Last Saturday night in Portland, the Vancouver Nighthawks clinched a sweep of the season series against the Stags by beating them 16-15. After Portland scored to make the margin a single goal with just over a minute left, the Nighthawks O line hogged the disc for the rest of the game, completing 21 straight passes until the clock ran out.
If you know the Nighthawks, you know that Kirk Savage was out there for the last possession. Kirk appreciated the chance to notch another win, particularly because the Nighthawks were shorthanded for this game. Among the missing were Morgan Hibbert, Matt Berezan, Nick Menzies, Andy Collins, and Andy Loach, all key parts of the team.
Says Savage, “We simply gutted that game out. It was hot, we were tired from being on a bus all day, and we were missing a bunch of key players. We had every excuse to not show up, but Vancouver has never played that way. So we played hard and in a game that was back and forth, I would say that we wanted it that little bit more.”
And if you know the Nighthawks, you will also know that Oscar Pottinger was out there a lot, manning the O line handler position along with Savage and Keane Knapp. Pottinger and Savage in particular were key to running the O well enough to win, according to Head Coach Andrew Lugsdin.
“Our O line actually struggled to move the disc effectively in the lanes compared with our last game but we were bailed out by having a good deep game going. It’s not ideal to have to rely on the deep game to move the disc upfield but fortunately Mark Leduc and Dre [Andre Gailits] were striking well and Oscar and Kirk were throwing long well. Oscar really had his flick going and Kirk has played quite well for the last couple of games.”
Aaron Koenig also appreciated the work of the O line handlers.
“The O-line handler trio of Kirk, Kevin and Keane had great teamwork. They protected the disc more than any other game we’ve played and had very few turnovers, if any. Kirk’s bail cuts were rock solid and the three of them swung the disc better than our handlers have in earlier games this season.”
There was another problem for the Nighthawks’ offense that has plagued them all scene; blowing scoring chances by turning the disc over in the other team’s endzone. If the Nighthawks had managed to score on at least three good opportunities, the outcome of the game would have been settled much earlier.
Says Lugsdin, “This has been a problem for us all year and we’ve worked at improving it all year. You would think that with such a wide field, scoring near the endzone would be that much easier. However, that hasn’t been the case for us as our players continue to try and jam the disc in the endzone on the strong side of the field. Part of this is inexperience and part of this is developing the right skills to execute it effectively and confidently. We are working on those skills and had seen some improvement before regressing a little bit in this last game.”
Mark Leduc agrees.
“Errors near the endzone have actually been a thorn in our side for most of the season, not only in this game but also in some of our games against Seattle and San Francisco. It really comes down to two things: patience and execution, and today it was more just simple execution errors that cost us several points. While those mistakes did not end up costing us the game this time, it made things a lot more exciting than they should have been.”
Leduc certainly did his part for the Nighthawks O in the absence of key offensive players, catching hucks in or near the Portland end zone at least a half dozen times. He relished the chance to step up for his team.
“While there was nothing really said in the strategy talks leading up to this game, knowing that we were missing many of our players for this game I felt that it would give me the opportunity to get the disc in my hands a lot more. Not only myself, but everyone that went down to Portland would have to step up if we were to be successful. My game has always been based around my speed and explosiveness since I first started playing 12 years ago, and I have spent a lot of time practicing how to make the most of my physical abilities. It also helps immensely to have throwers like Oscar and Kirk that can put it to any spot on the field, meaning I can put my head down and run full out, not having to worry about adjusting the direction of my cut.”
Lugsdin certainly appreciates what Leduc achieved last Saturday.
“We did want to get Leduc a little more active out there today. With key offensive players Aaron Loach and Matt Berezan being inactive, it opened up an opportunity for him to go and make more plays and he really stepped up with a good game. He has that kind of speed and ability to make plays downfield. What we’re working on with him is to get a little more balance out of his game where he comes under effectively for big gainers. Once he starts getting that down, he’s going to be very difficult to stop.”
Stepping over to the other side of the disc, the Nighthawks knew they would have to contain striker Timmy Perston, who went into the game leading the Western Conference in scoring, and they did their job. Perston did catch two scoring hucks in the first half but went scoreless in the second half.
Normally Morgan Hibbert would have been assigned to shut down Perston, but with Hibbert still being out the job went to up-and-comer Alex Davis. The ‘Hawks also made a defensive adjustment.
As Leduc explains, “At the beginning of the game Timmy burned us deep a few times, something which he has been doing to everyone all season, so we decided to heavily force him under, sometime backing him by 3 or 4 yards. Although this allowed him to be a free reset for the Stags during times when everyone else was covered, we also attempted to force him to the sidelines. So although he was able to get the disc, it was only for 5 to 10 yards and close to the sideline, making it a little more difficult for the Stags to get flow going. Overall, Timmy still did very well for the Stags, but in areas that hurt us less than his striking normally does.”
The Stags certainly needed those resets, as the Nighthawks D line repeatedly forced the handlers backwards, sometimes as much by as 25 metres. However, the Stags were still able to complete a few more hucks than they probably should have. I asked Aaron Liu, the Nighthawk’s top defensive player this year, about that.
“I actually think our D line did a great job this game of making the Stags work. We knew coming into this game that their strategy is to always look huck. In stopping those hucks in the early parts of the points, we made the handlers work more and more. As any good team will, they do eventually find some open looks to huck to.”
“While as a spectator it may seem frustrating to see our D line get hucked on after pushing them back, all that extra work paid off near the end when they began to tire. The D line’s job throughout the game is not to get blocks, it is to pressure the other team’s offense and make them work point after point. As they tire, any offense will start to make mistakes and that is what happened on Saturday. Obviously we still need to work on improving our conversion rate, but our D line forced a ton of turnovers and made the Stags work for each point.”
Koenig wanted me to make sure to point out a huge sky from Andre Gailits on a Savage huck which broke a tie with three minutes left in the game.
“Andre’s huge grab at 14-14 was ridiculous and deserves to be highlighted. That catch was made at a critical point in the game and helped us seal the victory.”
I’ll give the final words to Kirk Savage.
“I feel like our team is just starting to find ourselves, and it is disappointing that the season is winding down and we are on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs. I guess it is better late than never…”
The Nighthawks final game will be at home at 7 p.m. next Saturday against the Seattle Rainmakers. There will be a special pre-game celebration in the afternoon to say thanks to the fans. You can buy tickets for the game here.