Graphic by Kevin Lee

Aaron is a name with a long pedigree, appearing early on in the Bible, its origins so lost in antiquity that there are disputes about what it really means. But the most accepted meaning is ‘Warrior Lion’, and I’m going with that because it so well describes the three Aarons who play on the Vancouver Nighthawks.

I’ll start with Aaron Koenig, who not only has a surname that is German for ‘king’, but also has the biblical nickname Moses. If you’re one of those who believes names have predictive ability, you just know he is going to succeed.

After playing in the Vancouver Ultimate League and getting cut five times during tryouts for competitive teams, in 2005 Moses still wanted to improve his play so decided to form a new touring team, which he called Blackfish. This team still exists today and serves as a feeder for both the Nighthawks and Vancouver’s top touring team Furious George.

I asked Moses what his strengths are on the ultimate field.

“My strengths are getting the team fired up, and helping everyone maintain a high level of focus throughout each game. During my younger days I was able to get lots of defensive blocks and was a fast striker, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep up with today’s young guns as I get older.”

That intensity and focus is why Head Coach and GM Andrew Lugsdin signed him on for the Nighthawks.

“Moses is a D line grinder who’s always working hard and always providing energy for the team. He’s very solid in all the things he does and he always gives a consistent effort to the team. He’s loud, gets really fired up for games, and during practices really challenges guys to be at their best. In fact, I would say that he really doesn’t like anyone who plays on our O line, after too many years of battling at practice.”

But eventually sandpaper loses its grit, and Koenig says this is probably his last year of competition.

“I was going to retire from ultimate at the end of last season as I have two young daughters and I was tired of my body hurting every day of the week. I had told my teammates this at the end of last season just so that I had voiced it externally and couldn’t change my mind. But when I heard about the Nighthawks early this year, I was immediately in 100%. The single game format, season length and most importantly the chance to prove ultimate as a “real” sport were too much to turn down. I give many thanks to my wife Lindsay for supporting me through the season.”

And he has really enjoyed this last season of top level ultimate.

“Playing for the Nighthawks has been incredible. Absolutely incredible! It is extremely gratifying to hear from fans afterwards how much they enjoyed the game, especially when it’s someone who didn’t know about ultimate before. The Nighthawks staff has been amazing and has treated us like stars. I hope they’ve all been having as much fun as I have.”
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Rest assured, we have!

Aaron Liu, also know as Prez, has, according to Lugsdin, been a standout for the Nighthawks, something that belies his scholarly appearance.

“Prez has been our best defensive player this year. You look at him and you would never guess that, but he’s very quick, always focused and unbelievably smart on the field. He’s continuing to develop his offensive game, with big throws that are getting more consistent all the time. He also acts as the quarterback for our D line on transition. I’ve been unbelievably impressed with his approach to the game ever since I watched him playing for Canada at the World Junior tournament. He’s a great player and has lots more great ultimate ahead of him.”

Assistant Coach Greg Shiring has really enjoyed getting to know Prez and his game this season.

“He’s been a quiet team leader on the defence. He has the ability to generate blocks and plays some of the best man on man defence in the league. He’s also key to keeping the disc alive on O once the D gets a block and has solid throws, both short and long.”

Liu is yet another product of the local high school ultimate programmes.

“I first started playing in Grade 10 at Prince of Wales Secondary School when a friend, who had just joined the school team that fall, got a bunch of us together to play at lunchtime. I really enjoyed it, and he invited some of us to play with the team starting the following spring. A couple of us got absolutely hooked that year, and we spent a lot of time throwing together.”

“I don’t know if I ever had a realization that I was going to be good, but I underwent a mental transformation after watching a DVD put together by Ultivillage of our finals at the Canadian Nationals in Halifax, where I absolutely sucked on D. As I worked on improving my D, something just clicked and I began to understand the game on a totally different level.”

As someone who extended my playing career as my knees gave out based partly on throwing ability but especially by understanding positioning and where to be on the field to make up for my loss of speed, I really appreciate watching Prez in action. He simply understands where he needs to be on the field and relative to his mark, and precisely when to be there, and unlike me in my waning days, he still has all the speed he needs to be a star.

“My role on the team is to defend the other team’s top handler. Although I am pretty sure my nickname, President of the Chess Club, came from my appearance, it really fits me because that is where my strength lies. As mentioned earlier, I began to understand the game like a chess master. I am able to see the field and anticipate what is going to happen. Of course, like anything, there are always tons of things to improve on, and I am no different. The biggest focus for me at the moment is improving my assertiveness and consistency on offense, and on the other side of the disc improving my timing on the flashes and increasing the pressure on the mark.”

