Monthly Archives: August 2015

Sharks Reach ArenaBowl in Dramatic Style

Sharks Reach ArenaBowl in Dramatic Style

by Erik Watkins

The Jacksonville Sharks (12-8) have never really made it easy on themselves this season. They were a team that came in with 13 All-Arena players, and seven came away with honors this year. The pundits touted their talent and punched their tickets to the title game long before toe hit leather. While the 0-4 start had heads shaking league wide, the end result proved them right and made history in the process. Yes, the Jacksonville Sharks became the first team to start 0-3, let alone 0-4, to make the ArenaBowl. How they got there will be talked about for ages, right after a certain call that probably should have been a fumble…

Jacksonville put themselves on the AFL map right away, winning the South division title in their rookie season in 2010. They immediately printed t-shirts and made signs saying “We own the South.” The Orlando Predators reminded them the order of things with a 73-69 upset at Veterans Memorial Arena. Fast forward five years, and the shoe was on the other foot. Orlando, coming off of their second straight division title, brought back the red and black slogan and wore it with pride. The Sharks, however, remembered what happened before, and sought to make it happen again.

The offense was comfortable in the first quarter. When I say comfortable, I mean extremely comfortable. Tommy Grady completed his first 13 passes of the game, a streak that spanned more than a quarter and led to two scoring drives, including Grady’s first touchdown run in nearly two full years. The defense matched the intensity and tone of the game, as the first defensive possession ended with a Terrance Smith hit on Larry Brackins on 4th-and-goal to finish a stand. In fact, the only hiccup came when London Crawford fumbled on a 20-yard catch and run to give the Predators the ball. The defense saved the day when DE Moqut Ruffins (one of the aforementioned seven All-Arena players) recovered a Michael Simons fumble. Grady found Joe Hills in the end zone to extend both the touchdown streak and the lead.

To Orlando’s credit, they did get going as the first half wore on, and started matching Jacksonville with touchdowns of their own. However, when the Sharks defense starts swarming, you’ll get bit. Randy Hippeard, who set a record for completion percentage in a season, found that out the hard way after Alvin Ray Jackson intercepted him to set up one last touchdown and a 35-14 halftime lead.

The Predators still had a little fight in them, starting the second half with a ten-play, near seven-minute scoring drive and a fourth-down stop that led to another score. The hope didn’t last long, as the Sharks struck quickly to start the fourth quarter and extend the lead to 42-27. When Greg Reid caught a Randy Hippeard pass off the top of the wall (a call made after a successful Jacksonville challenge), the game was effectively over. A Derrick Ross TD run, then a stop, then another Ross TD run made it 55-27 with five minutes left, and an Orlando cosmetic touchdown was the only action the rest of the way. Jacksonville came out of the Jungle alive and on to Philadelphia. While the Sharks as a team left the arena and headed back on the bus to prepare for Philadelphia, the fans left a sign of their own as a bit of justice and as a reminder of what transpired: Straight Outta the Playoffs.

Fresh off that win, Jacksonville found themselves on the road taking on the Soul one week later. There, they faced a different bit of history. The last time Jacksonville went to face Philadelphia in the American Conference title game, they were 11-8, the Soul were 16-3, and the game ended with the worst loss in Sharks franchise history (34-89). This time, the Sharks were 11-8, the Soul were 16-3, and Jacksonville didn’t want history to repeat itself. Sometimes, determination can work wonders…

As a note, these two teams met three times in the regular season. In the lone game at the Wells Fargo Center, the Soul won by 11. The other two meetings in Jacksonville were decided by a single score, and the Sharks took both. Those signs of improvement led to just an inkling of hope for the red and black. In football, when you combine hope and determination, you’re likely to get a champion. Keep that in mind.

The Sharks started off like a house on fire on both offense and defense. On offense, it was more of a repeat of the game against Orlando, as Tommy Grady ended his first three drives with touchdown passes. On defense, the secondary used a mix of man and zone coverage schemes to slow down First Team All-Arena QB Dan Raudabaugh and throw off his timing. While the Soul scored, Jacksonville got a quick advantage thanks to an Alvin Ray Jackson forced fumble recovered by Terrance Smith, redeeming himself for dropping a sure interception earlier in the game.

