Photo by Scobel Wiggins – UltiPhotos.com

After an uncertain start to the season marked by plenty of errors on the field on the way to a 2-4 record, the Vancouver Nighthawks of Major League Ultimate finally started to live up to what head coach and GM Andrew Lugsdin envisioned when he chose the players who make up the roster. They closed out the season with four straight wins to qualify for the Western Conference Championship game in Portland against the first place Stags this weekend. Even better, one of those wins was against Portland, after having lost the first two meetings early in the season.

All season, the Nighthawks have relied on their D-line, anchored by the imposing Morgan Hibbert patrolling the back line on his way to tying the league record of 20 Ds in a season, the cerebral Alex Davis, a wizard at marking the thrower, and the all-out athleticism of 21-year-old rookie Peter Yu, who has made a number of highlight reel plays this season. But the strength of the Nighthawk D-line goes far beyond those three; up and down their ranks they have been getting better and better at carrying out the game plan to pressure the disc. A good measure of their depth is that no fewer than nine members of the team, most of them D-liners, got at least 5 Ds during the 10-game regular season.

What generates those Ds and forces the opponent’s offence into mistakes is that unrelenting pressure. And Vancouver’s D-line is truly remarkable at converting the turnovers they force the other team to make into goals. In the win over Portland, the Vancouver D-line took possession of the disc after a turnover nine times and scored on a remarkable seven of them.

If you look at the statistics, Vancouver’s opponents attempt many more throws per game than the Nighthawks do, in the case of Portland, over a hundred more throws per game! This is partly due to the type of offence the Nighthawks and Stags run, but it’s also a deliberate strategy by their D-line.

Myles Sinclair, a rookie D-line handler, has become a big part of that strategy with his savvy positional play and calmness with the disc in his hands — Sinclair committed only one throwaway all season.

“This is most definitely our game plan,” says Sinclair. “Every extra pass we force them to make is another pass that we can block. Furthermore, making them take more throws makes for longer points, which rests our O-line and tires out theirs, giving us an increasing advantage as the game wears on.”

“We’re trying to prevent big gainers up-field and to push them backwards as much as we can,” says Lugsdin. “Sometimes this means it will be easier for them to get dump throws off, but we’re OK with that trade-off as long as they aren’t moving the disc to a position that makes our lane defenders vulnerable.”

There’s another reason the Nighthawks attempt fewer throws than their opponents: their direct approach on offence,  a clear contrast to the Stags’ more deliberate offensive strategy based on many short passes between their handlers.

“We have a somewhat different offensive system than Portland,” says Lugsdin. “We really focus on getting the disc from one lane cutter to the next, whereas Portland is effective at moving the disc among their handlers, using that to create opportunities up-field.”

“I find that when our offence is ‘on,’” says O-line cutter Mark Leduc, “we work it up the field relatively quickly, hitting lane cutter after lane cutter up the field, so we end up scoring in 6-7 passes if we hit under cuts, or 3-4 if we hit a huck. And oddly, when we do have a turnover on offence, more often than not it is fairly early in the point. Why this happens is a mystery to me; sometimes it’s a drop, sometimes it’s having our set play get blown up by the defence.”

It is hard to overstate the importance of those under cuts for the Nighthawks’ offence. Brendan Wong, who obliterated the MLU season records for goal scoring and points, and outstanding rookie Gagan Chatha may have finished 1-2 in Nighthawks scoring, but when the offence is rolling, you’ll see Wong and Chatha take advantage of their mark’s fear of letting them get free in the end zone by coming back to the disc, usually wide open, before streaking back upfield to the end zone in search of a goal after dumping the disc off. You’ll also see Timmy Perston of the Stags, another potent scoring threat, doing the same thing when the Portland O-line is on the field.

Here’s an example of two consecutive points from their most recent meeting, one by Vancouver and next by Portland, which highlights the differences between their offensive styles.

Cue this video up at 20:20.

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The Nighthawks O-line has received the pull, turned it over, and then got it back again in their own end zone. Handler Kevin Underhill walks the disc up to the goal line, then finds cutter Jordan Tessarolo for a short gain. Tessarolo then completes a pass to fellow cutter Matt Berezan for a 10-yard gain, with a foul by Portland adding another 10 yards. After the penalty, Berezan gains some good yardage by finding cutter Chatha for another 10-yard gain. After looking upfield, Chatha dumps it off to Underhill, who immediately moves it to handler John Norris, who then hucks it to Chatha in the end zone for a goal, Chatha having alertly struck down the field after the dump.

This is classic Nighthawks offence — six passes, a number of them from cutter to cutter, to travel the length of the field in 30 seconds of live play.

Now watch the next point. Portland throws 15 passes in 45 seconds for their score. Most are short little dumps and swings among their handlers, with the only two passes over 10 yards in length being a swing across the field which gains no yardage plus the half-field huck for the goal.

Personnel changes will favour the Stags on Saturday. Veteran handler Kirk Savage of the Nighthawks, who usually handles the disc more than any of his teammates, will miss the game due to injury, while Perston, who has torched the Nighthawks in the past, is returning to the Portland lineup after missing most of the season due to work commitments. Still, after an uncertain start to the season, the Nighthawks have put it all together of late, so you’d expect them to be feeling very confident heading into the Conference Championship.

“We started the season shaky and unsure as to how good this team is,” says Sinclair, “but by now everyone on the team has figured out that on any day, another player could take your spot and get an important D or goal. That said, we can’t expect Portland to just roll over because we are on a hot streak. We need to play our best game of Ultimate this season. If we can do that then the ‘sMyles’ will keep rolling!”

“Confidence is hard to build and is critical to team success,” adds Lugsdin. “Winning the last four games has given the guys some confidence, particularly because they’ve had to grind out some wins late in games.”

“I think that the team is in its best state all season, which is how it should be. We’ve focused on getting better every game and while that hasn’t always been the case this season, we have been trending up. I think the guys are pretty excited to get out there and compete in a win-or-go-home game.”

But just winning the Western Conference championship isn’t enough for Leduc.

“We feel good that we made the playoffs, but we’re not satisfied. Our goal has always been to win the MLU Championship, and getting out of the regular season was just the first step. I expect every single player on the field to bring their ‘A’ game on Saturday night.”

If you’re going to be in Portland, buy tickets for the playoff game here. Otherwise watch the live stream on MLU Live.

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