Seven On The Line: First Round Playoffs

August 1, 2023
By Evan Lepler

Tuesday Toss: Playoffs | Part one

  1. Unbroken Breeze blow by Boston
    In a battle between the only two teams in the league to each have three different regular season games with single-digit turns, the DC Breeze showcased their clear superiority in Saturday’s 19-12 win over Boston. Neither side kept the turns to nine or less, but the Breeze almost did, finishing with just 10, compared to Boston’s 17.

    The Breeze produced six breaks, while the Glory had none. “Simply put, DC played a nearly perfect offensive game in our D-line’s eyes,” said Boston’s Rocco Linehan. “They continually executed in tight windows and rarely gave us an opportunity to even get close to a D. When we finally did get turns, they were excellent at clogging downfield and putting our handlers in difficult positions. They put tons of pressure on both our offensive and defensive lines, and then played their patient, mechanical short game to tear us down.” Early in the second quarter, the Glory had one of their six break chances after Linehan hand-blocked DC’s Christian Boxley. Although it appeared like Boxley was fouled on the play, the officials stayed silent, and Boston’s Gus Haflin hucked to Linehan, who caught it just shy of the goal line. A score would have made it a two-goal game, but DC’s Jacques Nissen came soaring in for a heroic hustle block to deny the opportunity, firing up everyone on the Breeze in the process. “Nissen’s block on the weird point was amazing,” said DC’s Joe Merrill. “He really stepped it up and didn’t quit on a weird play that a lot of people would walk away from just being mad at the refs for missing calls. He did something about it instead.” Merrill and Moussa Dia each finished with multiple blocks, as the DC D-line made life challenging for the Boston offense all game long. “We struggled to move the ball well and ended up throwing second or third looks that we turned,” said Boston’s Cole Davis-Brand. “I think their D really did an excellent job forcing us to do what they wanted, so shout out to them.” Offensively, Boxley led the Breeze with four goals and two assists, while Rowan McDonnell tallied three goals, one assists, and went 37-for-37 passing. Jonny Malks also played turnover-free for the Breeze, going 39-for-39 with two assists. “The reason it seemed like we had it under control,” said Malks, “was because we used our newfound focus on ourselves and putting in the work to earn that trust and love amongst one another to prevent precipitous rises and drops in our mental energy. We kept it constant or on the rise. That was key. No third quarter slump where they pulled back within a couple points.” Consequently, the Breeze are in the AUDL’s final eight for the third straight season. Though they lost to the league’s eventual champ in the quarterfinals each of the past two years, the Breeze head toward their August 12 showdown against New York determined to rewrite the story. “We’re going to continue focusing on ourselves, making sure we’re arming the entire team with the knowledge we need to make good decisions when we have the disc, and winning end-of-quarter situations, which we’ve been working on a lot this season,” said Malks. “I think it’s showing. Ready for this test.”

  2. Indy slams Chicago
    The most goals and largest margin of victory during the opening weekend of the 2023 playoffs belonged to the Indianapolis AlleyCats, who clobbered the Union 23-15 to advance to the Central Division title game at Minnesota. It was a pretty all-encompassing beatdown, as the Cats broke Chicago’s O-line 67 seconds in, led 6-2 after one, and built a double-digit lead by the late stages of the third quarter.

    “The AlleyCats played a very clean game offensively,” said Chicago’s Andrew Sjogren. “We only got one break chance in the first 35 minutes of the game and did not convert. It wasn’t for lack of trying though; it felt like we forced them into tough looks, but they made the plays. [Rick] Gross and [Jeremy] Keusch both made several incredible plays in the game to save possession. It felt like the AlleyCats controlled the pace of the game throughout, on both sides of the disc.” The AlleyCats only had eight turns in the first three quarters and 12 for the game, while Chicago finished with 21 turnovers, 11 of which were caused by AlleyCat blocks. Asked to share his general thoughts after the game, Indianapolis Coach Drew Shepherd said simply, “our offense held, and defense generated double-digit blocks. A recipe as simple as peanut butter and jelly.” Xavier Payne threw six assists to lead the AlleyCats offense, while Nick Hutton and Will Quigley each tallied two blocks apiece, as Indianapolis advanced to their first division title game since 2019. “They did a good job of applying pressure with their D-line off of the pull, and that forced pressure on our resets and ultimately resulted in some errant throws and drops,” said Chicago Coach Dave Woods. “I feel that we just turned the disc over. I can’t even say they were uncharacteristic turnovers or mistakes. It kind of has been characteristic of our year.” While the Union were plagued by simple errors, the AlleyCats authored numerous high-degree-of-difficulty grabs, the type of plays that prolong a season. “I am super proud of us coming down with the shots even when contested and even more proud of our team for having the winning mentality and keeping it,” said Payne. “For us staying in a game for four quarters isn’t difficult [...] We are happy to mentally and physically grind for a whole game.”

