Don’t let the final margin of victory in the Vancouver Nighthawks’ 29-24 win over the Rainmakers in Seattle fool you. This game was balanced on a knife edge until almost the very end; the first three-point lead by either team didn’t occur until there was just over a minute left in the second overtime period.

Major League Ultimate should use this game as an advertisement. Both teams played inspired competitive Ultimate with maximum effort and great spirit, with players on both teams making a number of outstanding individual plays. The perfect throwing conditions let the handlers strut their stuff, getting off an impressive array of hammers, scoobers, blades, and other funky throws. There were at least six Ds that are worthy of winning the Defensive Play of the Week award.

None of those Ds were bigger than one made by Peter Yu early in the second overtime. After the Nighthawks had scored quickly on a sweet scoober from Brendan Wong to Kirk Savage to take a 25-24 lead, the Rainmakers received the subsequent pull and moved the disc close to midfield. Then Yu first shut down the dump, and then after his mark finally got free for a risky high-count attempt, he sacrificed his body to dive for a crucial block, picking up an injury in the process. The Nighthawks were able to break on the possession to take a two-point lead and never looked back on their way to the win. (Fortunately Yu was able to recover quickly and was back on the field for the final few points.)

The Nighthawks were led in this game by two rookies and two veterans.

In the end Yu totaled only one D in the official stats (though I counted three) but his ability to disrupt the Rainmakers’ handlers with all-out effort and close marking was one of the keys to the win. His determination and unerring focus give him a leadership role far beyond his years and belie his lack of experience at top level Ultimate.

Fellow rookie Gagan Chatha had his best game of the season, scoring eight goals. Displaying his own brand of leadership, when he made what could have been a fatal unforced drop late in the first overtime period with the Rainmakers up by one, he didn’t hang his head. Rather he picked it up on defence, helped force a turnover, and in the end calmly scored the tying goal with three seconds left in the period.

“Gagan stepped up tonight by responding to that call for more undercuts, and he delivered them decisively,” said teammate Alex Davis. “When he made mistakes, he recovered from them and didn’t let them take him out of his game. It was overall a very strong contribution.”

The perfect throwing conditions allowed 40-year-old O-line handler Kirk Savage to unleash his full array of throws, dissecting the Rainmakers’ defense with surgical precision. In the end he was the game’s top scorer, totaling two goals and eight assists.

On the other side of the disc, Morgan Hibbert had another monster game. He can count a few more highlight reel plays among his six (!) Ds, three of which ended quarters. As a result, he has moved into the MLU lead in that important defensive statistic with 17.

“I thought Morgan started off a little slowly,’ said head coach Andrew Lugsdin. “He might have been trying to do too much at first but by the second quarter he started make play after play for us. He’s a huge part of the team and it was great to see him play so well.”

Davis, who usually is marking one of the handlers up the field, finds it very comforting to know that Hibbert, who took every pull for the Nighthawks, is operating behind him.

“Morgan has an uncanny ability to get into the right place at the right time to do what he does best. The job of the defensive line is to force throws toward people like Morgan, where the odds favour us. That he delivers so consistently when we need it most is more than we could ask for.”

This game had been billed as a battle between Donnie Clark of Seattle and Wong, who stood first and second in MLU goal scoring going in, but it was not to be. The downfield defenders, together with close marking on the disc, did such a good job that rather than being able to strike for goals, both were forced to concentrate on cutting under, which gave Wong, a better thrower than Clark, the advantage in this match-up. In the end Clark was held to two goal and one assist, while Wong managed three goals and two assists to maintain his lead in overall MLU scoring and to tie with Clark for the lead in goals.

Given the perfect conditions, both offenses came out firing to start the game. After only 3:05 it was already 3-3, and a Hibbert D which ensured the first quarter ended with the Nighthawks up 7-6, was only the ninth turnover of the first quarter. In the second quarter the offenses were even more efficient. When Hibbert ended the half with another D, this time to preserve a 12-12 tie, it was only the eighth turnover of the second quarter. (During a single point on a very windy day in San Francisco a few weeks ago, the Nighthawks and Dogfish combined for 16 turnovers, only one fewer than occurred during the entire first half of this game.)