With a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Sharks were in full control once again. However, the Soul finished as the top seed in the American Conference for a reason. After LaRoche “Action” Jackson intercepted Raudabaugh deep in Philly territory, the Soul took the ball right back when LaRico Stevenson intercepted Tommy Grady on the very next play. That set up a long, penalty-ridden drive to cut the lead in half. Jacksonville still maintained their early dominance, though, as Joe Hills extended the streak once again by finding the end zone for the first time thanks to an 11-yard pass from Grady.

While things weren’t immediately unraveling, Philadelphia became a pesky team that stayed within arm’s reach. Jacksonville had one last play to score after a Tommy Frevert 39-yard field goal attempt went wide right, but an incomplete pass meant Jacksonville, again, would take a halftime lead, this time 28-14.

While defense was the order of the day against the Predators, the Sharks knew that the only way to exact another matter of revenge against the Soul was to attack early and often. Philadelphia scored 63, 47, and 67 points in three meetings this season, so beating last week’s total of 55 was the first thing on the team’s mind.

Philadelphia reminded them of just that when QB Dan Raudabaugh found Marco Thomas on a 31-yard strike to start out the second half. This started a tennis-style back and forth which saw the two combatants trade scores throughout the third and fourth quarter. Both teams remained on serve until a slight hiccup with 5:45 remaining. After QB Tommy Grady found Joe Hills in the end zone from 11 yards out, the Soul’s Teddy Jennings came through the middle and blocked the Julian Rauch extra point, keeping the lead at 54-42. Philadelphia capitalized when Raudabaugh threw to Lonnie Outlaw for a nine-yard touchdown. London Crawford recovered the ensuing onside kick, and the Sharks literally ran down the clock, finishing the drive with Tommy Grady’s third touchdown run of the playoffs. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Jacksonville went for two to play catchup, but Grady’s pass fell incomplete.

The Soul still had life down by 12 at the one-minute warning, and used that life to engineer a surgical, methodical four-play drive that preserved their three timeouts. With 38 seconds left, Philadelphia had no choice but to onside kick, and Crawford recovered yet again.

There’s one name that hasn’t been mentioned in some time: Derrick Ross. At this point, he only carried the ball three times for a grand total of eight yards. In fact, he did more to hurt the team than help thanks to penalties and poor pass blocking. Despite this, the typical convention is to hand him the ball, force the defensive timeouts, and look to ice the game. Instead, Coach Moss lived dangerously…real dangerously. He called three straight passes from Tommy Grady to Joe Hills — and none found the mark. Facing 4th down with 22 seconds left, on came Julian Rauch to attempt a 28-yard field goal. The kick went up, and wide right. Then the referees conferred, and changed the call to good. Then they conferred again, and went to a review. As the head zebra saw the ball go over the right upright, he made the final call that the kick was no good.

Philadelphia quickly got off their pins and needles and went to work. However, so did the Sharks defense. Scooter Berry put his name on the stat sheet by sacking Dan Raudabaugh on the first play of the drive. Timeout. Raudabaugh then completed three of his next four passes, including a clutch 4th-and-2 conversion, and got the Soul 14 yards from victory. Timeout.

Two seconds. Time enough for one play no matter what sort of football you play. If it works, Philadelphia appears in their third ArenaBowl in four years. If it doesn’t, Jacksonville gets their revenge and a crack at their second Foster Trophy. Raudabaugh dropped back, put the ball in the air, and it landed right into the hands of…Action Jackson. Jackson intercepted the ball in the end zone as the horn sounded, and Jacksonville barely escapes with the William L. Niro trophy and the right to play for the Foster Trophy in Stockton on Saturday, August 29.

Jacksonville was touted as the potential kings this season. After overcoming the worst start in franchise history, they face the mighty San Jose Sabercats, a team looking to make history themselves, for the right to the throne. From the horrible start to the last two games, the only thing we’re promised is one more wild ride.

