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Empire Defeat Royal, Pitt Edges Chicago: 2015 AUDL Divisional Finals Preview

Raleigh Flyers’ Justin Allen.

 

With New York taking care of business against Montreal, and the Thunderbirds edging Chicago in the closest playoff we’ve seen so far, we preview each of the divisional finals being played tonight and tomorrow.

SATURDAY (All times Eastern)

EAST: #2 New York Empire @ #1 Toronto Rush, 6pm

With the Empire having blown out the Royal in the first round, 33-20, in New York’s highest-scoring game this season, they will now face the challenge of Isaiah Masek-Kelly and the rest of the Toronto squad that have dominated the East division since their inception.

Against Montreal, the Empire’s intensity had an immediate effect. New York scored the game’s opening 3 points, and never looked back as they cruised to a 16-9 halftime lead. Hardly taking their foot off the gas, they kept up the pressure until the final buzzer, by which time their superior depth had come into play and cemented a New York victory.

Toronto will not be so easy a victim. Both teams enter the East divisional final with impressive teamwide stat lines; the Empire have conceded the second fewest points in AUDL play this season, while the Rush have given up fourth fewest. On the other hand, the Rush tied the Thunderbirds for most goals scored in 2015, with New York not even cracking the top 5. While New York has played Toronto tightly in their past few games, it’s tough to see the Rush conceding at home, especially after the Empire had to dispatch the Royal last night. While it should be a very close game, Toronto has proved to have a penchant for working the disc quickly up the breakside no matter the opposition. Unless New York can contain the Rush’s exceptional disc skills, Toronto’s superior O-line should be able to make the difference in a battle of defensive powerhouses.

Prediction: Toronto Rush def. New York Empire

SOUTH: #2 Jacksonville Cannons @ #1 Raleigh Flyers, 7pm

The South divisional final will pit Jacksonville’s size and aerial dominance against Raleigh’s speed and grit. Arguably two of the most confident teams in terms of play style left in AUDL contention, both squads have shown the willingness and ability to easily advance the disc by hucking to their star receivers, who more often than not have been able to make plays in the air. That’s at least been the case against the rest of the South division teams. Raleigh takes a 2-1 record against Jacksonville into this playoff, but much more underlies that record.

When they first met, the Flyers defeated the Cannons 33-26. Game two resulted in a very close 29-27 victory. Just last month, Jacksonville was able to get their first W against Raleigh, in a 28-26 effort. While Raleigh is still showing that they start games anemically, Jacksonville is one of only a few teams in the AUDL who have appeared to consistently grow and flourish more and more as the season progresses. In fact, the Cannons are 9-1 dating back to May, with their only loss coming at the hands of the Flyers. Raleigh, on the other hand, suffered a pair of losses against Atlanta, and have frequently required strong second halves in order to edge out the competition. If there’s one team that will punish them for a lackluster first quarter, it’s Jacksonville.

Look for both teams to come out firing deep early in what both coaches will likely not want to devolve into a shootout; but that’s just what might happen. It will be interesting to see whether Allen and Freystaetter, the teams’ offensive juggernauts, see significant time against each other, or if defenders are rotated onto them in an attempt to contain two of the league’s most dangerous downfield threats. With calm conditions forecast, the teams will also have to decide between trying junky looks to prevent quick-strike scores, or trusting in their individual matchups. For Raleigh, Nethercutt will be willing and able to punish whatever space the defense leaves him, especially deep. Jacksonville’s John Best and Cole Sullivan will anchor the offense behind the disc, looking to release Freystaetter, Hickson, and their other big targets downfield.

While Raleigh may have some superior individual talent, Jacksonville as a team has only been performing better and better with each passing game. With some older players missing for Masters nationals, the onus will fall on Coach Mike DeNardis to try to control the pace and passion of his younger stars. Having already coached UNC to collegiate gold this year, DeNardis will want nothing more than a trip to AUDL Championship weekend before turning his focus to the club season. In a game with so many skilled deep throwers and receivers with both speed and height, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the matchup decided by the results of a couple late hucks.

Prediction: Jacksonville Cannons def. Raleigh Flyers

MIDWEST: #2 Pittsburgh Thunderbirds @ #1 Madison Radicals, 8pm

In the most exciting game so far this weekend, Pittsburgh barely avoided an upset win from Chicago, 24-23 in overtime. Starting the game with Degirolamo (hamstring) on the sideline, the Thunderbirds quickly broke to start. That would be their last lead of the game until late in the third quarter. On the back of a pair of first-throw Matzuka interceptions, the Wildfire broke Pitt again and again to take a 7-2 lead. At half, Chicago had given back some breaks, but was still up 14-11 and appeared in total control of the game.

