June 14, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
Though Toronto and New York played each other for both teams’ first game of 2018, this rematch features quite different teams. In both teams’ first games of the season, each side was practically salivating to take the field. Now, a few months later, most players’ legs will be exhausted before the game even begins. The game takes place Sunday afternoon at 1 PM Eastern, and both teams will have played the night before. Toronto will host Ottawa on Saturday, while New York will be playing in Montreal in Stadium’s Game of the Week. Stamina will play a huge part in deciding this rematch.
Furthermore, both teams know who they are at this point in the season. In the first game of the season, neither team really had much of a sense of a 2018 identity that was distinct from the previous year.
Toronto hadn’t yet realized the gem that they had in Ben Oort in its first game. The rookie played only seven points, though he has since become one of the team’s most important and irreplaceable offensive weapons. Ben Burelle and Hugh Knapp – both potential offensive starters – weren’t yet with the team. Toronto’s offence was predictably stale, scoring a season-low 18 points.
Though New York’s rotations have shifted less since that first game than Toronto’s, the Empire have solidified their trust in their offensive and defensive systems. After that first game, multiple New York players and coaches mentioned that players were too frequently improvising, choosing to break out of the system to freelance a cut or throw. A few months later, that tendency has been curbed.
“Being our first game, we were still building our strategy, both in terms of offensive and defensive structures,” said Empire coach Eileen Murray. “We're definitely more solid in both of those and have been able to build on them. We'll be able to do a lot more, keep them on their heels. We're definitely more confident in [our structures], being halfway through the season.”
For much of the first game, New York proved to be more than Toronto could handle. New York was even leading 10-7 just before half, behind its elite defensive pressure. The game unraveled for New York as Beau Kittredge was forced into an off-handler role, and his deep shots especially proved to be meatballs for Toronto defenders.
Kittredge has improved in that role, even if coach Murray wants him to be slightly less of a thrower.
“We want players like Beau to come back when they're given that and take shots downfield,” she said. “He's definitely improved on that since that first game. I don't see him being back as much as he was that first game, but that is not something that out of the realm of possibility, depending on what the defence gives us.”
Though New York has committed itself to consistency, the availability of its players has been anything but consistent. Jeff Babbitt will return against Toronto, but Kittredge, Jagt, and others will be gametime decisions. A defensive powerhouse like New York will always be a difficult team to beat no matter who is in the lineup, so the game will likely be a slugfest whether or not New York’s stars make the trip.
Even if Kittredge is not on the field, New York has already benefited from his presence immensely.
“He's been a great person to have on the team, both in terms of what he brings, the mentality for the younger players, the advice that he can give, the personal feedback that he gives to players that he's working with,” explained Murray. “That's really been very valuable. [Our players] enjoy having him around for that game knowledge that some of the younger players don't possess yet.”
To help prepare for this game, New York assistant coach Isaiah Bryant took the time to discuss the matchup with me. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
Louis Zatzman: The last time you played the Rush was the first game of the season. Your offence was clearly a work in progress, and guys frequently stepped out of the system to improvise, and you finished with a lowly 14 points. What's the offence like now? The team has played the fewest games in the league, so much time have you had for improvement?
Isaiah Bryant: The offense is continuing to improve, though I'll admit the injuries to some of our starters have slowed that progress. Despite our injuries, we've had players step up, which gave them valuable experience heading into the thick of the season.
Louis: Brownlee wasn't at that first Rush game. He's been a monster for you guys so far, with such a diverse set of skills. Is he making the trip up north? What role do you envision for him against the Rush?
Izzy: Brownlee will be making the trip to Canada this weekend. He's comfortable playing in different roles, so expect to see him playing both sides of the discs.
Louis: Does Toronto losing - again - in D.C mean anything looking in from the outside? Do you sense blood in the water?
Izzy: Not really. We'll watch film as we normally do with our opponents, but I don't want to take anything away from DC. They're a talented and well coached team, so it's no surprise to me that Toronto lost to them on the road.
New York (6 games played)
|Harper Garvey (16)
Josh Alorro (15)
Ben Jagt (16)
|Ryan Drost (11)
Ben Jagt (7)
Toronto (9 games played)
|Cam Harris (19)
Andrew Carroll (18)
Ben Burelle (17)
Ben Oort (24)
|Isaiah Masek-Kelly (15)
Cam Harris (12)
The line, per AUDL pick’em: Tor (-3.5) vs NY (+3.5)