August 7, 2015 by Steven Wartinbee in Preview, Recap with 0 comments
Three of the same four teams as 2014 will converge on Championship Weekend in 2015. The Toronto Rush, Madison Radicals, San Jose Spiders, and AUDL-rookie Raleigh Flyers have all earned the privilege to compete at San Jose’s Avaya Stadium August 8th and 9th. We take a look back at how they got there, and preview the semifinal matchups.
The Path to Championship Weekend
WEST: The San Jose Spiders had to battle the hardest in order to secure their division. A 10-4 record with only +26 point differential was enough to lock up the top seed heading into the playoffs. Regular season losses against Seattle, San Francisco (x2), and, surprisingly, bottom-placed Vancouver will give Toronto confidence that the 2015 Spiders are not the same team that steamrolled to the 2014 championship.
MIDWEST: The Madison Radicals comfortably rolled to another division title and their third consecutive AUDL semifinal. With few exceptions (most notably Pittsburgh, Chicago, and an upset-minded Indianapolis team), Madison’s wins were rarely in doubt after the first quarter of play; they also benefited significantly from the Midwest playoff schedule, and will be looking to advance to the final for the first time.
EAST: Heading into 2015, the biggest story surrounding the Toronto Rush was how they were going to deal with the loss of Mark Lloyd. Now, it’s tough to think that there were ever concerns. Not that losing Lloyd wouldn’t be a massive blow to any team, but Toronto have coped incredibly well, proving their depth from top to bottom. Masek-Kelly leads the list of players who have stepped up in Lloyd’s absence.
SOUTH: In its inaugural season, the South provided more than its share of highlights and incredibly close games. With the division arguably deserving of another playoff berth, the Atlanta Hustle barely missed out on the playoffs after a tough winner-take-all home loss to Jacksonville. The Cannons’ double-overtime loss at Raleigh (after having led all game until the final point) was one of the most exciting matches the AUDL has ever seen.
Divisional Finals Recaps
New York Empire @ Toronto Rush (25-19 Toronto): The most predictable of the league quarterfinals, Toronto simply outclassed a weaker Empire squad. From their initial 3-0 run to start the game, the Rush started strong and never looked back. Anatoly Vasilyev was critical for Toronto, assisting no fewer than five breaks over the course of the game. The Rush also continued to demonstrate the abilities of their entire roster, performing impressively even without stalwarts Adrian Yearwood and Jeff Lindquist. New York plagued themselves with unforced errors, and their usually intensely pressuring defense was unable to significantly affect Toronto’s smooth offense.
Seattle Cascades @ San Jose Spiders (21-19 San Jose): With the injury status of Beau Kittredge in question and Seattle getting several reinforcements for their second game in as many days, some would have opined that the Cascades held the edge going into the West final. After the first point, they would have said, “I told you so!” And then they would have been silent.
Broken once, San Jose came alive for a four goal run, capitalizing on early Cascades errors, and had the composure to maintain their lead the rest of the game. Greg Cohen was once again clutch for the Spiders, tallying four blocks on the day (including a game-sealing point block on a Matt Rehder huck attempt), while Beau Kittredge still managed to tie Simon Higgins for San Jose’s best +/-, despite clearly playing at less than 100% and suffering an injury late in the game after a dangerous bid from a Seattle defender.
Pittsburgh Thunderbirds @ Madison Radicals (24-21 Madison): On the back of a 24-23 overtime win against a resilient Chicago squad, Pittsburgh headed to Breese Stevens field to take on the hometown favorites, the Madison Radicals. Given the intensity of the Chicago game, Tyler Degirolamo’s absence (he left the field midway through the second point), and the hyped Madison crowd, the odds were stacked against the Thunderbirds.
The Radicals came out hot, starting off the game with a pair of breaks, and quickly taking their lead to 10-4. Much to their credit, Pittsburgh never gave up, and had several opportunities to tie the game; however, the closest they were able to come was 16-17. The Radicals were able to hold off Pittsburgh to take the game by a margin of three goals, in no small part thanks to plays like this, this, and this.
Jacksonville Cannons @ Raleigh Flyers (28-27 Raleigh): Very much expected to be a tight, high-scoring game, the two teams left in the South put on the best and most entertaining show possible, at least from the neutral perspective. As has become almost routine, Raleigh came out of the gates slowly, quickly conceding a 6-2 deficit in favor of Jacksonville, almost all due to unforced errors and miscues that gave the Cannons short fields to punch in breaks.
The Flyers then went on a four goal run of their own, to tie the game at 6-6. From that point until 12 seconds before the end of the game, Jacksonville would have anywhere from a 1 to 3 goal cushion. A truly unfortunate turfed dump pass would gift Raleigh possession with a short field, allowing them to score the tying goal to take the game into overtime. After having been relatively quiet by his own lofty standards, Justin Allen went into overdrive, scoring four of the Flyers’ final five goals to steal the game away from the Cannons.
