Photos by Sott Houghtaling – UltiPhotos.com
The Vancouver Nighthawks ended their third Major League Ultimate season on a note of optimism by beating the Rainmakers in Seattle 20-19 on a last-second goal.
The grounds for optimism actually started a few weeks ago, midway through their 7th game of the season in San Francisco. After a poor first half Vancouver took control of the game, only to be robbed of a chance for the win by a last-minute refereeing error. They then easily defeated San Francisco at home, and the night before this game, they came very close to inflicting on the first place Portland Stags only their second defeat of the season.
In fact, the Nighthawks were in almost every game this season right to the end, but as a team laden with rookies they just didn’t know to close the game, to maintain and even ramp up the intensity when it really counted. But that’s exactly what they manged to pull off in Seattle on Sunday in the last minute of the game.
It had been a battle the whole game, with the teams trading points, each occasionally getting out to a lead only to be reeled back in. And through the 4th quarter the largest lead by either team was one goal. In other words, this was exactly the kind of pressure situation that had caused the Nighthawks’ inexperience to betray them the entire season.
Not this time.
With 70 seconds left, Henry Phan scored Seattle’s second goal in a row to allow the Rainmakers to take their only lead of the 4th quarter, 19-18. On receiving the subsequent pull, the Nighthawks didn’t panic, the O-line working the disc patiently up the field until William Vu passed to Dave Hochhalter to tie the score at 19-19 with 28 seconds left.
The Nighthawks then called a timeout so they could pull the disc from half with the aim of trapping the Rainmakers in their end-zone and forcing a turnover that would give them a chance to score the winning goal. At first this strategy seemed to work, as Seattle was pinned in their end zone, but eventually the Rainmakers managed to get it up-field and it seemed like the game was heading to overtime.
But then Morgan Hibbert came through with a hand block to get the disc back in Nighthawks hands with about 15 seconds left. There was a rookie moment as Vu dawdled rather than hustled to pick up the disc near the sideline not far from the Seattle end zone and then looked downfield for about five stall counts, but then his skill came through as he managed to complete a high release throw to Hibbert before the stall count ran out. Hibbert immediately spotted Nathan Lam in the end zone and delivered the winning goal with just two seconds left on the clock.
If the Nighthawks had been able to exhibit that kind of late game poise a few more times earlier in the season, they rather than Seattle might have been heading to Portland to play the Stags in the Western Conference finals. But that’s what you get with a team largely composed of rookies.
“Those were some interesting glimpses of our potential the last few games,” said Lam. “Thanks to the slew of injuries we suffered, a lot of young rookies got their chance and played well. We were in a lot of close games this year and couldn’t finish, but once we gain that experience to close out games we will be a top tier team. For now it’s a learning experience for everyone.”
Coach Andrew Lugsdin was heartened by the last gasp win.
“It was great for the guys to win after a tough season. We were pretty disappointed with our loss to Portland yesterday and were flat in the first quarter this game. But from part way through the second quarter the guys started to play well and it was great to pull out a win. Hopefully this is something that the guys can build on for next year.”
Nathan Lam knows exactly what happened to cause the turnaround in the second quarter.
“When we were down 9-6, Morgan Hibbert gave us a great motivational speech, underlining why everyone on the team looks up to him as our heart and soul, our leader. He poured everything into motivating us and we responded with an O-line hold and three straight breaks to get us even again at 11-11 before the half.”
It’s never easy to create a team out a collection of disparate parts, but Lam thinks that is what the players’ experiences together this season under Lugsdin’s and Hibbert’s leadership has engendered.
“We worked hard, had fun, learned together, and failed together. That builds character in teams and creates bonds that will last forever. It creates a foundation and a team to look out for future years.”
If some of the veterans of the Nighthawks’ first few seasons who were unable to participate this year for scheduling reasons are able to return next season, it is going to get very competitive during tryouts. With them on board, it’s not hard to imagine Vancouver putting together a team that can seriously threaten the Portland Stags juggernaut that dominated the Western Conference this year. But even without the potential returnees, with a year of experience under their belt this is now a team is going to be a force to be reckoned with.
The Western Conference Final will feature the Portland Stags hosting the Seattle Rainmakers on July 11th, while the MLU finals will be held in Philadelphia on Aug. 6th. Keep an eye on the MLU website for more details and the chance to buy tickets for the games.