  3. What's next for Boston?
    After going 9-15 in their first two seasons, the Glory finished the 2023 campaign at 7-6, earning their first playoff berth since joining the league in 2021. While a sizable gap still exists between Boston and the East Division’s two perennial powers, there’s no doubt the Glory are moving in the right direction. “I am very proud of the energy and effort my teammates put in all season to get to the playoffs for the first time,” said Linehan. “That was the end goal of this season. Now, we adjust our sights and continue to build.” The team is expecting to lose key O-line cutters Ray Tetreault and Tanner Halkyard for 2024, but Boston’s youth movement is real, with numerous New England talents rising into the Glory rotation. This is a group that includes Simon Carapella, who led the team in goals this season, and Caelan McSweeney, who completed over 96 percent of his passes and finished with 302 completions. Keeping that young core together, committed, and productive will be key as the franchise tries to take the next step into the top tier of the East, alongside New York and DC. 
  4. First round loss "stings" for Chicago
    After back-to-back trips to Championship Weekend, the Union’s 2023 season fell well short of the standard set over the past couple years. At 6-6 in the regular season and 6-7 after their early exit, the Union were collectively disappointed. “It stings to go from the championship game last season to not even make the division championship this year,” said Woods. Going into the season, the big headline focused on Chicago’s loss of Pawel Janas, who threw 396 assists in five seasons for the Union, but Woods also recognized that he was not the only significant departure. “We lost like 40 percent of our starting guys,” he said. “We were confident with our recruiting, and I think what I didn’t take into consideration was that even though our roster looked good in terms of player strengths, for a lot of our roster, it was their first season in the AUDL. I think AUDL experience is something that can sometimes get undervalued.” Woods, who’s served as Head Coach of the Union since 2019, is uncertain regarding his future. “I did announce to the team, it’s questionable whether I’ll return next year, but it’s not out of the question [that I could be back.]”
  5. Chemistry matters
    For Carolina and Colorado, the issue of roster consistency lingered even into the playoffs. Perhaps there was a time in the AUDL when a team could put their best pieces on the field for the first time in the postseason and still win on the back of their pure talent, but that scenario feels less and less likely to occur as the overall quality of the league has clearly risen. In some ways, it’s an easy excuse. But it’s also a new reality that will continue to impact roster decisions and strategies going forward, especially when the feeling of elimination is so fresh. “My big takeaway on the season ending the way it did is that you cannot be successful in this league if you don’t have consistency in roster construction and on-field play,” said Flyers Coach Mike DeNardis. “We had neither all season long for a few different reasons, and it hurt us when it mattered.” Consequently, for the first time since 2016 and just the second time in franchise history, the Flyers were ousted before the quarterfinals. With Carolina, Chicago, and Colorado all losing, the New York Empire are the only team that made Championship Weekend in 2022 to remain alive in the chase for the 2023 title. 
  6. Tough decisions showcase great teammates for LA
    After the Los Angeles Aviators officially clinched their playoff spot courtesy of San Diego’s thrilling win over Oakland, LA leadership convened virtually and embarked upon several hours of deliberations, poring over the agonizing roster decisions that would dictate who would be on the active 20 for their game at Colorado. Ultimately, after multiple nights and countless conversations, they internally settled upon their lineup, which necessitated a couple even more difficult chats. Two Aviator veterans who had been active for all 12 regular season games during the 2023 campaign, Eddie Finley and Nate Kirchhofer, were not included among the 20 players who would be listed as active for the postseason showdown against the Summit. Those were undeniably hard messages to deliver, and even tougher decisions to receive, but that’s what made it cool to see Finley and Kirchhofer going through warmups and providing enthusiastic support from the sideline throughout the game. It was one of the first things that LA Captain Michael Kiyoi mentioned postgame. “I have a million things that I’m proud of,” he said, when he made eye contact with a grinning Kirchhofer, who was standing nearby. “Kirch yelling from the sideline the whole time, being such a great teammate.” The decision to inactivate a healthy player for a playoff game after that player had suited up for every single regular season game is not unprecedented. I specifically recall the Flyers doing this a couple times, once back in 2015 with Michael “Jenga” Zhou, and another time in 2021, with then 21-year-old Matt McKnight. In each of those instances, I maintain memories of Zhou and McKnight embracing the adversity much like Finley and Kirchhofer, making a difference from the sideline and being as supportive as they possibly could. It’s a small thing that’s easy to overlook, but definitely one of the many latent and meaningful stories unfolding across the league as teams try to become the best versions of themselves when the games matter most. And who knows, perhaps Finley or Kirchhofer return to the lineup in Salt Lake and make a big play. Even if that does not happen, their demeanor and commitment this past Saturday sends a loud message to young players everywhere about how to set an example for the team in the face of individual adversity. 
  7. Cookie time
    On a much lighter note, Matty Jackson’s cookie celebration was certainly a fun breath of fresh air, eh? Saturday marked Jackson’s 13th career AUDL playoff game, 10 with Dallas and his third with Colorado, and his 84th game overall, and it was the first time he attempted this particular post-goal scoring maneuver. “I’ve been workshopping that cookie celebration since this morning,” he said, smiling, immediately after the game. “I’ve been looking for a signature spike for seven years in the league, and I finally got it.” Where did the inspiration come from? “It came to me in a dream!” said Jackson. “I thought, everyone has these mean, aggressive spikes. That’s not me. I’m a cookie dunker.” And don’t worry, he’s still contemplating various additions and tweaks so this new, creative goal-scoring celebration doesn’t get stale. “I forgot to wipe my milk mustache,” he said. “That was gonna be a follow-up. It’s ok. I have time to work on it."

The Hammer

After the first weekend of August quietly comes and goes without any AUDL action, an epic four-game, two-night Championship Weekend qualifying extravaganza will commence on Friday, August 11. Astonishingly, three of the four teams that will be hosting will be seeking their first ever trips to the AUDL’s marquee event. 

Inevitably, you will hear all eight teams talk about the importance of trust. It can sound overly cliche, especially with how often the term pops up, but that’s only because so many teams are drilling that idea over and over again.

How is trust showcased when a season is on the line? DC’s Jonny Malks offers his perspective.

“One hundred percent trust looks like not throwing hands up after a teammate makes a mistake,” he said. “It looks like running onto the field for celebration after big goals. It looks like hugs, smiles, hands on backs and shoulders. That’s what carried us through the game on Saturday [against Boston].”