Monthly Archives: May 2015

Sharks Finally Gain Momentum

Sharks Finally Gain Momentum
by Erik Watkins

Let’s face it, for the Jacksonville Sharks, if you take into account the wins that should’ve been losses and losses that should’ve been wins, 3-5 is about where they should be. However, with only eight weeks gone, they have indeed shown that there’s a lot of football left to play.

For starters: Cleveland. The Gladiators are using the 2015 season to prove to the critics that their 17-1 campaign that led to ArenaBowl XXVII was no fluke. So far, while the naysayers have stuck around, they’re fewer and farther between. Cleveland came into the game at 4-2 having won consecutive games for the second time this season. Jacksonville, desperate to keep pace with their fellow Florida teams, needed to win in part to save their coach’s job.

Things started out mixed for Jacksonville, as a turnover on downs led to the Gladiators getting on the scoreboard first. The Sharks were able to trade scores, and Alvin Ray Jackson’s interception to end the half gave Jacksonville life, trailing 21-19 due to Julian Rauch’s first two misses on extra points as a Shark.

Much like in the win against Vegas and the loss to the Storm, stops started coming in bunches. This time, like two weeks prior, Jacksonville’s defense stepped up. After Derrick Ross, who during the game became the first player ever to run for 2,500 yards in an Arena Football League career, scored his second touchdown of the night, Joe Sykes gave the league a reminder of how formidable the Sharks front line can be. Sykes sacked QB Shane Austin to earn his league-leading seventh sack of the season, forced an Austin fumble, and DB LaRoche “Action” Jackson lived up to his nickname and pounced on the loose ball, turning it over from his former team to his current (and former former, as it happens) team. From there, new Shark Prechae Rodriguez, earning his first start in the place of Jeron Harvey (coach’s decision), caught a TD pass from Tommy Grady to extend the lead to 33-21.

On the ensuing drive, another new Shark, DB Greg Reid, caught his second interception of the night and his Jacksonville career to set up another score and an 18-point lead. Cleveland fought hard with back-to-back scores of their own, but despite a Julian Rauch missed field goal, the Sharks held on to get their first road win of the season and improved their record to 2-5.

For all the on-field drama, there were a few things brewing off the field for Jacksonville. Thanks to a couple lackluster performances, head coach Les Moss opted to sit Jeron Harvey, giving new Shark Prechae Rodriguez his wish and letting him start. It paid off immediately with eight catches and 75 yards against Cleveland, and earned him a second starting nod. Moss also had an unfortunate incident of his own. He was swimming in his neighbor’s pool over the weekend, and stepped out onto some hot concrete, suffering third-degree burns. The doctor ordered him to stay off his feet for the next several weeks, forcing him to watch practice from his car and coach from an upstairs booth.

It was a tumultuous week leading up to the game against Philadelphia, but it didn’t stop Jacksonville from looking for the best cure of all: a win. The 7-0 Soul wouldn’t make it easy, but the crowd of 9,465 that showed up for Military Appreciation Night certainly got their money’s worth.

It was another inauspicious start, as the Sharks defense couldn’t get off the field on 4th and 1, allowing a 31-yard strike from Dan Raudabaugh to Marco Thomas. Jacksonville bounced back to score 10 straight points. Prechae Rodriguez continued his form to get the Sharks near the goalline, and after Derrick Ross committed a rare fumble, the other former Philadelphia player, Tiger Jones, scored on 4th and 8 to tie the game. Following a 4th down drop, Julian Rauch bounced back from an awful night in Cleveland to kick a 28 yard field goal.

Greg Reid also made sure his presence was known, nearly intercepting Raudabaugh on first down and breaking up a second down pass. Despite giving up another fourth down score, Jacksonville was undeterred. Action Jackson gave the special teams a boost (he had 91 yards on 5 kick returns for the night), and Joe Hills started and ended the drive with two big catches to retake the lead for Jacksonville.

