I’ve been a lucky man. I got to play in the first Ultimate game in British Columbia in 1978 in Victoria. I was in the right place at the right time to form the first Ultimate team in BC in Victoria in 1982. I was there in the stands when Canada’s team, made mostly of Vancouver players, won the Open title at the World Ultimate and Guts Championship at Thunderbird Stadium in Vancouver in 2008.
Now I can add to the list that I was back in those same stands when the Vancouver Nighthawks played their first ever home game last night. And a thrilling experience it was!
Let’s start with the weather and the setting. Thunderbird Stadium is set on the side of a hill, with the stands facing west. Friday and Saturday had been wet, windy, and cool, but by a few hours before game time the rain had stopped and the clouds were starting to thin. As almost 1000 spectators waited in the stands for the game to start, more and more blue was appearing in the sky, and then at the exact moment the Nighthawks’ starting line-up was being introduced, full sun broke through for the first time. The remainder of the evening featured dead calm conditions and a beautiful view of a partly cloudy sky, just about as perfect conditions as you could imagine for a game of Ultimate on an April evening in Vancouver.
But the best news of all is that the game lived up to the setting: thrilling, fast-moving, and intense.
Vancouver teams have a history of slow starts to games, and last night’s was no exception. They turned it over twice on the first point and once apiece on the second and third points to fall behind 3-0. Even though Aaron Loach contributed a few monster Ds, they went for nought as the Dogfish, led by Max Hunter, seemed to be using the width of the field better than Vancouver and held a 5-2 lead at the end of the 1st quarter.
I asked several of the players about the slow start, and they had several theories.
Co-captain Morgan Hibbert speculates that, “perhaps last night it was the pressure of playing in front of the home town crowd, making the guys nervous. It is hard to tell. We actually ran our system fairly well early on and our decision making was good as we were throwing to open guys, but our execution was very poor which led to our early turnovers.”
Veteran handler Kirk Savage opines, “It is a bit strange for us to warm up and then have to wait for 20 minutes to have intros and anthems…that is a change – maybe we are not used to the down time. But both teams have to deal with that.”
Hibbert adds, “After that early slump we finally settled down and relaxed and just played Ultimate. It sounds simple, but that is because it is simple.”
The simple change – increasing the intensity by relaxing – that got the Nighthawks back on track was assisted by some coaching decisions, according to Assistant Coach Greg Shiring.
“After getting down early, we upped the intensity and shuffled the line-ups a bit. Our D got more aggressive which lead to some errant throws from the Dogfish. The guys were playing with fury at that point and got to all the floaty discs. The O line settled into a groove and played with more discipline, and we stopped making unforced errors. It was great to see the guys shift gears and start dominating the game in the second quarter.”
The second quarter started with a nice pass from Dogfish Drew Kim to his legendary teammate Beau Kittredge for a 6-2 San Francisco lead, but the next point turned the tide. Nighthawk Mark Leduc made a standout defensive play to force a turnover on his own goal line, then threw a pass which forced handler Kirk Savage to make a difficult catch while Leduc sprinted past him all the way down the field to catch Savage’s pass for the 6-3 goal, making perhaps the longest Double Happiness I have ever seen. (A ‘Double Happiness’ in Ultimate refers to a play where a player causes a turnover by the other team and then immediately sprints to the other team’s end zone to catch a score. Usually the defensive play that starts one occurs near the other team’s end zone, not on one’s own goal line like this time.)
Game on! Says Savage, “We just finally got our legs under us, and the momentum started to shift. The crowd helped. They were supportive and we did not want to let them down.”
It was the D line that got the Nighthawks back in the game. On the next point a great defensive play by Alan Cowan led to a goal by Andy Collins for 6-4, and then Nighthawks defensive stalwart Hibbert, who did an excellent job containing Dogfish star Kittredge through this part of the game, made an outstanding defensive play that led to the 6-5 goal.
But you can’t keep a player the calibre of Kittredge down for long, and he passed for three more San Francisco goals through the remainder of the second quarter, leading them to a 10-7 lead at half time.
In last weekend’s Nighthawks game against Seattle, a 3-goal Vancouver deficit at the half turned into an 8-goal Seattle lead by the end of the 3rd quarter, but things were different this week. Whatever was said in the locker room at half time combined with the support of the home fans lit a fire under the Nighthawks.
Says co-captain Oscar Pettinger, “The crowd really helped swing some of the momentum our way coming out of the half, giving us our first lead of the game.”
Big plays by the defence fed into the support from the crowd. A hand block by Allan Cowan, a crucial end zone D by Hibbert, and a huge sky D by Alex Davis led to 4 straight scores and an 11-10 lead for Vancouver, setting the stage for a thrillingly close last third of the match. Only once, at the beginning of the 4th quarter when San Francisco took a 15-13 lead, was the margin more than a single goal. The score was tied 11-11, 12-12, 13-13, 15-15, 16-16, and finally 17-17 with a minute left and the disc in Dogfish hands. They did an excellent job of managing the clock, running it down to six seconds left, then taking a timeout near the Vancouver goal line.
The crowd was roaring, and they roared even louder when it seemed time had run out without the Dogfish managing to score, meaning overtime loomed. But a foul had been called against the home team, and under MLU rules that meant the clock was set back to ten seconds left with the disc in Dogfish hands. They made the most of the opportunity, with Nicolai Schlag scoring the winning goal with almost no time left on the clock.
The two teams left the field to a standing ovation from the fans. Those fans came up again and again in the comments from the players I talked to.
Says Nighthawks cutter Andy Collins, “The home crowd was amazing! I already have a soft spot for Thunderbird Stadium after playing the 2008 World Championship final there. The weather held off and the home fans were full of energy. Though it sucks that we couldn’t pull off the win for them, I think it’s safe to say we have the best fans in the league. I can’t wait to get out there and play for them again.”
Coach Shiring agrees.
“That was awesome; it was like having a huge enthusiastic family out there. It really does make a difference, and you could see the guys feeding off it. It is easier to get back in a game when cheers are erupting for every good play you make. It provides that extra lift when you stumble, and that extra kick when you do something well.”
Kirk Savage of the Nighthawks and Ryo Kawaoka of the Dogfish were awarded the Vancouver Ultimate League-sponsored Player of the Game awards, but there were many contenders.
Beau Kittredge and Cassidy Rasmussen were outstanding for San Francisco, while Mac Taylor scored two goals and had three assists. For the Nighthawks, Morgan Hibbert did about as good a job as you can do defending against Kittredge, while Allan Cowan had a number of blocks and ran the D line’s offense. And it would be remiss not to mention Mark Leduc’s five goals playing on Vancouver’s O line and Joel Bellevance’s three for Vancouver D line.
So what do the Nighthawks need to do to win their next games?
Says Hibbert, “We were much better at using the width of the field against San Francisco than we were last week against Seattle. But we can still definitely improve.”
Coach Shiring agrees.
“Early in the game, we weren’t using the width of the field well and would only swing the disc to mid-field, which didn’t lead to the up-field gainers we are looking for. As the game developed, we focused more on this and the handlers did a better job of making it happen. There were a few big swings, some of which were hammers, and when we got the disc across the field, we tended to get better continuation up-field. “
I’ll give the last word to Andy Collins.
“Sure, San Francisco is a good team, but there isn’t anyone we can’t beat. That said, in the end a loss is a loss. We need to string together a couple of wins. It starts tonight in Portland. “