Dallas and Raleigh are a level above the rest of the Division, but who will take the crown?
March 31, 2017 by Preston Thompson and Hugo Sowder in Preview with 0 comments
The South Division has added some big pieces for 2017. With so many teams in the hunt for the three playoff spots, it’s likely the deepest division in the league. Dallas loses a few stars, but still looks like the favorite to finish on top. Raleigh has made some high-level acquisitions and might be able to give the returning champs a run for their money. Beyond that, there are three teams that could realistically snatch the last playoff spot. Putting all six of these in some sort of order is tough, but here are the three tiers they break into.
Championship Contenders: Raleigh Flyers & Dallas Roughnecks
For the Raleigh Flyers, 2016 was a strange follow up year to a successful run to the AUDL Championship Weekend. The Texas expansion immediately shifted the balance of power away from Raleigh and stuck them immediately behind Dallas. “The obvious change is that it probably made our division the most competitive in the league,” said Raleigh head coach Mike DeNardis.
While Dallas stacked itself with talent, the Flyers looked largely the same as they had in 2015. In their two meetings in 2016, Dallas dominated the Raleigh matchup with decisive wins both at home and on the road. Raleigh also struggled to hold off other potential playoff contenders, only scoring road wins against Nashville and Charlotte. Offensive inconsistency and late game momentum swings prevented the Flyers from winning at Atlanta or Jacksonville. A loss to Atlanta in the first round of playoffs ended any hopes for a Regional Final showdown with Dallas.
But the balance of power may have shifted again this offseason when the Charlotte Express folded and two-time AUDL MVP Jonathan “Goose” Helton signed with the team for the 2017 season. With many of the Express signees familiar with the coaching style and systems of DeNardis (having played for or against Ring of Fire in 2016), the chemistry between the new and old players on the Flyers is strong.
“The influx of talent has been incredible in that every new player has been positive, engaged, and worked hard to make the Flyers as strong of a team as possible,” said DeNardis. In addition to the new signees, the Flyers landed another familiar coaching face when University of Virginia coach David Allison came on board as assistant coach. Allison and DeNardis form the strongest coaching staff in the league, sporting impressive resumes in and outside of the AUDL.
From a pure personnel perspective, the Flyers are a who’s who of North Carolina ultimate. The leadership of the Flyers is very familiar: Jon Nethercutt, Dave Snoke, and Noah Saul form a powerful veteran trio of throwers. Young college stars like J.D. Hastings (UNC Wilmington), Jack Williams (UNC Wilmington), and Jacob Fairfax (UNC Charlotte) have been joined this year by high school senior and the country’s top recruit Liam Searles-Bohs (Carolina Friends).
From the Charlotte Express, the Flyers have landed a promising young star in Nathan Goff along with veteran cutters Shane Sisco and Matt Bode. Bode brings three seasons of AUDL experience to the Flyers having played for the New York Empire, Jacksonville Cannons, and Charlotte Express, respectively.
Finally, the big import of Helton was accompanied by Brett Matzuka, a familiar face in North Carolina whose elite throwing skills add even more depth to a team that already featured a talented backfield. The Flyers’ offense looks powerful this year; with the addition of Helton and Bode, the consistency issues faced by the Flyers in 2016 may be a thing of the past.
Despite a revamped roster and an MVP-level addition, the Raleigh Flyers are still not the favorite to win the South. That honor goes to the defending champions from Dallas.
The Dallas Roughnecks have some of the heaviest off-season losses of any team in the division, but they still return most of the team that was barely challenged last year. To replace Beau Kittredge, they’ve brought in Joel Clutton. While he does not have the same superstar name, Clutton is still a big receiver that will force defenses to adjust. To replace Cassidy Rasmussen, they’ve brought in an underrated Abe Coffin from Madison. He is a skilled thrower that can provide an easy reset high in the stall count. Of course, Kittredge and Rasmussen are gigantic shoes to fill, but neither player was vital to Dallas’ championship run last season. The pieces they’ve added should be just as effective in their roles.
Dallas also brings in Jay Froude this season. Froude is a big defensive weapon for a team that already has a lot to offer on that side of the disc. He’ll join Matt Jackson, Dylan Freechild, and Stanley Peterson, just to name a few.
Even without Kurt Gibson (pectoral) until the middle of the summer, Dallas still might have the best offense in the league. Jimmy Mickle returns after an incredible 2016, along with Chris Mazur, Brandon Malecek, Dalton Smith, and Kai Marshall.