Sharks Ride Rollercoaster into the Playoffs

Sharks Ride Rollercoaster into the Playoffs

by Erik Watkins

The Jacksonville Sharks (10-8) have had a season to be remembered for all sorts of reasons: 0-4 start, viral touchdown celebration, high expectations, milestones, upsets, you name it, the Sharks have done it. Nevertheless, there’s been one typically constant end to the season: playoffs. For the fifth time in six franchise seasons, Jacksonville will play a game on Week 21.

The madness started with the game against Tampa Bay. Jacksonville went into that game at 8-7, knowing that a win would not only secure a playoff berth, but a chance to restore the order in the South division the following week in Orlando. The Storm still had something to fight for, as the once proud franchise could finally shake off their AFL 2.0 woes and make only their second playoff appearance since losing ArenaBowl XXIII.

Coming fresh off of the 74-67 win against Philadelphia, the Sharks kept that momentum rolling, converting a 4th-and-7 to set up the first TD pass of the night, Tommy Grady to Joe Hills. Jacksonville was up 7-0, and Hills extended his streak to 50 regular season games (51 overall) with a touchdown pass. That would open the floodgates.

Storm QB Jason Boltus, who’s had a rough season to say the very least, managed a good drive on his first possession, but a crucial offside penalty led to 1st-and-20, and Jacksonville’s pressure took it from there, netting a turnover on downs.

The Sharks needed only three plays to score: two passes from Tommy Grady to London Crawford, and a Derrick Ross run to finish the drive. Following a big Storm return and a 31-yard TD pass from Boltus to Kendrick Ings to cut the lead to 14-7, Jacksonville went on a 21-0 run that ended when Tampa Bay kicker Greg Peterson made a 47-yard field goal to end the first half.

Tampa Bay had no real chance of recovering, as on the first drive of the second half, Nicolas Jean-Baptiste became the third different Shark (Scooter Berry, Joe Sykes) to sack Jason Boltus on the night, forcing 3rd-and-22 and another turnover on downs. Derrick Ross scored four plays later, and Jacksonville found themselves with a 42-10 lead. The Storm managed what would be their last scoring drive of the night on the next possession, going seven plays and ending with a Jason Boltus pass to Emery Sammons. When Jacksonville recovered the onside kick, they took the game and ran away with it once and for all.

The real highlight came early in the fourth quarter. With the ball on their own 10-yard line thanks to a Greg Reid interception (catching the ball is easier when it’s one receiver vs. two defenders), the Sharks were looking to be 8-for-8 on touchdown drives. On fourth and goal, they made it happen, with Tiger Jones scoring his second touchdown of the night. However, what happened next was the moment that defined the game.

All season, the Sharks have been known for touchdown celebrations. Be it Joe Hills keeping the “Yes!” chant on Sea Best Field, Derrick Ross starting the lawnmower, to Tiger Jones becoming a human windup toy, there’s always a little extra flare before the extra point. This time, though, the team decided to pay homage to The Rock himself, as Jones administered The People’s Elbow to Moqut Ruffins (when The Rock sends not one, but two tweets giving you a shoutout and rooting for you, you know you did it right).

From there, Lee Chapple came in to throw one more touchdown pass, and Action Jackson scooped up one last interception to seal a 63-16 win and a return to the playoffs for the Sharks following a long, miserable 7-11 2014 season.

The next week, it was a completely different atmosphere, as the rubber match vs. Orlando had the most meaning since the two teams last met in the playoffs. For the Sharks, win, and you put destiny in your own hands to take the South division title back to Jacksonville. For the Predators, win, and you defend, securing home-field in the first round.

Jacksonville added a little luck to their momentum in the first quarter, as a pass intended for Joe Hills bounced off his hands and right to London Crawford. After Orlando head coach Rob Keefe unsuccessfully challenged a potential fumble, the Sharks took advantage thanks to a Joe Hills catch in between two defenders to open the scoring. The defense then stepped right up, as Terrance Smith intercepted Randy Hippeard against the boards.

