More balance than ever in the AUDL East.
March 30, 2017 by Patrick Stegemoeller in Preview with 0 comments
In the East division of the AUDL, it’s generally been a race for second. With the Toronto Rush winning the division every year, often handily, most of the drama came from seeing who would get to be the challenger that got to take a shot at Toronto. Recently, however, the balance of power has started to shift, and the division has become more competitive from top to bottom.
The DC Breeze brought in a bevy of talent that catapulted them to contender status, while the New York Empire continued to earn their reputation as the toughest D-line this side of the Mississippi. Failing franchises like Rochester and New Jersey were replaced with budding successes in Ottawa and Montreal, and even the division’s black sheep in Philadelphia looks like it’s getting its act together this season.
The overall talent in the Division this season is at an all-time high, and the way it’s dispersed could cause a division that has largely stuck to the script to experience some upheaval.
Championship Contender: Toronto Rush – Come At The King…
2016 was a listless year for Toronto ultimate. GOAT, the Toronto based club team, was upset at Regionals by Boston Dig and missed Nationals for the first time in six years. The Canadian delegation to the world championships in the summer, comprised largely of Toronto veterans, had a disappointing tournament and never seriously challenged for gold. But despite this malaise, the Rush still did what they always do. They won the AUDL East and advanced to Championship Weekend.
While their trophy case continues to reflect Toronto’s dominance over the division, the air of invincibility that used to emanate from the Rush has dissipated. Other teams are starting to catch up to them, even going so far as to beat them during the regular season, and Father Time is creeping up on an aging core that makes up the majority of the Rush’s production.
Last season they dropped their first-ever regular season game on American soil when they fell to the Breeze, but Varsity Stadium still proved to be a fortress in the playoffs, and the kings of the East held off the Breeze’s coup in an overtime thriller. The Rush’s season long duel with DC was emblematic of their season as a whole. They showed they still know how to win when it counted, going 3-1 against their chief rivals from the States, but with a puzzling -1 point differential in the four games. The wins were still there, but the luster was gone.
Will the Rush retain their crown this season? A lot of that has to do with the health of Mark Lloyd. Coming off of a devastating ACL tear that scuttled his entire 2015 season and left him as shell of himself in 2016, Lloyd appears to have put his health concerns to rest this season.
His absence explains some of the Rush’s deterioration the past couple seasons, as they lacked the X factor that a fully unleashed Lloyd provided. Isaiah Masek-Kelly has done an admirable job as a stand in, but neither he nor anyone else could match the productivity of Lloyd’s 2014 campaign.
That whole year, Lloyd was unquestionably a top five player in the world. His performance against Beau Kittredge and Revolver at Club Nationals in which he almost singlehandedly took down the best team in the world will live on in ultimate lore forever. He was similarly impressive in the AUDL that season, hauling in goals and dishing assists. The ultimate dual threat, he could terrorize defenses with his throws or his athleticism, and he made his presence felt on defense with plays like this.
If Lloyd is back to that level, then the Rush have the best player in the East and a focal point for their offense. If he’s not, then we could see more of what we saw last season. Toronto rolled out a multi-faceted attack, relying on the trickery and cleverness of handlers like Thomson McKnight and Jeff Lindquist to open up the defense, and a solid if not spectacular core of cutters lead by Masek-Kelly, Cam Harris, and a hobbled Lloyd that got job done.
The Rush have some question marks defensively as well, losing Anatoly Vasilyev, who not so long ago was one of the best D-line players in the world. Not only did he bottle up opposing teams’ handlers, but he was crucial to the Rush off the turn, marshaling the offense with crisp throws and bruising handler cuts. The team won’t hurt for athletes on the defensive end with Andrew Carroll, Jackie Hau, Remi Ojo, and a host of young Toronto pipeline prospects holding it down, but they lost a key leader and decision maker who could always be counted on to pull the right string at the right time.
Toronto will also be without the contingent of Ironside players that bolstered their roster last season. Will Neff, Alex Simmons, and Rusty Ingold-Smith weren’t a huge presence for Toronto, but they were key figures in a couple of the clashes with DC; their departure takes some punch out of the roster for the Rush.
Despite these personnel changes, the Rush are still the Rush, and until someone beats them in the playoffs, they have to be considered the favorite in the East. They are on top of the mountain, and while the challengers to the throne have grown in number and in capability, so far, the king has stayed the king.
Playoff Favorites: New York Empire & DC Breeze
The Empire have qualified for the postseason every year since the team’s inception in 2013, but posted their worst-ever record last season, falling to 7-7 and barely squeaking into the playoffs. Perhaps in response to this dip in performance, the team’s front office scooped up the biggest names off the free agent market and brought some serious buzz to the Big Apple.
New York’s roster on opening day last season looks almost unrecognizable right now following last year’s midseason acquisition of John Wodatch and Jeff Babbitt followed by this off-season’s parade of college all-stars that have signed contracts in New York. Conor Kline, Tyler Haskell, Ben Jagt, Craig Cox, Harper Garvey… you could field a reasonable Nex-Gen 4.0 squad from the players that the Empire have brought in this season. Add all that to Josh Alorro and Chris Kocher, two of New York’s fastest rising stars, and you’ve got a young core that any team in the league will envy.
