The San Jose Spiders capped their amazing April with arguably their most convincing and clutch performances of the season. Few preseason prognosticators dared to predict the younger Bay Area brother as a true threat in the West, yet the black and gold clad arachnids carry a four-game winning streak into May after storming through the Pacific Northwest in Week 5.
At 4-1, Coach Tyler Grant has the Spiders atop their division and one win away from matching the franchise’s total from a season ago, utilizing their underrated army of defensive workhorses and the steady offensive hand of, among others, Justin Norden, whose distributing prowess and downfield effectiveness has transformed the former Carleton College standout into a true MVP candidate.
In two games this weekend, Norden registered eight goals and 13 assists, giving him 11 goals and 32 assists for the season, leading the league in the latter.
Snapshot of Justin Norden’s impressive weekend on the road.
“Early on in the season, I talked to Justin about opening up his game a bit more,” said Grant. “He’s had the throws for a while now, but wasn’t using them as weapons. I think the change from last season to this season has been in his ability to be more aggressive with his throws and his willingness to move upfield to be a receiver.”
Justin Norden takes off upfield before dusting two Seattle defenders in the air and tossing the assist.
While various injuries have kept him from being 100 percent for much of the past few years, Norden entered this season feeling healthy and confident that he could assume a larger role in the Spiders’ offense. He’s quickly meshed with O-line counterparts like Chuck Cao, Steven Chang, Evan Boucher, Jackson Stearns, Evan Brydon, and Sonny Zaccaro, spearheading a San Jose scoring brigade that is averaging 27.6 goals per game through five contests.
Stearns, who is averaging five goals a game by himself, thinks that the Spiders would not be having anywhere near their current success without Norden.
“If you take him away, we’re maybe 2-3 at best, probably more like 1-4,” said Stearns, who scored seven times on Friday before a fourth quarter ankle injury sidelined him for the rest of the weekend. “I think the biggest difference is, this year, [Justin] is clearly the center handler, and since he knows that, he’s playing much more aggressive. He’s always had the skills and athleticism. He’s a very well-rounded player. He’s big, pretty fast, and can jump, and as a handler he has all those unique release points that help him break the mark.
“Our system is designed for him and the other handlers to be aggressive. We want them going up-line, attacking downfield when appropriate, and aggressively looking to move the disc laterally with their breaks. The system fits Justin’s strengths and he has the talent and attitude to maximize it all. The rest of the team then feeds on that energy. Justin was more vocal in the huddle this weekend, more confident on the field, and everyone just has more belief when he’s out there.”
Norden’s steady wizardry kept San Jose in front basically all night on Friday against Seattle, but the Spiders still needed some last second heroics and incredible teamwork to secure their first road victory of 2017. With less than a minute remaining, the score was tied at 26, and the Cascades had the disc looking for their first lead of the game. The seven-man defensive unit applied intense pressure and induced a wayward throw from the Seattle handler. The up-line toss was intercepted by the poaching Matt Crawford, his second D of the day and team-high 10th of the season. A timeout was called, and Norden and company returned to the field.
In the huddle, the Spiders’ message was threefold. There was enough time for a few throws, so there was no need to rush. It was imperative that the cutters ran hard and were ready to score. And, perhaps most importantly, make sure that they got a throw into the end zone before the buzzer sounded.
“At the end of the first quarter, our players had a scoring opportunity but caught the disc a few steps out of the goal,” Grant remembered. “That one was tough to watch.”
This one would be better.
Norden and Cao exchanged a couple quick throws in the handler set before swinging the disc to Kelly Van Arsdale, who floated a pass to Cao who was slashing diagonally up and across the field. When Cao caught the disc, about 10-15 yards shy of the end zone, he had to pull the trigger.
“As soon as I got position on my up-line cut, I checked the clock behind me and saw there were about six seconds left,” said Cao. “I knew I would have only a second or two when I actually got the disc from Kelly, and I would have to be decisive. When I caught the up-line and found no teammates within 25 yards of me on the open side, I knew I just had to launch a back-shoulder throw, and thankfully Alec [Surmani] already had great separation.”
Cao launched a bladey outside-in flick that curled into the end-zone, precariously close to the sideline. The buzzer sounded with the disc still in flight, it swerved around the reach of Seattle’s Sam Harkness, and Surmani made the leaping snag moments later, landing in bounds by maybe a yard with the game’s dramatic, clinching score. With no time remaining, the Spiders had prevailed 27-26.
Chuck Cao’s daring crossfield throw for the game winner on Friday night in Seattle.
“What a crazy game,” Norden exclaimed afterwards.
The ecstatic Spiders stormed the field and celebrated, but then had to promptly turn the page for their second game of the weekend in Vancouver less than 24 hours later. The mindset was simple: don’t let up.
Full game highlights between the Spiders and Cascades.
Dealing with some injuries from the day before, Grant shuffled the lines. Playing through some wet weather in the opening quarter, the Spiders built a quick lead. While the Riptide made several early mistakes, San Jose was dialed in and crisp. By the end of the first quarter, the Spiders had converted five breaks for a 9-4 lead.
“We were really able to capitalize on opportunities early and set the tone for the game,” said Cao.
San Jose basically maintained its early edge for the duration. The Spiders were up 15-10 at halftime, 21-15 through three, and prevailed over the Riptide 28-22. Brydon had a big day with six goals and three assists, while Brandon Fein had four Ds, with three assists and a goal.
Norden, who dished eight assists on Saturday, was effusive in his praise of the team’s defense.
“It’s so hard in the AUDL to create turnovers, and this has not been a problem for our team,” Norden declared, singling out Van Arsdale, Crawford, and Fein for their impactful D.
Grant also was proud of the team’s abililty to convert turnovers into goals, adding, “Once we had the disc, our D-line played solid, unselfish offense and we kept punching it in.”
The Spiders now have four wins against four different franchises in the West, everyone else except the Aviators. San Jose will have its first chance against LA on May 13. The Spiders, who are off this weekend, have their next three games at home and don’t leave the Bay Area again until June 17.
“I knew we had a strong team going into the season,” Grant explained, “but I didn’t necessarily think we’d go 4-1 to start the season. Our preseason work showed that we were starting to improve, but until I saw what we could do during game one, I didn’t know how far we could go. Winning on the road is super tough, so, had I actually considered it during the preseason, I would have said we’d probably be 2-3 at this point.
“I think our win against the FlameThrowers showed that we could play with any of the teams in our division, but it was too early to tell. Now that we’ve beaten Seattle on the road, I expect we’re all thinking playoffs are possible. However, it’s a four-team race for three spots, and we still haven’t played the Aviators. Everyone is looking forward to that game because it will be a true test for our team.”