Tuesday Toss: A New Era Of Ultimate

August 22, 2023
By Evan Lepler

Prior to the 2019 AUDL Championship Game, over the span of seven full seasons, the New York Empire had never once kept their turnover total in the single digits. But on that particular August Sunday in San Jose, in what turned out to be the last AUDL game for more than 21 months, the Empire limited their mistakes to just eight giveaways in their 26-22 victory over Dallas, earning their first title in masterful fashion. 

Looking back, that day was both a turning point and a tipping point in AUDL history. 

Obviously, the New York Empire have embarked on a ridiculous rampage of winning, victorious in 55 of their last 58 games as they head into Friday’s Championship Weekend opener against the Austin Sol. But the way the sport of ultimate has evolved in recent years is even bigger than the Empire. 

From 2014 through 2019, there were just a dozen instances of AUDL teams completing a game with fewer than 10 turnovers, and exactly half of those 12 examples occurred during the 2019 regular season. Since the start of the 2021 season, it’s happened 33 times, including the Empire’s four-turnover record-breaking masterpiece in last week’s East Division title game against the Breeze. 

Clearly, there’s been a significant shift in the level of play, particularly in terms of how teams across the league prioritize possession, along with their ability to preserve it. 

“Possession has become way more important in the AUDL, if only because teams have gotten better at possessing it, and it’s impossible to win while turning it over a lot more than the other team,” said Salt Lake’s Grant Lindsley. “I’ve always been a player who values possession as much as I can and have tried to teach teams that I’ve been on that focusing on turnovers is almost more effective than focusing on scores. I’ve described an O-line’s job as ‘maintain possession’ and a D-line’s job as ‘gain and maintain possession.’”

Lindsley, a two-time gold medalist for Team USA at the World Games, is looking for his third AUDL championship this coming weekend. When he won the 2017 title with the San Francisco FlameThrowers, it capped a season where every single AUDL team averaged at least 20 turnovers per game. Now, six years later, 15 of the league’s 24 franchises averaged fewer than 20, and five different teams were stingy enough to give the disc away less than 15 times per contest. 

“When turnovers are less frequent than goals, it’s palpable that turnovers are more valuable,” added Lindsley. “The game also gets so much more fun to watch when that happens, because goals are still important and exciting, of course, but every possession is imbued with tension because pressure is rising and a turn is so critical, either because of an error on the O or a great play by the D.”

There’s no doubt that a variety of factors have conspired in leading to the gradual decrease in turnovers, spanning from the physical to the mental, along with some administrative changes (like the rule change that shortened games a bit by starting the clock when the pull is released, rather than when it’s received). All of these factors have built upon one another to add greater urgency across every possession, raising both intensity and completion percentages as teams play with greater offensive purpose. 

“It’s a combination of talent and mentality working in a cycle to improve possession each year,” said New York’s Mike Drost, who’s been on the Empire since 2013. “And in addition to the increased talent meaning that players are just better at avoiding turnovers, it also means other players don’t feel the pressure to reach for the edges of their games and try to make throws they may not be as consistent with.”

Last year’s New York team set an AUDL record with 12.9 turnovers per game, and the 2023 Empire are tied with Salt Lake for the league lead with 13.5 per contest this season. Under the direction of Co-Head Coaches Charlie Hoppes and Anthony Nuñez since 2021, the Empire have always strived to maintain a possession-oriented mindset, while knowing that their immense talent gives them the superpowers to excel even when more high-variance throws are required.

“We’ve got such a deep and talented O-line that if teams allow us to take control of the disc and manage it, then we’ll just walk it up the field,” said Hoppes. “And if they force us to huck, we have some of the best throwers and deep weapons in the world. We have that luxury. And both of those ways are gonna be high-percentage because teams have to pick their poison against us. The game against DC’s a great example. We worked the disc a ton, but we had some giant games from some folks. All of a sudden you’ve got a game that we protected the disc at an extremely high level while still throwing it all over the place. Almost none of those shots were highly-contested shots; they were open looks, they were good decisions.”

Indeed, New York completed 12-of-13 hucks against the Breeze, with the lone incompletion coming on the buzzer-beating prayer at the end of the third quarter. Long term probabilities suggest that the Empire offense may not be quite as pristine this weekend in Minnesota, but the team’s track record, with 28 consecutive wins, indicates that an opponent will likely need a really special performance to beat them. 

