Tuesday Toss: Four Divisional Champions

August 15, 2023
By Evan Lepler

After an exhilarating weekend of epic battles, historic performances, and unbelievable drama, the Championship Weekend field is set. Ten days from now, Austin, Minnesota, New York, and Salt Lake will all arrive to TCO Stadium, each looking to complete their own unique journey in the most memorable fashion. 

Certainly, each of the four division champs is on a slightly different mission. 

The New York Empire, with their fifth consecutive trip to the semifinals, are looking to further their dynasty, seeking their third title in the last four years. There’s no question that New York’s the favorite, however the other three teams each have something going for them too. 

The Shred, Sol, and Wind Chill will all be first-timers at the final four, but each has a reason to believe that they can shock the world. All three played perhaps their best offensive game of the season this past weekend, and harnessing that elite level of execution is imperative for postseason survival, particularly in the wake of the Empire’s all-time possession preservation masterpiece on Saturday night against DC.

With Austin’s wild double OT upset over Atlanta, the hometown Wind Chill were bumped up to the three-seed at the final four, meaning that top-seed New York (13-0) will square off against the Sol (11-3) in the first semifinal, while Minnesota (11-2) will battle Salt Lake (12-1) in the nightcap. Both semifinals are matchups that the AUDL has never seen before, adding further intrigue to the Friday night doubleheader. 

Over the past several days, as joyous celebration has morphed into focused planning, the four division champs are all now preparing for their biggest game of the season. Championship Weekend always carries massive implications, and this year is no different. Either New York will cement itself as the greatest dynasty in AUDL history, or one of the other three will rise into a prominence that forever transforms their own legacy. 

In a weird way, it’s almost three teams against one, but ultimately, if the Empire are dethroned, only one of the other trio will truly cherish it. Sports at the highest level are usually a zero-sum game, and for all the euphoric emotions that are coveted by the winner, there’s equal or greater disappointment or devastation waiting for the loser. 

It’s the pain of defeat that makes winning so special, but enduring through the agony is an indescribable challenge, particularly when the victory literally slips through your fingers. 

The Full Field Layout

Four days after Austin’s stunning road win, it’s still hard to process how it all happened. 

Early, it felt like Atlanta could roll, but then the Hustle stumbled slightly in the middle two quarters, showing signs of wariness while the Sol responded with a growing confidence. 

“We played with absolute mental resiliency,” said Austin Coach Steven Naji. “First quarter happens, we go down by two, and nobody lost their focus. The thing I said in that huddle, our focus is there, our energy is where we need it to be, but we need to play tougher. That’s what I kept repeating each timeout.”

Meanwhile, even after the Hustle built an early lead in front of their largest ever hometown crowd, Atlanta Coach Tuba Benson-Jaja saw some worrying signs.

“We looked nervous in the first,” he said. “We looked tired in the second in a way I’ve never seen my team look tired.”

He attributed the fatigue to the nerves, but the Hustle were never out of it. Far from it. After a 10-10 tie at halftime, each team’s offense found a groove in the third, and the two sides traded 11 scores in the period, with Brett Hulsmeyer’s buzzer-beating score giving Atlanta a 16-15 edge heading to the fourth. 

Little did everyone know that through three quarters, three more periods still were ahead. 

The Sol built a 19-17 lead with 4:30 remaining in the fourth, but Atlanta scored the dramatic equalizer with 1:43 left. On the final point of regulation, Austin was just a few yards away from retaking the lead, but Justin Burnett’s clutch block on a reset helped send the game to overtime. 

“Going into overtime, I thought, ‘ok, we should probably be able to pull away,’” said Benson-Jaja. 

But the Sol maintained their belief too. 

“I can genuinely honestly tell you I never stopped believing we were gonna win,” said Naji. 

What transpired over the next four points could be analyzed for a century without anyone ever fully grasping a complete understanding. Players, coaches, and especially spectators hung on every moment, struggling to keep up with the staggering sequences that swung the win probability from virtually 99 percent one way to 99 percent the other. 

With the score tied 20-all and under a minute left in overtime, Austin’s Kyle Henke hucked toward a seemingly open Evan Swiatek, but Atlanta’s Hayden Austin-Knab recovered and elevated for an incredible interception. Suddenly, the Hustle were in position to win again, and after a timeout, Austin Taylor launched the game-sealing hammer, only to see the disc devastatingly doink off Hulsmeyer’s hands with two seconds left.

“When that disc went up from Taylor with Hulsmeyer mostly open, I felt so powerless,” said Henke.

On the brink of defeat, the Sol suddenly had life. But Atlanta would still be receiving in double overtime, and the Hustle again were in a grand position to seize sudden victory when Hulsmeyer was fouled near the end zone, putting him on the attacking goal-line, with the disc centered, in a perfect position to make amends for his unbelievable drop.