We saw something like this before on a smaller scale in 2014 , when the Empire persuaded Noah Saul, Justin Allen, and Matt Bode to come up from North Carolina for a season. This time it’s happening on a bigger scale, as the bright lights of New York City and the committed recruiting of co-owner Cullen Shaw and head coach Tom Gibbons attracted many of off-season’s biggest uncommitted names to one of the most exciting young teams in the league.
But can all of the pieces fit together? It takes some serious mental gymnastics to imagine exactly how all of these new players will mesh on the field with a team that already has such a pronounced identity.
Lack of talent won’t be a problem for New York, and that’s actually somewhat new territory for the franchise. For years, they have been the little brother team to Toronto, trying to accomplish with grit, hard work and sheer self-belief what talent alone could not.
And for years, they came up just short. Since 2014, including the playoffs, the Empire are 0-9 against the Rush, with four of those losses coming by three or fewer points. This relationship has come to define the franchise and crafted an on-field identity.
The Empire took pride in their defense, called their homes games a “block party,” and, despite their lack of success against Toronto, suffocated the rest of the East with a tough-as-nails playing style. Then, in 2016, the Breeze pushed their talent to the next level and jumped the Empire in line as the heir apparent to the Rush. NY’s game line against DC last season looked very similar to their history with Toronto, as they went 0-4 against the Breeze but with a mere -7 point diff, including two double overtime losses by a single point.
New York’s hustle and defense allowed them to hang with anyone, but for another year, they couldn’t get over the hump.
This year, it looks like they’ve closed that talent gap. With DC and Toronto taking a step back, New York’s imports put them on the same talent level as their opposition. The question is what happens to the team’s identity? Do they keep the same hard-nosed philosophy that has informed their play for years? Will some of the stalwarts of the team’s past get the chance to keep their roles on at the expense of the splashy new signings, or will the Empire rebuild its identity on the fly around their new players?
This conflict will be one of the most interesting things to keep an eye on this season, and will determine whether their new pieces are the extra boost the team needed to finally get that boulder up the hill, or another false dawn that sends the team tumbling down the same slope it has failed to summit in the past.
The Breeze are in the opposite situation as the Empire. DC saw a mini-exodus of the name-brand players that made their roster jump off the page, but are now in a position to perhaps coalesce as a team and succeed based more on chemistry than pure talent.
Last season, despite all the talent they had assembled, the Breeze never felt like they settled on a team identity. With team USA commitments, some injuries, and the logistical problems involved in importing players, the Breeze almost never got to play with their full roster. And most games, it didn’t matter.
Johnathan “Goose” Helton and Bob Liu unavailable today? No problem, Markham Shofner is going to unleash a fire and brimstone aerial assault with Jeff Wodatch burning everyone deep and Nicky Spiva crushing his defender on unders. Spiva tweak his hamstring and Alan Kolick out too? Well, then Brett Matzuka will remind everyone why he is the best pure thrower of a disc on earth, David Cranston will lock his man up, and Brad Scott will get four layout blocks. The team maybe had too many weapons. Who do you revolve an offense around when you have Shofner, Kolick, Liu, and Matzuka in the backfield? Do you go with Goose or Spiva as your primary downfield option? We never really got to find out, as the team never coalesced into something greater than the individual talents it was comprised of. Most games it didn’t matter, but when the season was on the line, it did.
Last season, the Breeze handed Toronto their first ever regular season loss on American soil, but dropped their other three games against the division champs. They outclassed New York from a talent standpoint but played them much closer than the names of the roster would indicate and lost to a Montreal team that finished with a sub .500 record. Understandably, given the compressed time frame that they the players had together, the team never showed the kind of chemistry has been the hallmark of Toronto’s dominance of the East.
They won’t have the same problem this season, as many of the interlopers that made the roster so tantalizing last year have moved on. Spiva moved up the Acela corridor to Philly, while Goose and Matzuka are plying their trade for the Flyers in the South Division. Additionally, some core DC players that have been a part of the District’s identity for years are gone, with Tom Doi making the movie to Los Angeles to play with the Aviators and Ben Feng retiring.
Even with all those assets off the table for the Breeze, what remains for DC is still formidable, and, perhaps more importantly, part of one formula. The team’s core of Alan Kolick, Markham Shofner, Jeff Wodatch, Rowan McDonnell, Brad Scott, and David Cranston come with chemistry built in. These guys have all played together in the AUDL or in club for years, and there isn’t much about each other’s game that they still need to figure out.
Even the new players added to the mix this season should be ready to fit in seamlessly, as Delrico Johnson, Eric Miner, and the rest of the DC Current exiles all have experience playing with the Breeze’s core on Truck Stop. Everyone should know exactly what their role and their job is on the team this year.