The second drive saw some chinks in the armor, as it opened with a Tommy Grady fumbled and recovered the snap. Two plays later, London Crawford took a hit against the boards while trying to make a catch, but doubts were set aside after a 30-yard pass from Grady to Joe Hills doubled the advantage. Greg Reid would nab an interception for the third straight game, but Orlando’s defense stood up at the goalline and forced a 17-yard Julian Rauch field goal attempt, which he made to give Jacksonville a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter.

From there, the wheels started to fall off. First, Brandon Thompkins gave the crowd of 12,184 something to cheer for in the Jungle thanks to a 44-yard kickoff return. After a Larry Brackins touchdown, Nick Taylor took the very next Tommy Grady pass and returned it 24 yards into the end zone. Within five minutes, the shutout became a 17-14 barnburner, and Orlando started to slowly seize control.

The Sharks needed a drive to quiet the crowd, and did just that thanks to a six-play drive that ended in a London Crawford touchdown catch. But, Brandon Thompkins decided to rev them up all over again with a 56-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and the Predators were right back to within three at 23-20. The two teams traded touchdowns for the rest of the half, and at 30-27, Jacksonville showed signs of some panic.

Brandon Thompkins nearly repeated his heroics with another touchdown, but a holding penalty spared the Sharks…just long enough for Randy Hippeard to complete three of four passes to set up a Larry Brackins TD run. Bad went to worse when Predators DL Austin Brown sacked Tommy Grady, and the ensuing fumble went into the end zone for a safety. To add to the misery, Hippeard led another touchdown drive to put Orlando up 43-30 with four minutes left in the third quarter.

Jacksonville continued to hold their ground, trading touchdowns with the Predators, only for DB Terence Moore to intercept Grady at the goalline and return it 50 yards for a score and a 57-37 lead. The Sharks added one last cosmetic score, but Orlando claimed the division title with a 64-50 win, meaning that the two teams would meet back in the Jungle in two weeks to begin their ArenaBowl runs.

Jacksonville went into their regular season finale with nothing to play for against a franchise who wanted to close their history on a high note. Normally that means a potential blowout or a few quirks, but nothing could replicate the comedy of errors that ensued.

If I were to tell you that the worst thing to happen was the cheer routines being thrown off and a little less coordinated than usual, only to make up for it by a special on-field ceremony honoring their leaving director, I’d be lying. If I told you that Jacksonville fought hard to capture a 10-win season in front of a home crowd of more than 11,000, I’d be telling a half-truth. If I told you that the better team won in the end, I’d be exactly right.

It didn’t start out that way, though, as the two teams combined for two turnovers and a missed field goal in the first three possessions of the game. When there wasn’t a battle for who could score first, there were individual battles between the players, creating early hostilities.

There were some highlights, though, as Joe Sykes garnered 1.5 sacks in the opening frame, leaving him a half sack shy of matching his jersey number (#19) on the season, and Alvin Ray Jackson intercepted VooDoo QB Adam Kennedy to maintain the defensive tone. The first quarter did end with a score, Joe Hills extended his touchdown streak to 52 regular season games (53 overall), the second-longest ever behind Damien Harrell’s 78 game stretch.

Up 6-0 after a Julian Rauch miss, New Orleans did strike back. WR Charles McClain was left wide open on a flare route to the left, and scampered into the end zone for a 7-6 lead. Not to be outdone, Tiger Jones was left by his lonesome and turned on the jets for a 48-yard catch and run to reclaim the lead. Continuing the theme of oneupmanship, Moqut Ruffins got his revenge and tapped Tiger out on the touchdown celebration (Ruffins was the “victim” of The People’s Elbow two weeks prior). Tiger did, however, get the last laugh as the score put him over the 2,000 yard mark for receiving for the fourth time in his career.

The rest of the second quarter was filled with VooDoo trickery and Terrance Smith penalties. Neither side gained too much of an advantage, however, as although the flags helped New Orleans march into the end zone, Nicolas Jean-Baptiste blocked the ensuing extra point, and Action Jackson got the ball and ran it into the end zone to make up for the two missed extra points.

