Photos by Sean Carpenter and Burt Granofsky – Ultiphoto.com
Veni, vidi, vici? Veni, you bet. Vidi, sure. Vici, not so much. In spite of a spirited third quarter comeback, the Nighthawks were unable to dig themselves back out of the hole they had dug for themselves in the first half, and failed to conquer the D.C. Current on their way to losing the Major League Ultimate Championship final 23-17.
In the earlier part of the season when they were struggling, the Nighthawks had a bad habit of going through periods in each game where they seemingly couldn’t do anything right. This tendency had disappeared during the five-game winning streak that got them into the MLU finals, but unfortunately it was back in spades in the first quarter, leaving them little chance to recover.
From the moment they received the opening pull, the Nighthawks O-line looked nervous, but according to the analytical mind of Alex Davis, what appeared to be nervousness was something a little different.
“‘Looking nervous’ is what people look like when they’re uncertain about what to do or they’re thinking more than usual. I don’t think many of us felt nervous, as an emotion, but we (and our O-line in particular) were not comfortable on the field, which is different.”
On the Nighthawks’ very first possession, the usually reliable Aaron Loach threw away the disc on what should have been an easy pass, which led to the first of six breaks Vancouver gave up in a disastrous first quarter while failing to get a single break themselves. The man-on-man defence by the Current was relentless and the Nighthawks O-line had no answer, turning over the disc repeatedly and each time failing to stop the Current D-line from converting the break.
“D.C., as you saw, plays a different defensive style from most of the West Coast teams, and we were slow to accept that,” says Davis. “They use a straight-up mark and are very containment-oriented on the handlers. They let us reset the disc relatively easily, but the upfield angles and timing looked totally different, like an alien landscape, and that was very distracting to our offence, particularly during the first half of the game. We took far more deep shots than we ordinarily do, and we edged them more than we ordinarily have to, and they fell shorter than we needed them to. We were impatient and we kept trying to solve problems with brawny throws even though it wasn’t working.”
One of the biggest problems for the Nighthawks in the first half was that they continually allowed a free sight line for the Current to find the cutters who were getting open downfield.
“On the D-line, it was the opposite story,” says Davis. “Earlier, while doing video analysis, I had wondered why Boston always seemed to back the Current so heavily. In Vancouver, we often deny in-cuts by default and bait the hucks. D.C., by contrast, is trying to huck as much as they can, and we see that now. It’s their strength. We were not prepared to play a team that drove their offence through hucks so impetuously, and our positioning, our buffers, and our mentality was all wrong for them.”
Meanwhile, the Vancouver offence at first was reluctant to try the hucks that are usually their bread and butter, and when they finally did put up some long passes, it was always a desperation huck that had little chance of being completed. Vancouver coach Andrew Lugsdin tried everything, calling timeouts, benching the starting O-line, bringing D-liners onto the O-line, but nothing worked, and by the end of the first quarter the score was 8-2 for the Current.
When the Current started the second quarter scoring on a huck from Sean Keegan to Jeff Wodatch after only 13 seconds, and then picked up yet another break to make it 10-2, it seemed like the game was over. But the Nighthawks are nothing if not resilient and from this point on they finally started to find their game.
“Vancouver is a team that has always believed that the score is an imaginary number that only matters at the end of the game,” says Davis. “That attitude has characterized many of Vancouver ultimate’s comeback runs over the years. We accepted that we had messed up the first quarter, and we began searching for the things that would work and focused on them. The O-line adjusted their cuts and started looking for uncontested spaces. They isolated cutters more. And when we needed them, individuals just made plays more often. On defence, we read the throwers better. We recognized that a team that puts on straight-up marks all the time probably isn’t accustomed to wrap-around, no-dump marks. We lined up better to sprint down those hucks.”
The offence still wasn’t rolling the way it can, but also wasn’t turning over the disc as much and not giving up immediate breaks when it did. With more time on the field, the Vancouver D-line started to get the measure of the Current O-line, which had flourished to that point despite the absence of Eastern Conference MVP Alan Kolick. Although the score was a daunting 13-4 at half, you could feel the stirrings of hope on the Nighthawks side.
Whatever the Nighthawks coaches and players had to say during the half-time break, it worked, as the Nighthawks came out in determined fashion.
After the teams held serve for the first four points to make the Current advantage 15-6, some of the younger Nighthawks, particularly Kevin Greer and Keane Knapp, stepped up. Kirk Savage found Knapp in the end zone to make it 15-7, then Matthew Doyle got a D and then caught a hammer from Jordan Tessarolo to make 15-8. Greer then caught two straight breaks to bring the score to 15-10, and you could start to feel a little panic in the D.C. ranks, particularly when O-line stalwart Peter Prial went down with a knee injury — not to return. Markham Shofner then passed to Calvin Oung for an important goal to restore a bit of composure to Current, now leading 16-10.
But on the subsequent point, after the Nighthawks turned it over, Knapp got it back with his second hand block of the game and caught a pass from Savage to bring the deficit back to five. On the next point, Shofner threw up a wayward huck which was D’d by Morgan Hibbert, who took a poke in the eye for his efforts, but it was more than worth it as Greer found Rumi Tejpar in the end zone for a goal that brought the Nighthawks within four goals for the first time since early in the first quarter. Keegan scored for D.C. with five seconds left in the quarter, but when the Nighthawks were able to convert in those few remaining seconds on a pass from Greer to Kevin Underhill to make the score 17-13 for the Current, it felt like the game was still in the balance.
But after a hard-fought point featuring multiple Ds by both teams to start the final quarter ended with a goal by Shofner, and then an Underhill throwaway leading to a break goal by Erik Salmi, the situation became desperate for the Nighthawks. Three times they brought the deficit back to four points, but time was running out and the Current did not fold under the pressure. In the end, they were deserving of their 23-17 win.
D.C.’s Markham Shofner led all scorers with six points (four goals and two assists) and was named MVP of the Championship Game. Wodatch, Keegan, Tom Doi, and Cody Johnston all contributed four points. Greer led Vancouver with one goal and five assists, while Knapp had three goals and added an assist.
While it was a hard defeat to take for the players and coaches, the Nighthawks can also take heart from the the way they made the necessary adjustments to get back into the game, albeit a little too late, but especially, from how well their under-25 cohort played, particularly Keane, Greer, Tejpar, and Gagan Chatha, who made several outstanding catches. The future looks bright for MLU Season number three!