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AUDL 2016: West Division Preview

The deep AUDL West should see a shakeup at the top.

San Francisco Flamethrowers. Photo: FT Facebook.
San Francisco Flamethrowers. Photo: FT Facebook.

The AUDL West is home to the two time defending champion San Jose Spiders and was by far the most competitive division in the league in 2015. Some teams will look significantly different this year, though. With so many changes it’s unclear how the playoff picture will shake out in the West. If one thing is clear, howver, it’s the two teams at the top of the division.

Championship Contenders: San Francisco & Seattle

Last year the San Francisco FlameThrowers were a resilient team, with a 2-3 record against the big brother Spiders and wins against every team in the division. This year, San Francisco is returning 13 players, and also bringing in quite a few players from that championship Spiders team, along with Revolver players that are new or returning to the AUDL after a year away. The FlameThrowers have seven players competing for Team USA this summer, more than any other team in the AUDL. Even in the weeks those Team USA players have to miss games, given how deep San Francisco is, the FlameThrowers are better equipped to deal with those kind of absences than anyone.

The FlameThrowers are undoubtedly adding a lot of talent — players like Robbie Cahill and Joel Schlachet will be making their AUDL debuts. Marcelo Sanchez, Simon Higgins, and Greg Cohen are just a few of the players coming over from San Jose that were invaluable in the championship runs of the past two seasons. The returners that don’t play with Revolver in the fall aren’t slouches, either. Federico Chialvo was a rock solid handler for the FlameThrowers last season. Barrs Lang was an AUDL rookie and managed to be one of the most reliable players on the team week in and week out. And Greg Marliave scored nine goals in one game. With all the new talent coming in these players may not rack up the same kind of statistics they had in 2015, but they’ll still fill valuable roles.

The FlameThrowers haven’t typically split along offense and defense lines like many AUDL teams, and that figures to hold true this year. Undoubtedly there will be players that are primarily featured on offense and others that get most of their time on the d-line, but overall this is a versatile roster that will be able to mix and match personnel as needed in different weeks. The FlameThrowers are the early favorite to win the West, but to do that they’ll have to overcome a familiar foe.

The Seattle Cascades are definitely not newcomers to the elite ultimate scene, with the core of their team having played on the area club team, Sockeye, for years. When Seattle is on its game it plays a very exciting brand of ultimate, with quick disc movement finding different holes in the defense. There were several games last year where the Seattle O-line didn’t allow a break until the second half. That’s an especially impressive feat in the AUDL, where games are timed and the Cascades often had more than 15 points by the time the opposing D-line finally got a goal on the board.

While the Seattle offense may get most of the ink, this team also has an impressive defense. Individual defenders like Reid Koss and Matt Rehder are some of the best in the game, but what takes this defense to the next level when it’s on point is the communication. Few teams guard space and switch better while running man defense than Seattle.

Despite all that, the Cascades only went 8-6 last season, in an admittedly extremely deep West. Last year Seattle was the only team to both win and lose to every team in their division. Some weekends, the Cascades had a full roster with better depth than any other team in the league. On others, the Cascades found themselves on a two game road trip with just 15 players. The Cascades had 39 players suit up for them at various points in 2015, more than any other AUDL team. Of those 39, 22 played in less than half of the regular season games. No matter who was playing, Seattle was competitive, but the team varied from week to week. We don’t yet know whether or not this year will be any different.

Focusing only on the transient nature of Seattle’s roster can obscure the larger point, though; even with those challenges, Seattle was one of the best teams in the AUDL. They nearly took down the Spiders in the Western final, losing 19-21. That two game road trip where they only brought 15 players? They went 2-0. In their first round playoff game against San Francisco, the Cascades were on the road with only 16 players, missing Danny Karlinsky, Matt Rehder, Phil Murray, and Mario O’Brien. They won 21-19.

When asked about the challenges of the changing roster, Cascades captain Reid Koss, the only Seattle player to appear in every game, was direct. “It definitely presented challenges, but that’s part of the challenge of being mentally strong,” he said. “There isn’t anything to be done about the absences, so we just have to play with the roster we have and not worry about it. It also presents some benefits, in that you get to play some players in bigger roles or different positions than you might otherwise, and those players get a chance to improve they might not have otherwise received. It’s still too early to tell if that will be the case this year, but if it does end up being the case, we feel ready for it.”

The Third Place Favorite: Vancouver Riptide

Last year the Riptide looked like a team that would compete for a playoff spot before the season began. That didn’t come close to happening though, with the Riptide only going 4-10. It’s tough to look back and say exactly what went wrong, though there are a few areas where the Riptide weren’t as strong as the rest of the division. One of those areas was defense and another was just overall experience.

In their week two 21-20 upset win over Seattle, the Vancouver O-line actually converted more breaks (after a timeout was called) than the D-line did. When the Riptide lost 22-26 to Seattle the next week, it happened again, with Vancouver’s O-line converting two breaks while their D-line didn’t punch in a single one. Those games were emblematic of the season for Vancouver. The Riptide were able to beat some of the best teams in the league. They actually beat Seattle twice last season, and got a win against San Jose, too. But the Riptide lost key games by small margins, taking them out of the playoff conversation early in the season.

