Photo by Rodney Chen – UltiPhotos.com
Welcome to part two of my West Conference preview. I’m Ben Beehner, defensive cutter on the Seattle Rainmakers, and I know the West Coast MLU better than almost anyone. After previewing the Portland Stags and Seattle Rainmakers in my last post, I’ll cover the other two teams and get into some bold predictions for the season.
Vancouver’s veterans remain, but they’ll have to rebuild after adding a huge crew of rookies. The Nighthawks have the West Coast’s best handler (Kirk Savage), best cutter (Brendan Wong) and best defender (Morgan Hibbert), but it really drops off after that.
This year, expect Kirk Savage to be given the keys to this offense. With the loss of starting handler Kevin Underhill and downfield cutters like Gagandeep Chatha and Mark Leduc, Savage will have to do more on his own. With rookie cutters, this team may struggle to establish any flow. If so, they’ll resort to quick swings to the sideline and plenty of deep shots. He’ll look to returners Matthew Berezan and Aaron Loach to use height and power downfield to get quick scores.
As for last year’s top scorer Brendan Wong, it will be more of the same. Sure, every team knows that Wong is going deep. We knew that three weeks into the season last year. That doesn’t mean there are many teams that can stop him. The field is way too big and wide to double team deep downfield and he’ll win plenty of 1-on-1 matchups. So how do you stop him? Do your best to force him under and hope the other defenders do their jobs. Teams will likely try to use the far side downfield defender to help deep if the see Wong go to the house. Yet the best way to stop those hucks is to prevent the handlers from getting open looks near the sideline. They love to swing the disc to an open in-cutter who immediately turns to launch it downfield. If defenders play close and honest on their handlers, they can put more pressure on those throws.
On defense, Morgan Hibbert simply changes the landscape. His 21 defensive blocks last season were lightyears ahead of the rest of the league. Even on the large MLU field, Morgan is still able to punish most risky deep shots. His ability to guard the skies means the best idea for an opposing offense is to keep him out of the play. Stay shallow and eliminate his ability to poach deep. Sometimes last year, the Nighthawks would try putting Morgan on a top handler in an effort to eliminate getting deep shots off. I never saw this work too well. The MLU field has too much space for a large mark to really be effective and keeping Morgan out of the backfield usually opened things up for the downfield cutters.
I predict that the Nighthawks will struggle early this year. With the large number of young rookies, there will be plenty of growing pains. Veterans like Savage, Hibbert and Loach will shoulder a large load, but the Nighthawks will suffer when those stars are off the field. Like always, I expect the Nighthawks to finish strong down the stretch with a chance at earning second place in the conference.
San Francisco Dogfish
Things don’t look too good for the Dogfish. During last year’s rebuilding year, they finished at the bottom of the league with a 2-8 record. After losing standouts Jordan Jeffrey and Tyler Grant, it seems the rebuilding effort continues.
Without a doubt, Evan Boucher is the messiah of this team. The 3-year veteran was everywhere last year on the offensive line. Most offensive drives either started with Boucher cutting or throwing. He never strayed far from the disc and was called on to make play after play, racking up 10 goals and 18 assists. But his contribution to the flow and composure of the offense goes way beyond the stats. If Evan stays healthy, he’ll likely finish the season with the most points played of all players. This guy never ceases to impress me. Without a doubt, he’s one of the top draft picks for MLU Fantasy simply because of the massive number of touches he’ll get.
On defense, this team will have its work cut out. Drew Kim stepped up well last year as a handler defender, but this team has yet to prove that it has the personnel to keep up with the other teams in the West. Still, I see them having several players emerge as stars this year, such as Jackson Stearns or James Yeager. The addition of long-time veteran Gabe Saunkeah to the defensive line is interesting. Gabe’s got an impressive resume, including a spot on the USA’s 2009 World Games team and playing several years in Vancouver. He may prove to be a valuable addition if his legs still work.
Expect the defense to struggle with fast-strike offenses with quick handler movement. Their best chance is forcing teams into ill-advised deep hucks where they can try to make it a 50/50 shot. Without a doubt, the best contributor to the Dogfish defense is the San Francisco wind. They’ve played in three different stadiums since the league started and every one has been a wind tunnel. For proof of this, re-watch the Dogfish’s last home game last season against Vancouver where one point had an astounding 11 turnovers.
I predict the Dogfish to improve on their record from last year. Their strongest performances will be at home due to the huge impact of the wind coupled with the production of other teams traveling all the way down to San Francisco. Yet with their distance from the other cities, the Dogfish typically have double headers, playing both Saturday and Sunday in the same weekend. These have proven disastrous in past seasons. In the three double-headers this team has had in the last two seasons, they’ve lost 5 out of 6 games. This year, they finish the season with a double header with Vancouver and Seattle. If they’re still battling for a spot in the Western Conference Championship at that point, that weekend will be brutal.
Bold Predictions for the Season
1. If last year was the Year of the Handler, this will be the Year of the Cutter. 2014 showed Eli Friedman and Evan Boucher getting open underneath all day and marching downfield. This year, a loss of handlers across the conference will force teams to open up the downfield with more deep shots, especially to superstars like Timmy Perston, Mark Burton, Khalif El-Salaam and Brendan Wong.
2. Double header weekends for visiting teams will be disastrous. As I mentioned the woes for the Dogfish with double header weekends, that goes for the rest of the conference too. Of the eight times a team has faced a double header weekend, only once has the team won both games (Seattle Rainmakers in 2013). Both Vancouver and San Francisco end this season with double headers. Those games might mean a lot for someone trying to earn a spot in the Western Conference Championship.
3. The Eastern Conference wins the MLU Championship again. Sad to say it, but the roster turnover that West Coast teams struggle with doesn’t affect East Coast teams as much. Both Boston and D.C. have strong programs with consistency and stability. The West Coast has a way to go before we can match that.
4. The Rainmakers will start the season strong, the Nighthawks will end it strong. Vancouver teams have always known how to play clutch in the big games. Those grizzled veterans on the Nighthawks may have young guys running circles around them during early season games. Yet these guys have an entire extra gear they save for the end, like their strong performance in the Western Conference Finals last year over Portland. Morgan Hibbert will be the best overall player in the Western Conference.
5. The Rainmakers win the Western Conference. Am I biased? No, just confident. In the words of my captain Mark Burton, “Why not us?”