Last year the DC Breeze were just bad. No two ways about it. They were one of the teams that critics pointed to when they said the AUDL didn’t have high caliber play. It wasn’t an unfair criticism. The Breeze went 4-12, and three of their wins came against the 2-14 New Jersey Hammerheads, a team that had such a rough season it no longer exists. There was talk of the DC Breeze folding too. With an MLU team in town that had most of the elite DC talent, it seemed like the Breeze were headed for another season in the cellar.
Those days seem far away now.
The Breeze went 10-4 this season, the best turnaround of any team in the AUDL. This time last year they had already gone their separate ways. On Saturday they will find themselves in another part of the world, at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, facing off against the Rush. So the question is, well, how did they get here?
It all started last winter. A few Breeze veterans were not satisfied with how their season went, and wanted to do something about it. They knew that to turn the team around it would take an influx of talent. They found a willing collaborator in new co-owner Don Grage. Grage listened to the team, and helped bring in the players necessary to put a good product on the field. The Breeze set out to bring in serious star power, and they got it when Tyler Degirolamo and Alex Thorne signed on. DC was instantly relevant in the AUDL. But the biggest step was undoubtedly bringing on someone that didn’t play a point all season, head coach Alex Ghesquierre, also known as “Dutchy.”
Dutchy is the type of coach that players want to play for, and with good reason. He’s the former head coach of Revolver. More recently he coached Scandal to a championship in the Women’s Division. All of a sudden the Breeze were a hot commodity, and it showed at tryouts.
“He gave us a level of credibility we wouldn’t have otherwise had,” said Liam Shramko, Breeze veteran. “Players started jumping on board in a flash.”
The Breeze were able to pick and choose players from all over. They brought in some top notch DC players, and added out of town studs like Brett Matzuka as well.
While the Breeze needed an upheaval during the offseason to put together a team capable of reaching the playoffs, their playoff opponents were the model of consistency. It’s the same as it ever was in Toronto. The Rush brought back almost all of their best players from their 2013 championship season. They added from within, bringing in more players from the Elite Men’s club team in Toronto, GOAT. In 2013 the Rush went 16-0, and beat the New York Empire and Madison Radicals to win the AUDL Championship. Things have not been quite so easy in 2014.
When the Toronto Rush played their first ever AUDL game in 2013 they were in DC, playing the Breeze. The game wasn’t close. Toronto won, 30-13. The Breeze had 40 turnovers. Twelve of those turnovers were drops. In 2014 in their season opener, Toronto was again scheduled to play in DC against the Breeze. This game was different.
The Breeze put on a show. With Degirolamo and Thorne playing O-Line they gave Toronto all they could handle, without forcing throws to one another, spreading the disc out throughout the team. But it was DC’s first game as a team, in fact they’d only had two team practices by then. It wasn’t easy going against the defending champions. The Rush closed it out, with defensive pressure that got to DC. Toronto won 20-19.
Since then the 2014 has gone just about as expected for DC. They went undefeated against Montreal, Rochester, and Philadelphia, albeit with some close calls. They split the season series with the New York Empire, and lost another game to the Rush, this time by ten in Toronto. That was a game they were playing without some of their top players, with Alex Thorne, Josh Norris, and Tyler Degirolamo absent. With a 10-4 record at the end of the season the Breeze finished third in the East (New York also finished 10-4 but had a better point differential) so they have to start the playoffs at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. And it is not a quiet crowd in Toronto.
When the AUDL decided to hold championship weekend in 2014 the league brass was probably thinking the Rush were a lock to qualify and play in front of their home crowd, and that the Toronto fans would show up en masse.
It’s hard to argue with either point, though DC will do what it can to unseat the defending champs. Before they get to championship weekend, Toronto is sure to get a lift from the hometown crowd in the first round. Rush veteran Mark Lloyd knows that the crowd can make a difference.
“We’ve seen times where our fans can get loud enough that it puts more pressure on the others teams offense and gives legs to our defense. I’m hoping that can happen in a playoff atmosphere.”
