Photos by John King and Jeff Bell – Ultiphotos.com
Last night, the Vancouver Nighthawks of Major League Ultimate came to Portland and scored a last-minute goal to defeat the Stags 14-13 in a hard-fought battle to take the Western Conference Championship and earn the right to face the DC Current for the MLU Championship in Philadelphia on July 19th.
In their previous three meetings, the teams had totaled 44, 35, and 45 goals, and the game’s leading scorer had racked up 10 points, eight points, and seven points respectively. Each game had featured moments where one team’s offence had got rolling and painted at least a momentary masterpiece, but this game was an entirely different animal. Neither offence ever got rolling other than in brief spurts, and the leading scorer, Vancouver’s Gagan Chatha, managed only four points. No work of art, this was a knock down, drag ‘em out heavyweight battle between two sluggers, with the last one standing coming out on top. It may not have been a masterpiece, but it made for compelling viewing.
Unbelievably, the Nighthawks held the Stags, who had averaged over 20 points per game through the regular season, scoreless for the first 12 minutes. That said, during those 12 minutes they managed to score only four points themselves.
In a dozen almost comedic seconds that ended the first quarter, Portland turned over the disc to Vancouver just outside the Stags’ end zone, whereupon Vancouver turned it back over to Portland on an attempted scoring pass, whereupon Portland immediately turned it back over right on the goal line when Peter Yu stepped into the passing lane for another interception, whereupon Yu passed for what would have been a goal if the pass hadn’t been completed a fraction of a second after time ran out in the quarter.
Part of the reason there was so little scoring to begin the game was due to a series of mistakes by both offences, but the two defences also played a big part.
“Conditions were fine, and the wind was manageable,” said D-line stalwart Alex Davis. “There were just a lot of turnovers, and slow, siege-work possessions. But both teams played strong defence, applying pressure and slowing down the game. Our O-line also visibly struggled on what should have been routine connections. We flat-out missed our targets on open cuts on at least six occasions.”
“But right from the start of the game, our D-line played sound, robust defence, and we forced Portland to grind and to use lots of resets. We forced them to use five seconds on almost every throw, and those add up. It chews up time. So even though we weren’t scoring a lot of points, we were burning up time and denying goals.”
The Nighthawks’ three first quarter goals, by Takuya Saito, Matthew Doyle, and Matt Berezan, all came after a series of turnovers that could have gone either way. However, when the Vancouver O-line started the second quarter with a smooth possession that resulted in Brendan Wong passing to Chatha for the 4-0 lead, it looked like the Stags were in deep trouble. But Portland got up off the ropes in remarkable fashion, suddenly scoring four lightning-quick goals, by Camden Allison-Hall, Topher Davis, Eli Blackman, and Peter Woodside, in only 75 seconds of game time to tie it up with 6:49 left in the first half.
Now it looked like it was the Nighthawks on the ropes, particularly after they quickly turned over possession after the ensuing pull. Portland called a timeout to get their O-line on the field, but this also allowed Vancouver to get their D-line back out, and they continued a theme they had established in the regular season, getting the disc back and converting it to a goal when Rumi Tejpar found Kevin Greer in the end zone. On the next point they got possession again and Morgan Hibbert passed the disc to Saito to give the Nightshawks a 6-4 lead with just under five minutes left in the first half.
By now the offences had started to settle in a bit. On the next point an end zone D by Davis prevented the Nighthawks from taking a three-point lead and eventually allowed Mark Burton to pass to Cody Bjorklund to cut the deficit to one, A Nighthawk goal by Brendan Wong and a last-second Portland score by Breeze Strout made the score 7-6 for the Nighthawks at halftime.
Portland’s Timmy Perston, who had torched Vancouver several times in the past, had missed the previous six weeks of MLU play due to a work assignment overseas, and the rustiness showed in the first half in which he had little impact and finished -5, the worst rating for either team in the half. But he shook off the rust in the second half, scoring after only 11 seconds in vintage fashion on a huck from Burton. Forty seconds later the Stags took their first lead of the game when Woodside caught another huck. The errors then started to creep back into both offences as the teams traded goals until Peter ‘The Playmaker’ Yu poached off his man, stealing the disc only inches from scoring a Callahan and then using his high release skills to find Doyle in the end zone to give the Nighthawks a 10-9 lead.