Rather than taking an extended look toward the end zone, he quickly dumped the disc back to Taylor, who saw Austin-Knab moving diagonally from the back of the centered vertical stack toward the front right pylon. Henke trailed him by a step. 

“There’s such little time to react,” said Henke. “Thankfully, more than once that game, Austin Taylor under-threw his flick just a little. I wasn’t baiting him at all. The offense definitely would’ve beat me to the cone had Taylor put it where he needed.”

But Taylor’s forehand was off by just a touch, spinning toward the inside of his cutter rather than toward the outer space by the pylon. Henke left his feet uncertain whether he’d make the play, but the 25-year-old phenom delivered another breathtaking highlight for his all-time reel, deflecting the disc to the ground and keeping the Sol’s season alive.

“Kyle has the X-factor,” said Naji. “He comes through in every clutch situation that he has ever been presented. I don’t know how to describe it other than that.”

Of course, on the Sol’s ensuing possession, it would not be a simple march toward victory. Atlanta’s Bradley Suentjens made an enormous block on a floaty swing to give the Hustle another chance, but then another excruciating drop, this time from the normally sure-handed Jeremy Langdon, again left the Hustle exasperated and scrambling. 

Atlanta maintained their defensive intensity to the final second, but Duncan Fitzgerald’s stall-six floating flick toward open space found the waiting hands of Matt Armour, who made the clean, game-sealing snag and immediately held the disc high in the air as the Austin sideline erupted onto the field. 

“I thought surely there would be a stall called,” said Henke. “The last two weeks at practices we’ve practice with shortened stalls to five. I think that really helped our internal clock.”

Final score in double overtime: Austin 21, Atlanta 20. 

The awesome zenith for one side, the brutal nadir for the other. 

“What a wild ending,” said Naji. “Just absolute elation when we pulled it off. Atlanta, they’re a contender. They could have won this league this year [...] I can’t explain why Hulsmeyer dropped that. He was a top three MVP pick for me this season. I can’t explain why Austin Taylor took that angle of a throw. But I never questioned it. I always understood that we were going to win the game, and it’s a weird feeling to describe.”

As Austin celebrated their improbable triumph—and frankly, improbable doesn’t feel like strong enough adjective to describe it—the Atlanta players were understandably heartbroken. It was arguably an even more painful experience than their playoff game at New York in 2021, when they let a five-goal lead slip away and lost to the Empire at the overtime buzzer. 

Hulsmeyer, especially, felt the weight of his missed opportunities to clinch the victory. 

“He kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry, Coach, I’m so sorry,’” said Benson-Jaja. “I said, ‘Brett, you gave me everything this year, you gave me way more than I ever could have imagined as a coach. And there’s never a reason that you need to apologize to me.’ I said ‘I would want that throw given to you 100 times.’ He’s been such a reliable player. We just sat there for two minutes and cried.”

Swiatek finished a game-high plus-10, with five assists, four goals, one block, and no turns, while Henke tallied four assists, three goals, and two blocks, the latter of which saved the game in double overtime. Austin Taylor and Bobby Ley each recorded five assists, but each also had a pair of costly throwaways. 

The margins were minute, the result obviously could have gone either way, and intensity reached supersonic levels. Ultimately, as is the case in sports, only one team could prevail. 

“We had all these milestones that we hit this year,” said Benson-Jaja. “The one that we didn’t hit was Championship Weekend, out of like a million that we had. I don’t know how to not be happy about this season, even though obviously I hate to lose and I wish we had won that game and my guys deserved to win that game, but it’s the most together they’ve ever been [...] It was probably the best ultimate game I’ve been a part of, just because of all the back and forth.

“That’s what I told our team. Don’t let this outcome make you think that we didn’t turn into something different this year. The only thing I promised you was growth. If you grew this year, then you kept your promise to yourself. I didn’t promise them a championship, I promised growth, and that’s all we focused on all year.”

Meanwhile, the Sol were often called fraudulent during their 9-3 regular season, when they went 0-3 against teams with winning records. But after back-to-back victories over Carolina and Atlanta in the playoffs, Austin is on its way to Championship Weekend, determined to keep the momentum rolling. 

“All season long, the media may have put the Austin Sol as the third best team in the South Division, but internally, we didn’t care what people were saying,” said Naji. “I couldn’t be more proud of my franchise, and I’m really look forward to playing against the greatest team that our league has ever seen [at Championship Weekend].”

Coming up later today in “Seven on the Line”, details and reaction from Minnesota, New York, and Salt Lake, along with reflections from DC, Indy, and LA, and a closer look at Championship Weekend.