Last season the Portland Stags and Vancouver Nighthawks met three times, and each meeting featured three things: lots of scoring; lots of goals scored by the Stags’ Timmy Perston; and a Vancouver win.

Last night the teams opened their respective MLU seasons by playing in Portland. Unfortunately for Vancouver only the first two of those trends continued, as Portland won 23-21.

The day started out poorly for the Nighthawks when due to some miscommunication their bus driver showed up several hours late for the long drive south. This meant they didn’t even arrive at the Doc Harris Stadium in Camas, Washington, a suburb of Portland, until just before game time.

In spite of this unsettling disruption to their game preparation, the Nighthawks started well, with rookie Rumi Tejpar getting a great D and then racing down the field to score the opening goal for the Nighthawks. They were pulling much better than the Stags and rode this to a 3-1 lead, but then Portland got their offence rolling and tied it up, and the teams traded goals until 6-6.

After taking a timeout, Vancouver surprised Portland with a pressure zone to force a quick turnover leading to an Andy Collins goal to take the lead 7-6. But then the Nighthawk’s bugaboo this night reared its ugly head as their offence began to make unforced errors, particularly drops. This happened on three consecutive points, allowing Portland to end the first quarter with a 9-7 lead, the final goal being scored with one second left.

The break at the end of the quarter righted the ship, as the Nighthawks offense started hanging on to the disc better and their defence, particularly Morgan Hibbert who made a several spectacular sprints to run down Portland hucks, upped the pressure and before long the Nighthawks led 12-10. Portland then sandwiched Perston’s second and third goals around a score by Nighthawks rookie Gagan Chatha, making the score at the half 13-12 for Vancouver.

Portland opened the second half with yet another Perston goal on a huck, and then the dropsies once again sabotaged the otherwise smoothly running Nighthawks offence. Before they knew it they had given up 6 of 7 scores to fall behind 18-14, with Perston scoring two more. Vancouver gave themselves hope by using a double team to force a stall count violation and scored off the turnover to make it 18-15 Portland at the three quarter mark.

Mark Leduc scored the opening goal of the fourth quarter for the Nighthawks, and on the next play Morgan Hibbert made a great end zone D off which the Nighthawks scored again to bring the Portland advantage down to a single goal at 18-17. But by then the Vancouver defence was getting worn down from overuse and the Portland offence was humming. Each time the Nighthawks got the deficit down to one, the Stags would score again, including a very important point during which their offence held the disc for more than two minutes before scoring the 20-18 goal.

The Nighthawks brought the Portland advantage down to one goal for the last time when they scored with 18 seconds left, but their frantic attempts to force a turnover were unsuccessful and Portland closed out the game by scoring one last time to make the final score 23-21 Portland.

In the pre-season power rankings, the experts had picked Vancouver to win the MLU’s Western Conference and the Stags to finish last, but the outcome of this game showed what happens when you repeatedly make unforced errors. Head Coach and GM Andrew Lugsdin was clearly frustrated by the mistakes his charges made, and was unwilling to single out any player as playing well.

“The team played pretty well in the first half other than a little lapse. However in the third quarter our O line had five drops, which really put us in a hole. We were getting guys open with good spacing but then just dropped open passes.”

Defensive stalwart Alex Davis points out how damaging this kind of error can be.

“We committed at least six unpressured drops, and at least three turnovers on offensive violation/foul calls. A count of nine completely unnecessary turnovers in the space of 40 minutes is devastating. Winning a game against your opponent is hard enough without repeatedly donating them the disc. All the strategy and the planning and advanced training we do is worthless if we relinquish possession on the simplest components of the game.”

But perhaps the biggest danger of these lapses occurs inside the players’ heads. Confidence can be a fragile thing.

“Unforced errors are frustrating because they are the easiest errors to correct, but there is very little you can do proactively to iron them out,” said Davis. “Catching the disc is the most fundamental skill of the game, bar none. I think we need to accept that sometimes the statistically improbable comes in spades, and then put it behind us. We know we can do better. If we over-think this problem, we could go in circles in our own heads to no end.”

Once again the Nighthawks were torched by Timmy Perston, but there’s no real dishonour in that as he was the third leading scorer in MLU last season. But the problem doesn’t really lie with Perston, who is a talented enough receiver that he is going to get his goals if the disc is thrown to him.

“The problem originates two passes before Perston scores, when the disc moves into the lanes, and quickly shifts to a good thrower,” said Davis. “Then we’ve lost our defensive positioning and our angles and a good throw comes out. Perston is an opportunist, just waiting for that situation, so we need to invest our attention in stopping that situation before it occurs.”

Coach Lugsdin has his work cut out for him this week. He needs to rebuild his players’ confidence after a disappointing loss in which the Nighthawks played more than well enough to win if they hadn’t hurt themselves with errors.

We’ll find out how well he’s done next Sunday afternoon at the Nighthawks’ home opener against the San Francisco Dogfish at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Stadium on Easter Sunday, April 20 at 2 p.m.

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