This Saturday morning at 5 a.m. somewhere in Vancouver, you will be able to spot several dozen very fit, some very tall, men trudging onto a bus. This will be the Vancouver Nighthawks, leaving for Portland for a Major League Ultimate rematch that afternoon against the Stags.
This is the same Stags team who beat them handily 24-20 two weekends ago at Thunderbird Stadium. The Nighthawks had played quite well at times, but couldn’t maintain the consistency needed to beat the red-hot Stags, winners of nine of their last ten regular season games (though it should be noted that the one loss plus a defeat in last year’s playoffs were inflicted by the Nighthawks).
With 20 players new to the MLU amidst a very young roster, the Nighthawks continue to struggle for consistency, even among their veterans. During a conversation with the well-seasoned Kirk Savage and Brendan Wong after the game, the first thing that came up was a particular play that seemed to sum up the game.
Wong had been in perfect position behind all the defenders to strike for goal with the disc in Savage’s capable hands, but just as Savage released a perfect huck, Wong cut back under, and the disc eventually landed harmlessly on the turf far from any player from either team. Remember, this is a pair of veterans who have completed this particular play dozens if not hundreds of times over the years, but on this day the mojo just wasn’t there, for them or for the rest of the out of synch offense.
Speaking of Wong, this season he hasn’t been the same player who smashed the league scoring records last season en route to capturing the Western Conference MVP award. The reason? He’s been struggling with a nagging ankle injury. Wong says that it is slowly getting better day by day, and that although he is still not 100 percent even after a bye week, he will definitely out there doing his best to help the Nighthawks upset the Stags.
At Thunderbird Stadium, Portland set the tone early en route to their 24-20 win when they took an early 2-1 lead after forcing a turnover. The lead didn’t reach four until the game was in its waning moments, but even though it had remained close up till then, the Nighthawks just couldn’t seem to manage to tie it up. It never really felt like the Stags were threatened.
Gyorgy Aponte, who although new to MLU is a seasoned ultimate veteran, gives credit for the Nighthawks O-line’s struggles to the relentless Portland defense, led by Topher Davis, one of four Stags with at least four blocks so far this season.
“Their D-line was effective at making our offensive line feel uncomfortable,” said Aponte, “leading to forced shots and creating breaks early in the game. Later on when we did manage to reduce the gap to a single goal a few times, they were again able to force turnovers to score the important points that allowed them to maintain their advantage.”
Over the bye week, coach Andrew Lugsdin has been focusing on the offense at practices.
“The biggest emphasis has been working to become more consistent on offense. I think our defense did a good job against Portland, but we kept putting ourselves in a hole. The team had played very well against Seattle the previous game, so it’s there, but we need to keep getting better. “
Another MLU rookie but ultimate veteran, Dave Hochhalter, was also pleased with how he and his D-line mates performed against the Stags.
“Speaking as a D player, it didn’t feel like it was easy for them,” said Hochhalter. “Our D-line put up a good fight the whole game, continually keeping us within a point or two throughout. We got enough breaks to win most games, but their D-line played better and won the game for them. D lines win games, and theirs did the job last game.”
With so many new players on board, team-building and chemistry remains another emphasis.
“I think that it’s going well overall,” said Lugsdin, “but it’s always difficult with so many new guys, so we expected to have some ups and downs. It’s important for the guys to understand that it’s a process, and to keep believing in what we’re trying to do. To date, they’ve done a great job of being focused and getting better. We just have to keep building each practice and each game.”
Hochhalter remains positive.
“The team building is going well. Even as an out-of-town player, I’ve felt more and more comfortable on the field with these new faces. Chemistry is improving steadily and I feel very confident moving forward.”
On offense, the Stags are led by veterans Timmy Perston with 19 points Cody Bjorklund with 16. Perston’s 15 goals lead the entire MLU, with Peter Woodside not far behind with 13.
The Nighthawks scoring leader is Bobo Eyrich with 14 points, edging out Savage with 13. In spite of his injury, Wong still leads the team with 10 goals, just ahead of Eyrich’s eight. Also filling the stats sheet is captain Morgan Hibbert, who has managed four goals, seven assists, and five blocks while tying for the MLU lead in points played with 86.
Beating the Stags in Portland won’t be easy, especially after that early morning start, but maybe this will be the week the retooled Nighthawks put it all together and surprise everyone with a big win.
The Nighthawks’ next home game is against the Seattle Rainmakers is on Saturday, May 23 at 6:00 p.m. at Thunderbird Stadium.
You can buy tickets here.