The last 90 seconds of the first half provided a little controversy. Following Marco Thomas’ second score of the night, Philadelphia faked the extra point, went for two, and failed. Then, they challenged the call of fan interference on the onside kick (which Ryan McDaniel recovered on a ricochet off of a fan’s arm. After the challenge was upheld, Mogut Ruffins scored his first touchdown of the season. A failed onside kick gave the Soul a chance at a halftime lead, but Greg Reid forced his second fumble of the night. Julian Rauch had a long field goal attempt late, but intentionally kicked it out of bounds to keep the Sharks lead at 24-20.

Jacksonville had one last defensive stand, with Action Jackson intercepting Raudabaugh’s pass, but another Rauch miss kept the status quo. The kick wasn’t without excitement, as Derrick Ross got a small measure of payback by leveling the kick returner in the end zone to end the half.

The teams continued to trade scores throughout the third quarter and into the fourth quarter, and the calls started to go against the Sharks as the fourth quarter started. First, the referees missed a horsecollar tackle on Action Jackson on the kick return, and Ryan McDaniel caught a 4th-and-5 pass off of the top of the boards when the ball should have been ruled dead. McDaniel scored two plays later to put Philadelphia within five at 45-40. Prechae Rodriguez shook a defender on a 28-yard catch and run to regain the two-score advantage, but the Soul found the end zone at the one-minute warning to keep the game too close for comfort.

After Joe Hills recovered the onside kick, the Philadelphia defense mustered one last fight, sacking Tommy Grady to force 3rd and 23. Finally, Julian Rauch, looking to make amends once and for all, hit a 40 yard field goal to seal the win.

After the game, the mood and body language was the lightest of the entire season. Mogut Ruffins, coming off his first score, acknowledged the struggle. “We fought hard. The guys are improving, and we know what we have to do to get tough wins. We hear the title talk, we try to ignore it. There’s a new group together, and it feels good to finally see the team perform.” He also recognized his new role in doing whatever it takes to get the win.

Julian Rauch, who made all seven extra points and two of his four field goal attempts, wanted to get Cleveland’s disaster behind him. “You have to worry about every point, and kicks are a big deal. Last week was rough, and I was anxious to kick.” He noted that there’s always room to build, and credited a good snap and hold on his 40-yarder to seal the game.

Derrick Ross, who beat his old team for the first time, summed up the win in five words: “It feels awesome! We ballin’!” He also said he was going to enjoy and celebrate the win. “I’ll worry about New Orleans on Tuesday. It feels good to beat two great teams, and we’re getting better and better.” While recognizing his milestone against the Gladiators, he knew that it was a team effort. “I won’t get on my high horse.”

Next up, New Orleans. While the VooDoo walked away with a season-opening win, these Sharks are proving they have much more bite than the team that took the field seven weeks ago. With a two-game road trip before hosting Orlando on June 6, if this continues, that meeting could well determine first place in the South division, and bring the title talk back to Jacksonville.

Live by the Stop, Die by the Stop: Sharks Split Critical Two-Game Stretch

Live by the Stop, Die by the Stop: Sharks Split Critical Two-Game Stretch

by Erik Watkins

For the Jacksonville Sharks (1-5), time could quickly be running out to salvage the 2015 season. The stars did seem to align a bit thanks to back-to-back 56-55 overtime losses by Orlando, and home-field could potentially be theirs for the taking with recent injuries to Arizona QB Nick Davila and San Jose QB Erik Meyer out west. However, it’s up to Jacksonville to make a run, and that could be out of the question after the 63-28 loss to Tampa Bay.

Things started quite well for the Sharks, demolishing Las Vegas 60-28 in Week 5 at home for their first win of the season. It was a close game early on, but at the end of the first half, the Sharks defense stepped up and set up three straight touchdowns to blow the game open, leaving any second half Outlaws score meaningless.

After the game, there were two overwhelming feelings: the chemistry was starting to build, and there were flashes of what this team could be. There were some personal feelings and accomplishments, some old scores settled (“Coach Garcia wanted me, but Coach Moss wanted me more,” said Derrick Ross), but most of all, there was hope. However, as Coach Moss put it after the game: “We’re 1-4.”

