Tuesday Toss

Jax_Tuesday_Toss

Week 11: Jacksonville Stays Hot as South Race Tightens.

Excerpt from Evan Lepler’s write up on theaudl.com ‘Tuesday Toss’

Jacksonville’s Mike Hickson did not sleep much on Friday night.

He remained awake, contemplating the absurdly athletic Saturday he had planned. Earlier in the evening, when he had been carbo-loading at dinner, his friends told him he was crazy.

Back in March, he had signed up to compete in his first triathlon. Then, when the official AUDL schedule was released, he immediately realized that June 20 would become one of the most exhausting days in his entire life.

He woke up early on Saturday morning in Orlando, hydrated and mentally ready for the adventure. The triathlon was scheduled to begin at 7:30 AM, commencing with a mile-long swim, followed by 26 miles of cycling and a five and a half mile run. This is known as an Olympic-style triathlon.

The race began, and his mind went blank. In the water and on the bike, he simply grinded through it, enjoying the moment. When he arrived to the third leg of the race, his rational brain flicked on, his legs began to feel heavy, and he started to wonder if he would have anything left in the tank for the Cannons’ mighty important contest scheduled for later that night.

Proudly, he crossed the finish in two hours and 58 minutes. Rather than find a buffet or a nap, he hopped in his truck and began the two-hour trek to Jacksonville. At this point, he says, the game was the only thing on his mind.

Driving on Florida’s I-4, he suddenly came to a halt. There was a huge eight-car pile up ahead, and traffic had stopped. He sat, motionless, for about two hours.

“This is when I started to get nervous,” Hickson said. “I started getting really tired and my body was starting to relax. I was thinking the whole trip if I’m going to be able to play this game.”

This game was essential to Jacksonville’s flickering postseason dreams and an opportunity to battle against one of the best teams in the league. The Cannons, winners of six of their previous seven, were hosting the first-place Atlanta Hustle with the understanding that a loss would basically squelch their playoff hopes. Through the first 11 contests this season, Hickson had ranked in the top three on his team in goals, assists, and Ds. Undeniably, his presence, not to mention his stature, would be a huge asset for his team and a major detriment if he were absent. His coach, Tuba Benson-Jaja, also questioned whether Hickson would have enough legs to be a factor against the Hustle.

“Finally, I got to the fields about two hours before game time,” said Hickson. “I walked in the locker room during the pregame meeting. I saw down and listened to my team and Coach Tuba discussing the game and how we were going to win it. Their determination to win this game showed during that meeting, and I knew then and there, I was playing this game.”

He cleated up, stretched, rolled his legs out, hydrated as much as possible, and prepared for the opening pull. Throughout this process, he admitted, his legs remained heavy and tired.

When the game finally began, Jacksonville bolted out to a strong start. Strategically, the Cannons ran some plays to hide Hickson’s fatigue on offense, but the dynamic cutter remained on the field for almost every offensive point. By halftime, Jacksonville had built an 18-13 lead.

They sustained the edge and added to it late in the third, but then the Hustle looked to rally. Down 25-19 late in the third, Atlanta mounted a 7-3 run to make it 28-26. With plenty of time left, it was anybody’s game.

Up by two at crunch time, Jacksonville turned it over, as Matt Bode’s layout in the end zone came up short. Injured on the play, Bode left the game. Meanwhile, during the stoppage, Hickson realized he was exhausted and not feeling great about playing defense when the game resumed.

“During the injury timeout, I was gassed,” he acknowledged. “I looked over to the sideline and located John Best. If know he is a shutdown defender and would get the job done, so I was yelling for him to take my spot for the substitution. Captain Brandon Perales came up to me and said that only Bode could take the sub.”

Hickson was stuck on the field, forced to defend, with the game on the line.

The Hustle situated into a vertical stack, with the Cannons forcing flick. Hickson chased Atlanta’s Ryan Archibald as he cut force side to open up space, as the Hustle sought to break the mark to the middle of the field with an inside/out flick.

“I saw the disc in the middle and my man clearing back into the vert stack,” said Hickson. “The player with the disc pump faked an around backhand to another player. When I saw this, I put my head down and ran with everything I had, because I knew my guy was the next continuation pass. Atlanta loves shooting the middle near the end zone, and sure enough, that’s where Archibald was going.”

The flick took flight, and so did Hickson.

About 12 hours after wrapping up his Olympic triathlon, he laid out for the magnificent D that regained momentum for his team.

Steven Poulos picked up the disc and immediately launched long for Cole Sullivan, who made the grab near the goal line and promptly found Mischa Freystatter for the score. Back up by three, the Cannons were comfortable again and held on for the 29-27 win.

“He made the layout D that potentially saved the game and our season,” said Benson-Jaja about Hickson’s effort.

Jacksonville’s gigantic victory sets up a marquee Independence Day showdown on ESPN3, as the Cannons will clash again with the Hustle in Atlanta on July 4. Considering that the 8-4 Cannons have won two out of three regular season meetings thus far with the 8-3 Hustle, the contest a week from Saturday should decide who joins Raleigh in the South division playoffs.

While the Cannons are idle this coming weekend, the Hustle have to venture to Charlotte and face the hungry Express, whom they only defeated by two in their first trip to North Carolina back in April. Suddenly, they are sitting in a bit of a precarious position.

“Our season hinges on us coming out and executing at a high level this Saturday,” said Atlanta’s Mark Poole. “We are ready for the challenge.”

From Jacksonville’s perspective, their bye could not come at a better time.

“We are bruised and battered after the last couple weeks,” said Benson-Jaja. “We are using part of this week to decompress and recover. The guys will be off for six days with no training and then get back to work. We will be spending a lot of time watching game film and working to improve in the areas we struggled. We will be doing mental strengthening exercises to prepare for the environment and emotions that come with playing on the road in a must-win situation. If we can control our emotions and exhibit mental discipline on the field, we will increase our chances of coming out on top.”

“I do not expect a win in Atlanta to be easy to accomplish, but I am highly confident that my team has the personnel to make this a reality. The next two weeks of preparation will be the most important weeks to date of our season. [My players] get a chance to play a sport they love, to keep the season alive for a team they love, on the Independence Day celebration of a country we love. I can ask for no better scenario than that for the type of players I have on my team. They have warrior hearts and will be prepared to battle come July 4th! I can not wait!”

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