Seven On The Line: Week 4 Recap

May 21, 2024
By Evan Lepler

Tuesday Toss: Part 1

1. Saturday’s Stunner in St. Paul

The league’s biggest surprise in Week 4 saw the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds spoiling the Minnesota Wind Chill’s home opener, a game that immediately goes on the short list for most stunning early-season results in recent years across the league. 

Pittsburgh had been outscored 41-25 in two lopsided losses, both at home, one of which came against Minnesota back in Week 1. Thunderbirds star Max Sheppard even admitted that his team’s confidence was relatively low, but he also said his team was going into the game with nothing to lose. 

Even after getting broken on the games first two points, Pittsburgh had no choice but to dig in, and the T-Birds immediately answered with a 6-2 spurt that changed the game. Over the entire 48 minutes, neither side ever led by more than two goals throughout the four-quarter fight. 

“The biggest stories of the game: both our D-lines held at the most important times, especially after getting broken twice to start the game and deep into the fourth quarter after being broken twice again,” said Sheppard.

Indeed, Pittsburgh’s 15-13 advantage with 3:40 left disappeared when Minnesota’s break tied it with just over two minutes remaining. Even at 15-all as time ticked down, the teams traded turnovers, and then Sheppard saw teammate Pete Zaccardi streaking deep with less than 30 seconds left. 

“I remember seeing a same-third option to Peter very open, and with no hesitation, placed it exactly where I wanted it,” said Sheppard. “Pete was due to make a big play in this game, and he came down with it but [was] stripped in the process.”

The immediate aftermath of this play was a tad confusing. Was it it a catch? Was it in bounds? Was it a strip? The closest defender, Minnesota’s Matt Johnson, immediately took responsibility for the violation even before the officials made the call. 

“After not hearing an out of bounds call or a strip call, I called an integrity strip, as I knew I had clearly knocked it out of his hands after he stopped rotation,” said Johnson. “I believe one of the photographers got a good shot of the disc firmly in his hands before I hit the disc.”

With 18 seconds left and the Thunderbirds leading by one, Minnesota still had one more chance to deliver the tying score, but Sheppard’s poach block surprised Minnesota’s Jordan Taylor, swatting down a quick swing and clinching the wild 16-15 victory for Pittsburgh.

“I don’t think [Taylor] saw me running up from behind to make the block,” said Sheppard. 

As Pittsburgh’s sideline stormed the field, you could feel the immense joy and satisfaction in pulling off the shocking road result.

“I feel like I mainly had a feeling of pride,” said Connor Newell. “I am a Pittsburgh native who went to Thunderbirds games as a high schooler just learning about ultimate. Now in my fourth season, I know how much our fans support us and beating one of the best teams in the division had me beaming with pride to be a part of this team. The season did not start the way we wanted, but if we can build on this win, I feel confident we can be in the playoff race.”

With 53 total turnovers, the most in any Week 4 tilt across the league, the game was far from a masterpiece, but it was also perhaps a season-swinging result for Pittsburgh, who avoided the 0-3 start and has a chance to even their regular-season record against Detroit this Friday, perhaps even improving to 3-2 if they can also prevail in an international challenge against Toronto on Saturday. Overall, the Thunderbirds’ next five games are against teams that are currently a combined 2-10. 

“When you face two of the best defenses and best-prepared coaching staffs to start the season, that can be a little rough, as we saw from the results of our first two games,” said Pittsburgh Coach Max Barowski. “Fortunately for us, we were able to come away from Sea Foam Stadium with a much-needed win against a great opponent. The thing I keep telling the team though, ‘you don’t make the playoffs with one win.’ We have to put together a full season if we want this win to mean something beyond the good feelings of an upset against the defending champs.”

As for the Wind Chill, instead of heading to Madison this Friday for a battle of undefeated teams, they now need to knock off the much-improved Radicals in the Super Series at Breese Stevens Field to avoid slipping to 2-2-. 

“We gotta lock in,” said Minnesota’s Cameron Lacy. “The Radicals are currently ahead of us in the Central Division standings. We feel like we should be first and we’re looking to prove that on Friday. We don’t want to justify losses with roster inconsistency. We have a really good team, no matter who’s missing from the roster. We’re looking to clean up some of the mistakes we made against Pittsburgh, learn from them, and look ahead.” 

2. Atlanta Cruises Past the ‘Cats

A deceptive 1-2 through three weeks, the Atlanta Hustle are back to .500 after a splendid road win at Indianapolis. The Hustle averaged around 11 completions per score, often converting quickly, while forcing the AlleyCats to take approximately 24 throws to punch in a goal. By making Indy work, the Hustle inevitably forced turns, and they efficiently broke the AlleyCats 10 times in 16 chances. 