However, for all the good that came from the win, it was undone just one week later. The game started out well, as Grady and Tampa Bay signal-caller Jason Boltus were matching each other TD pass for TD pass, but with two minutes to go in the first half, an errant kickoff return and an interception led to 14 Storm points, and a fourth-down conversion led to a 35-14 Tampa Bay lead. The second half was nothing but trouble, as the Sharks were stopped on every possession after a Tiger Jones early fourth quarter touchdown catch.

This split puts Jacksonville at 1-5. After the rest of Week 6’s action, the good news is that they are still just two games out of the division lead, as both Orlando and Tampa Bay are 3-3 with four more divisional games left. While Philadelphia remains undefeated at 6-0, Jacksonville hosts them in Weeks 8 and 17. The problems would be deeper into the playoffs, as San Jose holds the tiebreaker after the Week 4 win, and Jacksonville doesn’t play Arizona this season.

In the end, it boils down to this: chemistry. To a man, the Sharks acknowledge that the team has the talent to win the league, but there’s no bond there like there was in years past. Unfortunately, this could lead to head coach Les Moss’ demise. Yes, the pedigree is there. Yes, the championships are there. However, the fans aren’t (the listed attendance against San Jose was the lowest in three years, and the average attendance is the lowest in franchise history at less than 9,000), and the over the past season and a half, the wins aren’t.

Jacksonville is now 8-16 since the start of the 2014 season, and now winds could be blowing to sweep Coach Moss out of town, despite averaging 12½ wins per season through his first four seasons and notching four playoff wins.

Between injuries, trade disasters, and a lack of fourth-down stops this season, the past two seasons have been far too tumultuous, and owner Jeff Bouchy, another man used to winning, is searching for answers.

The division could slip away from Jacksonville, and all the preseason hype could come to a screeching halt in the next two weeks. With Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Orlando coming up in the next five weeks, the long season could be running out before we flip the calendars to June.

Spokane Shock Suffer Franchise Worst Loss to the San Jose SaberCats

Spokane Shock Suffer Franchise Worst Loss to the San Jose SaberCats

by Alex Gustafson

Three championships were amassed by the Spokane Shock in their first five years of existence. It’s now been five years since their last ArenaBowl, not even appearing in the game since their win in 2010. The drought is real. The frustration is mounting. And in this, the tenth anniversary season for the Shock, everyone’s hand is hovering over the panic button, ready to hit it at any time now.

Spokane was 2-4 entering into their contest against the undefeated San Jose SaberCats on Saturday afternoon. Though San Jose was the favorite, nobody saw this result coming. This one was mathematically over before halftime. It was also hell to watch as a fan in the second half. The SaberCats absolutely dominated the Shock from the word Go. The final score of 83-28 is the worst loss in franchise history. Last week, I wondered how Spokane would turn out to see this huge make or break matchup. Attendance dropped again, and the Shock broke.

All sorts of excuses could be made. We could point fingers at all sorts of things from the early start time, to how the referees missed some major calls. But at the end of the day, there is zero excuse for a 45 point beat down at home. The die hards stuck around to the very bitter end, but the negative emotions that all fans shared exiting the arena could not be ignored.

A couple of SaberCats came back to the place they called home for close to a half decade each. Quarterback Eric Meyer and receiver Adron Tennell are new to San Jose this year, but only Tennell saw the field as Meyer rested from previous injuries. Nathan Stanley got the start behind center and lit up the scoreboard with eight touchdowns off of 212 yards. To make matters worse, the Shock had the ball for 53 plays while San Jose only ran 34, and the game was still a rout of epic proportions.

“The entire game from start to finish couldn’t have been played worse. We played about as bad a game Spokane has ever seen” said Head Coach Andy Olson. Being brutally honest, he admitted that as the man in charge, all has been said and done and the team still can’t find its winning edge. “We’ve had multiple heart to heart talks. After Portland. After New Orleans. We’ve already done this. I’ve said what I needed to say. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m not happy. We aren’t living up to what the Spokane Shock stand for.” When asked when there were any positives at all on the night, he only answered “No.”

