August 29, 2023
By Evan Lepler
1. Clutton's historic buzzer-beater
Since 2013, there have been 30 games played across 10 Championship Weekends, but Friday night’s battle between Minnesota and Salt Lake became the first ever to include a buzzer-beater to close out the fourth quarter. Obviously, Elijah Jaime’s score off Joel Clutton’s deflection helped to shift the outcome, with the Shred prevailing in overtime after trailing by one when Chad Yorgason’s final throw floated in the air.
Overall, we’ve now witnessed 21 Championship Weekend buzzer-beaters in AUDL history over the course of 120 quarters and two overtime periods, with a buzzer-beater being defined as a goal scored with no time left in a quarter. The Empire have recorded seven Championship Weekend buzzer-beaters in franchise history, including two this past weekend, and they have surrendered only one in their six trips to the league’s marquee event.
2. The end-of-quarter king strikes again
While Clutton’s deflection will be discussed forever, Salt Lake’s big man will require more of a track record to challenge the league’s premier buzzer-beating beast. That’s of course New York’s Jeff Babbitt, who very nearly has multi-year streak of capping the third quarter of championship games in his signature skyscraping style. On Saturday, an officials’ strip call gave Babbitt his ninth goal of the weekend as time expired in the third. A year ago, there was just one second remaining in the third quarter when Babbitt elevated for his electric buzzer-beating grab again Chicago, which helped to stifle the Union’s rising momentum. And back in 2019, Babbitt hauled in Harper Garvey’s full-field huck with no time left in the third, breaking a 19-all tie against Dallas and giving the Empire a lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the game. That’s three of the last four championship games that Babbitt’s caught a third quarter score with less than two seconds left. Pretty incredible.
3. Continuing the 2023 Callahan craze
Salt Lake’s Jordan Kerr and New York’s Ryan Drost both caught Callahans at Championship Weekend, the first Callahans during the semis or the finals since Ryan’s brother, Mike, recorded one during the 2018 semifinals in Madison. (I incorrectly attributed the 2018 Callahan to Ryan during this past Saturday’s broadcast, and I regret the error.) This was the first time ever that we’ve seen multiple Callahans at Championship Weekend, and it represented a continuation of the trend we’ve seen this season. Adding in the pair from this past weekend, there were 42 Callahans in the AUDL during the 2023, 20 more than the most we had ever previously seen during any AUDL season. In the eight years from 2014-22, there were an average of just under 15 Callahans per season. While far from every Callahan in 2023 was a direct byproduct of the rule change that changed the location of the pull, the 20-yard shift was a significant factor in the massive uptick of one of ultimate’s most exciting plays.
4. Austin's scintillating start, and ugly finish
Two points into Championship Weekend, the Austin Sol looked like they were about to shock the world. Matt Armour found Jackson Potts just 32 seconds in, capitalizing on Elliott Chartock’s immediate throwaway, as the Sol stormed the field euphorically. A couple minutes later, Elliott Moore connected with Eric Brodbeck for Austin’s second straight break. It was the absolute perfect start for a big underdog, and it felt too good to be true.
It was. The Empire finally converted on their third O-point and ran off a 7-1 run to lead 7-3 by the close of the opening quarter. When Ben Katz caught Marques Brownlee’s hammer to beat the halftime buzzer, New York led 15-7, and the Sol’s early optimism felt like a distant memory. After the game, Austin Coach Steven Naji remarked that his team had gotten 17 turns from New York, more than four times as many as the Empire had given DC in the East Division final. All those turns should have given his team a great chance to win, he thought, but obviously the Sol were unable to stay sharp offensively. Austin turned it over 28 times against New York, more turns than the Sol had in their two earlier playoff games combined. After completing better than 95 percent of their passes against Carolina and Atlanta earlier in the postseason, the Sol finished with an 87 percent completion rate at Championship Weekend, holding on less than a third of their overall O-line possessions.
5. Big play BVon
Although the Wind Chill ultimately fell short against the Shred, it was cool seeing various players on Minnesota step up during the team’s run to Championship Weekend, particularly the versatile veteran Bryan Vohnoutka. The 33-year-old made two huge grabs on deep shots against the Shred, a pair of momentum plays that sent the pro-Wind Chill crowd into a frenzy. Midway through the opening quarter, he skied Salt Lake’s Jace Duennebeil for Minnesota’s first break of the game. Later, with the action tied at 13-all in the fourth, he elevated over Chad Yorgason for another fantastic catch on Abe Coffin’s 67-yard huck, then quickly tossed the go-ahead goal to Colin Berry. Vohnoutka led all players with 250 receiving yards in Friday’s second semifinal.
6. Which streak ends first?
Without knowing any firm details, let’s assume that the next regular season will begin on the final Saturday in April. That will be April 27, 2024. When the ultimate resumes, the New York Empire will be looking to break the record for longest winning-streak in AUDL history; they are currently tied with the 2013-14 Toronto Rush, winners of 30 in a row. Heading into 4/27/24, the Empire will have gone 959 days since their last loss, which took place in the 2021 AUDL Championship Game on September 11, 2021. Of course, the Empire’s streak pales in comparison to the ignominious seven-year slide of the Detroit Mechanix. When Detroit takes the field looking to end its 74-game losing streak, it’ll be over 2,500 days since the franchise’s last win, which came against Chicago on April 29, 2017.
7. A salute to the Minnesota fans
The Twin Cities has long enjoyed one of the nation’s best ultimate communities, and the Minnesota fans showed up in big numbers with bigger enthusiasm in their first chance to host Championship Weekend. Players across all four participating teams raved about the crowd noise and the overall setting at TCO Stadium. “The atmosphere was amazing,” said Salt Lake’s Grant Lindsley, after Friday’s semifinal. “We really felt like the away team. When they would score, when we would turn it over, the crowd would go nuts. That was fun. I’d rather have 3,000 people cheering against me than an empty stadium. That was a blast.” Even though the hometown Wind Chill fell short on Friday, the Saturday atmosphere was still exhilarating, with a mix of local fans along with the strong traveling crews from New York and Salt Lake. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’d be delighted to learn that Championship Weekend will return to Minnesota at some point in the future. It was a wonderful experience.
Speaking of wonderful experiences, Saturday marked my ninth season broadcasting games for the AUDL. It’s my eighth year crafting this column every Tuesday, and this “job” is truly a labor of love.
It’s a grueling grind, no doubt, to leave my family and get on an airplane every weekend for four months, not to mention the hundreds if not thousands of hours spent staring at the computer screen over the course of the season, but goodness, it’s also an incredible privilege.
It’s an honor to help share the meaningful stories from our sport, the glory and the heartbreak, the humorous and the serious, the personal and the powerful. I could not do this without an immense amount of help from the players, coaches, and owners around the league. So many fascinating people generously put their trust in me, and it’s a dynamic I never ever take for granted.
I’m especially grateful for the voices that I get to collaborate with on broadcasts, along with the invaluable support that the AUDL provides me along the way. Believe me, I could spend another few thousand words sharing heartwarming stories about all of these people and how they positive impact me and our sport.
But after 20 straight Tuesdays diving deep into our quirky ultimate world, I’m ready for a break. My immediate focus is to help finish planning my oldest daughter’s fifth birthday party, scheduled for this Thursday night. Thankfully, my wife has done most of that work already, but it’s well past time I chip in too.
Thanks to all for reading, watching, and following the AUDL throughout the 2023 season! Please stay in touch, and please say hello the next time our paths cross!