“I think the main story for us was adjusting to the way Indy was playing because it’s very non-traditional,” said Atlanta Captain Brett Hulsmeyer. “Like they never came down straight up person and played this very quick movement offense. I think we had a good game plan to just allow negative movement, and I’m glad we got to see them play the week before because trying to adjust to all of it on the fly would have been harder. I think indoor you feel much more confident hitting windows you like and deep cuts essentially never expire because you can confidently get it there fast.”

The Hustle completed 80 percent of their hucks (8-for-10), while holding the AlleyCats to 50 percent (4-for-8.) Justin Burnett led Atlanta with a game-high plus-six, while no one on Indy tallied better than plus-three. 

“Our offensive unit really had a rough game,” said Indy veteran Travis Carpenter. “They applied some tight pressure defense and gave us a stress test to our new offensive schemes that we had not experienced before. I do not think our energy level was bad, but I do think they tested us in that category too.”

The UFA’s all-time leading scorer, Cameron Brock, mustered three goals and two assists for the AlleyCats, but was especially complementary about Burnett’s defense. 

“Drew the Justin Burnett matchup last night,” Brock tweeted on Sunday. “Biggest takeaway was just the tenacity he plays with. He won’t let you having a step on him keep him from grinding. If the throw isn’t 100 percent perfect, he will have a play. Love it.”

Atlanta gets a breather with its first bye week before heading to Colorado for another interdivisional test on May 31. 

“We’ve played three very different teams so far,” said Hulsmeyer. “Carolina—defensively there’s lots of pressure on resets and in and around the disc, and offensively they like to stretch the field and gave really great spacing. New York—pressure is on the downfield where they’re looking to get blocks, and offensively [they] like the middle game of using they’re hybrids to get big swings and big yards under. Indy made us think a lot as an offense and was almost exclusively handler driven on O. That’s giving us film and experience against all these different kinds of teams so by the end of the year there’s nothing we haven’t seen and adjusted to.”

3. Houston Creating Havoc in the South

Heading into Memorial Day Weekend, the Houston Havoc are one of the four South Division squads sitting with two wins after they narrowly edged Dallas 18-17 this past Saturday night. Obviously, the Havoc will need to register results against foes beyond the Legion if they are going to contend for a playoff spot, but they have put themselves in position to potentially be in the mix with their early-season effort.

“Overall, the difference is our D,” said Houston’s Matt Bennett, who tossed the game-winning score, a 55-yard huck to Jimmy Zuraw, with three minutes left. “Even against Sol or other teams we force a lot of turns. It’s about converting and playing good offense for us to turn these games into wins. Proud of this squad winning its closest game in franchise history, but plenty of work to do.”

Houston quickly took a 2-0 lead on Saturday, but trailed 10-9 at halftime. The Havoc held their largest lead of the game, 15-13, early in the fourth, before the Legion again tied it up. Dallas had chances with the disc to regain the lead late, but were unable to convert, allowing the Havoc to eventually complete enough passes to run out the clock.

Houston’s schedule stiffens considerably with an intriguing home matchup against Chicago this Friday before another couple contests against their Texas rivals in early June. The Havoc will be playing Dallas five times, so if they could win all of those games, they perhaps would only need two other wins against Chicago, Atlanta, Carolina, or Austin to sneak into the playoffs. That’s still a tall task considering they have never beaten any members of that quartet, but the Havoc’s favorable schedule makes them a factor to monitor going forward. 

4. Noticeable Growlers Growth

Perhaps a little bit like Houston, the San Diego Growlers now have a couple wins against the same team. This past Friday against Portland, a blazing start helped the Growlers roll past the Nitro 24-17, improving San Diego to 2-2. For the moment, that’s right in the West Division playoff mix behind 5-0 Salt Lake, though time will tell if the Growlers have the horses to stay in the hunt. 

Announcing the signing of KJ Koo certainly helps the cause, and its easy to see him slotting in as an important playmaker on either line in the weeks ahead. 

As for Friday’s result, Travis Dunn led the way with nine scores, four different Growlers registered multiple blocks, and San Diego’s D created 10 breaks in 14 chances. 

“Our growth from Game 1 to Game 4 has been fun to watch and it’s really a testament to the work the players are putting in and making the adjustments that coaches are suggesting during the week,” said Growlers Coach Kevin Stuart. “I think everyone knew that our first game was not an indication of who this team was/is so it’s been great to see our response. I think the best word to describe the group right now is resilient.”