MADISON RADICALS v. RALEIGH FLYERS (4 PM Pacific on ESPN3)
The Madison Radicals return to Championship Weekend for the third time in as many years; they reached the final in 2013, and lost out to the eventual champions in the 2014 semifinals. They will begin their 2015 Championship Weekend against the only rookie team left in the AUDL, but still one that some are expecting to shock the more established programs (an expansion team has won the AUDL both of the last two seasons).
Madison is a team that can control the pace of a game like no other, often alternating between stifling man defense and their vaunted zone that is almost more dangerous in calm conditions; throwers become tempted to take what appear to be easy shots, only to be eaten up by the Radicals defense. While Andrew Meshnick leads the team in goals, assists, and blocks, this is by no means a one-man team. An all-star cast includes names like Petit-Scantling, Andrew and Kevin Brown, Wiseman, Hart, Camp (the latter three were all nominated for Callahan during their college days): this very well may be the deepest roster in San Jose.
On the other side of the field, Jack Williams looks to continue his impressive streak of play; he was a trusted force for Raleigh against the Cannons, coming up with huge grabs more than once throughout the game, including the final goal of regulation. Despite only having played one game with the Flyers before, the deep receiver out of UNC Wilmington combined with stat-sheet regulars Allen, Jon Nethercutt, Jarrett Bowen and Noah Saul to lead Raleigh past a heartbroken Jacksonville squad to the final four. While Raleigh will be without Nethercutt this weekend due to a YCC coaching obligation, they should return several experienced players (Taylor Pope, Ben Dieter, Robert Goode, Tristan Green) who all missed the divisional final. The veteran leadership should help the Flyers, but they remain one of the more hot-headed and trigger happy teams of 2015. Saturday will show whether they have the patience to cope with one of the best zone defenses in the league.
Even against Jacksonville, Raleigh continued to demonstrate their recurring first-quarter struggles. Don’t be surprised if the Flyers drop to an early deficit; the big question is whether the tireless Madison O line, led by one of the most consistent handlers in the league, Andrew Brown, will allow Raleigh back into the game.
One particularly interesting battle in this game will not occur on the field, but the sideline. This AUDL semifinal pits Madison coach Tim DeByl against Raleigh coach Mike DeNardis. Aside from the similar surname prefixes, these two are among the best minds in the AUDL. Decisionmaking as to timeouts, line-calling, and various strategic shifts will play a huge factor, and there are few better at that element of the game.
SAN JOSE SPIDERS v. TORONTO RUSH (7 PM Pacific on ESPN3)
One of the 2014 title game contenders will be ending their season a round sooner in 2015.
While the Spiders handily defeated the Rush last year, this season’s matchup presents a very different puzzle. Mark Lloyd is still recovering from ACL surgery and will not play. Beau Kittredge will be playing after a performance that was enough to get past the Cascades, but showed some uncharacteristically lax defense that proved he wasn’t 100%. Isaiah Masek-Kelly is having a breakout season for the Rush, while Greg Cohen is dominating his defensive assignments for San Jose.
The Spiders lost some key cogs in the offseason that helped carry them to the 2014 championship (most notably Kurt Gibson), but have displayed impressive depth to take them to the top of the West. The big question is whether the Spiders’ O line can deal with the impressive Rush defense, spearheaded by Anatoly Vasilyev and Remi Ojo. As shown throughout the season, Christian Johnson, Higgins, and Marcelo Sanchez are more than capable of stepping up when needed, but Toronto will provide a very difficult challenge behind Cam Harris, Lindquist, and Geoff Powell. Defensive matchups for the Rush will be helped if Beau takes a backseat role in the offense, or is primarily employed on defense, as he was against Seattle.
Kittredge didn’t play at the Pro-Elite Challenge this last weekend, almost certainly part of the reason behind Revolver’s surprise loss to Sockeye in the final in USA Ultimate Club Division play. However, according to the most recent installment of the Tuesday Toss, he will be in the Spiders’ starting lineup this weekend. It remains to be seen at what level his rib injury will allow him to play, or whether his injury might become aggravated enough to take him out of the game. It would take a lot, but at a certain point it isn’t worth risking the rest of his club season, and potentially part of next season just to play here.
The Rush will enter the game with full intent to repay the Spiders for their loss in last year’s final. Coming out of a division with a much weaker bottom, the Toronto Rush haven’t seen a whole lot of serious competition during the regular season. Turnovers won’t be given as generously, so Toronto will have to be clinical in converting break opportunities — not an easy task against the likes of San Jose.
San Jose will also easily have the strongest fan support at Championship Weekend, for obvious reasons. In a tight game, it could be the home crowd that contributes to some late-game heroics from the Spiders. Some of the Rush’s weakest performances have come while away at Montreal, known for having one of the largest and most raucous fan bases in the AUDL.
One thing’s for sure: these are going to be three incredible games at an amazing venue. If you can make it out to Avaya Stadium in San Jose or catch the games on ESPN3, it will be well worth your time.