The Vancouver Nighthawks are heading into their second Major League Ultimate season with a high degree of anticipation among players, coaches, and fans alike for a good season ahead.

And they have picked up support from around the league for this confidence. In the just released preseason MLU Power Rankings the Nighthawks are picked to win MLU’s Western Conference.

One of the appeals of sports is that every year brings a new chance for success for every player and every team, but in the case of the Nighthawks an influx of new talent and a year under their belts gives those expectations a solid foundation. Their first test will be this coming Saturday night at Doc Harris Stadium in Camas, Washington against the Portland Stags, a team the Nighthawks beat in all three meetings last season.

The Stags should be able to put up a better fight than they did last year. The core of the team, including scoring star Timmy Perston, who led Portland with 32 goals, and Cody Bjorkland, many of whose team-leading 41 points were assists on Perston’s goals, has returned. Unfortunately it appears what Perston might be transferred out of the country for most of the season by his employer — no word yet on whether he’ll be playing Saturday — but that slack will be taken up by two prized recruits: Mark Burton who scored 33 goals and 22 assists for the Seattle Rainmakers last season; and Camden Allison-Hall, who was a standout at cutter for the University of Oregon.

But that doesn’t seem to worry the Nighthawks, who according to Head Coach and GM Andrew Lugsdin, will play a similar style to the one they used last year to beat the Stags three times. Team Captain Morgan Hibbert describes it as the typical Vancouver style of Ultimate.

“On offence we will primarily use a horizontally based offense, with good disc movement into prime hucking positions where we can use the deep shot effectively to our tall athletic receivers,” said Hibbert. “On defense we rely primarily on hard man to man 1-on-1 defense. Nothing too tricky, just gritty hard nosed in your face Canadian D.”

But Lugsdin expects to the big difference this year will be in how the offence runs the system.

“We may not be playing a different style but if we play better, the way I think we will,  there will be less desperate high in the stall count decision making, so it may look like a different style,” said Lugsdin. “I think we’re more athletic this year and we’ve seen some of our players continue to develop. Based on that, I expect us to play better.”

Although the Nighthawks have lost their top scorer Oscar Pottinger and best defensive player Aaron Liu from last year, watch for their new-found depth to more than make up for these losses, especially on offence. Lugsdin plans to play a little deeper into the line-up than he did last year. This will really help the Nighthawks, who lost a number of close games last year, to find the energy to close out games for victories.

“We did this on the D-line quite a bit last year but I think we’ll do it on the O-line as well,” said Lugsdin.

Jordan Tessarolo, who is returning from last year, plus newcomers John Norris and Gagandeep Chatha will join the regular O-line rotation in this second season.

The team has an impressive roster of players to watch in their first game against a young Portland squad.

“I think it will be interesting to see how our prize Japanese import Takuya Saito does in his first real game with us,” said Lugsdin. “He’s played very well at practice. Some of our younger players like Rumi Tejpar and Gagey will have an impact on the game. I also think that Morgan Hibbert has trained very hard this offseason and it’s apparent in his level of play at practice. I think he’s going to have a great season for us.”

It would be a very positive development for the Nighthawks if Hibbert can return to his normal self after an injury-plagued season last year. With his combination of size, speed and savvy, he can dominate a game all by himself.

Undoubtedly one of the leaders of the team, Hibbert has taken notice of the incoming players, including a name that keeps coming up in conversations about the Nighthawks. He recommends we watch for four of the newcomers in particular. It is revealing of the team’s depth that his choices do not overlap with Lugsdin’s except for, inevitably, Gagandeep Chatha.

Chatha is an exciting tall athletic offensive lane cutter who’s just 20 years old and loves to score goals.”

Matt Doyle is a longtime member of [Vancouver’s top touring team] Furious George and played with Team Canada in 2012. He did not play with the Nighthawks last year but has been a defensive stalwart on Furious George for years.”

“No one is talking about Nick Menzies, but he only played two games last year so is in essence a new player. This last summer he played on Canada’s World Games team again. He’s the best player on our team that no one is talking about.”

John Norris took a few years off from playing, but now is back and will be a starting O-Line handler. He’s the best hucker on the team and given our depth at receiver, I expect him to be racking up lots of assists this weekend.”

We’ll get out first look at whether this year’s version of the Nighthawks can meet the lofty expectations in Portland this Saturday.

You’ll be able to watch a live stream of the game here.

After their first game of the season against the Portland Stags this Saturday, April 12, the Nighthawks home season opens in Vancouver against the San Francisco Dogfish at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Stadium on Easter Sunday, April 20.

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