The Sharks Have Finally Arrived
by Erik Watkins
Just six weeks ago, the 2015 Jacksonville Sharks season seemed lost. They were 0-4, just one of two winless teams in the AFL, and the much talented, much hyped roster became the biggest disappointment. Since then, the Sharks team that fans, staff, and media expected this year has emerged in something of a tour de force. At 5-5, they now sit in second place in the South division with an even more crucial two-game stretch ahead of them before two byes in three weeks.
New Orleans could have been a tricky opponent. The Week 1 win was still somewhat fresh in their minds, and Jacksonville was on the road a week after becoming the only team to beat the Philadelphia Soul in 2015. In front of what was the biggest VooDoo home crowd of the season (a still disappointing 4,021), the Sharks got off to another rocky start, and New Orleans was once again standing toe to toe, trailing 14-13 at the end of the first quarter, and still within a point at 21-20 with just under four minutes left in the first half.
Then, the Sharks began to swarm. First, DB Greg Reid intercepted New Orleans QB Brian Reader, setting up a Tommy Grady touchdown pass to Jeron Harvey, who scored on a 21-yard catch and run in his first action with the team since his replacement, Prechae Rodriguez, was placed on league suspension. This was simply a preview of what was to come.
The following is how Jacksonville won the game in just six plays of the third quarter: Grady to Hills for a touchdown, DE Scooter Berry recovering a fumble, a Moqut Ruffins touchdown catch on a screen pass, a Brian Reader pass, a Joe Sykes trifecta (sack, forced fumble, and fumble recovery), and Derrick Ross scoring on a three-yard run. After just 3:28 of the third quarter, a 28-20 dogfight became a 49-20 rout, and it got better for the Sharks from there. After Sykes got his second sack of the night, the VooDoo were forced into another long field goal attempt, and Tommy Grady found Tiger Jones for a 25-yard touchdown and a 56-20 lead to end the third quarter. The fourth quarter was cruise control for Jacksonville, and the Sharks headed west with a 70-41 win.
Jacksonville continued their momentum against the Los Angeles KISS, scoring two touchdowns in less than 15 seconds. First, Tommy Grady found Tiger Jones again, scoring on a 40-yard pass. Just two plays later, JLB Alvin Ray Jackson intercepted the lastest KISS QB, Danny Southwick, and returned it 25 yards for his and the Sharks’ first defensive score of the season. Joe Hills found the end zone after a defensive stop, and Jacksonville had their second 21-0 run in a quarter in as many weeks, this time to give them the early lead in LA.
To their credit, the 0-9 KISS fought back, scoring twice themselves in the second quarter, and after Julian Rauch missed a 30-yard field goal attempt wide right, 8,235 KISS fans were hopeful of finally getting the long-awaited first win of the season, trailing 28-14.
Danny Southwick found his rhythm under center, and Jacksonville’s three-score lead became a tenuous seven points at 28-21. From there, the fight was on, as both teams traded scores and stops, and the Sharks were back to playing at their 0-4 form against a team that has not won in almost an entire calendar year. Derrick Ross earned one more touchdown in his record-setting career, scoring his third of the night from 23-yards out to give Jacksonville a little comfort room with 3:55 left in the game. LA had one more bit of fight left in them, as they struck back thanks to a long kickoff return and a Southwick strike to Donovan Morgan, trimming the lead to 41-35 with 2:30 remaining.
Jacksonville looked to seal the game and had the ball in KISS territory at the one-minute warning. Then, in painfully familiar fashion, the Sharks committed crucial offensive penalties, backing themselves up into 4th and 16 at the LA 21. Julian Rauch had his second wide right of the night, and gave the KISS 37 seconds and a timeout to tie the game. LA got to midfield with 16 seconds left, took their time out, and then looked to the end zone. Danny Southwick missed twice, then found WR Jeffrey Solomon on a quick route to get to Jacksonville’s 20-yard line with three seconds left. Southwick tried for the end zone again, but Greg Reid snagged his second interception of the road trip to seal the Sharks’ fourth straight win.
After these two wins, there’s still an aura of schizophrenia surrounding Jacksonville on the field. When they’re on, they’re world beaters, as they proved to Philadelphia. When they’re off, they could be one of the worst teams in the league, as they proved against LA. However, they’ve been on and dominant more than they’ve been off over the last six weeks, and the improvement is showing itself on a constant basis. Now, the next challenge lies ahead: beating Orlando and Tampa Bay to avenge earlier losses and claim the division lead. Then, they face one lone opponent in the following three weeks, Cleveland.
If the Sharks can extend their winning streak to seven, then they will roll into the July 4th bye at 8-5, and they once again become contenders to win (and possibly host) the ArenaBowl. As it stands, the league is now on notice that the Jacksonville team they expected before the start of the season is now stepping on the field every week, and the run that could propel them to a title is now in play.
Next up: Orlando. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. on June 6th at Sea Best Field at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. It will be Education Appreciation Night and Pirates & Princesses Night at the Arena, with BOGO tickets for school employees, teachers, and administrators (with ID), and free tickets for K-12 students with a paid adult ticket (limit two per adult).
As a writer with a seven-year-old nephew (who will be attending, by the way), the winning streak couldn’t have come at a better time, because he could be seeing his uncle at work and the Jacksonville Sharks at their best.