As someone, probably a grizzled Indiana high school basketball coach whose identity has been lost to time said, “It’s better to all be on the same page than trying to find the right one.” This year, the Breeze will put that to the test.
On the Outside Looking In: Montreal Royal & Ottawa Outlaws
A resident of the East’s packed middle district, the Royal were just one game behind New York and Ottawa in the standings last year. Unlike the Empire or Outlaws, Montreal managed to beat both the Rush and the Breeze, the only team to do so last season. Of course they also dropped multiple games to Ottawa and almost lost to Philly, which an elite team just would not have done.
The reason for this apparent vacillation in quality is pretty simple. The Royal were, and are, a top-heavy team. Kevin Quinlan, Kevin Groulx, Antoine Genest, and Felix Daigle carried a huge load for the team last season. Quinlan lead the team in both goals and assists, totaling 85 points on the season. Genest came in behind him with 61 combined goals and assists, while Daigle lead the team with 21 blocks while also coming in third on the team in both goals and assists. Oh, and Groulx? He did stuff like this, regularly.
The problem for Montreal is that they need their top players to play high quality and high volume ultimate every time they step on the field, because the bottom end of the roster doesn’t hold up to the rest of the division. This puts a ton of pressure on the Royal’s few best players to deliver. When they are up to the task, the results can be spectacular, as they were in the wins against Toronto and DC. But when one of those key pieces has an off night…you get those losses to Ottawa.
It looks like Montreal could be in a similar position this year, but with even more imposing talent at the top. Benefiting from the collapse of the MLU, the Royal acquired some Whitecaps survivors, most notably Christian Foster. Foster was one of the best players on Boston Ironside’s club championship run last fall and his massive pulls should be perfect on an AUDL field.
Foster is a great addition for the Royal, but they’ll need more than that if their quest to make it to Championship Weekend on their home turf is to become a realistic possibility. To make that dream come true, the youth revolution that the Royal brought in this season will need to grow up in a hurry. After the retirement of veterans Yoland Cabot and Jean-Levy Champagne, the team made a conscious effort to get younger and looked across the border to do it. Of the thirteen new names on the roster this year, seven are Americans, two are French, and one, Mauricio Martinez, is Colombian. Most are AUDL rookies, and the team is hoping that these additions will provide a solid foundation for the team to build towards a division title as soon as this year.
If a few of those younger players can crack the top of the roster, it’s not impossible to see this Montreal team making a run in the playoffs. A top tier of players with Quinlian, Groulx, the Genest brothers, Daigle, and Boston studs Foster, David Ferraro, and Ben Katz can hang with the best in the division. If a couple young players can develop ahead of schedule to fill out the team’s depth, then the Royal could just be the underdog darlings that add some drama to the postseason.
The Outlaws have gone 7-7 in both of years of their franchise’s existence, but with the overall quality of the division stepping up in 2017, it could be tough to see that going from coincidence to pattern.
The big addition for Ottawa is David Hochhalter, a Team Canada representative that is a real duel threat, capable of both throwing and catching heaps of goals. He has played his way across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto, now landing in Ottawa to compete in the AUDL East for the first time. The Outlaws brought in another West Coast Canadian veteran in the form of Eric Hunter, who made a name for himself on both the pro and club circuit in Vancouver.
While these moves may move the needle somewhat, it’s tough to see how Ottawa can drastically improve from a solid but not spectacular 2016 season. Most of their best players, such as Derek Alexander, are at or already past their primes. Unlike most of their other division rivals, they aren’t benefiting from local MLU franchises folding. The rising tide of talent hitting the division apparently doesn’t lift all boats.
Of course, that’s not to say that the Outlaws are devoid of talent. Mike Lee is an unheralded offensive stud who quietly put together 89 combined goals and assists last season. Andy Ouchterlony can change the dimensions of the field with his throws, but only managed to play eight games last season for the Outlaws. The problem is that the upside isn’t the same for Ottawa as it is for most of their rivals, and if things go perfectly this season, they could still end up back at 7-7. If their veterans start to slip a bit and an injury bug hits the team, things could get dark in a hurry.
The team’s greatest strength is its consistency, as the roster hasn’t seen much turnover and the players should all be familiar with their roles. That counts for a lot when several of their division rivals have had more volatile off-seasons; you can expect the Outlaws to be ready to hit the ground running at full speed on Week 1, not needing any time to piece their team together.
Of course, that consistency may not amount to more than another 7-7 season, but in such a competitive division, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Maybe Next Year: Philadelphia Phoenix – Now With Real Players!
The Phoenix this year are like a refurbished basement.
They’ve got a nice new TV (Marques Brownlee), a smooth pool table (Nicky Spiva), a mini-fridge (Matt Esser), and one of your uncle’s old beer league softball jerseys framed above the bar (Trey Katzenbach). Before the remodeling, you’d never be caught dead in that musty old den, but now there are definitely some good reasons to come hang out.
Unfortunately for Philly, it’s still a basement. If you want to be taken seriously and experience all of the bigger and better things life has to offer, you’ve got to get out of the basement.