First shall be last.
Twenty arenafootball2 teams have a game under their belt. Four have already played twice. The only team yet to tee it up is the top-ranked Spokane Shock, who will finally take the field against 11th-ranked Stockton tonight at 7 at the Arena.
Spokane, which had a bye last week, has a tough opener. West Division rival Stockton (1-0) rode quarterback Andy Collins’ nine touchdowns (six passing, three running) to a 68-54 win over Central Valley in Fresno.
“They’re extremely talented – the hardest team we’ve had to face at the beginning of a season,” Shock third-year head coach Adam Shackleford said. “It would be huge for them to walk out of here with a two-game lead. We know that, that’s why we’re preparing the way we are.”
Spokane is 7-0 against the Lightning, including a 52-42 win at the Arena last May. In that one, Spokane led 24-0 only to see Collins, who was signed two days earlier, rally the Lightning to a 42-38 advantage midway through the fourth quarter. Spokane scored the final two touchdowns.
“They’ve got a great quarterback, a sound defense, good pass rush and athletic receivers,” Shackleford said. “We have our work cut out for us.”
Stockton does, too. The Shock return 13 members from last year’s team that went 18-2 but suffered a 56-55 overtime loss to Tennessee Valley in the ArenaCup. The familiar faces are quarterback Nick Davila; receivers Raul Vijil, Patrick Bugg and Andy Olson; fullback Harrison Nikolao; offensive linemen Kyle Young and Ryan Belcher; defensive linemen Justin Warren and Jeff Van Orsow; linebackers Lee Foliaki and Kevin McCullough; defensive back Sergio Gilliam and kicker Brian Jackson.
Several of those players were headed to Arena Football League rosters, but that league is hoping to re-launch in 2010 after a one-year hiatus.
Spokane’s newcomers include ex-Idaho Vandal Stanley Franks and 2008 af2 first-team selection Aaron Williams.
They join Gilliam as starters in the secondary. Ben McCombs, second in af2 history with 41 sacks, steps in at defensive end for the departed Devon Parks, and John Booker will start on the offensive front. Former Washington State Cougar Charles Dillon should make an immediate impact at receiver.
“We’re going to be great, as long as everyone can stay healthy and we play with the same intensity as last year,” Olson said. “We’re going to be as good or better. That’s a bold statement, but there’s no reason why we can’t be.”
Key departures from last year’s team are Parks and defensive backs Nygel Rogers (now in the CFL) and Roshawn Marshall (with af2 Boise).
Shackleford said Franks “is the best rookie cover corner I’ve seen since I’ve been in the league. We’re lucky to have him.”
Franks was set to join San Jose when the news broke that there wasn’t going to be a 2009 AFL season. Franks is soaking up advice from Gilliam, the af2’s 2008 rookie of the year, and defensive backs coach Rob Keefe.
“It takes some getting used to, but once you’re out there it’s pretty fun,” Franks said of arena football. “I’ve been watching a lot of film and we have a great DB coach (Keefe). He not only played the game, but he was good at what he did.”
The additions of Franks, Williams and fourth DB Damon Jenkins prompted the Shock to release Tremaine Tyler, a part-time starter in 2008 “who was a better player (in camp) than he was a year ago,” Shackleford said. “Our depth is outstanding, but so will Stockton’s.”
With so many returning players, Shackleford has fast-forwarded the implementation of the playbook.
“We just have a whole lot more in,” Shackleford said. “Having so many guys back is such a new experience for us. It kind of feels like midseason and we haven’t even played a game yet.”