This year Vancouver once again looks poised to make the playoffs, and there are some important differences from 2015. First, unlike last year, the Riptide don’t have to play the top two teams in the division a combined eight times this year. Second, Vancouver has brought in some key difference makers this offseason. Anatoly Vasilyev and Morgan Hibbert are two of the first players you would want to come in and bring both some spark and consistency to a D-line. Vasilyev has played with the Toronto Rush the last few seasons, and Hibbert with the Vancouver Nighthawks in the MLU. They’ll be valuable additions.

Last year the Riptide weren’t quite ready. They shined in moments, but not over the course of the whole season. It looks like that will change this year. It’s difficult to tell in the West though, which, despite the departure of some well known stars, remains a very deep division.

Contenders for the Playoffs: Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego

If Vancouver falters, it’s conceivable that any one of these three teams could take advantage and snag that final playoff spot. And it’s not out of the question either. Perhaps the biggest threat to Vancouver’s playoff hopes is Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Aviators are returning most of their team from last year, when they split their two game series with Vancouver and notched some upsets over Seattle and San Francisco. The Aviators’ strength is probably in their man defense. Where they’re weakest this year is probably in their handler depth. Last year Steven Chang did a lot of the heavy lifting for this team, completing over 500 throws. This year he’s playing in San Jose, but despite his exit the Aviators know the playoff window is open.

The Aviators season may come down to a two week stretch in late June. On June 18 they host the Riptide, and travel to Vancouver the very next week. If the Aviators can take advantage of a short roster for the Riptide, who will have a number of players representing Canada at the World Ultimate & Guts Championships that weekend and take both games, the Aviators will most likely be playoff bound. It won’t be an easy task — Vancouver is a deep tea —  but it’s an opportunity.

The San Jose Spiders are the defending champions. Despite that, given all the departures, San Jose is approaching the season trying to climb to the top rather than trying to stay there. Given everything it would be easy to write off the Spiders, but the depth of talent in the Bay Area can’t be overlooked. The team had a lot of players leave in the offseason, though quite a few remain. In particular, the Spiders have some strong handlers in Kevin Smith, Justin Norden, Chuck Cao, and Steven Chang, which should make their offense formidable. The other players that San Jose are bringing back spent most of their time on San Jose’s very dangerous D-line last year. Of course, that D-line will also be missing some of its biggest pieces from last year, given that Greg Cohen, Russell Wynne, Sonny Zaccaro, and Kevin Cocks are all suiting up for the FlameThrowers this season.

The question for the Spiders isn’t how well their best, most recognized players will perform. What will dictate how their season goes is how well younger players step up into bigger roles. Sean Ham is a player that’s representative of the questions facing San Jose. Last year playing on the O-line with the likes of Beau Kittredge, Simon Higgins, and Marcelo Sanchez, Ham was able to hold his own, catching 40 goals. The question is, can Ham (and others on the team) step up to being the primary option that might draw the best defender on the other team? Can San Jose’s young D-line apply the same kind of pressure and fast break offense after the turn that the Spiders did last year? If the answer is yes, the Spiders will outperform expectations this year, and could make it back to the playoffs.

Much like the Spiders, the first line of the San Diego Growlers 2016 season seems to be about the departure of star players, rather than those that remain on the team. Undoubtedly the Growlers will miss Jimmy Mickle, Nick Lance, and Kurt Gibson. In truth the Growlers will have a similar on field product this year. The Growlers have 18 returners, including some of their biggest producers. Dom Leggio is one of the players that will step into a bigger role, and Leggio already had a pretty good 2015, with 23 assists, 387 completions, and a 97% completion rate. Jesse Cohen might get leaned on a bit more, but he proved himself last year, scoring 37 goals and throwing 29 assists.

San Diego won’t be starting from scratch this year. This group of players has been playing together for years in the club scene. Last year they finished second at Southwest Regionals, losing in the final to Revolver 12-15. The West is deep but the Growlers won’t be out of their depth. “The team’s biggest strength is the fact that we have played together for years and most of the players on the roster have developed in the San Diego system,” says San Diego head coach Kevin Stuart. “I believe that helps players understand their roles and excel in them. We have strong leadership starting with our owners and captains and we preach the team first mentality. I think that will serve us well this coming season as we are battling for one of the three playoff spots.”

Outlook

While the West has talented teams from top to bottom, San Francisco and Seattle are in a tier above the rest of the division. Those teams play each other twice during the regular season, and those games will have a big impact on who gets that crucial first round bye in the playoffs. Vancouver has the talent to challenge San Francisco and Seattle, but could also fall behind other teams in the division if things don’t go well. Their three game set with Los Angeles, two of which take place over WUGC, will be exceedingly important to their playoff hopes. San Jose and San Diego will have a tougher time keeping up in the standings, but the San Diego-Los Angeles games should be very fun and competitive games to watch, given the rivalry between those teams.

Projected Standings

San Francisco 12-2
Seattle 10-4
Vancouver 7-7
Los Angeles 6-8
San Jose 4-10
San Diego 3-11

  1. Nathan Jesson
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    Nathan Jesson is Ultiworld's lead AUDL reporter. He has been covering the league since 2013. You can reach him on Twitter @semiproultimate.

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