Seven On The Line: Divisional Championships

August 15, 2023
By Evan Lepler

Tuesday Toss: Divisional Championships | Part one

1. Salt Lake's quest for greatness

After an 11-1 regular season, the Shred had almost a full month off before Friday’s West Division title contest against Los Angeles. But the Salt Lake offense did not let any rust creep into their well-oiled disc-moving machine. 

“I’m very proud of our O-line’s efficiency from the Aviators’ game,” said Jordan Kerr, who led the Shred with eight assists. “There have been multiple games this season where our D-line carried our O-line to wins, and I feel like we did a good job this weekend of being as consistent as possible as an O-line. We know how we have to play if we want a chance to win the title, and I feel like that performance showed us just what it’s going to take if we want to accomplish our goals at Championship Weekend.” 

Salt Lake led throughout the entire second half of their 23-20 win, but gaining early separation was not easy, as the Aviators offense also sizzled through the opening quarter. In fact, neither side created a turnover until Garrett Santi’s buzzer-beating attempt was intercepted by Kyle Weinberg at the first-quarter buzzer. The offenses kept holding until the score was 7-all midway through the second, but eventually Salt Lake broke through. 

“That first half especially, LA was really stingy with the disc,” said Shred Coach Bryce Merrill. “But instead of panicking and overplaying in pursuit of a block, I thought our D-line did a great job of just building pressure. The handler matchups from [Chad] Yorgason, [Tony] Mounga, and [Nathan] Huff especially helped put is in a good place in those third and fourth quarters that wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t build on the pressure of the first half. Major props to BVD [Brandon Van Deusen] and Pawel [Janas] for their possession-based attack—it was some of the toughest offense we’ve faced as a franchise.” 

The Aviators earned the game’s first break to take an 8-7 lead, but it did not last long, as the Shred quickly used a 3-0 run to surge ahead 10-8 with 2:34 left in the half. Los Angeles would creep within one several times the rest of the way, but Salt Lake never relinquished their advantage over the final 26 minutes, and the Shred prevailed by a relatively comfortable margin of three. 

“The final buzzer sounding was very euphoric,” said Kerr. “I thought about what it felt like to lose in the divisional championship last year against Colorado, and this win really validated a lot of what me and all the guys on the team have been working towards for the past year. In the locker room after, Bryce gave us 15 minutes to celebrate and relish the moment, and then once again it was time to focus up and start to get our minds and bodies right for Championship Weekend. I love that mentality and love that my coach and teammates have the same desire and hunger to be elite.” 

The Shred only had nine turnovers in the game, just one more than their lowest total in franchise history. They also went 15-for-15 in the red zone, and Mounga’s Callahan with eight minutes left felt like the nail in LA’s coffin.

2. LA's magical ride comes to an end

Aside from perhaps Austin, no team raised its profile in recent weeks like the Los Angeles Aviators, who stared elimination in the face and went from likely missing the playoffs to seriously threatening Salt Lake’s Championship Weekend dream. Though disappointed to fall short at Zions Bank Stadium on Friday night, the Aviators had completely transformed the perception of their team by how they competed in the playoffs against the Summit and the Shred. 

“I thought we played really well,” said LA Captain Michael Kiyoi. “Besides a stretch late in the game, our offense was executing exactly how we wanted to. Some goals we had before the game were to move the disc quickly and attack uplink. I’m extremely proud of how much better our offense played throughout the season, especially considering the addition of Pawel and the position changes the rest of us made.” 

Janas threw six assists and totaled almost 750 yards, but also had five throwaways. But the bigger shortcoming was LA’s inability to really slow down the Shred offense. Though Janas did not appreciate Salt Lake’s offensive excellence in the moment, he did acknowledge that the Aviators might try and emulate some of the Shred’s tactics in the future. 

“We’ll go back and re-watch the film in the offseason and re-tool our offense with some of the things they were doing,” said Janas. 

Undoubtedly, the Aviators will remain frustrated by a couple calls they felt went against them; Mitchell Steiner was certain he skied for an interception block a split-second before Jace Duennebeil received credit for a goal, and a stall call against Everest Shapiro indeed felt quick. But several LA veterans were still able to see the big picture in their postgame huddle. 

“Of course we’re disappointed,” said Kiyoi. “I still believe we can beat them and we will soon. We are competitors and want to win more than anything. But my speech to the team after was one of reflection and gratitude. We won four games last season, each by one point. We looked pretty bad to start this season, but the whole time I knew we would turn it around [...] I have never been a member on a team that was as dedicated as this.”

3. New York's nearly perfect game

The last four times that New York qualified for Championship Weekend, they did so with 26, 13, 13, and 12 turnovers, respectively. On Saturday night, as the Empire earned the right to compete in the AUDL semifinals for the fifth straight season, they did it with a level of offensive efficiency never previously seen in the history of the league. They finished their 24-19 victory over the Breeze with just four turnovers, and that includes Ryan Osgar’s huck that DC defended as the third quarter expired. 

