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Heartbreak in Vancouver – A Learning Opportunity

Written by Evan Lepler

The full article can be read on the on the AUDL website

This past Saturday night in Vancouver, no one was bamboozled. The Riptide did not successfully execute the hidden-disc trick. There was no dramatic diversion like a phantom lay-out or a ranting break-side cutter aiming to distract everyone on the field.

The only thing separating Los Angeles from a landmark road victory was the clock. From the Aviators perspective, it did not tick quickly enough.

In the home stretch of a great game where neither side ever led by more than two throughout regulation, the Riptide were trailing 22-21 in the final minute. There were about 20 seconds left when a Vancouver throw was hauled in right on the edge of the goal line. Some on the field thought it was a score, but the refs ruled that the disc had been secured just outside the end zone. The game was not tied yet.

Vancouver’s Darren Wu – the receiver – had possession about a yard from glory, with just over 10 seconds remaining. The 19-year-old, who will forever be linked with Raleigh’s Mitchell after their unbelievable battle at Junior Worlds in 2014, set a pivot foot outside the end zone and released the disc to a seemingly open teammate. Abruptly, the throw was halted by a layout block – with the game on the line, LA’s Sean McDougall remarkably denied Wu’s game-tying assist.

But the game was not over yet.

With fewer than 7 seconds remaining, Aviators handler Dan Bellinger hurriedly picked up the disc. Immediately, and in a somewhat baffling maneuver, he launched a floaty backhand the other way. It was a punt, meant to run off the final seconds and ensure that he didn’t get double-teamed and trapped on his own goal line.

If Bellinger had simply held onto the disc, the game would have ended and the Aviators would have won. But, inexplicably in retrospect, he fired, and Vancouver’s Kevin Underhill sensed that the Riptide could have one final prayer.

Underhill sprinted downfield and caught up to the floating disc, boomeranging it back toward the other end zone with a release that just barely beat the buzzer. Amidst the chaos, Gagan Chatha leapt and caught the Underhill game-tying huck; 22-22, headed to overtime!

Riptide players raised their arms and stormed the field in delighted disbelief. The Aviators were equally stunned and miles away from that same happiness. The craziness that peaked in the final seconds created a wave of momentum that carried Vancouver in the extra session.

“There were so many emotions that ran through me in those last 20 seconds,” Chatha said. “We went into OT very confidently, with all the momentum on our side, along with the fans cheering us on, and after a couple of big blocks, we took the lead and never looked back.”

Los Angeles actually rebounded to score the first two points in overtime, surging ahead 24-22, but Vancouver rallied for five in a row after that, prevailing 27-24.

Overtime is always dramatic in and of itself, but the final 20 seconds of regulation dominated the postgame conversation.

“It was definitely a finish unlike anything I’ve seen before,” Vancouver’s Derek Fenton said. “There was a rollercoaster of emotion within the entire stadium. [It was] one of the most unlikely scores I have ever seen.”

It probably would not have happened if Wu had not come close to scoring, Underhill admitted. “I honestly thought we had already scored the final point, so I was kind of hanging back behind the play,” he said. “When I noticed that Darren Wu was called out, I started up the field, but with maybe 10 seconds left, an ill-fated flip caused what probably should’ve been the final turn. I was behind the play as you can see from the video, and when the LA player chucked it down the field in celebration, I just thought to myself ‘there’s no point in not trying for the disc.’

“Obviously it worked out alright.”

From the Aviators perspective, Head Coach Franklin Rho joked that he would have to review Bill Simmons’ “16 Levels of Losing,” but added, “I’m a big believer that adversity makes this team tougher and hungrier.”

Los Angeles Captain Mark Elbogen emphatically stated that the loss was not on Bellinger, who released the throw to give Vancouver its final chance.

“It is very easy to say ‘why would he throw it and not just hold it, then throw a hammer into the air?’ or something like that,” Elbogen said. “And yes, in hindsight, that would have been a very logical thing to do. I believe he was worried about getting point blocked or something on the end zone line, which would have been terrible. In the heat of the moment, you have to make the best decision you can think of in a split second. In no manner whatsoever do I put blame on Dan or any other player for the loss.

“We had many chances to seal the game away and make it a 2-3 point lead going into the final point, but with a few miscues, we put ourselves in a tough spot. We probably would have been down 2-3 points at the end had Dan not been there, as he had a few huge Ds and assists in the game that fired the team up.”

Elbogen’s classiness and leadership aside, it is fair to say that Bellinger could have milked the final seconds off the clock in a number of ways to give Los Angeles the victory. But as Raleigh learned last week, hindsight is 20/20, and the heat of the moment can be feverish.

When Bellinger picked up the disc, he could have held it for five seconds and then aimed to throw a hammer or blade to beat the double team. If a teammate makes the catch, the game is over. If the throw floats for five seconds (not necessarily easy under pressure, but not impossible either), the game is over.

Next time, he will probably do the right thing. This time, however, it smarts.

For now, players, coaches, fans, and broadcasters are all game to debate the intricacies of strategy involved with this new brand of situational ultimate. It is a conversation that will continue for a while and will remain fueled by evaluating mistakes on the field.

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