The Vancouver Nighthawks of Major League Ultimate are now guaranteed a spot in the Western Conference playoffs, thanks to their 20-18 win over the Portland Stags. Despite hail and thunderstorms earlier in the day, by game time the skies above Thunderbird Stadium had cleared, once again delivering perfect playing conditions that the players took advantage of. Marking their territory, the Nighthawks affirmed that the stadium, aka The Nest, is their stronghold, as they pushed their home record this season to 4-1.
On the Portland line, Cody Bjorklund and Jeremy Norden proved themselves to be a formidable pair. Each contributed six points, four goals and two assists for Bjorklund and two goals and four assists for Norden. For Vancouver, Brendan Wong and John Norris had the best stat lines, Wong scored seven goals while Norris had two goals and five assists while picking up the slack for absent handlers Kirk Savage and Keane Knapp. Defensively, Vancouver’s Peter Yu played very well, being the only player on either team to finish with as many as two Ds.
The turning point came with less than three minutes to go with the score tied 18-18, when Matthew Berezan was able to score by pulling in a short throw from Kevin Underhill, giving Vancouver a one-point advantage they never surrendered. Then with a few seconds left in the game, Charles ‘Bobo’ Eyrich made a game- and possibly season-changing interception which eventually translated to Wong’s nail in the coffin goal.
“This is huge,” said Head Coach Andrew Lugsdin. “It’s what the guys have been working for all year. In the meantime, we’ll keep trying to get better, but it’s very exciting that we were able to win like that at tonight’s game.”
Jumping on the Stags right from the start of the game, the Nighthawks managed to establish a substantial lead in the first quarter that stood them in good stead later in the game. Aaron Loach and Brendan Wong started out with a series of under cuts that led to Wong scoring his first point of the day on a pass from Loach. After Portland received the pull, their handler made a mistake by throwing deep to a man guarded by the ever-improving Kevin Greer, who got that D and translated it into a goal for Rumi Tejpar. Riding the throws of Norden, the Stags were able to score two straight points before Morgan Hibbert’s beautiful backhand air bounce to Peter Yu for a goal after a strong sequence by the D Line reestablished their dominance. The first quarter ended 7-3 for Vancouver.
“We started the game well,” said Lugsdin. “Our O-Line seemed to be playing well early on, as they were scoring well and we got a couple of breaks. We got a little bit of a lead, and it turned out that we needed it all the way.”
The second quarter didn’t go as well for Vancouver as the first had. Portland’s offense got smoother as their handlers started clicking. Norden and Bjorklund gave Vancouver’s defense a tough time, often winning the sky battles and completing lots of under cuts. Vancouver seemed to have lost the initiative by the time Adam Ferrea completed a Double Happiness to make the score just 8-7 Nighthawks, but Vancouver handlers Underhill and Norris were able to get the swing game going on the way to reestablishing a healthier lead. In an exciting play that brought the fans to their feet, Gagan Chatha caught a buzzer beater from Matthew Doyle, who hammered it across the field with two seconds to spare. The first half ended with Vancouver leading 11-8.
An anxious time for the Vancouver players and their fans, the third quarter featured quite a few back and forth points as execution errors started to creep into both team’s offenses. Vancouver got off to a good start when Portland missed a throw after receiving the pull. Norris used the opportunity to generate a score for Wong to give the Nighthawks a 12-8 lead, but Portland scored three straight, by Bjorklund, Peter Woodside, and Raphy Hayes to pull it back to 12-11. The teams then traded points until the quarter ended with Morgan Hibbert getting one of his trademark monster Ds at the buzzer as the quarter ended 15-13.
The fourth quarter was a treat for the spectators, a real nail-biter with tension building point by point. Portland finally managed to catch the Nighthawks at 15-15 when Ferrea made a great layout catch which he turned into a goal for Ben McGinn, but the Nighthawks did not fold, as they have sometimes done in similar situations in the past. Underhill assisted on goals by Norris and then, who else, Wong to make the score 17-15, but Ben Lohre pulled one back for the Stags and then Ferrea continued his heroics with a second-effort catch and then a pass for a goal for Hayes, tying the score for the second time this night at 17-17.
A goal by Hibbert put the Nighthawks in front, but another by Mark Burton tied it up again, setting the stage for a finish that had the entire crowd on their feet and cheering as Underhill found Berezan to give the Nighthawks the lead 19-18 with 70 seconds left. Egged on by their fans, the Vancouver D-Line was able to force a turnover on the interception by Eyrich, and it seemed fitting when Brendan Wong sealed the deal with his seventh goal of the night with only 10 seconds left on a short pass from Berezan to make the final score 20-18 for Vancouver.
This clinched a playoff spot for Vancouver, and set the stage for what will be a hard-fought and hard to call rematch when they and the Stags duke it out for the MLU Western Conference Championship in two weeks. The winner will go on to contest the Eastern Conference Champions for the Major League Ultimate Championship in Philadelphia.
Wong’s seven goals extended his obliteration of the old MLU single season goal scoring record, and the seven points puts him only four short of the season points record with a game left. But as always, he was more interested in team goals than personal milestones.
“It definitely feels pretty awesome to be clinching that playoffs spot, especially for our second year in the league,” said Wong. “I didn’t play last year, but having worked so hard under the guidance of our coach Andrew Lugsdin, working with all my great teammates here, it definitely feels good to be part of it this year.”
Next Saturday at 2 p.m., June 21st, San Francisco will host Vancouver for both teams’ last game of the season. Later in Portland at 6 p.m., the Stags will host the Rainmakers for the last game of the season.