The crowd should be as pumped up as ever. It’s the first Rush playoff game to ever take place at Varsity Stadium. This is a team that drew over 2,000 fans in their 2013 home opener. Breeze veteran and captain Jon Pressimone knows about the Toronto crowd, having played there both last year and this year, and looks forward to it.
“Toronto has amazing support, and their stadium always has a great atmosphere. That’ll definitely be a big boost for the Rush. Toronto is rarely trailing at home, so I’ve yet to see how their fans will respond to that… And we all plan on finding out.”
Of course it wasn’t long ago that the Toronto was in fact trailing at home. In their last game at Varsity Stadium Toronto trailed Montreal the whole game, eventually losing 19-20. It was their first loss ever, ending a 30 game winning streak. Teams have been saying for the past two seasons that Toronto isn’t unbeatable, and for the first time there is hard evidence that’s the case. What does it mean for Toronto to head into the playoffs so soon after their first loss? Lloyd says the team has moved past the loss, but also reflected on what was gained.
“Obviously I would prefer us to not have lost the game. But we no longer have to worry about the undefeated streak, each new game brought more pressure about not losing that first one. I think it also can help our mental focus in that we know that we need to treat every point importantly or it can cost us. Too many off-points against Montreal hurt us and we know we can’t let that happen again.”
It’s unlikely that the Rush would have made the mistake of taking their playoff opponents lightly, but if they were the loss to Montreal certainly woke them up.
There are a few keys to the game on Saturday. The first is whether we see a zone from DC, at least for the first few throws of Toronto’s O-Line points. The Rush run deadly pull plays much of the time, which can make for very short points. It can be demoralizing and tiring for the other teams O-Line, which barely gets to rest. In their first game this season that zone slowed down Toronto, especially early on in the game. DC won’t be able to rely on that look though. In their recent 21-18 victory over the Empire, the Rush tore through the very Empire junk zone which stymied DC in an earlier loss this season.
Another big factor will be depth. It’s usually the deeper team that wins close games in the AUDL, where games last longer than a typical club game. Mark Lloyd’s feats are well documented, as are Tyler Degirolamo and Alex Thorne’s. But Toronto is at its best when everyone is a role player, including Lloyd. That allows him to have enough energy to help get the team across the finish line at the end of games. It’s similar for Degirolamo, though the Breeze rely on him more than the Rush do on Lloyd.
“Toronto has depth and a myriad of players who can step up and make the next big play,” said Pressimone. “I don’t feel that’s an advantage over the Breeze though. We also have a deep team, and now that we’ve developed even more chemistry throughout the season our depth is one of our strongest advantages.”
But Toronto’s depth can’t be written off so easily. Cameron Harris, Mark Lloyd, Jeff Lindquist, and Thomson McKnight have been getting it done for Toronto game in game out the past two years. McKnight does a great job of getting available for resets, and can fire flicks a far ways down the field. In 2013 Yearwood didn’t play that much, only to step up big time in the championship game against Madison. He was a big reason why Toronto won that game. Expect a similar performance in the playoffs this year. And Rush “rookie” Anatoly Vasilyev provides serious handling chops to their D-Line.
Yes, Toronto is deep, but so is DC. Those Breeze tryouts that had over 100 players registered after it was announced Dutchy was the coach? They helped ensure DC was a much better team at the top and bottom of the roster.
“They have a lot of talented players that can do damage if we pay too much attention to Tyler,” said Lloyd. “So our job is to limit what he does, which starts at the mark on their big throwers and carries through to our other defenders when Tyler gets the disc. I guarantee he will score a goal against us…our goal is to not let him score a lot.”
Justin Solis and Liam Shramko are two of the returners from the 2013 season that have been a big part of DC’s O-Line success. Solis is a frequent deep target and Shramko is good at finding the open space. Tyler Kunsa and Josh Norris are highly efficient handlers that will make Alex Thorne’s job on the O-Line much easier. On the D-Line the Breeze can count on Ben Feng to generate D’s, and Brett Matzuka to come up with some creative throws to find the holes in Toronto’s defense.
It seems like nobody outside the Breeze roster is predicting a win. But this is a more intriguing matchup than it first appears. The Breeze have given the Rush scares before, and on Saturday they’re hoping to do more than that.
Feature image by Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com