Photo by Scott Houghtaling – UltiPhotos.com

2015 was a challenging year for the Vancouver Nighthawks of Major League Ultimate.

As the season approached, it became clear that a scheduling conflict would preclude most of the players who had taken the Nighthawks all the way to the MLU finals last year from returning for their third season with the team. To add to the challenge, it turned out that several ultimate tournaments that usually happen on the UBC campus near the Nighthawks’ home stadium and which generate hundreds of spectators for the Nighthawks games were not going to be held this year.

All this could have dealt a mortal blow to team morale. But the staff behind the Nighthawks has worked together on many projects over the decades, and they know how to roll with the punches. Everyone was ready to take on their own part of the challenge.

The GM would have to recruit a new batch of high quality players (while thanking his lucky stars he is operating in the ultimate hotbed of Vancouver).

The coaching staff would have to quickly evaluate the new crop of tryouts, most of them untested at this level of play and unfamiliar with playing under MLU rules, and mould the best of them into a competitive team.

The half dozen returning veterans would have to play big minutes and provide leadership.

The new recruits would have to up their game and learn to play with each other as a team.

The staff would have to redouble their efforts to make sure the in game experience is as enjoyable as ever for the fans no matter what was happening on the field.

And the Nighthawks’ loyal fans would have to get used to a new crop of heroes to cheer for.

Things did not start off well. The team lost six of its first seven games, albeit all but one by a close margin. Although the weather, as always, came through on home game days, attendance was down for the first few home games.

And then came the injuries, mostly to that meager crew of returning veterans. Matt Berezan went down before the season began and never got to take the field before it ended, and before long he was joined on the sidelines by Kirk Savage, Aaron Loach, and Jordan Tessarolo, while defending conference MVP and scoring leader Brendan Wong struggled with injuries all season.

So the season was obviously a complete disaster, right?

Not at all; just ask Nighthawks GM Brian Gisel.

“In spite of our lack of success on the field, the Nighthawks continued to draw on the loyal following of the Vancouver Ultimate community, plus our outreach efforts in 2015 brought professional Ultimate to many fans not previously aware of the team. The team continued to give fans exciting, close games that usually came down to the final minutes of the 4th quarter. Of course we would have loved to see more wins, but the emergence of some very young stars makes the future look very bright for the Nighthawks.”

Under the guidance of Head Coach Andrew Lugsdin, the crop of newbies steadily improved through the season, winning two of their last three games, the only loss being a close one to the first place Portland Stags, who only lost one game all season.

Men’s Ultimate in Vancouver is currently experiencing one of those generational changes that dynasties have to go through if they want to stay on top, and based on the evidence we saw on the field, the future is in good hands. Further evidence is provided by the three young Nighthawks who had to miss a few MLU games to travel to London for the WFDF World Under-23 Championships. William Vu, Samson Hoy, and Nicholas Lin all played important roles for the Canadian team that went undefeated until they lost the gold medal final to the American team.

One thing is for sure; it’s going to very difficult to make next year’s Nighthawks!

And it is unlikely that Nighthawks Captain Morgan Hibbert will have to shoulder as much responsibility as he did this season, when he smashed the league record for points played, averaging over 28 points played per game, more than seven a game ahead of the next most utilized player in MLU. And Hibbert took to the workload, staying healthy and, remarkably, finishing among the league leaders in a number of statistics both defensive and offensive.

It was also very heartening to see that after that shaky start, the number of fans in the stands picked up in spite of the relative lack of success on the field and the absence of those spectator-generating tournaments.

“In the end, attendance in 2015 was equal to that in 2014,” said Gisel “and our staff is already looking towards the 2016 season to see how we can improve on those numbers. This season we made an increased effort at face to face marketing, not just relying on email and social media. It was both enjoyable and fruitful to engage with Vancouver Ultimate League teams during league nights, and we opened many league players’ eyes to the reality of professional Ultimate in Vancouver. Next year we want to do more of this person to person marketing, both within and outside of the local disc sport community.”

One thing you can always count on from Gisel is that he keeps an eye not just on the details but on the larger picture, and he likes what he sees.

“It feels like Ultimate has been undergoing a massive explosion of participation and awareness at all levels in the past five years, and the existence of professional Ultimate is certainly a significant factor in that success. The ability to see the top players in North America face off weekly in a stadium setting is great for the sport. I look forward to seeing to where we’ll be in five years, ten years from now.”

For a review of some of the outstanding achievements by Nighthawks player in 2015, look here.

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