Radicals @ Thunderbirds Preview

Ryan Baker - Journalist

It’s a bit of déjà vu for the Madison Radicals and the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds as this will be the third year in a row the Radicals will open up their season against Pittsburgh on May 11. 

The first thing that comes to mind between the two squads is the heartbreaking ending for Rads fans when Max Sheppard jumped over a pack of Radical players at the end of the game to take the win at the buzzer at last year’s opener. However, that is a thing of the past as the Radicals handedly took them down in their second matchup last year 22-17.

“We've been to Pittsburgh first the last couple years and we've really struggled in both those. We talk a lot about trying to fix things and perform better, but we know that the first time we get on the field it's going to be a struggle,” said head coach Tim DeByl. “They've already played a game which is always a disadvantage to the other team. They got their jitters out of the way so our goal is to just try to play well in the first quarter and catch up to where they're at as the game wears on.”

It’ll be an interesting watch to see how quickly Madison can shake off the offseason rust given the travel and that Pittsburgh already suffered their first loss in their first game of the year a couple weeks back against the Minnesota Wind Chill. The Radicals want to show their fans they deserve to be in Salt Lake City at the end of the season, and that starts with coming out hot in their first bout of the season. 

“We got to show the league and our fans that we're here to compete for a playoff spot this year. That's our motivation. Obviously, Pittsburgh has been a tough out for us early in the season. When we go there, it's a tough road trip. They're a good team at home and have a great home field. It's a long bus ride for us, a two day trip, and tough to get off that bus and compete against the home team . We have to do everything we can to make that easy on the players so they are ready to  play as soon as that opening pull happens,” said DeByl.

The roster will look a lot different opening week for the Rads as opposed to last year. This year they travel without Joe Leibforth, Jack Kelly, and Joshua Wilson. However, that is counteracted by some key guys that weren’t able to hit the field at all or barely played in 2023. Players like offensive weapons in Brian Hart, Kai Marcus, and Max Sample, while defensive cornerstone Sterling Knoche looks to stay healthy. 

“We always know when you're dealing with 20+ players that pretty much every week you're going to be missing at least one or two players. Our team is built on having a lot of players that are ready to go so I don't actually get too worried about missing players for games. I feel like our roster is stronger than it typically is for a road trip like this,” said DeByl.

A healthy reminder: Marcus played in two games in 2022 and in one of them threw eight assists and had nearly 500 total yards. 

“Obviously we want to start out the season on a high note. We’re not taking any games for granted this season. This team has so much talent, we just have to put the pieces together and execute. Last year it seemed like we lacked a strong deep game - adding a giant like Max and a gunslinger like Kai pretty effectively fixes that problem. It’s been a blast having them back,” said Ted Schewe.

It’ll be key to watch how DeByl uses deep threat Anthony Gutowsky as he gains comfortability in the UFA as he racked up a team-leading and program record breaking 37 goals in his rookie year. Not only that, but veteran Victor Luo and Schewe won’t need to carry the load and can return to their roles to keep themselves fresh at all times. 

However, none of that will matter if the Radicals continue to have their couple minute breakdowns, which resulted in a good amount of their losses last year. There would be breakdowns at the end of quarters, and 3-5 minute stretches that put Madison behind the eight ball.

“Keeping the foot on the gas, staying present in the game, staying aggressive, and confident throughout the game are things that we're going to work on at the team level. If we do that, that shows up in that last bit of the game” said DeByl.

“Consistency. Pittsburgh has some talented players that can make some big plays to fire up their team, we just need to maintain our level throughout the game and bring the game to them,” said Schewe. 

It’ll be a matter of limiting Sheppard and Anson Reppermund as those two combined for 1,586 total yards in the two games between the two last year. That and keeping their offensive efficiency up to keep their defense playing confident. 

“We want to have more confidence than we did last year.  We want to go out on that field knowing that we're going to win the game. I think last year, we just never quite got in the rhythm of controlling the game, you know until the end of the season,” said DeByl.

It’s going to be a different look for the Radicals this season, and this is the very beginning. 

Can DeByl and his squad start the road to returning back to playoffs and true Radical form?

Tune in here this Saturday at 6 p.m. EDT to find out!