The team with the best chance at dethroning New York is probably Salt Lake, and the Shred are coming off one of the biggest season-to-season turnover drop-offs in AUDL history. A year ago, during their inaugural campaign, the Shred averaged 19.9 turnovers per game, 13th in the league. Head Coach Bryce Merrill spent much of his offseason plotting a more refined system, knowing that his team would need to substantially improve in order to compete at the highest level.

“We made some adjustments watching other teams that have been in the league a little bit longer, specifically to our reset systems,” said Merrill. “The cost/benefit or risk/reward analysis of how we ran resets [has changed]. In USAU [club ultimate, with a narrower field], we were a little more aggressive. We never wanted to junk up our own lanes with our resets. Here, with the extra [13 yards] of width and [playing to a certain] time rather than point [total], we just felt like the math changed. Gaining yards was helpful in terms of increasing efficiency, but not as much as having X number of options at all times. That’s not original for us. I’ve stolen from [Carolina Coach Mike] DeNardis for years gladly and tried to emulate a lot of what they’re doing out there and the success they’ve had.”

The tactical adjustments, complemented by the team’s buy-in to the shift in mindset, enabled the Shred to average 6.5 fewer turns per game this year than last year. Their O-line conversion rate went from eighth-best to number one. 

Merrill and Austin Sol Head Coach Steven Naji also pointed to the growth in youth ultimate as an important factor in the universal approach demanding more consistent offense. At younger ages than ever, the value of prioritizing possession is getting instilled as a critical concept, particularly in regard to young players earning roster spots on top tier teams. 

“Our sport grew exponentially in the number of players from 2005-2020,” said Naji. “The AUDL is starting to see young talent that has been exposed to more ultimate than any of our current players experienced at some of their same ages. We’re going to see a new generation that plays smarter, more efficiently, and values the disc more due to their exposure the AUDL stats have provided to young players and fans.”

The proliferation of publicized stats has also made the average player much more aware of their own numbers, both in terms of turnovers and completion percentage, inspiring increased focus on these particular areas.  

“Having consistent metrics that helped tell the story was extremely hard to convey 10 years ago, but now there’s a lot of information that can be pulled from our state databases,” said Naji. 

Furthermore, Wind Chill Coach Ben Feldman mentioned how players, especially those who don’t typically have a high-volume of touches, have a better understanding of how to earn a roster spot among the active 20 each weekend.

“The talent gap is shrinking a bit on rosters, and if people turn it over, they know that is one clear way to get left off of the roster,” said Feldman. “So it probably leads to a bit of conservative disc play from the bottom 5-10 guys out there.” 

Perhaps it’s hyperbolic to categorically state that the game is changing. Teams are still taking the field trying to score and aiming to thwart their opponent in many of the same ways they always have been, but the style of play has certainly shifted. It’s noticeable, it’s quantifiable, and it’s meaningful. 

“AUDL offense is improving at an amazing rate, and I do believe a perfect game is achievable,” said Naji. “I’m not sure how long it will take, but I do think we’ll see a two-turn-or-less game in the next five years of the AUDL with the right matchup and weather conditions.”

Possession, it’s been said, is nine-tenths of the law. In ultimate, being too careless with possession has evolved into a fatal flaw.

The Full Field Layout

Perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect about New York’s otherworldly offensive performance in the East final was the team succeeding so spectacularly without two starting cutters, especially considering how they game planned expecting Jeff Babbitt and John Lithio to play. When they were scratched in the day before and hour before the opening pull, respectively, the Empire were forced to pivot to a new lineup, which obviously worked out ok. 

So what’s the story with Babbitt and Lithio for Championship Weekend? As of Monday, their statuses remained uncertain. 

“Right now, both John and Jeff, we’re unsure about their availability one way or the other,” Hoppes said yesterday. “John seems to be trending well, and then Jeff is a total question mark. As of [Monday], he’s doing really well, but that can always change. We’re in wait-and-see mode a little bit right now.”

Regardless of who’s active on Friday when the Empire take the field against the Sol, Hoppes believes that New York will be prepared and ready.