“That’s pretty incredible,” said Jack Williams, when informed postgame of the statistical nugget. “I didn’t know it was an AUDL record. I think this team is as battle tested as anyone in AUDL history. We had an incredibly hard schedule, and that’s the way we wanted it. Everyone was just ready for the moment. We had some of our big guys missing and we wanted to prove that we’re the deepest team in the league, and I think we proved it.” 

Indeed, the headline very well could have been that New York’s multi-season winning streak came to an end without two key O-line cutters, as Jeff Babbitt and John Lithio were both scratched from the lineup before the opening pull. But Ben Jagt moved back onto the O-line and produced one of the most dominant games any receiver’s ever had, with eight goals, three assists, and 819 total yards. Williams and Osgar both played completely turnover free—with the exception of Osgar’s end-of-quarter prayer—and the rest of the Empire O-line played virtually mistake-free. Literally the only other O-line error was Sol Rueschemeyer-Bailey’s poorly executed centering pass that became a David Bloodgood Callahan midway through the fourth quarter. The Breeze very well could have taken the lead after Troy Holland’s interception later in the period, but an errant red zone reset led to New York’s fast break, with Jagt skying the crowd for Williams’ huck to put the Empire back up 7-6. 

“It was insane,” said Jagt. “I threw a turnover to Charles [Weinberg], a little floaty one that they came and poached, Sol had [the Callahan], but other than that, our O-line was perfect, which is shocking given our [missing] players, but sometimes having a little bit of different personnel helps to just bring everyone into focus into just completing it and not trying to do too much.” 

Trailing by four heading to the fourth, the Breeze twice inched within three, but a 3-0 Empire run midway through the final quarter put the game away. 

“I’m excited to defend the title [at Championship Weekend],” said Williams. “There’s obviously gonna be a lot of great teams in the final four.” 

Williams finished with six assists, two goals, and 425 yards, but Jagt wasn’t interested in perpetuating the narrative that Williams turns into a different caliber of player in the postseason. 

“Jack is always good,” said Jagt. "We were joking about it on the car ride up, like ‘Playoff Jack,’ I think you guys in the media don’t give him enough credit; he’s still underrated as the best player in the world, it’s insane that there’s a Playoff Jack narrative, in my opinion.”

4. A different brand of heartbreak for DC

Perhaps it wasn’t as shockingly painful as losing at the buzzer, but Saturday’s five-goal loss still wasn’t fun for the Breeze. 

“It is tough to put in the grind all year just to come up one game short of Championship weekend again,” said DC Captain David Bloodgood. “But New York played a phenomenal game, so congratulations to them and I fully expect them to take home the crown again this year if they play anywhere close to how they played against us.” 

The Breeze did not play a bad game by any means. They finished with 10 turns, an excellent number against any opponent, let alone a team with a defense like New York’s. But the Breeze D-line, despite maintaining pressure, just couldn’t dispossess the Empire offense. 

“I felt like we applied decent pressure throughout the game, but it felt like they always found a release valve on stall five or six,” said Bloodgood. “Their downfield cutters were disciplined to give space when needed, but they always managed to come and get a reset right at the last moment. They were also happy to take negative resets right behind the disc, which many consider a bad place to have the disc, but they knew they would eventually get an open cut from downfield or a cross field reset to open up their offense again [...] Our game plan didn’t change too much with Babbitt and Lithio being out. No one wants their opponents to get hurt, and I know how much it sucks to miss big games with an injury, so we all felt bad for those guys [...] I think Jagt playing O-line really hurt us more than anything. He is just so tall that we do not have an answer for that. Moussa Dia is an amazing defender, but it is really tough when he is giving up five inches to the guy he is guarding. We just aren’t a tall team.” 

When it was all over and the teams had shaken hands, the entire Breeze team shared an emotional huddle, with Coach Darryl Stanley shedding tears as everyone knew it would be his last postgame address. Obviously, DC had envisioned a storybook finish to Stanley’s tenure with a win over the Empire catapulting to the Breeze to Championship Weekend, but once again New York stood in the way. 

“[Darryl] has done so much for the DC ultimate community over the last six years or so,” added Bloodgood. "He will be missed for sure, but DC is still ready to fight going forward. I love that we have to get through New York to get to Championship Weekend. It will make Championship Weekend that much sweeter when we are finally able to knock them off.” 

5. Minnesota earns first division title in franchise history

Since early December, when it was officially announced that the AUDL’s 2023 Championship Weekend would be held in Minnesota, the pressure on the Wind Chill became amplified. This was a team that had never before won a division crown, and after suffering back-to-back losses to Chicago in the Central title game, the team’s spirit could have been punctured to the point of no return. 

