Early in their second Major League Ultimate Season, the poor luck the Vancouver Nighthawks were having became the talk among their fans. There were at least a dozen incidences of a Vancouver player getting a D, only to see the disc deflect into their opponents’ hands, usually for a score. Lately the deflections have evened out though, as usually happens, and the team has also been playing better; the combination has moved the Nighthawks back into the thick of the fight for one of the two MLU Western Conference playoff spots.
This was cemented last weekend when the Nighthawks traveled south to face the Rainmakers and beat them in a double overtime thriller, their first ever win in Seattle. It would require some ridiculous luck for Vancouver to catch the first place Portland Stags, who have lost only once so far this season, but after last week’s 29-25 win the 3-4 Nighthawks are only one game behind Seattle, lending extra importance to this week’s rematch at Thunderbird Stadium.
This weekend, Flower Bowl — Vancouver’s premiere tournament for touring teams — is being played on the fields surrounding the Nighthawks’ home stadium. The Flower Bowl teams are getting tickets to the Nighthawks game as part of their tournament fees, so the always demonstrative home crowd in The Nest is going to be even more animated than usual. The joint will be jumpin’, and the Nighthawks hope to ride that crowd to a win that will tie them with the Rainmakers for second in the Western Conference standings.
And Lady Luck continues to look more favourably on Vancouver. According to reports yet to be fully confirmed, for Saturday’s game the Rainmakers will be missing Matthew Zemel, who had six points last weekend, Adam Simon, their #1 handler, and Donnie Clark, who is tied for league lead in goals with the Nighthawks’ Brendan “Brendo” Wong. However, they will have up-and-comer Khalif El-salaam back to help pick up the slack.
No matter what the rest of your team does, you can’t win at top level Ultimate without a confident and proficient set of handlers. When the Nighthawks lost their leading scorer from last year, Oscar Pottinger, to retirement, you knew the handling was going to be a work in progress, but this year’s crew has been performing better and better as the season has unfolded. A perfect example came last weekend when the Nighthawks, trailing by a goal with 57 seconds left in the first overtime, used a timeout to get their O-line onto the field. They calmly moved the disc up the field, taking no chances, using only what Seattle’s defense gave them, and with only 2.7 seconds left, tied it up on the seventh of Gagan “Gagey” Chatha’s eight goals in the game, leaving Seattle no chance to score again before the period ended.
This sequence illustrated just what the O-line handling crew of Kevin Underhill, Kirk Savage, Keane Knapp, and John Norris has developed into.
“Kirk, Keane, and I have been able to generate some good chemistry over the last couple weeks,” says Underhill. “Each of us brings a little something to the group. We look to Kirk to take a lot of the downfield shots, while Keane and I are looking to babysit the disc and take shots when we can. Norris adds another dangerous element to our handler corps. He’s deadly with the disc and other teams have to respect that. And as a group, we are moving the disc laterally really well and opening up the field for our dangerous set of cutters.”
“What makes it easy for us is that we have such strong cutter-throwers this season. It allows guys like Gagey and Brendo to threaten with the out and then carve out some metres underneath. It’s nice as a handler knowing your cutters will get open one way or another!”
“Both Gagey and Brendo have done a very good job of cutting under and getting big yards for us,” agreed head coach Andrew Lugsdin. “We expect them to continue to do that for the offence. In general I thought the offence did a good job last week. We’d like to see more of the same and hopefully eliminate a few more of the mistakes that we had.”
Yes, coaches can never forget the mistakes. And any good coach works ceaselessly to improve his player and the schemes they employ on the field.
“We’ve worked a little on our handlers this week, covering what we want them to be doing in certain scenarios,” continued Lugsdin. “We’ve also worked on refining some different defensive looks.”
Last week the Nighthawks D-line switched to forcing flick partway through the game, and the change was effective in slowing down the Rainmakers’ huck game, which had kept them in the matchup early on. Deep threat Donnie Clark was held to two goals and one assist after torching the Nighthawks for an all-time MLU scoring record of 12 goals and two assists in their previous meeting.
“We were just looking to do something to slow them down a bit when we switched the force,” says Lugsdin. “I think we’re certainly looking to force flick again this week but we usually mix up our defensive looks and I think we’ll do that again this week like we have been working on at practice.”
“It was more than just switching the force,” adds Morgan Hibbert. “We improved our positioning in the lanes and also promoted the disc to the force sideline, making their hucks less lethal. Also, the hucking game is generally lower percentage, so although they were hitting all theirs early on, we knew it wasn’t likely to continue the whole game.”
After a slow start, Hibbert came on like gangbusters, in the end totaling a remarkable six Ds. The showing moved him into the MLU lead with 17, and made him one of only three players in double figures and three ahead of his closest competitor. One of those Ds won him the Spikeball Defensive Play of the Week award.
Hibbert drew on his experience to allow him do what was needed to amp up his game.
“For me, defence is all about adjustments. Early in my game I was playing the way I had wanted to play, but was getting burned on the mistakes I was making as a result of the type of offence they were playing. As the game wore on I was able to learn and adapt to their style, so I became better prepared for the type of offence they were playing and thus put myself in a better position to get those blocks.”
You’ll be able to watch the rematch against the Seattle Rainmakers this Saturday, June 7 at 7 p.m at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Stadium.