Aviators Clinch Playoffs With Win Over Riptide
The Los Angeles Aviators used a 21-14 lead and a late 5-1 run to defeat the Vancouver Riptide 28-26 in Los Angeles on Saturday night, clinching the first playoff appearance in franchise history.
Los Angeles (8-5) entered the game knowing their fate was in their own hands: a victory in either of their last two regular season games would earn them at least third place in the West Division, and the spot in the playoffs that comes with it. Vancouver (6-7) needed a win and some extra help in order to keep their chances alive.
Looking to please the home crowd, the Aviators started the game on fire. Hunter Corbett (#17) earned the first break point of the game when he blocked a long Riptide throw, then scored the goal on the ensuing possession. On the next point, Vancouver’s huck to the end zone was misread by multiple players on both teams and fell to the turf untouched. Tyler Bacon (#55) returned the favor with a throw that hung for too long, but Mitchell Steiner (#14) jumped above a crowd and came down with the score for consecutive break points and an early 4-1 Aviator lead.
After getting the hold on their next possession, Vancouver came out in a zone defense to slow the Los Angeles offense and force a higher volume of throws. The strategy didn’t unfold as planned: the deepest Riptide defender lost track of Mark Elbogen (#4), who found plenty of open space deep downfield. Allen Lai (#68) recognized this and launched a huck to Elbogen. With enough distance from the defender and time to tie his cleats, knit a sweater, and call home, Elbogen instead chose to spread his arms and “soar” to the disc. Onlookers could have been convinced he was lacking in sobriety, which one teammate jokingly claimed, or that he was enjoying himself in a less-than-graceful manner. Either way, Elbogen secured the catch, the goal, and a 5-2 lead midway through the first quarter.
After trading points, Vancouver received the pull down 6-3. A swing pass towards a stationary player near the Aviators sideline hung just long enough for LA’s Zac Schakner (#22) to make a leaping horizontal bid, swatting the disc away. Corbett picked it up and found Brandon Severson (#80) for Los Angeles’ third break point of the game and a 7-3 lead. The teams spent the last three and a half minutes trading points. All three of those Aviators goals were assisted by Tim Beatty (#24), as he connected with Bryan Nguyen (#12), Brent George (#3), and Eric Lissner (#43).
Down 10-6, Vancouver started the second quarter on offense and converted without much resistance. After George scored his third goal of the game, the Aviators notched consecutive break points again to go up 13-7. Vancouver scored on their next possession, then earned their first break point of the game, capitalizing after an LA throw into traffic fell incomplete (only the second turnover of the game for the Aviators).
Leading 14-10 with six minutes left in the half, Los Angeles received the pull and worked close to the Vancouver goal line. Lai’s pass into the end zone was intended for George, but sailed just past his diving reach. Elbogen, keenly (bizarrely, luckily, etc.) aware of the disc, raced in its direction “like a (wounded) gazelle.” His words. He managed to secure the catch and a 15-10 lead with just under five minutes left in the half. Vancouver’s attempt at a response landed just out of the reach of a receiver’s end zone layout. Dan Bellinger (#5) wasted no time in sending a deep throw the other way. The intended target, Severson, tracked the disc down, but had to toe the line at the back of the end zone to do so. After scores were traded for the rest of the quarter, the Aviators took a 17-12 lead into halftime.
Los Angeles started the second half right where they left off, and in spectacular fashion to boot. Lissner threw a pass towards the left side of the end zone intended for Nguyen. His first angle of pursuit was too flat and would have resulted in watching the disc go flying by. In a split-second decision, Nguyen adjusted his path towards the back of the end zone and launched himself through the air, reaching out with his right hand and snagging the back edge of the disc to score the goal. After two more goals by Vancouver and three by Los Angeles, including another break point off of a Severson block, the Aviators had their largest lead of the game at 21-14 with 7:25 left in the third quarter.