Last time these two teams met in Seattle, the wind became much stronger as the game wore on and the Rainmakers used a zone defense to frustrate the Nighthawks offense while pulling away in the second half for a 20-15 win. But though the wind did come up a bit in the second half this night, it was not enough to rattle the offenses and both teams mostly stuck to man marking. Early in the game it had looked like the MLU single game scoring records might have been in jeopardy, but as the second half wore on both defenses started to get the measure of their opponents.

In the third quarter the Rainmakers twice were able to take a two-point lead, once due to a drop by Chatha and then on a nice D by Todd Sliva, but each time the Nighthawks were able to break back, the first time on pass from Kevin Underhill to Chatha, and then when Wong followed up a throwaway with a D leading to an Underhill pass to Aaron Loach to bring the score back to an 18-17 deficit. On the next play Hibbert got yet another quarter-ending D to preserve that score heading into the fourth quarter.

On the first series of the quarter, Matthew Zemel unleashed one of his lethal sidearm hucks to Sam Harkness to give the Rainmakers a 19-17 lead, but Savage then hit Chatha to bring it back to a one-point Seattle lead. On the next play, Hibbert got a highlight reel D on Clark leading to Savage passing to Keane Knapp to tie things up. You could feel the tension mounting in the stadium.

After Kevin Greer got a highlight reel end zone D of his own for the Nighthawks, they turned the disc over, allowing Kahyee Fong to find Danny Trytiak to put Seattle in front 20-19 with 4:45 left. On the next series the Nighthawks O-line marched the disc up the field but then Wong missed a wide open Loach in the end zone to give the disc to Seattle. Seattle took a timeout, which allowed Vancouver to get their D line on the field, and Hibbert got another D allowing Davis to find Yu to tie the score 20-20. In the remaining few minutes the offenses were flawless, each scoring twice to make the score 22-22 and setting up overtime.

Seattle won the toss and took the disc, allowing them to take a 24-23 lead with 1:18 left in overtime after goals by Zemel and Adam Simon sandwiched a Vancouver goal scored by Wong. When Chatha dropped the disc on the subsequent series it didn’t look good for the Nighthawks. Seattle took a timeout but then turned over the disc in the Nighthawks end zone, allowing Vancouver to take a timeout of their own and get their O-line on the field with 57 seconds left in overtime. In their finest display of the season, the offense calmly moved the disc up the field, scoring the tying goal with three seconds left on a pass from Knapp to Chatha, leaving Seattle no chance to score the winning goal.

By then the Nighthawks D-line had made a key tactical switch to counter the Rainmakers’ huck game, which had been effective earlier on.

“Late in the game, we switched to a forehand force, and that helped,” said Davis. “Their hucks became slower and loopier, so we were able to attack them more effectively with defenders like Morgan. We also forced them to use more throws which allowed our defenders more opportunity to learn their match-ups and feel out angles, as well as tiring out their offense.”

Knowing their D-line was gaining the advantage over the Seattle O-line, the Vancouver offence continued to roll, scoring the first point of the second overtime when Wong hit Savage for a score with yet another scoober. Then came the amazing Yu D described earlier, which led to Chatha scoring his seventh goal to give Vancouver a crucial two-goal lead. The next point was sloppy with a number of turnovers but a Matthew Doyle D on a threatening huck and then another by Yu led to Greer finding Morgan Hibbert with, yes, another scoober, to give Vancouver a 27-24 lead. They didn’t look back, scoring with 10 seconds left and then as time expired, giving them a very satisfying 29-24 win on their archrival’s home turf.

“We needed to win today,” said Lugsdin. “The guys had their backs to the wall a few times in the game and every time they responded. It was great to see and great for them to get rewarded with a much deserved win. I think it should give the team a lot of belief in what they can accomplish.”

The Vancouver win has thrown the Western Conference playoff race wide open. The Nighthawks are now only one game behind the Rainmakers in the standings, and with a win in next weekend’s rematch back in the friendly confines of Thunderbird Stadium, they can put themselves in the driver’s seat with two games remaining for both teams.

That rematch against the Seattle Rainmakers is on Saturday, June 7 at 7 p.m at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Stadium.

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