Summit’s only loss all season came against the Growlers on July 15. Colorado went 2-0 against Salt Lake, but Lun knows the Shred are very dangerous too. 

“Obviously they’re young; they’re so athletically tough,” said Lun, talking about the Shred. “They play fast, they make big plays, and that’s something we always have to be aware of, especially if we want to take advantage of some of our athletes. I feel like they can certainly match or challenge a lot of those one on one situations where we’re used to having an advantage on most teams.”

Once again, it feels like a battle of experience vs. variance. 

“San Diego, it’s not like they’re not an athletic team,” said Lun. "They have a lot of size and good athletes. I do think their experience is gonna make a big difference. That said, they are 0-2 against [Salt Lake] this season, so we’ll see. [The Shred] make big plays. If they’re clicking against anybody, that could be the difference-maker.”

The Growlers huck percentage for the season was respectable, converting two-thirds of their deep shots across a dozen games. However, San Diego completed only 70 hucks, just one more than Los Angeles, who had the fewest in the league. Salt Lake connected on 102 hucks, tied for seventh in the circuit. 

Meanwhile, no playoff team had a lower huck completion rate than Minnesota at 56 percent. Their round one opponent, the AlleyCats, were number two in the league with a nearly 70 percent success rate on deep balls, though Indy did have the advantage of playing five of their games indoors, in contrast to the Wind Chill’s notoriously breezy home stadium that will host the Central Division clash this Saturday night. 

“Their last matchup was pretty exciting,” said Woods, commenting on the Wind Chill’s 24-21 win over Indy on July 23. “Both teams were using a big deep attack, which is always fun to watch.”

Woods explained that the versatility of some of Minnesota’s top players is what makes the Wind Chill so tricky to prepare for. 

“Players like Abe Coffin and Bryan Vohnoutka, who can play defense one point and then come out on offense and beat you on the next, so that’s always tough to game plan against,” said Woods. 

Defensively, Minnesota led the league in break percentage this season, scoring on 37.5 percent of their D-points. That was better than New York, Austin, Salt Lake, Colorado, and Chicago, who were the next five teams in that metric. Only the Shred produced more blocks than the Wind Chill in 2022. 

Unsurprisingly, at 6-6, the AlleyCats have the weakest season-long goal differential of all the playoff teams, but they’ll still take the field this weekend with an equal opportunity. It’ll be critical for the Indy offense to hold early, showing the Wind Chill that they can handle the pressure of the league’s best break-creating defense. 

“[The AlleyCats] can be very, very efficient with their attacks,” said Woods. “They have players that can beat you with their legs as well as beating you with their throws. Players like Keegan North, players like Levi Jacobs, who you game plan to push them away from the disc and they catch it in the end zone; then you switch your strategy to try and push them toward the disc and they beat you with their throws. So they’ve got players that can do a lot of good things and create headaches for opposing teams.”

All three games this weekend feature pairings between one team that went 2-0 against the other this year. Minnesota beat Indy by 18 goals across the two games, though the second matchup was much closer than the first. Salt Lake’s two wins came by two and by five, with a season-high 11 San Diego drops crippling the Growlers’ chances on June 24 in Utah. Interestingly, the widest disparity in season records amongst the three matchups sits in the East, with DC four games better than Philly, however the Breeze required buzzer-beaters to edge the Phoenix by just one in both of their regular season tussles. 

“We know that we can beat DC,” said Philadelphia veteran Matt Esser in an interview posted to Phoenix twitter on July 21. “We had the game in our hands the second time. The first time it just came up to a 50/50. We’re gonna get ahead of them at the beginning and we’re gonna keep it all the way.”

Much easier said than done, of course, but the Phoenix’s confidence has gradually and steadily risen as the season has progressed. This will be Philly’s most difficult test yet, but the Breeze also have a mental hurdle to overcome heading into Saturday’s battle. 

“Here we go again,” said Darryl Stanley in the July 20 episode of AUDL Weekly, referencing his team’s 2021 arc. “The Flyers, same thing, we won by one goal at their place [last year], we win in a dramatic overtime game [at home]. I think we realize, the most dangerous thing to us is beating a team barely in the regular season twice. It is so hard to be in that position where you know the opponent is thinking to themselves, ‘Ok, we’ve tried plan A, we’ve tried plan B. We’ve got C, D, and E ready for them. And that’s all that we’re focused on for the next several weeks.’ That’s very dangerous and very difficult as we saw with what the Flyers were able to do last year, [losing to us twice by one in the regular season and then beating us in the playoffs en route to their championship]. But we have that experience and I think we know we’re not gonna take any situation overconfidently. We’re definitely not gonna pretend like we were beating Philly by any significant margin.” 

The Breeze also have memories of defeating New York by margins of eight and 10 in their final two regular season meetings in 2018, only for the Empire to upset DC in a playoff game that transpired during a torrential downpour. Bad weather has long been a key factor in boosting variance in ultimate, despite how teams perpetually try to avoid focusing on ‘the uncontrollables.’ The forecast appears decent for this coming weekend in the District, but the atmospheric conditions, just like an ultimate team’s fate, can change in a hurry.

Last year, three of the four playoff games prior to Championship Weekend featured dramatic turnarounds. Minnesota surrendered a late 5-0 run against Chicago to transform a comfortable three-goal lead into a heartbreaking two-goal defeat. Carolina was down 8-4 in the first half at DC, prior to outscoring the Breeze 15-8 the rest of the way. The New York Empire incredibly trailed by as many as five in their home game against Atlanta, but battled back and ultimately escaped with a 22-21 overtime victory, winning on Ryan Osgar’s miraculous grab at the overtime buzzer. These were all true toss-ups, with both teams looking like the superior squad for extended stretches before the script flipped. 

That’s a reminder to both fans and teams alike that four quarters of frisbee can feature numerous twists and turns. The reality of the playoffs is that any lapse in focus can provoke devastating results. 

We are set for an exhilarating roller-coaster ride toward Championship Weekend, with 11 teams clinging to the dream of celebrating in Madison on August 27. 

It’s playoff time in the AUDL, and ultimately, only one can become the best.