A few games have passed since we’ve last checked in on the Empire, and where they stand this season. They’re now got 4 wins and 2 losses, and sit below the Toronto Rush and DC Breeze in the Eastern Division of the AUDL. Gone is the undefeated season, but playoff and division-championship hopes aren’t out of reach in such a close pack of teams. There are a grand total of 8 games remaining on the regular season schedule, including a big home game against the DC Breeze this upcoming weekend on Long Island.
In order to properly catch-up, I talked with the Empire’s Markian Kuzmowycz, or “Muk”, about the last two games the Empire played. Last weekend, they ventured up to Canada to take on the Toronto Rush on Saturday, and then the Montreal Royal on Sunday, before heading home. Kuzmowycz went to college in Canada, and had a sort of homecoming when the Empire met the Royal at his alma mater.
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Kuzmowycz was extremely straight-forward with me when describing what happened this game. He said the Empire “essentially drove overnight and rolled into a cold, super windy environment in Toronto.”
“It definitely changed the complexion of the game, and we saw them capitalize on our early mistakes managing the wind and their defensive pressure.”
It seemed everything the Rush did this game was capitalized. They went on to win the game 22-14, but even that doesn’t speak to the consistent play the Rush were able to exhibit against the Empire. The stat sheet is full of marks for almost every player that took the field – there was no true leader in assists, goals, or blocks for the Rush. Meanwhile, the Kuzmowycz notes that the Empire were having difficulty simply moving the disc, let alone running set plays or more complex strategical moves. The rivalry between the two teams has allowed a familiarity with their players and on-field decisions, but even that couldn’t help the Empire crawl back into the game.
“I’d say the game was frustrating because despite the gap in the score, I think there’s some distinct moments in the game where we erred and still could’ve found ourselves close in the 4th quarter, but unfortunately it wasn’t our day.”
The loss to the Rush, especially with it following a loss to the DC Breeze the weekend before, was not ideal. But the Empire did have a chance to learn from their mistakes with a game against Montreal the very next day.
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“It’s hard to dwell on losses like that though, when you still have to hit the road to Montreal for an early start on Sunday,” Kuzmowcyz would later tell me.
Roughly 336 miles separate Toronto and Montreal, yet coming in on Sunday morning the Empire found nearly identical conditions on the field. A windy environment. Some weather coming down from the sky. And a rowdy home crowd cheering against the New York mob.
But Kuzmowycz found this as a positive rather than a negative. “We already had a go of it on Saturday and had an idea of certain adjustments we needed to make offensively, and I think it showed early on as we were punching in upwind holds in the first quarter.”
“This allowed our defense to get the first upwind break, and then we felt a surge of confidence after that. In windy games, breaks often come in pairs, and this was a game where we wanted to take the early lead first and foremost and control the momentum.”
The Empire would control the momentum on the backs of great play from Matt Auletta, Ryan Drost, Lionel Wininger, and Ian Guerin. Auletta played an intelligent game against the Royal, moving the disc Kuzmowycz said, better than anyone on the field that game as he placed it perfectly on short and deep throws. Drost meanwhile continued his reign of terror, while Guerin has been a workhorse all season long and it’s showing with some big contributions on the defensive line, and Wininger was a much-needed presence on up-wind chances for the Empire defense.
Overall though, it’s important to note that the entire team played a much more complete game against Montreal than against Toronto, and that was the true difference. “It took a team to win the field position battle, which really is what a lot of the game was,” Kuzmowycz said.
For Kuzmowycz’s personal connection to Montreal, he called this game “something really special and something I’d circled on my calendar as soon as schedules came out.” Getting sentimental, he remembered his days playing college ultimate at McGill University, and the 6am practices he and his teammates used to endure just to play more. “I could’ve never imagined that one day I’d be coming back [to Montreal] to play in a pro ultimate game,” he said, “just one of those days where you appreciate the opportunities the Pro game has given [the players].”
As mentioned, just because the Empire dropped their game against the Rush does not put them out of the picture for the playoffs or even a division title. There are plenty of games left in their season, and both the Rush and Breeze have looked shaky at times as the Eastern Division has shown a newfound depth. The push for the division title continues this weekend as the Breeze travel up from Washington D.C. for a game on Long Island on Saturday afternoon. Stay tuned for a short preview of that game.