The Vancouver Nighthawks close out their third Major League Ultimate season this weekend by hosting the first place Portland Stags at Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday night, and then traveling to Seattle to meet the Rainmakers on Sunday afternoon.
If Vancouver can win both games they will pass the San Francisco Dogfish in the Western Conference standings and end the season in third place. On paper this looks like a tough task. Once again the Nighthawks will be shorthanded with a number of players, mostly veterans, out with injury, leaving them shorthanded facing the top two teams in their conference.
But maybe it’s not such a long shot; this team of youngsters is building in confidence, learning how to win, and the best of the crop will be back this weekend after missing last weekend’s defeat of San Francisco due to commitments with Canada’s Open Under-23 team.
Back on their performance the last few weeks, coach Andrew Lugsdin thinks his troops are more than capable of pulling off the weekend sweep, even though their opponents are ranked higher.
“One thing we have learned as a group is that we can play good defense when everyone is focused and playing with the right level of intensity. Some guys have really improved in that regard this year. And just as important, the guys gained some confidence in winning. While we’ve been close in most of our games, during our last game they were able to get out to a lead early and keep pushing. They played like they believed they could win for the entire game, and so they did.”
“Having been given the opportunity,” added team Captain Morgan Hibbert, “our younger players are starting to bring the skills they have been learning in practice into the games. They are starting to view the game at an elite level.”
One of the most interesting aspects of this star-crossed season has been the transition of Hibbert from the Western Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2014, leading the league with a record-tying 21 blocks, to bulwark of the Nighthawks O-line.
One key factor that has made this move easier is that Vancouver can rely on the veteran presence of Dave Hochhalter to take on Hibbert’s role of anchoring the defense. He operates similarly to Hibbert, shutting down his own mark while also covering for his teammates, the main difference being that Hibbert the defender almost always operates from a deep position, while Hochhalter stations himself nearer the middle of the field.
Hibbert still owns the team (and league) record of seven blocks in a game, set last season, but Hochhalter came close last weekend by recording five blocks (and almost a sixth, but it turned out to have occurred just after time expired). Those five blocks are the second-most recorded in a game by a Nighthawk, and ranks as tied for the fourth-best single game total in league history.
Many of Hibbert and Hochalter’s blocks are the result of them poaching, or leaving their own mark, to help out their teammates, but this is a high-risk maneuver. For Hochhalter, making these judgments correctly has become instinctual, but getting there was a long process.
“It takes time playing and watching other teams and players to understand the sequence of events that will lead to a huck, or a break side throw into your lane, or whatever play may develop. To pull it off successfully you need to understand not only where other players are located, but where they are going, not to mention how they are likely going to react to the throw.”
“I think the only time the decision-making becomes conscious rather than instinctive for me at this point in my career is when my read of the situation tells me NOT to go for it. For instance, in the throwing lanes most guys, though unfortunately not all, have a sixth sense for when attempting to make a play from the periphery will put the involved players’ safety at risk. For me, that is the only time where my brain will kick in and say no. Usually that kick happens too late to recover defensively and you get burned, but I’d rather get beat defensively than put an opponent’s or my own safety at risk.”
A well-rehearsed and -coordinated D-line can make it much easier for the poacher to successfully take advantage of his opportunities.
“Of course, the danger of ‘missing’ on a help D can be mitigated by having other players around you that understand when it will happen,” added Hochhalter. “Those players can make additional adjustments downfield to minimize the potential damage from a miss by not allowing the offense to gain too much of an advantage as a result. Morgan’s a master at that, but unfortunately we haven’t had too many chances to play together with Morgan shifting mostly to the O-line.”
Hibbert would love to share more field time with Hochhalter next season if things develop that way.
“Dave is a very smart person and so he is able to process all the available information and make the correct decision based on it. This is why he has been able to accumulate 14 blocks so far this season.”
That total of 14 blocks leads the Nighthawks and league-wide ranks Hochhalter behind only Topher Davis of Portland, who has 15. But Hibbert hasn’t let his time on the O-line impinge too drastically on his defensive commitments; his total of 13 blocks this season ties him for 3rd in the league. Given that extra game the Nighthawks will be playing, it would be no surprise to see either or both of Vancouver’s dynamic duo end up with the most blocks in the league by the time the curtain comes down on this final weekend of the season.
Although Hibbert has amped up the number of O-line appearances this year, he hasn’t exactly stepped away from his D-line responsibilities. (Almost always, one of Hibbert and Hochhalter is out there for every defensive point.) In fact, at this point in the season he has played 117 defensive points to 114 offensive points.
Note that total of 231 point played, well ahead of second place Gabe Saunkeah of San Francisco with 198. Yes, you read that right; Hibbert has averaged almost seven more points played per game than the next most-used player in the league.
Last season Matt Esser of Philadelphia led the MLU with 236 points played, just ahead of Hibbert’s 228. With two more games left this season, Hibbert could quite possibly push his total over the 300 mark, a monumental achievement which may never be matched. Hibbert works very hard at getting his body into tiptop shape to match the demands of playing ultimate, and this statistic is proof that he has succeeded.
Given this year’s playoffs are no longer a possibility, for this team next season has in effect already begun. Lugsdin expects a strong effort from Hibbert and the rest of his Nighthawks over the weekend to set the tone for next year.
“The guys need to play hard for themselves, their teammates, and the fans. Every time you step on the field, it should be to compete at your best. These remaining games are a great chance for guys to get better at winning.”
The Nighthawks will host the 8-1 Portland Stags at 6 p.m. on Saturday night before closing out the regular season against the Rainmakers in Seattle the next day at 1 p.m..
You can buy tickets to the home game against Portland here.