Photo by Jeff Bell – Ultiphotos.com
Thing’s weren’t going to be easy for the Vancouver Nighthawks in 2016.
A new front office, head coach, and almost an entirely revamped roster left many fans around the league wondering what to make of Vancouver prior to the start of the Major League Ultimate season. With new Head Coach Patrick Gatien at the reins and a handful of MLU veterans helping shape the roster, Vancouver had the youngest roster in the league this season.
Erik Hunter came back into the fold after not playing in 2015 and Francisco Mogollon, a long time ultimate player, began putting the pieces together to fill out a roster to compete in the Western Conference.
“I sent an email into the Nighthawks [Facebook] page to see if there was a chance at a working relationship between the Nighthawks and Blackfish,” Hunter said. “I later chatted over the phone with [MLU VP of Operations] David Kucherlapati and it all seemed to be a good fit. So then we set about signing some players and finding a coach. It took some coaxing from the signed players to convince Pat [Gatien] to come around, but I think he is glad he did.”
Despite finishing 1-9 in 2016, with their lone win coming at home at Thunderbird Stadium in a double-overtime thriller against the San Francisco Dogfish, there were lots of things to take away from the season.
Handler Graeme Barber took home 2016 Western Conference Rookie of the Year honors, tallying 18 assists, four goals, and he finished tied for the league in TPOP (Touches Per Offensive Possesion) with 1.559. The 25-year old handler stepped up as a key cog on the Nighthawks defensive line down the stretch of the season and helped a Vancouver defensive unit improve after struggling throughout the better part of the season.
“Barber is a great player and a great leader,” Hunter said. “I think he actually doesn’t even know his own potential. He was the driving force for the defensive line. I’m really glad he got that recognition because he deserves it. He works very hard. I think Barber has the potential to be the best player on the team if that’s what he wants.”
The win over the Dogfish validated a lot of work from the Nighthawks in 2016. Although it wasn’t the prettiest of games, the win still meant a lot to Hunter and his teammates.
“I think that win was our proudest moment of the season,” Hunter said. “Although not our best played game in my opinion. I tend to be a little hard on us though. We had some great flashes through the season. I think our biggest challenge had to be maintaining it for a full game and not shooting ourselves in the foot.”
The aforementioned Hunter, in his second season in the league, finished 8th in the league in scoring with 34 points. He scored 19 goals, threw 15 assists and recorded 7 blocks and proved to be a go-to player for the Nighthawks when they needed to make a play.
Hybrid player Taylor Nadon, one of the few veterans besides Hunter on the Nighthawks, also finished with 34 points in 2016. Notching 17 goals and 17 assists for the season, the former University of Victoria player had three goals, an assist, and a pair of blocks in the Nighthawks win over the Dogfish back on May 21.
With a roster loaded with college and high school players, the Nighthawks showed their youth plenty of times in 2016. But at times, that was a really good thing.
Jasper Lu showed up and became a difference maker late in the season for the Nighthawks. He played a major role in the win over the Dogfish, reeling in three scores and recording a pair of blocks in the best game of the season for Vancouver. He followed up his performance against the Dogfish in his next appearance for the Nighthawks with a two assist and one block game against the Seattle Rainmakers. Lu didn’t turn the disc over in either of his final two games in 2016.
“Jasper is an energy player and when he is running and gunning it is very hard to stop him,” Hunter said. “He is the one that threw me a play of the week after all.”
Justin Chan, the player who made the infamous “scorpion catch” this season, was someone who made huge strides in his game. At the beginning of the season, he was seen by many as an energy defensive player to hopefully get some blocks and make a difference in a game.
“By the end of the season he was playing some O-line points and really proving that he was a force to be reckoned within the lanes,” Hunter said.
The 2016-17 offseason will be pivotal for the Nighthawks if they wish to compete with the Rainmakers and Portland Stags atop the Western Conference, but the young core of their roster has a chance to continue to grow together under the leadership of Gatien and Hunter.