The Vancouver Nighthawks have accomplished a lot so far in their second season in Major League Ultimate. In their home games they beat the San Francisco Dogfish and Seattle Rainmakers, both for the first time, by a combined score of 55-38, in the process establishing Thunderbird Stadium as a fortress. They can take a big step toward achieving their goal of hosting the Western Conference finals this season by extending that dominance to the road this Saturday afternoon in San Francisco.

On the face of it, this would seem to be an easy match for the Nighthawks — their record is 2-2, while San Francisco is only 1-5 — but San Francisco has suffered from a tough schedule to start the season, playing six games in 22 days, and the Nighthawks have yet to win on the road this year. Also, the conditions in San Francisco are notoriously windy, something that gave Vancouver problems two games ago in a loss to Seattle Rainmakers in Washington as well as in their road loss to San Francisco last season.

This is something the team has been concentrating on in practice the last few weeks.

“Overall throwing skill isn’t necessarily our strongest attribute,” says O-line cutter Aaron Loach. “We rely on our offensive system to produce disc movement, but when it’s windy we often lose confidence in our system and struggle. We have been working hard on completing fundamental flat throws in defensive zone sets to help us prepare for the windy conditions we will almost certainly face in San Francisco.”

Head Coach Andrew Lugsdin agrees on the confidence aspect.

“We wanted to make some adjustments prior to this game. The biggest part is that our O-line reverts to some bad habits when they start to lose confidence. Windy conditions have impacted them in the past so we want to reinforce how to handle it.”

“We have been working on making sure our lane cutters don’t stretch it too deep, and our handlers are working hard at moving the disc into a dangerous spot on the field,” says Loach. “When we do a good job of both of these, we are successful. The times we struggle, like in our road loss to Seattle, are when we rely on our throws to get us out of tough spots instead of our legs.”

This will be especially important on Saturday because the Nighthawks’ most experienced handler, Kirk Savage, who has caught, thrown, and completed more passes than anyone else on the team, is unable to make the trip. And on the injury front, Brendan Wong, MLU’s leading scorer, is probable to play but is battling an ankle injury, so he may not be as dominant this week as he has been so far this season.

Even if their team has just come off a big win, coaches, by their nature, are never satisfied.

“On offence, we’ve made really good progress but we’ve yet to prove that we can handle adverse conditions, and we have to be more consistently focused,” says Lugsdin. “As well as our O-line played last week, we still had two drops in the first quarter and a few bad decisions. These are things that we need to continue to get better at.”

For the Nighthawks to be successful, they must combine a smoothly running offense built around an effective huck game with unrelenting defensive pressure which disrupts their opponent’s offense. The latter was very evident in last weekend’s win over Seattle.

“It was great to have that defensive pressure really, really amped up,” says Matthew Berezan. “There were a lot of stall-six bails and they couldn’t look up-field because our lane-cutter defenders were doing a great job of taking away options, which also happened with our handler covers. Taking away their primary options, even their secondary options, forcing them to go to the third option at best, really ground their offense to a halt. And the biggest thing after that was that we actually converted on the turns and our D-line was scoring.”

That’s another key for the Nighthawks. In their loss to Seattle, the D-line, when they forced a turnover, seemed to lack the energy to convert those turns into goals, particularly when they were trying to score upwind. That was not a problem in last weekend’s home win over Seattle, but that game was played in perfect playing conditions.

Lugsdin also sees room for improvement by the Nighthawks’ D-line.

“We have made a lot of progress but really we need to continue to improve in all areas. While our defense has definitely improved it’s still not where we want it to be. We need to increase the defensive pressure and do it more consistently. We’d also like to develop a few more defensive looks.”

Loach may still be a player but he already thinks like a coach.

“I think our team has a lot of potential, and we are a strong team on paper. Where we fail is in executing basic plays on a consistent basis. We still have drops and execution errors. I have high standards for our team, so I see many flaws, but there will always be things that we can improve on. What is important is we play our game, and we play it to the best of our ability, win or lose.”

As always, Lugsdin wants his team to stay focused on the the game at hand.

“I feel that we have some positive momentum after the last few weeks,” says Lugsdin. “The guys can see their potential with how we’ve played at times this year but the reality is that we have a long way to go to get to where we want to be. I prefer to focus on the process of getting better every week and not worry about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. We need to get better every week and that’s what we focus on.”

Will the Nighthawks continue to show that improvement against San Francisco this weekend? If you are unable to make the trip to California to find out in person, there are still several ways for you to watch the game. (Note that it’s an afternoon game starting at 2 p.m.)

You can watch a live stream of the game here.

If you want to watch that stream in a more convivial setting, Mahony & Sons will be showing the game on a big screen.

The Nighthawks next home game will be against the Portland Stags at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday, May 24 at 7 p.m.

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