The Vancouver Nighthawks host the Seattle Rainmakers at Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday night for a key Major League Ultimate matchup.

The 5-0 Portland Stags are running away with the Western Conference, leaving the other three teams, the 1-3 Nighthawks, the 2-2 Rainmakers and the 1-4 San Francisco Dogfish, fighting for the second playoff spot. If Portland beats San Francisco this weekend as expected and the Nighthawks win, they will be in a tie with Seattle at 2-3 and will have established separation from the Dogfish. But if the Nighthawks lose this weekend, they fall two full games behind the Rainmakers, a lot to make up in the remaining five games of the season.

“It is getting close to vital for us to win,” said Nighthawks coach Andrew Lugsdin. “On the positive side, I don’t think we’ve been outclassed in any of our losses. We didn’t deserve to win any of those games, but if we had played the way we’re capable of, then we could’ve won. Of course, that doesn’t count for anything and we’re running out of time to start to play up to our potential.”

Veteran Jordan Tessarolo (aka Rolo) is more emphatic.

“Yes, we need to win out all our games, especially against San Francisco and Seattle, if we want to be able to matchup against the Stags in the conference championships. That being said, anything can happen and we need to focus on one game at a time.”

Nathan Lam, who has emerged as a linchpin on the D-line, takes some hope from last week’s close loss to the Stags in Portland.

“It all comes down to making some plays. We showed last week we could battle toe-to-toe with the top team in our conference. We have the talent to be a great team; we just need to put all our parts together.”

So far this season, the D-line has been the strength of the Nighthawks. On defense, it takes all seven players on the field working together to make it difficult for the opponent’s offense, forcing them to make decisions and throws they don’t want to make, and that’s what has developed for the Nighthawks

“The D-line has been building more and more confidence, swagger, and trust in each other in every game,” said Lam. “Coach Luggy featured ‘No Fear’ in our team talks, and the mix of veterans and rookies on the D-line is embracing that mentality, and it’s translating to points on the field. Whether we play hard man-to man or junk defense, we have a lot of different looks to get the opponent’s offense out of rhythm. It also helps when you look across the line and you have the reigning defensive player of the year [Morgan Hibbert] standing beside you. It gives us a strong sense of power and confidence.”

“When our D-line does get the turn,” added Rolo, “they continue to run hard and grind the disc up the field. It’s not flashy, but it is putting points on the board and that is all that really matters.”

Alas, things have not gone so well for the Nighthawks O-line, which has been inconsistent at best. Against Portland last week, the game was tied late, but the O-line managed only one score in the final quarter as the Stags pulled away for the win.

“In the end it comes down to having that desire to win,” said Rolo. “Our O-line is definitely feeling the pressure to perform, which is resulting in timidity and making bad decisions on the field. We need to play more aggressively, make better decisions with the disc, and most importantly we need to be coming down with the catches more frequently. Last week, Portland seemed to be dominating the air. Kirk Savage made some great catches, including the catch of the week, but he should really be the person making the throws.”

Lam sees promising signs from the O-line, particularly the last time the Nighthawks faced Seattle, when they were dominant for the entire game.

“Our O-line is filled with veteran players plus a few rookies, so once they find that spark and chemistry they are going to be tough to stop. The difference is that veterans have the experience gained throughout their ultimate careers to find ways to score and get their job done. I am confident they will find their stride and once we start playing as a complete team, we will be tough to beat.”

A year ago the Nighthawks went 2-4 to start the season and then won their next five games to make it all the way to the MLU Championship game. Whether they come out of this game with a win or loss, they will have to do something similar to make this season a success. But where last year’s team had the advantage of being mostly veterans who had played together many times, this year’s Nighthawks feature 20 MLU rookies and many players relatively unfamiliar with each other. This has been a problem so far with respect to chalking up wins, but could become an plus the rest of the way.

“Last year the Nighthawks ran the table,” said Lam, “and I don’t see anything to suggest we can’t do that again. First off, we have a favourable schedule ahead with four of the six remaining games at home. I think we have shown that we have the ability to beat any team in the league. We just need to continue to work hard and make plays and the rest will be history. The advantage of having a young, inexperienced team is once we learn to become more comfortable, our play will drastically improve.”

“With such a new team,” said Rolo, “it would have been remarkable to have been able to play our best ultimate early in the season. And note that despite our inexperience, our losses have been close games. We are getting better every week as we continue to gel as a team and make adjustments. It is not going to take much to start generating more wins.”

With over 20 years of experience playing and coaching top-level ultimate Lugsdin has seen it all.

“We are getting better, though it’s always difficult to predict whether we’ll get over the hump and start to get some wins. I certainly believe that the guys have that potential. We just need to find a way to make it happen.”

A month ago the Nighthawks journeyed south of the border and beat the Rainmakers 22-20 in a game that was more one-sided than the final score indicates. With two more games under their belts and playing at home, the Nighthawks have a good chance to repeat the feat this Saturday at Thunderbird Stadium and catch Seattle in the standings. Nighthawks fans need to hope that O-line stalwarts like Rolo and Bobo Eyrich, who were dominant in the win over Seattle but relatively ineffective in the two games since, both against Portland, can regain their mojo and lead them to an important win.

The game against the Seattle Rainmakers is on Saturday, May 23 at 6:00 p.m. at Thunderbird Stadium.

You can buy tickets here.

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