It’s remarkable how quickly the Vancouver Nighthawks’ second Major League Ultimate season has flown by. And it seems like only yesterday their hopes of playing in the Western Conference playoffs were in jeopardy.
But by going 5-1 down the stretch, including important wins over Seattle Rainmakers (thrice) and next week’s playoff opponent, the Portland Stags, the Nighthawks have justified the early season predictions by the pundits that they would be at or near the top of the Western Conference. Bolstered by a deep roster that includes some rapidly improving young talent, they have started to realize the potential envisioned by head coach and general manager Andrew Lugsdin when he chose the players for this year.
Overcoming some early inconsistency, the D-line has really come together. After being far behind early in the season, the Nighthawks have moved into second in their conference in goals surrendered, and are now only nine behind Portland’s 159 with 167.
“I think that the defence has improved this year,” says Lugsdin. “If you look at our last game against Portland versus our first game of the season against Portland, the defensive pressure is night and day. We still need to get better but the guys have worked hard and you can see all of the little improvements that make all the difference on defence.”
Veteran D-liner Morgan Hibbert, a lock for the All-Star Team and a contender for league MVP, has really enjoyed watching his cohorts improve as a group.
“I think the defence has played at a very high level at times this season,” says Hibbert. “Last weekend was perhaps our most complete defensive performance throughout the entire game, and a large part of that was our ability to go into the depth of our roster defensively. We have a lot of players playing at a high level, which is leading to a very good team defence.”
The improvement has also been evident on the offensive side of the disc, where Vancouver leads their conference with 195 goals scored, a full 20 ahead of Portland and tied with the Washington DC Current for the league lead. But in spite of those numbers, Lugsdin is still looking for more, particularly in terms of consistency.
“The offence has been up and down all year. On one hand, we’re tied for the most goals scored this year and we’ve looked great for some games. On the other hand, we have had breakdowns in what we’re trying to do, even in our last game. The guys are definitely on the right track, but I have high expectations for the nine guys that we’ve regularly run out on our O-line. I think we’ll continue to see improvement in our next few games.”
From inside the offence, cutter Aaron Loach, who has had an excellent season himself with nine goals and 20 assists to stand third in team scoring, concentrates more on the positives.
“I think that we have made tremendous strides from last year, and have continued to make strides. All last year we worked hard on continuation cuts, timing, and spacing in the lanes. This year we have begun to see the result of all that work in the games, and we have taken steps to become more consistent and less high risk, high reward. Our goal has been to make our offence as boring and systematic as possible, and at times we have achieved that, at least when Brendo isn’t making crazy plays.”
The “Brendo” Loach is referring to is Brendan Wong, another strong candidate for league MVP and a shoo-in for MLU Rookie of the Year. He is also one of two Nighthawks with a chance to set a single season record in the game in San Francisco. Wong has already destroyed the single season record for goal scoring – unbelievably, he is within striking distance of scoring as many goals in his single MLU season as any other player has managed in both seasons put together – and he needs only five points to break the point scoring record of 61. Meanwhile, Morgan Hibbert has already tied the MLU record of 20 Ds in a season.
Yes, setting records and getting awards is fun for the fans to follow and a nice bonus for the players, but staunch supporters throughout the season know it’s all about the team.
“Setting records is not a consideration at all,” says Lugsdin. “I don’t believe in putting individual goals ahead of team goals. If those guys play hard and within our team system then everything will take care of itself.”
“Setting records is not a consideration at all from a team perspective,” agrees Hibbert. “But the beauty of setting records is that for me, getting D blocks helps the team defence function the way it should, while for Brendo, scoring lots of points usually is a key component to our team scoring more goals than the other team on the way to a victory.”
This game will be a new experience for the Nighthawks in several ways.
First, neither Lugsdin nor Assistant Coach Al Nichols is able to make the trip, so the team will have to look after itself. Hibbert, Marc Seraglia, and Kevin Underhill will be calling the lines and supplying the motivational speeches.
And second, due to the Western Conference final standings have already been determined, it will be the first time this season that the Nighthawks will play a game without pressure. But don’t think there will be any let-up in intensity.
“I always play to win,” says Hibbert. “Always. That will be the approach. At the same time, it is a great opportunity to get all the players on our roster lots of reps, and have everybody firing on all cylinders come playoff time.”
“This game gives our team an opportunity to become better as a unit going into the playoffs the following week,” says Loach. “It would be criminal if we did not embrace that opportunity and strive to become better. Everyone on the team has things that they need to work on, both as individuals and as part of a team concept.”
In spite of having nothing at stake in the standings, the Nighthawks will be taking almost a full roster, something they haven’t always seen from teams coming to play at Thunderbird Stadium. Joel Bellevance is out for the season with an ankle injury, and though Kirk Savage is finally starting to recover from a very serious knee infection, he will be unable to make the trip. On the other hand, it is likely that Andre Gailits will play his first points after being out all season with a leg injury.
The game in San Francisco will be at 2 p.m. PDT on Saturday, June 21st. Fans will be able to watch a live stream of the game here.
Fans can also buy tickets for the Nighthawks’ playoff game in Portland on June 28th here.