The first half closed out in the following four ways: the VooDoo couldn’t keep the onside kick in bounds, Derrick Ross couldn’t get in the end zone despite four cracks from the one-yard line, the referees couldn’t get the ball in the last fifteen seconds to give Jacksonville a chance at another snap, and New Orleans couldn’t figure out they weren’t welcome on the field when halftime was about to start.

The second half was no different at the start, as former Shark Tracy Belton started to make appearances that helped his former team instead of his current one. He broke up a pass on the first drive, but Tiger Jones decided to run it in from three yards out to extend Jacksonville’s lead to 21-13. This gave the VooDoo a little fight, as Roger Jackson made a miracle catch along the ground and broke three tackles in a 37-yard catch and run. FB Roosevelt Falls finished the drive on the ground and New Orleans was right back within a point.

It became Lee Chapple’s turn to run the offense, and he came into the game to see his most meaningful action of his Sharks career, let alone this season. He completed his first pass, but on the next play Derrick Ross fumbled for the second time of the night, and New Orleans came out and scored. Roger Jackson started the drive with a 16-yard catch, and QB Adam Kennedy ended it with a four-yard scramble. Going into the final quarter of the regular season, the Sharks found themselves trailing 26-21.

New Orleans, auditioning for some potential owners, showed they can take advantage of what the other side of the ball does, as LB Cameron McGlenn caught a ball thrown right in his hands by Lee Chapple, and Adam Kennedy again used his legs to give the VooDoo a two-score lead with nine minutes left.

Chapple, who has some quick footwork of his own, reminded the crowd of Bernard Morris on a 16-yard run, setting up Tiger Jones on a 14-yard pass from Lee Chapple, his second scoring pass of the season. Down by five with time running out, Jacksonville decided to go for an onside kick, which they recovered, and Joe Hills broke free for 17 yards just two plays later. He and Chapple worked together on the drive, between Hills’ stutter steps and Chapple’s running, and after Tiger Jones scored his second rushing touchdown of the night, the two hooked up on the two-point conversion pass that gave the Sharks a three-point lead. The hostilities didn’t end there, as Tracy Belton reintroduced himself to his old teammates after the score. In frustration, he threw his helmet into the side wall, and was ejected for his troubles.

It was up to the defense to seal the game at the one-minute warning, and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste answered the bell by recovering a Roosevelt Falls fumble. Derrick Ross literally ran off a little clock, and Tiger Jones made his 148th and final catch of the regular season to close out the 36-33 win.

Overall, the postgame team mood was a need to play smarter football. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to put anything bad on film so Orlando feels they can beat us,” as Moqut Ruffins said while wearing an ice pack after a physical contest.

Tiger Jones, who finished with 2,101 yards receiving on the season, felt great about his personal achievement. “I have to give it to my teammates. The line blocking to give me enough time, it was the whole team.” He noted that the team has dealt with adversity, which is something they need against Orlando. “We all know what’s going on. We know what the deal is down there. It’s going to be crazy, but we can’t let that get to us like we did tonight. It’s a new season.”

Lee Chapple also noted the team effort in the comeback, and was glad to show what he could do under center. “It was a blast. We have a great group of guys, and I learned a lot from Tommy and Tiger Jones. It really slowed down for me the fourth, fifth, sixth series we had.”

On defense, Nicolas Jean-Baptiste mentioned the need to play four full quarters against Orlando next week. “We knew we had to be accountable on the defensive side [of the ball], and we had to play smart football. We got a wakeup call, and we’ll get ready on Monday.” While not the best, he was thankful of the performance because it gives the team a chance to make their final moves and work out all of the kinks.

Now that the regular season is done, all that’s left is to practice and prepare to get on the bus to Orlando. The Jacksonville Sharks officially begin their run at a second ArenaBowl title with their fourth and final meeting against the Predators this season. Kickoff is set for 7:30 pm on Saturday, August 15, and the game will be seen on ESPN3.