“We’ve got contingency plans built in; who slots where and who guards who,” he explained. “Our game plan won’t change drastically based on who’s plugged into those spots.”

Frankly, it might be a trickier dynamic for New York’s opponent, as Austin aims to continue their magical run by upsetting the Empire. The film study and strategic messages are not insignificant, but Sol Head Coach Steven Naji is perhaps more focused on preparing his players mentally, instilling belief as they prepare for their first ever Championship Weekend challenge against New York. 

“One of the common themes I’ll be talking about as we head into the New York matchup: I was at their last loss,” said Naji, recalling how he was a spectator in DC at the 2021 AUDL Championship game, when Carolina won 19-16. “They [lost] against a team that’s in our division, and we were the first team to defeat that championship team [one season later], and I would love to be the first to beat this champion.”

The Sol had never won a playoff game prior to their home win over the Flyers on July 29, but after that result, along with their miraculous double overtime victory in Atlanta on August 11, their collective confidence is at an all-time high. 

“This team and this city is building something special here,” said Austin’s Matt Armour. “And I promise you, whatever line you guys throw out there for our matchup against the Empire, we’re gonna cover it. Don’t sleep on the Austin Sol.”

There’s definitely a wild card dynamic to Austin’s emergence; maybe it’s because of their occasionally daring style of play, or Kyle Henke’s history of highlights. Also, while the Sol and Empire have never squared off in an official AUDL game, the two teams did share the field with one another in a preseason exhibition showcase at TEP in Colombia this past April. Between that experience, and plenty of film study, there’s a tad more familiarity than you might expect. 

“They are big, and they are athletic,” said Hoppes. “And they love hammers.”

As for the other semifinal showdown, the Salt Lake Shred have been busy studying Minnesota’s tactics and tendencies, a task that has monopolized most of Bryce Merrill’s time since the West Division title game against Los Angeles.

“It takes a lot of film watching to get a sense of what to expect from Minnesota,” he said. “They were one of the highest variable teams in terms of roster and style of play and who was managing touches [...] It’s been an inefficient film study.”

As for the biggest takeaways from the deep dive into all the footage, Merrill mentioned how the Wind Chill’s defensive identity is something different than they have typically encountered out West. 

“They do a really nice job, especially in the handler set, of forcing out and forcing resets that I’m sure the opponents are just not excited about,” said Merrill. “And then any shot you let hang a little bit out over the top or miss to the inside a little bit for an under, I think they’ve got the athleticism to close on those plays. We should expect a defense that’s gonna put a lot of pressure on us.”

While the Wind Chill struggled to create sustained pressure against their one West Division foe during the regular season—Minnesota lost 25-15 at Colorado on June 24—there is genuine optimism that, with the lessons learned from that game, along with a massive home-field advantage, they can find success against the Shred in ways that they failed against the Summit. 

“[Salt Lake’s] speed and ability to generate forward momentum offensively is impressive,” said Wind Chill Coach Ben Feldman, who expects at least 2,000 Minnesotans to be in the TCO Stadium stands for the opening pull Friday evening. “While we expect there to be some wind, our ability to convert on our defensive chances is going to be really important. Jordan [Kerr] and Grant [Lindsley] are both extremely effective at getting their offense moving early. Our focus will be finding ways to slow their offense down and keep them out of rhythm.”

It’s more natural to focus on the matchup between Salt Lake’s offense and Minnesota’s D, but the other two units will also obviously matter a great deal, particularly in the wake of the Wind Chill enjoying their best offensive performance this season in their Central title contest against Indianapolis. 

“I think they’re gonna be pretty stingy with it,” said Merrill. "I also feel like, watching them and Austin, they have a lot of green-light creativity. If we overplay any defensive set—big zone or big switch or big help over the top—it looked like they were really quick to find where we release an offensive player. They hit these nice big double swings, great hammers. I’m glad we had the Pawel/BVD scoober-show two weeks ago—I think they threw 30 scoobers against us—because they also hit a lot of those.” 

The action begins Friday at 6:00 PM/ET, and the stage is set for another thrilling Championship Weekend. 

Coming up later today in "Seven on the Line", New York’s outrageous edge in experience, an untimely Sol suspension, a look at all the postseason records that will be redefined this coming weekend, and much more.