Warren Smith had an impressive debut as Spokane’s QB against the L.A. KISS last week, but his stats took a dive this week. He accounted for all four touchdowns in the air, but also gave up four picks and was sacked three times for 15 yards total. Smith spoke about the turnaround saying “As a quarterback in the AFL, I need to play at a higher level. Give credit to that (San Jose) D line. Best D line in the league.” Smith as the new leader in the locker room is willing to move on and get the team back gelling together. “We can’t worry about what the media is saying, who we’re playing or what their record is. All we can do is keep working on ourselves. We need to get better as a team.”

San Jose was one of two undefeated teams coming into Week 8, sharing that distinction with the Philadelphia Soul. While Philly fell courtesy of the Jacksonville Sharks, the exact opposite was taking place as San Jose had zero problems with Spokane. It felt like the Shock were prey that was maimed, and then played around with before its official demise. This game was easily the hardest to sit through as the Cats kept piling on score after score.

And in Arena Football, unbelievable plays happen. It’s a given. But one play in particular blew my mind.  In the second quarter from their own 1 yard line, Smith threw a short pass to Rashaad Carter connecting at the 5. Carter got clobbered immediately after the catch by David Hyland, popping the ball airborne for ELEVEN YARDS into the arms of a diving Ken Fontenette. He would return the ball 16 yards for the pick six.

Wow. Just… Wow.

Adding injury to the insult, Mike Washington went down hurt late in the game. With Spokane’s leading receiver in jeopardy now, Smith and company have a week to adjust in case “The Joystick” can’t go next Saturday on the road against Las Vegas. No official update has been given on his condition as of press time, but on Washington’s official Twitter account, he tweeted a few hours after the game: “Down but not out. Coming back stronger than before. Thank you all for the positive vibes. #teamjoystick”

The Shock defense had zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles, and zero scores. The best individual effort of the night on that side of the ball for Spokane belonged to Derrick Summers who accounted for five tackles. “There was no heart. I’m at a loss for words.” After some thought, he shared the sentiment that this was the worst loss anyone on the team has been a part of. But he is still optimistic of all the games still on the slate for the year. “We just gotta keep working. That’s all we can do. Adjust and move on.”

This hurt. For Spokane, this was supposed to be a great season. Failure wasn’t considered as an option. For a franchise that has only missed the playoffs twice in nine years, the measuring stick is pretty high up here in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, the Shock are hurting themselves at every hurdle that comes in their way instead of jumping over it and moving on. The next game versus the Las Vegas Outlaws is a wild card. And I’d like to apologize to Shock fans right now. If reading this article hurt, imagine being the fan writing it.

Spokane travels to Las Vegas to meet the Outlaws for the first time ever while the 8-0SaberCats go home to host the Cleveland Gladiators. Both games are on May 23with 5pm est and 10:30pm est kicks respectively. As usual, all games can be seen online on ESPN 3 and the WatchESPN app.

4th and Ouch: The LA KISS Landslide Continues

4th and Ouch: The LA KISS Landslide Continues

By Alex Gustafson

People have been talking about Los Angeles football to come back for years. It’s sad to report that the incarnation that the City of Angels received was in the form of the 2015 L.A. KISS. What is there left to say? We can make terrible rock star puns, stare in awe of the front office dumpster fire, and shiver at the fact that the young franchise only has three wins to its name. Not this season, but last. One can also look at the KISS and look at history.

In 2003, the Arena Football League looked almost completely different. Back then, not only was Los Angeles’ arena team known as the Avengers, the Carolina Cobras became the only AFL team in the history of the league to go 0-16. The KISS have now been handed their seventh loss of the season, close to being halfway there. Not saying that L.A. will be the seventh team to go an entire AFL season without one in the win column, but after their defeat at the hands of the Spokane Shock on Friday night, they are one step closer to doing so.