Dallas is not as much of a sure thing as they were in 2016, but the Roughnecks are still the favorites in the South and arguably in the entire league.
The Atlanta Hustle were one of the league’s only teams to give Dallas a run for their money in 2016. And with one major addition, they’re poised to take the third playoff spot for the south. Paul Lally comes to Atlanta from the Nashville Nightwatch, where he was a top five member of the offense in points played, assists, and goals. The addition will certainly help the Hustle offense, which, after some offseason losses, will be hurting.
Robert Runner, Elliott Erickson, Steven Hicks, and Mark Poole are gone this year, which will open gaps on both sides of the disc. Erickson’s athleticism made for some highlight level plays, and Poole’s offensive leadership has been with the team since its inception. Runner and Hicks added depth to the squad. The Hustle are adding several more players to cover the loss. Auburn youngsters Martin Newman and Evan Caldwell will be joining the team, as will former Georgia Tech standout Nick Hunter.
For some of the young Hustle stars, another year older could be another year better. Anders Olsen and Parker Bray could have their best season yet with the team, after another season wraps up with Emory and Georgia, respectively. A good year for them could mean more downfield targets for 2016 MVP Dylan Tunnell.
There aren’t many teams in the league that have made as many offseason moves as the Jacksonville Cannons. It’s not just the volume of moves but that each acquisition adds directly to an already present physical and athletic roster. Jakeem Polk, Chris LaRocque, Jeremy Langdon, and Jordan Huston will all make immediate contributions for the Cannons in 2017.
Three offseason additions stand out above the rest. The first is Brodie Smith, who not only brings a huge social media following but also a big arm that can take over handling duties for the Cannon offense. Smith has not been healthy for many years now, but the upside remains; few players in the sport have the raw throwing talent and power that he offers.
Joining him in the backfield could be Tyler Kunsa, who torched defenders with the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds. Finally, Mike Hickson returns to the team for 2017 after a short hiatus. When fully integrated, the duo of Hickson and Freystaetter, both standing 6’6″ tall, could be the toughest pair of cutters to match up with in the league.
After all of those roster changes, it’s hard to tell where this team will finish in the South. But for now, you can’t count Jacksonville out of the playoff discussion.
The Austin Sol are adding a whopping 14 new players. Aubrey Davis and John Cecil provide some previous pro experience (San Jose and Indianapolis, respectively).
Last year was an encouraging start for the new franchise, but making a playoff push this year will take something we have not seen before from Austin. Atlanta will be around the same level of quality, but Jacksonville has made a substantial improvement. With Charlotte gone, easy wins will be hard to come by.
But remember: against opponents in 2016 not named the Roughnecks, Austin went 7-3. Two of those three losses were by one point, and the third was in overtime. Unfortunately for them, they will have to play Dallas four times again in 2017. It’s difficult to think that Dallas won’t be the favorite in every one of those matchups, and it’s just as difficult to see Austin making the playoffs without at least one victory over the Roughnecks.
Austin returns a slew of lefty handlers with Chase Cunningham, Mitchell Bennet, Ryan Purcell, and Jeff Loskorn making for a fun long-ball style.
Maybe Next Year: Nashville Nightwatch
Nashville made waves last week when the news broke that they had selected Jesse Shofner to the 2017 roster, making her the first woman to be added to an AUDL season-opening roster. Shofner adds high-level experience that is a bit lacking in Nashville. Her presence on the field alone is enough reason to keep an eye on the Nightwatch.
Aside from that addition, there isn’t much in the category of next-level moves. As mentioned in the Atlanta rundown, Paul Lally is a big loss for the Nightwatch. So is Player Pierce, a major offensive contributor from last season. Nashville has added 10 new players, but none at the level to cover their losses.
Blake Galloway, a standout playmaker from Auburn, is a good signing that can mesh on either side of the disc. He’ll be a downfield target for the two big returners: Tom Radcliffe and Blake Waldron. Danny On joins the team after his time with Vanderbilt, but is still a relative unknown at the elite level. He’s young, but he has the skill set to be a regular contributor once comfortable with the professional style.
It’s likely that Raleigh and Dallas will finish 1st and 2nd, but the order is still uncertain. The play of Helton and Matzuka could be a huge factor in those matchups: can Dallas’ defense handle the additional talent on this year’s Raleigh offense? After the top tier, it’s a tossup between Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Austin. Jacksonville has consistently put up a fight when playing at home, and they’re better this season. Austin has also been tough at home. Road wins should be hard to come by for every team in the Division. Expect a fight to the finish.