But despite the past postseason disappointments and the reality of losing several key O-line starters heading into this season, the Wind Chill quickly rebuilt, retooled, and refocused on being the best team in the Central Division. In doing so, they have earned the right to play Championship Weekend on their home turf, the first to do so since Madison hoisted the trophy at Breese Stevens Field in 2018. For all the Wind Chill vets, it was tough to put the joy into words following their 21-18 victory over Indianapolis. 

“It’s no secret I’ve been doing this for a long time and have been so close without getting over the hump,” said Minnesota’s Brandon Matis, who suited up his franchised-record 114th game on Saturday. “It feel like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and validation for all the literal blood, sweat, and tears I’ve put into this team and league. It’s unlike me, but I genuinely don’t have the words to describe how much this means to me.” 

The Wind Chill offense got broken on the game’s opening point, but the AlleyCats only produced one more break after that over the final 47 minutes. 

“This was the best our offense has looked all season,” said Matis. “Will Brandt showed that he’s got one of the deepest bags in the league. Kid played out of his mind. [Josh] Klane reined in his risky shots, played smart, and had one of his best defensive games in a long time. Marty [Adams] earned it back on a couple of nice plays. Colin [Berry], BVon [Bryan Vohnoutka], J-Tay [Jordan Taylor], and Quinn [Snider] did a great job not doing too much and just finding soft spots for throwers to hit [...] They definitely won that game for us.” 

Despite falling behind early, the Wind Chill still led 7-5 after one and tallied back-to-back breaks to begin the second quarter to make it 9-5. The lead never grew larger than five, but also never shrunk less than three as the Wind Chill refused to be broken over the game’s final 22 minutes. Indy had chances, but finished 2-for-9 on break opportunities. Brandt completed 51-of-53 throws, including seven assists, while Dylan DeClerck and Tanner Barcus each recorded two blocks and two scores for the Wind Chill D-line. 

“I’m obviously really excited about having a home crowd at Championship Weekend,” said Matis. We’ve done a great job building a big, loyal fan base since returning from the canceled season. They’ll be excited to have their home team participating in such a huge event, and we’ll benefit greatly from their backing—especially for our defense.”

6. AlleyCats unable to weather Wind Chill

Since starting the season 0-2, Indianapolis had won 10 of 11 games leading into Saturday’s clash in St. Paul, but after stomping Chicago in the first round of the playoffs, the AlleyCats struggled to play their best in Minnesota. 

“There were several things that contributed to our demise,” said Indy’s Cameron Brock. “We had a number of drops that were the most apparent, but there were also instances of a lack of discipline defensively and a few lapses on offense that opened the door for Minnesota. We have been absolutely deadly all year at the end of quarters and really struggled in that area as well. In a game where you lose by three, it really is a play here and there that makes the difference. Even if we just converted anywhere near our normal rate defensively, we win the game. We we are anywhere near our normal drops-per game rate, we win. But we didn’t do those things. And ultimately I’m sure all 20 guys wish they had done at least one thing differently during the game.” 

Officially, Indy had six drops, while Minnesota had none. And to Brock’s point, the Wind Chill scored the final goal in each of the first three quarters, with the AlleyCats failing to convert on their buzzer-beating attempts three times in a row. Travis Carpenter tossed six assists, but also had three throwaways. Jake Fella and William Wettengel each had a pair of blocks, but as previously mentioned, the AlleyCats did a poor job transforming blocks into breaks. 

“As for the Cats moving forward, I think we were all disappointed to lose but excited about our trajectory,” said Brock, referencing how the team went from three wins in 2021 to six wins in 2022 and now 10 wins, including the playoffs, in 2023. “We’re on the up and up, and I think we have a lot of guys that are hungry to return.”

7. Take a deep breath, everybody

We’ve got 10 days until Championship Weekend, and just like the participating teams, I am super excited to start preparing for our final three telecasts of the season. But I’m also looking forward to catching my breath for a couple days after traveling to Salt Lake City and New York this past weekend. It was the 16th consecutive weekend I’ve been privileged to broadcast ultimate, and I was grateful that the travel gods smiled upon my ambitious itinerary. 

Unlike the last two seasons, there is a full week off between the divisional championships and the semifinals, which hopefully means that everyone can heal up and be somewhere in the vicinity of 100 percent for the epic culmination of the 2023 journey.

The Hammer

I doubt this will be considered any consolation for Atlanta, DC, Indy, or LA, but there was an interesting reality that might intrigue the fans of the four teams that lost this weekend. If you look at the quartet that’s heading to Championship Weekend, three of those four were teams that lost in the divisional final a season ago.

In 2022, Austin succumbed to Carolina, Minnesota fell at Chicago, and Salt Lake stumbled in Colorado. One year later, the Sol, Shred, and Wind Chill are all still alive and on their way to the AUDL’s marquee event.

For 20 teams around the league, the 2024 season has already begun. 

But for Austin, Minnesota, New York, and Salt Lake, the present is as good as it gets. Regardless of perceptions and expectations, each of these teams is two wins away from a championship.

It’s exactly where everyone wants to be.