The next eight minutes of gameplay could be summed up in various phrases, depending one’s preferred choice of words: Unmitigated Disaster; Categorical Catastrophe; Unequivocal Debacle; Epic Collapse. All of the above are appropriate descriptions for the Los Angeles performance that allowed the 9-1 run Vancouver strung together to take a 23-22 lead 45 seconds into the fourth quarter. After just two turnovers the entire first half, Los Angeles spent the third quarter giving the disc away like it was a tax-deductible donation to the Riptide Defense Charity. First, an Elbogen backhand huck that drifted out of bounds. Then a Corbett quick-release off the pull that went straight into the ground. Next, Lissner’s inside-out backhand that caught too much air and was swatted away. A bullet to George’s body hit his chest and fell to the turf on the next possession. Los Angeles finally got a shot in edgewise when Bellinger hit Corbett deep to go up 22-19. Vancouver followed quickly with a score, then a swing pass from Nguyen sailed beyond Beatty’s reach and Vancouver converted again. Next time down, Beatty attempted a deep shot to Nguyen, who probably had a good chance at running it down but instead went up for it early and missed. Vancouver turned that into a goal with one second remaining in the third quarter, having come all the way back to tie the score 22-22.
That final second wasn’t enough time for Los Angeles to get a decent shot at the end zone, so the fourth quarter began as if the Aviators’ dominance of the first 30 minutes of the game never happened. Vancouver started the scoring in the fourth, taking their first lead of the game despite the efforts of Corbett and Jeff Silverman (#19), who both came millimeters away from blocks during the possession. The next point saw poor hucks from both sides result in turnovers. When LA got the disc back, Lissner found Elbogen with a massive forehand for their sixth assist and fifth goal, respectively, to tie the game at 23s. Vancouver wasted an opportunity to take another lead when Chatha was overthrown. Bellinger opportunely launched a huck that Zach Theodore (#16) ran down. Silverman eventually found Greg Husak (#83) for the goal that reclaimed the lead, 24-23, for the Aviators.
Vancouver used a huge layout bid to tie the score once again with seven minutes remaining in the game. Beatty followed that up with another huck attempt to Nguyen, which he again misread and jumped for too early. This time, Nguyen stayed under the disc, though surrounded by a crowd. As he landed, he reached for the disc again, but couldn’t coral it. While falling to the ground, amid a wreckage of bodies, Nguyen stayed focused on the disc and miraculously gained control as he hit the turf. The crowd erupted, celebrating the preposterousness of what they had just seen in addition to Los Angeles taking a lead that they would not relinquish the rest of the game.
After a turnover on Vancouver’s next possession, Bellinger threw another huge backhand to the back of the end zone. Trevor Smith (#13) dove, caught the disc, and crashed his upper body into the ground, barely in bounds. He maintained possession all the way through, giving the Aviators a 26-24 lead with 5:15 left in the game. The culmination of the 5-1 run that Los Angeles put together came when Steiner got a hand block and Theodore’s fourth assist of the game found Corbett in the end zone to go up 27-24. Vancouver would score twice more, but the Aviators offense had rediscovered their confidence and composure enough to take significant time off the clock on both of their ensuing offensive possessions, including watching the final seconds tick off on their last one. When the clock finally struck zero, Los Angeles had escaped with their fifth consecutive victory and the playoff spot they had so desperately strived for this season.
The game was a clinic in sharing offensive responsibilities by Los Angeles. Four different players had at least four assists: Theodore (4), Bellinger (4), Beatty (5), and Lissner (6). Four other players had at least three goals: George (3), Nguyen (5), Corbett (5), and Elbogen (6). The lack of crossover between those two statistics is remarkable. Of the ten turnovers Los Angeles committed, only two players had as many as two, while only six other players had merely one turnover each. Defensively, there were eight blocks by Los Angeles. Corbett and Severson led the way with two each.
Even with a playoff spot secured, there is more for Los Angeles to accomplish. With one game left in the season, on Saturday against the San Diego Growlers (2-11), the Aviators have the opportunity to finish with a 9-5 record. The Seattle Cascades (8-5) currently hold second place in the division as a result of winning the season series against the Aviators, 2-1. If Seattle wins their last game of the season, against Vancouver, they finish 9-5, securing second place and hosting a playoff game against Los Angeles. If Los Angeles beats San Diego, and Seattle loses to Vancouver, then Los Angeles finishes in second and Seattle will come to LA for the playoff game.
For now, the Aviators can celebrate what they’ve accomplished this season: A wining streak – at least five games – that only six other AUDL teams can claim this season (Dallas, D.C., Madison, Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle); Losing only one season series in their divisional play (Seattle), while splitting two (San Jose, San Francisco, but with better point differentials) and winning two others (Vancouver and, barring a large loss this week, San Diego); and making the playoffs for the first of what hopes to be many future appearances.