In one of the most exciting games of the entire AUDL season, the Chicago Wildfire narrowly missed a victory against the home-team of the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds.
On the second day of a two-game road trip, Chicago arrived in Pittsburgh to face cool temperatures and winds of 15-20mph.
Chicago was missing several key players, a small roster of 16 active for the game, with a few battling injuries. Still despite these obstacles, and despite the lively home crowd, the Wildfire were focused heading into this highly anticipated match that had playoff implications for both teams.
After a delay to start the game due to field space issues, Chicago began with a pull upwind; while the gusts were not nearly as strong as the previous day, the offensive advantage was still clearly in favor of the teams heading downwind in this contest.
The Thunderbirds, no doubt eager to avenge Chicago’s victory over them earlier this season, came out firing, shooting deep downwind on their first few offensive possessions and connecting. Pittsburgh, featuring several athletes who are fast and can throw well, gained the disc and were putting up good deep looks on either side of the field.
Chicago’s O-Line hung in, trading points, until tight defense forced a downwind turnover. Pittsburgh moved quickly and then hucked, and the disc appeared to be defended, as it was tipped downfield; but the swirling winds caught the pass and took it right into the hands of a lucky Pittsburgh handler, who quickly fired a pass to the endzone for the first break of the game. This would not be the last time a tipped disc impacted the contest.
Pitt would then put more pressure on the Wildfire, showing they could play hard defense and then move the disc quickly across the field; they scored the downwind to go up two breaks.
Chicago would not give in, however. Later that quarter, the Wildfire’s d-line began to tighten, trapping Pittsburgh against the line and putting a lot more pressure on the receivers heading deep, forcing turnovers. Brett Matzuka was instrumental in leading the charge, once the disc was in their hands, and the Wildfire were able to push upwind and score on a layout grab for a hammer, taking their first upwind break of the game, although they failed to reclaim the downwind.
The first quarter continued to go back and forth, each team defending and forcing long points, until it ended with Pitt up 8-6, Chicago receiving going downwind.
The second quarter, Chicago’s defense rose even stronger, and the Thunderbirds found themselves under pressure, giving the disc to the Wildfire nearly every single point. Chicago was especially strong at making the deep blocks as Pitt tried to push upwind, and were tiring out the Thunderbird offensive line. Combining this d with fierce offensive cutting, the Wildfire took the advantage and captured the lead, going up 13-12 at the half.
The third quarter was a strong one early for Pittsburgh as they came out early getting an upwind and downwind break off quick movement to eventually force a tie at 14 all.
But Chicago pushed back, the offense scoring and then the defense breaking twice to regain the lead. Ending the third quarter, Chicago had control of the game up 18-17.
The fourth quarter would be one of attrition as each team tightened up the offense going downwind. Pittsburgh, to their credit, played a smarter and cleaner game, moving the disc up the field and to the breakside, using higher percentage throws to score often. The d-line of Chicago struggled to hold the force, and only was able to snare a couple of chances to take an upwind break, none of which were converted.
The Chicago offensive line was working hard, with Mike Shiel as a powerful standout, always open at the right moment as the stall grew higher, playing smart with quick passes to open receivers. Chicago answered again and again with strong hucks of their own, but two injuries to offensive line players midway through the fourth began to take a toll.
Up 24-22, the Chicago defense failed to get a block, allowing the Thunderbirds to score. Then Pittsburgh, with time running low, began to mount their comeback.
Tight pressured D led to a Chicago huck that went too far, and Pittsburgh had the chance; attacking both sides of the field, the Thunderbirds eventually worked upwind to score, tying the game at 24-24 with 1:45 remaining in the contest.
Chicago didn’t appear rattled, receiving and smoothly working the disc upwind with the clock winding down; they were twenty yards outside the upwind endzone and attacking for the lead when a costly drop gave the Thunderbirds the disc. Pitt quickly scored to lead 25-24; with less than a minute left in the game, the crowd believed the contest to be over.
But the Wildfire didn’t quit. With mere seconds ticking away, Goose Helton, trapped on the sideline just past midfield, put up a nice downwind away shot to A.J. Nelson, who got up huge to sky two defenders and scoring with less than a second remaining, forcing overtime.
Chicago received to start the overtime and a long point ensued, as they had to move upwind against fierce defense. Failing to score on three chances, Pittsburgh finally broke through, using the wind at their backs to score with only 1:50 left in overtime, up 26-25.
The next point was another close one, but Chicago, despite a turnover, regained possession and put in the critical goal, making the game 26-26.
The next defensive point was fierce, as the Wildfire forced several tight passes, but Pitt continued to move up the field until they were just outside the goal line. They threw to the force side for the score, but Helton was there, ready for the easy D. The disc was tipped, but not caught, however, and as it went past him, a surprised Thunderbirds player was able to catch the score.
With only thirty seconds left, Chicago had to score downwind or the game would be over. They worked it to midfield and got a quality chance as Tim Fergus through a deep forehand to the right corner. Goose Helton went up and made a great catch, attempting to toe the line in the process. He was about as close as it could get to being in, but the referee signaled out of bounds. Pittsburgh ran out the clock, won the game 27-26, and locked up the number two seed in the Midwest Division playoffs.
The Wildfire, while disappointed, still held their heads high, knowing they had a chance to return to Pittsburgh and win against this strong Thunderbirds team in the playoffs. Chicago will close out the regular season when they take on the Detroit Mechanix on July 19th, and will have to watch the rest of the division to determine if they get a chance to prove they are the better squad.