Prez has also really enjoyed playing for the Nighthawks.

“The Nighthawks experience has been awesome. The MLU style is different, but that can be adjusted to. The whole league and organization has been very professional, and that helps to make a very awesome fan experience. A lot of the people that I have talked to, especially the ones that have never seen or played ultimate before, have been very positive in their feedback. I think the Nighthawks have been a very good vessel to increase the exposure of high level ultimate, and I feel blessed to be given the opportunity to be a part of it.”

And now we turn to the third of our Warrior Lions, Aaron Loach, who has impressed coach Lugsdin just as much as Prez has

“Loach has been our best offensive player this year and is improving every day. His game is night and day from last year. He’s our main lane cutter and hasn’t shied away from a challenge all year. In fact, if I would point to the most important development in his game, it’s his mental approach. There was a time when I saw the potential in Loach’s game but worried if he would ever have the drive and the mental toughness to compete at the top level. He’s now incredibly focused on getting better, contributing to the team, and he’s stepping up to every responsibility that we put on him. He’s gets open consistently, always carrying a big load, and makes big throws for us every game.”

Shiring calls the O line subs, and has been vary happy to send Loach onto the field as an O line cutter as often as possible.

“Loach is a dominant force in the lanes. All aspects of his game continue to get better each week, from throwing and cutting to his field sense, and he’s been delivering all year for us on O. Every team needs this kind of guy, someone can get open for a 20 yard gainer and then be able to turn around and huck a deep one for a goal. Loach brings that to the Nighthawks.”

Loach also starting playing in high school, albeit back where he grew up.

“I first started playing in 2006 in Toronto with a bunch of high school friends on a team called Plan Q. (‘Plan Q’ was to do something ridiculously awesome and score). It was a low level league team, but it was fun. I could barely throw a flick at the time.”

“The following year, I moved out to the University of Victoria and played university ultimate with John Norris as a coach/captain. It was an excellent learning experience. I learned how to throw, and cut semi-decently. I am a reasonably tall semi-athletic person, and John’s ability to huck made us work reasonably effective together.”

By Aaron’s choice of words, you can sense the mentality that make Lugsdin doubt whether he had the drive to develop his potential. This also comes out in his answer when I asked him when he realized he was going to be good.

“I would say I have never realized I am going to be good. I still don’t think I am good. There are so many aspects of my game which have weaknesses, and which I want to improve. I believe the minute one ceases to improve, it limits their potential. There are so many other people on my team who are better at the things that I do, and there are so many different aspects on which I can improve. I am luckily blessed with being tall, and am able to throw; but I wish I had the fitness and defensive prowess of Alex Davis, or the ability to jump like Morgan Hibbert or Matthew Berezan. I hope I never realize that I am ‘good’.”

“By now I am a reasonably decent cutter. I have improved greatly this year in this aspect of the game. My throwing has always been at least decent, but it still needs some polishing.”

“I need to work on my concentration and focus. Many of my turnovers are from bad choices, or lapses in concentration or execution. I also need to work on my fitness. If I want to compete at the highest level, I need to be able to maintain an incredibly high level of defensive pressure for long periods of time, which is exhausting. And I need to figure out how to time my out cuts better, and be able to move my defender in the direction that I want so that I am able to make an effective cut.”

There’s the flipside of Loach’s humility; an acute awareness of what he needs to work on to be a better player, and I wouldn’t bet against him achieving those goals for improvement.

The word ‘awesome’ made yet another appearance when I asked Loach about his experience playing with the Nighthawks this year.

“The Nighthawks experience has been awesome. I have thoroughly enjoyed playing with all of my teammates, as well as having such incredible coaches. Andrew Lugsdin, Jeff Cruickshank, Al-bob (Al Nichols),and Shekky (Shiring) have all been very effective coaches. I would argue that my ultimate career in the lanes started with Andrew Lugsdin, and it is incredibly nice to have him back commanding the offensive line.”

“Shank is also coaching the World Games team I tried out for, and has helped me with the fine tuning of my game. He is excellent at expressing and detailing the little nuances someone can change or add to their game to make them effective.”

“Otherwise, playing in front of the home fans at Thunderbird Stadium has been incredible. It is so much easier to get amped for games when playing in front of a crowd. Playing in front of a home crowd is an unreal experience. The Vancouver fans are incredible, and add a lot to our excitement.”

So there you have it, three Aarons, three Warrior Lions, one ending his career by helping getting the Nighthawks started, and two who have staked their claims as present and future leaders of the team.

The Nighthawks next game is this Saturday at 7 p.m. in Portland. And you won’t want to miss their final game this year at home against Seattle on Saturday, June 22 at 7 p.m. You can buy your tickets here.

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