As the Vancouver Nighthawks head into their matchup against the Portland Stags at Thunderbird Stadium this Saturday, the message from the team is ‘Steady as she goes.’

When asked what the Nighthawks are working on at practice this week, Head Coach Andrew Lugsdin replied, “Nothing in particular. We’re just focusing on the basics.”

This approach might seem a little surprising for a team that was picked to win the Western Conference but is currently languishing in third place with a 2-3 record, but if you look a little closer, you’ll see why the team is so sanguine about their situation.

At Thunderbird Stadium, the Nighthawks have been invincible, beating the San Francisco Dogfish and Seattle Rainmakers, both for the first time in their MLU history, by a combined score of 55-38. But on the road, Vancouver has lost close games in Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco by a combined score of 56-48. So with a few breaks and a little better execution on the road, the Nighthawks could easily be 5-0.

Last weekend’s 13-12 overtime loss in San Francisco is a perfect example.

The wind was howling the whole game, leading to only three points being scored in the final 15 minutes, including one point that took over seven minutes due to no fewer than 16 turnovers. To make matters worse, the Nighthawks had to face these tough playing conditions without their most experienced handler, Kirk Savage, who  had attempted and completed the most passes of anyone on the team over the first four games of the season. His throwing skills and experience in maintaining composure in difficult conditions would likely have tipped the score in the Nighthawks’ favour had he been able to make the trip south.

Lady Luck was definitely against Vancouver last week. A number of times a Vancouver defender got a block in on an opponent’s throw, only to see the disc deflect up into the air to a San Francisco player.

And it was crucial for the outcome of the game that in the fourth quarter, Morgan Hibbert, who had been Vancouver’s best player to that point, was ejected from the game for using profanity while talking to his teammates on the sidelines during the seven-minute point.

The portents do look much better for the Nighthawks this weekend.

The Stags lost their first game of the season to Seattle last weekend in Portland, and they continue to be without Timmy Perston, who has always scored lots of goals against Vancouver, due to a work assignment taking him overseas.

And the Nighthawks are very happy to be back home in the friendly confines of Thunderbird Stadium, aka ‘The Nest’, which is rapidly becoming a fortress for the team.

“It’s certainly more exciting to play in front of our home crowd,” says MLU’s second-leading scorer Brendan Wong. “It gives me more motivation to play hard to avoid disappointing our home fans.”

“Being home seems to be a significant help to the team,” says Lugsdin. “We’ve clearly played much better there. Part of that is having the fans’ support and part of that is the conditions. But as a team, we can’t be relying on outside factors to determine our success.”

This brings up the psychological aspect of building a winning team. After bringing in a number of very talented but younger and relatively inexperienced players this season, the Nighthawks remain a work in progress, still learning to create the mindset that marks a winner.

“We still struggle to deal with any form of adversity,” says Lugsdin. “It’s a question of mental toughness. Until we learn to develop that, we’ll be an inconsistent team.”

Veteran D-liner Andy Collins is one of the experienced players who is working hard to instill that mental toughness in his younger teammates.

“Losing is always hard, but to come out on top in this, or any league, you have to put wins and losses behind you. The only game that matters is the next game. We are in a battle to make the playoffs so we will be ready for this game, and so will our fans.”

The Nighthawks are fortunate that even with their losing record halfway through their season they are indeed still in the battle to finish in one of the top two positions that qualify for the MLU Western Conference final. A win on Saturday against Portland will throw the race even more wide open.

You can buy tickets for this game against the Portland Stags, which will be played at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday, May 24 at 7 p.m.

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