On tap next for the Growlers is a trip to Utah for a rematch against undefeated Salt Lake, whom San Diego fell to at home in a close game on May 3.

“In our last game against Salt Lake, I thought we did a good job on the defensive side, but they were also without a few key offensive pieces,” said Stuart. Salt Lake was very patient and disciplined on offense, so in our upcoming game we will need to capitalize on any mistakes that they make. Our mindset going into the game will be similar to what it was last time: bring energy on defense and eliminate some of the mental mistakes that hurt us on offense.”

5. Late 5-0 Push Propels Los Angeles

The winless Portland Nitro were neck and neck with LA on the second day of their back-to-back, tied at 13-all midway through the fourth quarter, when the Aviators finally broke through. Pawel Janas’ 470th career assist, most in UFA history, gave LA a one-goal lead with 5:35 to play. Four breaks later, the Aviators had closed out the Nitro with a furious 5-0 run, prevailing 18-13 for their first win of the season. 

“We really should have taken control early on,” said LA Coach Jeff Landesman. “We had some early break chances that we squanders. The team was fairly certain we would eventually seize control and wear them down, but it was starting to get scary…Got to hand it to the Nitro. They stayed tough after playing San Diego the day before.”

Janas finished with four assists, one goal, and 520 total yards on 45-for-46 passing, while Felix Moren paced Portland with four assists, three goals, two blocks, and 506 yards, though he also had six turns. Daniel Brunker also played well for the Aviators, with eight scores and nearly 500 total yards. 

The Aviators are under-the-radar at 1-2, but plenty of opportunity awaits. 

“We have three games in [seven] days the first week of June,” said Landesman. “Should be telling.”

6. Road Rage

Did you realize that road teams went 8-3 this past weekend? 

It’s true.

In fact, over the past two weeks, road teams have gone 15-6. 

This is not normal.

Through the season’s first 39 games, road teams are 22-17, a winning percentage of around 56 percent.

This likely won’t continue, but it’s certainly something to monitor. 

Last year, home teams went 79-64, winning nearly 60 percent of the time. 

7. Memorable Milestones

Shoutout to Pittsburgh’s Anson Reppermund, who made his 100th career UFA game a thrilling road win over Minnesota. Although the veteran defender did not record any blocks this past Saturday against the Wind Chill, his three Ds against Madison on May 11 moved him past Kevin Pettit-Scantling into fifth place on the all-time blocks list, with 164.

Elsewhere, LA’s Sean McDougall caught two scores on Saturday against Portland, including his 300th career goal, placing him sixth in UFA history. But he’s still not even halfway to Cam Brock’s all-time total, which now is 620. 

Speaking of Brock, the next time he catches or throws a goal, it will be his 900th career score, which is an utterly ridiculous number. Assuming he’s healthy and active on June 1, it will almost certainly come that day against Chicago in his 150th career UFA game. 

The Hammer

Throughout the quirky ultimate world, Memorial Day Weekend has long been perhaps the most anticipated four-day disc extravaganza on the entire calendar. We’ve got eight UFA games on the Week 5 slate, including Philly at New York, a Super Series showdown between Minnesota and Madison, and three other interdivisional matchups. 

But Memorial Day Weekend also means the USA Ultimate College National Championships, an event that exhilarates annually and provides a stage for some of our league’s top young players to shine. Indeed, the UFA landscape always shifts heading into June as the premier college talent rejoins their pro teams and reshapes the race. 

As a broadcaster with the honor of calling both College Nationals and the UFA’s marquee matchups, I’ve personally had some wild travel itineraries in past years. Back in 2019, I went from Texas to Toronto and back in about 36 hours. Last year, I drove from Cincinnati to Madison and back, about a 16-hour round-trip journey in a wile day and a half. I look back on each of those experiences fondly, mainly because, fortunately, they went smoothly.

This year, the ultimate Gods have gifted me a much easier travel experience. I fly to Madison on Thursday night and then settle in for an awesome long weekend of majestic memories, watching plastic fly in ways we’ll be talking about for years to come.

We’ve got a great broadcast crew—I’ll be alongside Ian Toner, Colin Camp, and Adam Ruffner—set to call the Super Series showdown on Friday evening at the Breeze Stevens Field, and the iconic ultimate site will also host semis and finals of College Nationals on Sunday and Monday.

Honestly, the setting alone could help create the best semis and finals atmospheres we’ve seen in the college game. 

Will the Radicals stay undefeated? Will UNC 4-peat?

We’ll answer those questions and more this weekend in the aptly named “Capital City of Ultimate”.