Photos by Jeff Bell and Brandon Wu – UltiPhotos.com; Graphic by Kevin Lee

The Vancouver Nighthawks have added three more players from last year’s team for Season 2. They may be at very different stages of their career but all are destined to play an important role in the Nighthawks’ quest for their first MLU playoff berth.

O-line handler Kirk Savage, who will turn 40 not long after the season, will spark the offense with his handling expertise and experience. D-line handler Nick Menzies, at the peak of his career, will be a leader for the Nighthawks defense with his ability to make a big play when it’s needed. O-line handler Keane Knapp, who just turned 22, was the youngest player on last year’s team and will be looking to increase his contribution this year.

Kirk Savage

I wasn’t sure if Kirk was going to come back this year but he reached out to me in the offseason and, as he was going to start training, asked if we’d want him. That’s a no brainer decision for me and I know Kirk will help the team win this year. He still has the fire to compete and he still has the skills. I think we’ll use him in a number of different roles this year. –Head Coach and GM Andrew Lugsdin

Last season Savage was one of the main handlers on the Nighthawks offense, completing a remarkable 260 out of 279 throws and making 218 catches, all team highs. The disparity between the number of catches and throws also reveals that the team relied on him to pick up the disc after pulls and turnovers, where his experience at making the right pass to get the offense rolling is most useful. With last tear’s top scorer and fellow handler Oscar Pottinger deciding to sit out this year, his experience and expertise will become even more valuable.

With Ultimate being a sport that makes such demands on the body, I asked Savage what made him decide to come back for another year, and whether there might be more than just another year of top level play in his future.

“I decided that I would like to play another year for a number of reasons. I am competitive and felt that we have unfinished business from last year. I also really enjoyed the experience last year and want to improve on our showing.”

“My wife Lara is also very supportive and my kids love to come to the games. When your family is behind you, it makes the decision much easier. As long as I am able to compete and give our team a better chance to win, then I will be drawn to high level competition.”

I was interested in whether Savage had any secrets to share about how to play at such a high level at such an advanced age.

“I don’t think that I have a secret. However, I will say that you have to listen to your body. If your body is breaking down and you are getting injured, you need to be smart and give yourself time to rest. Rest is just as important as pushing yourself. You have to know how far you can push your body so that you can get the most out of it. I certainly can’t push myself the way I used to 10-15 years ago, but as long as I am careful, I am hopeful that I can still rev it up when necessary.”

“I also do a lot of cross training. I play ball hockey and ice hockey in the winter. I also run and lift the odd weight at the gym. But above all I don’t go crazy and overdo it.”

One thing that keeps top level athletes going is the desire to improve even after a long career, and Savage is no exception.

“I am always looking to improve my game. I don’t have to look far these days to find things! In a nutshell, I would like to improve my foot speed, man to man defense and red zone throwing this year.”

“As a team, we need to improve our red zone offense…and really our offense in general. I am hopeful that our scoring percentage improves, which will require better cutting, spacing, and throwing decisions and execution.”

Nick Menzies

We’re really looking forward to having Nick back on the team in a full time role. Nick’s an important grinder for us on D. He’s got a great energy level and is always ready to play. He’s a physical defender who covers key players on the other team and then is a tireless cutter on transition O. Our D-line is better with him on it and I think he brings an attitude that otherwise our D-line is sometimes lacking. –Head Coach and GM Andrew Lugsdin

There was a concern that Menzies might not be able to return to the team this year due to the demands of his off-field career at a restaurant chain. But to the relief of Menzies and his teammates and coaches, not to mention the fans who enjoyed watching him make big plays last season, he was able to work out an arrangement that suited both parties, so he will be able to again be a leader on the Nighthawks D-line.

Menzies’ most spectacular moment last season came in San Francisco. He was awarded the MLU Offensive Play of the Week in Week 8 for a remarkable play he made with no time left on the clock at the end of the first half. He blocked an opponent’s pass and then sprinted down the field to catch the disc in the opponent’s end zone for a goal, a rare play that in Ultimate is known as Double Happiness.

Here are Menzies’ thoughts on the upcoming season.

“I am so pumped to be able to suit up and play MLU with the Nighthawks again this year so I can bring my skills and presence to what should be a great season. I have full trust in the management and leadership that we can improve on last year and take down Seattle and San Francisco.”

“Personally, I want to improve our scoring percentage on defense after we force a turnover, and add some grit to get us to the playoffs. I have been working on being a more powerful athlete to make the plays that make the difference and consistently compete at an elite level.”

Keane Knapp

Keane was a pleasant surprise last Nighthawks season. I knew he had potential, but for a young guy it’s often tough to step into an O-line handler role, especially at this level. The first thing that really caught my attention was his quiet confidence. He’s not a big swagger guy but he’s very calm under pressure. He has a sense of what he needs to do to be successful and he focuses on that. Over the season and through the fall season, he improved dramatically. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does this year.
–Coach and GM Andrew Lugsdin

Knapp is relatively new to the Ultimate scene, but in his short career he’s proven to be formidable presence on the field.

“I was born and raised in Vancouver, am 22 years old, and currently attend the University of British Columbia. [UBC is the location of the Nighthawks home at Thunderbird Stadium]. I have played Ultimate for six years, but 2013 was my first year of elite-level play. I played for the Nighthawks, the Canadian U-23 Open Team, and Vancouver’s top club team Furious George.”

With such an amazing debut year under his belt, Knapp is looking forward to a successful Season 2.

“Now that the novelty of the league has worn off, I am excited to see where our 2014 campaign leads. We definitely have something special here, and that is invigorating. It’s a plus that the team is fun to be around.”

Keane has been working hard in the off-season to improve on his game.

“I’ve taken advantage of what little off season I have – about two months in total between the end of the club season and the beginning of the university season – to spend time in the gym working on my strength, speed, and explosiveness. I hope to improve on my ability to contribute on offense, putting the disc where it needs to be and keeping the play alive with my speed.”

“I’ve also been taking some time to think about my mental game. There’s a big difference between playing in front of 30 casual fans versus 1000+ paying fans packed into Thunderbird Stadium. There’s the mental shift you need to make to shake off the grogginess from a morning flight to San Francisco when you have to play that afternoon. The key to consistency is keeping a sharp mental focus throughout the whole game.”

With last year’s Most Valuable Offensive Player Oscar Pottinger (who played the same position as Knapp) not returning this season, I asked him if this opened up an opportunity that he could take advantage of.

“Well yes, it definitely does, but for me it is all about team success. I will give it my all wherever I can contribute to the team’s success.”

You can buy tickets for the upcoming season here to see Knapp, Savage, Menzies, and the rest of the Nighthawks at Thunderbird Stadium.

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