“Peter Yu seems to play smarter every game,” says Davis. “He reads the play very well, and he recognizes what his co-defenders are doing with the kind of mental agility few players possess. Coupled with his natural physical agility he catches offences off guard.”
Head coach Andrew Lugsdin was equally impressed by the play of both Yu and fellow rookie Gagan ‘Gagey’ Chatha.
“Gagey has become one of our best lane cutters. He was getting big gainer after big gainer. To be honest, he was doing so well at getting open that we started running more and more plays off of the pull to him as the game went on. He just keeps getting better each week and even though he’s our youngest O-liner by far, he was one of the guys that played really well under pressure.”
The Vancouver D-line converted another turnover on a short pass from Hibbert to Greer to make it 11-9, but Dan Suppnick quickly scored to make it 11-10. Although the Stags were unable to convert a timeout in a favourable position with 21 seconds left in the third quarter for a goal, they were able to tie it up when Eli Friedman caught a pass from Blackman with 7:38 left in the game. With the score tied at 11-11, the stage was set for a barnburner finish.
After a Keane Knapp D, the Nighthawks got a tip of the hat from Lady Luck on the next possession. Alex Davis had the disc near the Portland end zone with no one clearly open and the count quickly mounting. But rather than holding the disc through the stall count turnover like you see so often in MLU, Davis fired up a wobbly hammer into a grouping of two receivers and two defenders which deflected to teammate Greer to make the score 12-11 Nighthawks. But give Davis credit; he was not only alert enough to get off the throw before the stall count expired, he managed to wobble it to the exact position where it was most likely that a Vancouver player would end up with it.
At this point there was only 6:33 left in the game with tension mounting. Portland rose to the occasion once again, with goals by Benjamin McGinn and Perston giving them the lead, 13-12, with only 1:32 left. But when Vancouver received the pull, they played a bit of Portland-style O, and after some quick short passes John Norris hucked it to Berezan to tie the score at 13 with 1:34 left to play.
To start the final point of the game, Morgan Hibbert got off a massive pull which floated all the way to the back of the Portland end zone. In typical fashion, Portland completed over a dozen short passes not far from their end zone while running down the clock and waiting for their opportunity to score the winning goal, but with 57 seconds left, Steve Kenton threw up a wayward pass which was caught by the Nighthawks’ Greer. Greer, who had an excellent game, quickly called a timeout, and the Nighthawks had 30 yards and 52 seconds to win the Western Conference Championship.
Instead of passing the disc around for a while to kill the clock, leaving their opponents no time to retaliate, Vancouver surprised. Kevin Underhill fooled his mark and cut up the line to the end zone, where Norris found him wide open to give the Nighthawks a 14-13 lead with 42 seconds left.
“Yes, that was the plan,” said Lugsdin. “We had that look up the line and then a dump and continuation look it turned out we didn’t need.”
On the ensuing pull, Portland smoothly passed the disc around for 25 seconds, but then Strout put up a huck to no one in particular that ended up on the grass, and all the Nighthawks had to do was hold on to the disc for 25 seconds, which they did with ease to earn their fifth straight win, in the process becoming Western Conference Champions and earning a date to play the DC Current for the MLU Championship.
Alex Davis summed up the reaction of the Nighthawks to how they had turned around a season that had looked pretty bleak when they had a 2-4 record.
“It does feel good to have turned around a deficit and to be winning. In a way, it vindicates us, and what we’ve been preaching and practicing. When you look back on the season, so many games were decided in the last few minutes. It was a knife-edge season, but it’s rewarding to fall on the right side of the divide.”
Lugsdin too summed up the progress his team has made over the season.
“There was definitely some talk on the way back about how close the season was to being effectively over in our eventual overtime win against Seattle. That’s been a turning point in our season. The guys are playing well, but more importantly, they’re finding ways to win instead of the other way round.”
Let’s hope the Major League Ultimate final is just as exciting and tension-filled as this game was!
You can buy tickets for the MLU Championship Game in Philadelphia on July 19th here.