It’s been a topsy-turvy season in the Western Conference of Major League Ultimate so far. Sure it’s early, but no one predicted Portland would be on top with an unbeaten record, and no one expected San Francisco to be 1-5. With that in mind, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen when the Seattle Rainmakers travel to Vancouver for a rematch with the Nighthawks this weekend.
When the Nighthawks and Rainmakers met two weeks ago in Mount Vernon, it was a tight battle until the last few minutes of the game. The wind freshened through the second half as the Nighthawks strove to get the upwind break that would get them closer than two points down, but although they got the turnovers they needed and moved the disc up the field a number of times, they could never punch it into the end zone; in the end they ran out of gas on the way to a 20-15 loss.
Part of the reason the Nighthawks couldn’t get the breakthrough goal is the junk zone defence the Rainmakers deployed to frustrate the Nighthawks offence, something the coaches and players have been working on in practice through the bye week.
“Going into the game in Mount Vernon, we had really been focusing on man-on-man defence and hadn’t spent any time on zones,” says Nighthawks Assistant Coach Al Nichols. “I thought the O-line handled the zone well in the first half but really struggled as the wind picked up in the second half, which allowed Seattle to stay in the zone longer.”
“The handlers looked okay, especially Kirk Savage, though I think they got themselves into trouble by sometimes looking downfield too long. Also, the lane cutters seemed slow to react to the zone even though Seattle played it steadily and sometimes even downwind. We’ve been working on getting the poppers to be willing to take smaller yardage gainers just to get the disc past some of the defence. We definitely need to shorten our stack when we go backwards, and then to be more aggressive whenever they switch back to man on man.”
D-line handler Rumi Tejpar has absorbed these lessons.
“I watched the game tape and intrinsically the zone Seattle used was nothing fancy, just concentrating on heavily clogging the lanes right in front of the disc. This means that if there is enough movement in a lane more lateral than the central one, there are open players, but too often we for some reason looked them off.”
“Distributing the disc laterally and encouraging more movement closer to the disc will be crucial while their zone is on.”
Tejpar also zeroes in on the transition from facing a zone to facing man-on-man.
“I think the fundamental issue was that, believe it or not, we weren’t always aware of the switch. Often we would have a deep player drawing their zone defender deep but then upon them switching to man, that player would maintain the vertical spacing which was much too far from the disc, in turn making it difficult for the lane cutters to get open.”
As is his wont, Nighthawks Captain Morgan Hibbert emphasizes what the Nighthawks do rather than what their opponents do.
“As a team we are successful when we move the disc quickly and win with our legs. That kind of offence can be run against any type of defence. Last game we settled into standing around and holding onto the disc when Seattle came down with their zone D. Regardless of what they do, if we stick to our core principles we will be fine.”
Tejpar and his teammates have also been concentrating on their other main failing in the last game, scoring upwind points.
“The key to scoring upwind is conservation of the disc. The way you do this is to keep moving as individuals and then use that movement to keep the disc moving to prevent a stagnant offense. It pains me to say this about our D-line, but I think upon generating the turns we needed to get the vital break point, we were so exhausted from playing defence that we found it difficult to return to our D-line’s strategy on offence, winning with our legs.”
“We’ve worked hard these last couple of weeks to ensure that if we get a turn, we will all have gas left in the tank to keep our legs, our checks and the disc moving. Quick transition will be the key, and the only way to execute quick transition is to get on your horse and run.”
And that’s where the mental aspects come back to the fore.
“My biggest disappointment in the loss to Seattle was our decision making and execution in the last twenty yards of the field going upwind,” says Nichols. “That was really where we lost the game. We had no faith that we could throw multiple passes to get the score.”
Hibbert is ready to use his leadership to restore that faith.
“This game we are going to do better at getting the dirty yards. We fell into bad habits of trying to win 50/50 jump-offs or make fancy throws. Sometimes, especially on the D-line, you just need to go get those dirty eight yards, pass after pass, and just jam it in.”
MLU leading scorer Brendan Wong and his Nighthawks teammates return to action this weekend with a home game against the Seattle Rainmakers at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday, May 10 at 7 p.m.