After a heartbreaker of a loss of their own at New Orleans in Week 6, Spokane came back home to host Los Angeles for the first time ever. Coming in with only one win on the season, the Shock needed to get an extra boost to stay alive as the season draws near the halfway mark. Quarterback Warren Smith got the nod over Carson Coffman for this contest, and made his debut a worthy one. His first arena start went 23-29 with 313 yards in the air and seven touchdowns including one rushing score.

“I just wanted to come out and get a win and look sharp. We had a great game” said Smith who won the Offensive Player of the Game award. “We did a great job on all sides, offensive, defensive, and special teams. We only let up 46 tonight. It was great.” On top of a Shock debut, there was a return in Linebacker Micah King. After two years in San Antonio, King returned to Spokane as the Shock faithful welcomed him back with open arms. “It felt be way better to be playing for (Spokane) than against them” said King who’s comeback was highlighted by a fumble recovery in the second quarter. His play showed there wasn’t a big hitch for him getting back into the AFL after an extended break. “I’ve been training. There’s nothing like getting in football shape. This is a great thing for me.”

The Shock special teams had a great outing with Sergio Gilliam scoring on Spokane’s first return attempt of the night and Nick Truesdell recovering a botched KISS return for a touchdown of his own. And to make matters more interesting, both scores happened in the first quarter. Defensive Back coach Will “Shoulder” Mulder was exceptionally pleased. “We told these guys stick to the plan, you stick together, and you’re in a situation to make plays if not make every play. I’m really proud of that never die attitude.”

For Los Angeles, they conclude their three week road trip in Portland to visit the Thunder. This is an interesting matchup, because two of their three wins last year were against Portland. The only thing is that both those wins came in Anaheim. The KISS’ trips to the Moda Center this year and last have resulted in losses. This is the 13th(!) consecutive loss when counting last year’s season ending skid. This wound is opening wider and wider every week and here comes some salt to pour in it: Matt Bassuener broke his hand in the fourth quarter. Three of their four quarterbacks they’ve played this year are injured.

Something has to eventually go right for these guys, right? Donovan Morgan’s star is shining pretty bright, but having a new quarterback every two games will get tiresome for his chemistry. The team is lacking… well… just that. Team. The ball may be spread around and can click for some drives, but when it rains, it pours. It’s either a huge touchdown, or a lost fumble for that offense. When the notorious Goal Line Bandits are missing three guys, and they still get in your head, there’s a problem.

A great opportunity presented itself on Saturday, and one of the teams was destined to lose and blow that very opportunity. Again, it happened to be the KISS. Spokane is walking wounded this first half of the season, and L.A. still couldn’t buy a win like Gene Simmons buys licenses for KISS memorabilia. What’s funnier is that the smallest market team beat the biggest in terms of potential money making for the league right now. If we could make another analogy for the way the team is going, Paul and Gene are to the L.A. KISS what Ted Turner was to WCW. Big money superstar owner, but with so many other ventures of theirs going on, the inmates that really run that asylum are starting to make it implode from within.

Not a whole lot of celebration or rest will be had for Spokane though. San Jose is dominating the league, and Spokane’s contest versus the SaberCats is looming in Week 8. This will be a homecoming for Adron Tennell and Eric Meyer who played four and five years respectively in Spokane. However with the injury Meyer sustained in Week 6 against Arizona, the likely man under center for San Jose will be Nathan Stanley. And though the Shock has the benefit of home field advantage, attendance in the Spokane Arena Friday night dropped under 8,000 for the first time in franchise history. To go a decade with nine or ten-thousand plus as the normal crowd is an absolute blessing for Arena ball, so this will be interesting to see how Spokane turns out next week against one of the top teams in the league after a big win.

Both matchups of San Jose vs Spokane and L.A. vs Portland take place on Saturday, May 16th Spokane kicks off at 7 est and Portland will kick off at 10 est. As always, all AFL games can be seen on ESPN3.com and on the WatchESPN app.