Late game heroics brought the Empire from behind to return to Championship Weekend.
September 7, 2021 by Alex Rubin in Recap with 0 comments
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MOHEGAN LAKE, NY — In an instant classic, the New York Empire defeated the Atlanta Hustle 22-21 on a buzzer-beating grab by Ryan Osgar. The Hustle led for most of the game, but the Empire defense came alive late in the fourth quarter to send the defending champions back to Championship Weekend.
Coming off of their best season in five years, the Atlanta Hustle entered the 2021 playoffs after a dominant two-thirds of the regular season that saw the team fade down the stretch in a loss to Tampa Bay and a double-overtime victory over 1-11 Pittsburgh. Their opponent: none other than the New York Empire, the 2019 champions with a retooled all-star lineup. While Atlanta beat the Empire at home on July 24, the score was a close 22-21 and this playoff game was played in New York, though at a new site after the storms and flooding that hit the New York area particularly hard forced the Empire away from their New Rochelle home.
Despite arriving at the site of the game just 40 minutes before the opening pull and rushing through abbreviated warm ups, it was the Hustle who jumped out to an early lead. On the first point, Elliott Chartock overthrew his intended target. After a time out, Atlanta’s Austin Taylor was double teamed. With all of his resets covered, he was forced to shoot deep to Antoine Davis, who jumped too soon, but the disc fell into the waiting arms of Will Lindquist trailing the play. Throughout the first quarter, the Atlanta deep game was on fire. Matt Smith and Karl Ekwurtzel each caught massive hucks, with Smith’s bidding effort — for his 300th career goal, no less — likely to be seen in an upcoming SportsCenter Top Ten Plays segment.
Dean Ramsey caught the second Atlanta break after a misthrown reset from Chartock, but New York quickly held and broke back to tie the game at 4-4. Atlanta held to end the first quarter up 5-4, held to start the second quarter, and broke again a few points later to build an 8-5 lead as part of a 4-1 run. The Empire snuck in a hold before Atlanta really blew the game open. JP Burns poached a deep block before hucking to Jakeem Polk for 10-6 lead. Then, Ramsey skied New York’s Ryan Osgar as the Hustle built an 11-6 lead while the Empire O-line looked sluggish on defense. The Empire managed the clock correctly for a two-for-one opportunity and went into the half down just 12-8.
The Atlanta offense was the story of the first half. The Hustle threw just two turns while converting five of their six break chances and all eight of their hucks. That near perfection did not last long.
New York scored to open the second half, and on Atlanta’s first offensive point, Taylor’s huck sailed just too far for Elijah Jaime. The Empire punched in the break to make it a two-score game, and each offense held tensely the rest of the way. Parker Bray deflected New York’s last second blade between Jeff Babbitt and Ben Jagt, and the Hustle led 14-12 at the end of the third quarter.
The teams patiently traded holds in the fourth, but it seemed like a matter of time before New York made its next move. There was a feeling of inevitability that the defending champions couldn’t fold so easily. Midway through the fourth, the Empire started to claw back.
Atlanta received leading 17-16, but Michael Fairley was outpositioned by Chartock, who blocked Taylor’s huck. Seeking to tie the game for the first time since 4-4, New York called time out. The Empire patiently worked the disc down the field, and Ben Katz jumped in a dish from Babbitt to bring the game level with 2:42 left in regulation.
“The big thing that I was thinking and that I heard from other players was that we knew we had the capacity to come back and win the game,” the Empire’s Matt Stevens said. “The question was whether we were going to or not. That was the part of it that was in our hands.”
As if that wasn’t a wild enough sequence, the game came down to a few key decisions in the final minute of regulation. With the score tied at 18-18 and 58 seconds showing on the clock, Atlanta received the pull and without rush inched up the field while keeping the disc primarily in the offensive backfield. With 12 seconds left, Player Pierce launched a deep shot to Jaime, streaking downfield with just Jagt chasing him. As Jaime went up for the disc, he was fouled with four seconds left and began to set up an offensive set on the goal line. However, before the throw, the Atlanta sideline called a timeout and on the redo, Taylor tossed a deep pass, this time to Brett Hulsmeyer, but Jagt made one of the plays of the game and blocked it cleanly. New York’s last ditch hail mary was blocked short of the end zone, and the game went to overtime.
Each team held without trouble to kick off the extra period. On the Hustle’s second offensive point, Davis overthrew Tanner Robinson on a strike cut — his fourth turnover of the game! The Empire called a time out to sub on their offensive players, and Babbitt skied Hulsmeyer on the goal line. His rushed blade looked to be a poor decision when it left his hand, but it found a bidding Jagt, using every inch of his body to keep the disc off the turf, and the Empire had their first lead of the game at 20-19 with 2:31 left in overtime.
The Hustle received with 41 seconds left in OT, down 21-20. After marching the disc confidently down the field, Robinson’s flick was a touch too sharp and hit the turf before Jaime could catch it. With twelve seconds left, Osgar picked up the disc facing a sideline double team. He stepped through the marks, but his floaty reset was blocked by Jaime! After a time out, Taylor lofted a perfect reset throw that hovered over the goal line just out of reach of the nearest defender for Pierce to jump over the goal line and tie the game.
With 6 seconds left and the score deadlocked at 21-21, the Empire received the pull knowing they would also start a potential second overtime period on offense. Never a team to wait, Jack Williams, who has been involved in so many late game miracles for New York this season, caught the pull, waited for his receivers to move downfield, and launched a high huck before a mark could set up. A pack of players formed in the middle of the end zone as the disc slowly descendsed back towards the field. A mess of Atlanta players — including all of the defenders in the end zone — went for the disc early and Osgar watched as it floated over the tangle of bodies caught up in the fracas. He caught it calmly and unmarked in the end zone for the walk off 22-21 win.
“That’s the awesome thing about sports,” said Stevens. “The risk is a crushing defeat and the reward is when you pull out a game like that. It makes it all worth it.”
“At the end of the day, they were very top heavy and they played their superstars a lot and their superstars came up big,” Smith said. “There’s a few moments in each game – especially at a caliber of that level – where it’s going to be close and you’re either going to make the play or your not. I think in a lot of those instances, especially late, they got one more gut punch on us than we were able to get on them.”
Despite the loss, Taylor stood out yet again as the player of the game for the Hustle. He tallied seven assists and a goal on 58/59 throwing. Burns played one of his best games of the season, with an assist, three goals, and a block filling the stat sheet. Including his highlight play, Smith had four goals and two assists. The Empire defense limited Davis’s impact to one assist and two goals, with a whopping four turnovers.
“It’s mixed emotions,” Smith reflected. “In some ways it stings because I think we have the talent level of a championship contender at the very least. We had the talent and it sort of sucks to be close and to have that not be the case, but I’ve been on a lot of Hustle teams and this is by far our best team. A 9-4 season on a team that was a lot of fun — it’s bittersweet, there’s certainly a touch of the sweet.”
On the Empire, Osgar will get plenty of attention for his key catch, but he also had seven assists and five goals to lead his team. Williams was New York’s rock in the backfield, especially with Chartock being held off the scoresheet with four turnovers, going 67/69 with five assists and 600 yards throwing. He also led the game with 39 points played. Jagt, who played 37 points himself, managed four assists, four goals, and the game saving block. The Empire will face the San Diego Growlers in the AUDL semifinal at Championship Weekend.