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Spokane Empire

John Blanchette: Shock opponents need Vegas venue

Sun., Aug. 16, 2009, midnight

Maybe it’s best to take this last game on the road, after all.

Played in Spokane, it just might be the Anti-ClimaxCup.

Surely it would be hard to wring much more emotion, drama, sweat and noise than the puddle that was left in the Spokane Arena on Saturday night after the Spokane Shock outlasted Tulsa 51-44 to earn the right to play for the championship of arenafootball2 for the third time in four years.

So … Vegas, baby.

It was midseason when af2 took what Shock fans figured was their birthright – the host’s role for the 10th ArenaCup, based on having the best regular-season record – and moved it to the neutral site of the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, familiar hereabouts for being Gonzaga’s most recent launching pad to the NCAA basketball tournament.

But it wasn’t until just 18 seconds remained that the Shock actually booked their participation.

Remarkably, after being unable to touch or even harass quarterback Justin Allgood the entire evening or locate water bug receiver Jeff Hughley, the Shock line applied just enough pressure and the secondary found just enough siccum to force four straight incompletions from the Spokane 10-yard line.

This short-circuited what looked to be certain overtime – and you may remember how that worked out for the Shock last year.

“We wore them down,” insisted Shock coach Adam Shackleford. “Those last two series (Allgood) was running for his life.”

Good to know that was the plan, because the Talons didn’t seem to be showing any wear in that department earlier – and Allgood didn’t waste much time on the trigger in any case.

“If I didn’t have a lineman in front of me, I still probably wouldn’t have sacked him on some of those plays,” laughed Shock defensive end Ben McCombs.

All the while, a crowd announced at 9,247 brought its own playoff game (“the loudest I’ve ever heard it,” said Shackleford) – an ally the Shock will miss next weekend.

“Maybe they’ll all come with us,” linebacker Kevin McCullough said.

Well, it seems to work for the Zags.

The Vegas experiment could be something of a turning point for af2, which everyone seems to think is due for one after its big brother – the Arena Football League – turned out the lights, apparently for good, earlier this month. Jerry Kurz, af2’s commissioner, has been doing his best to shoot holes in that theory – noting that his league derived not a single dime from the AFL, which was too busy throwing six-figure salaries at minor league football players.

Still, it’s worth asking how af2 can be a “2” if there’s no “1.”

“We know who we are,” Kurz said. “We can’t make the same mistake the AFL did, thinking they were the fifth major league. Our first goal needs to make sure all our franchises are profitable, and not just grow to grow.”

So the af2 will aim for incremental growth and change, like the Vegas game. For Kurz, signing that one-year deal with the Orleans was something of a defining moment for the league.

“Because the prime proponent for a neutral site ArenaCup,” he said, “was the franchise that had the most to lose.”

Spokane, he meant.

Putting on the ArenaCup in Spokane last year was a terrific opportunity and showcase for the Shock – and a good payday, although it came with its own share of hosting headaches. But a neutral site event is obviously more fair competitively and probably speaks better of the league.

“It was a fantastic setting last year – and I love a home site game because of that,” said Kurz. “But this will be more of a league event. It was a Shock game last year. They did a great job of making everybody feel at home, but when you have 10,500 people rooting for one team and 100 rooting for the other, there’s no getting around what it is.”

There is another agenda, naturally – af2 would like to put a team in Vegas. This was also some of the motivation in 2006 when the league took its main event to Puerto Rico – which didn’t produce a new franchise and barely produced the event.

“I learned you can’t let the promoter, even though he’s given you a windfall by paying all the expenses, insist he sell the tickets,” Kurz said.

And though it’s likely a game in Spokane could put 10,000 in the house, Kurz said a win in Vegas will be 5,000 given the economic hardships of fan travel – and the fact that there’s so much entertainment in the city 24/7/365 that lower-case football isn’t bound to elicit more than a shrug.

“We’re a great sport,” he said, “but still a niche sport.”

And the Shock are a niche team. Their niche is playing for a championship – again.

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