The second half looked to be more of the same, as Chicago came out strong and broke again to lead 15-11. At 18-13, Pittsburgh made their move. An offensive hold was followed by six straight breaks to tie the game at 18s starting the fourth quarter, and continue to 20-18. Chicago held, then broke back to tie again, 20-20. The Thunderbirds held to take the 21-20 lead with 2:35 left in the game. Chicago would hold the next point; 21-21, Thunderbirds receiving. A Max Thorne inside flick bounced off of not one, but two Pitt receivers, and Matzuka quickly took over the Wildfire offense. A pick would stop Chicago’s flow and penalize them 10 yards. Off the reset, Pat Earles came through with a terrific block on Matzuka’s around, and it looked like Pitt would be able to game the clock and pull out the win.

But after working it most of the field, Ranii-Dropcho sent an around flick just past a bidding Ethan Beardsley, and Chicago had 20 seconds to win. A deep effort was blocked by Christian Pitts, who quickly dished to Max Thorne. A rushed huck attempt to his brother would be the last play of regulation.

While still intense, the overtime period lacked the venom that the Wildfire had brought in the opening quarter. After both teams held to start, a Chicago turnover resulted in a Pitt timeout and the subbing on of the Thunderbirds O-line. An instant Earles huck to Max Thorne put the Thunderbirds up by 2 with just under two minutes remaining. The Wildfire quickly held with a score to Nelson, and Pittsburgh just needed to possess the disc to take the win. Not wanting to end the game too safely, Isaac Saul gave the Wildfire a shot at tying the game yet again when he turned an inside break attempt near Chicago’s goal line. After another timeout and mass substitution from both teams, Matzuka would attempt a last-second hammer to the endzone, but was pressured enough that the throw went out of bounds. Game, Pittsburgh.

Despite standout performances from Chicago’s stars and numerous early errors from Pittsburgh, the Thunderbirds were able to exhibit the type of mental toughness that has come to be associated with the squad. The game would have been out of reach for most lesser squads, but not Pitt. They will get a few hours of rest, and then play at Breese Stevens field against the #1 Madison Radicals.

It remains to be seen whether Degirolamo will cleat up for the divisional final, but even if he does, it will take a miracle for this Pittsburgh squad to edge the rested Radicals after the overtime battle against Chicago. Radicals of the caliber of Meshnick, Hart, Wiseman, along with a stellar supporting cast will not allow Pittsburgh an inch without earning it with legs that will become more and more tired over the game’s 48 minutes. If the Thunderbirds can channel their depth properly, they could force a close game, but the Radicals have several huge advantages heading into this game (home stadium, rested stars, fresher roleplayers). Madison owe the Wildfire a debt of gratitude for tiring out Pittsburgh as much as possible and forcing an overtime period, and, barring an upset performance for the ages from the Thunderbirds, the Radicals will likely seal their trip to San Jose in just a few hours.

Prediction: Madison Radicals def. Pittsburgh Thunderbirds

SUNDAY

WEST: #2 Seattle Cascades @ #1 San Jose Spiders, 5pm

Playing with only 16 men, Seattle traveled down to the Bay yesterday to take on the San Francisco Flamethrowers, who were coming off a huge win over the top seed, San Jose. Missing names like Matt Rehder and Danny Karlinsky, the Cascades needed to be as efficient as possible in order to avoid being simply outworked and outrun by the Flamethrowers. They were.

With the exception of a few stellar plays by San Francisco and miscues on Seattle’s end, they played intelligently on both sides of the disc. On defense, they varied between junk sets and man with quick switches. Offensively, they played in the style most have come to associate with elite Seattle ultimate: short, fast-paced, attacking movement before the defense ever has a chance to react to the last throw. The game was close from start to finish, tied 10-10 before Seattle took half 13-11. They would trade holds almost the entire rest of the game, closing out the victory by the slim margin of 21-19.

Against the Spiders, there are several questions for both squads to answer. Will Seattle’s depth hold out against San Jose after one hard-fought battle already this weekend? How will Kittredge’s injury affect the Spiders’ gameplan? It’s difficult to imagine Beau becoming a liability, but if he’s unable to run or play hard without severe pain, San Jose just might be better off resting him. With a roster of only 20 active players, however, the Spiders could not have the luxury of resting anyone on the team.

If both teams were at full strength, the Spiders would likely take the game relatively handily. Given the circumstances, however, it’s a tough call. With the return of Rehder, Karlinsky, Illian, and O’Brien, this could be Seattle’s time to shine. Expect an initially tight game that may become somewhat significantly looser as both rosters begin to tire and look to end points quickly. If San Jose can stay healthy throughout the game and properly utilize a limited Beau, they should be able to edge the matchup. If not, Seattle will pounce on the opportunity to knock out the defending champs.

Prediction: San Jose Spiders def. Seattle Cascades

  1. Steven Wartinbee
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    Steven Wartinbee graduated Georgetown University in the class of 2015, where he captained the men's team, Catholic Justice. He currently lives and works in Arlington. You can contact him at swartinbee@gmail.com, or find him on Twitter @swartinbee.

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