One look at the teams’ rosters and backgrounds and an obvious storyline emerges for ArenaBowl XXIII: It’s AFL old guard (Tampa Bay) vs. AFL newcomer (Spokane).
“It’s a lot of vets against a lot of younger guys,” Shock head coach Rob Keefe said, “but we’re both in the championship game and that’s all that really matters to us.”
Tampa Bay is stocked with AFL veterans. Legendary coach Tim Marcum guided Denver to a championship in 1987, the AFL’s inaugural season. The average age of a Storm player is 29.1. By contrast, Keefe is 29. The 20 Shock players that suited up for last week’s win over Milwaukee had an average age of 26.9.
Four Shock players on the active roster are in their early 30s. Tampa Bay has nine 30-somethings, including 38-year-old Jermaine Smith.
Tampa Bay has six players with at least four years of AFL experience. Lineman Kelvin Kinney has a decade of AFL experience. Receiver Lawrence Samuels, who is on injured reserve, has 16 years of AFL service. Huey Whittaker, in his fourth season, leads Spokane in AFL experience.
“That makes good print, but I don’t get involved in that kind of stuff,” Marcum said. “I know they’ve done a nice job. They’ve won all those games for a reason.”
Shock receiver Raul Vijil has watched the last seven Shock games and he’ll be on the sidelines again for Friday’s contest in the Spokane Arena. It’s a view that has tested his patience while stoking his pride in an organization he’s been part of since its inception in 2006.
“It’s unbelievably hard to sit there and watch,” said Vijil, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Milwaukee on June 26. “I tell most people before the games I get way more nervous on the sidelines than I ever did as a player because I don’t have an influence on the outcome. At the same time, it’s fun to sit there and watch the team perform, especially at the high level they’ve been playing at.”
Vijil hurt his MCL on a kick return against the Iron. He didn’t have surgery initially, but Vijil will undergo additional tests and said “we might have to get some work done.” There is still concern about possible ACL damage.
Standout defensive end Ben McCombs, who has missed the last six games with a damaged MCL and PCL, won’t play in the ArenaBowl.
The rest of the injury report is encouraging. Defensive back William Mulder, who left Thursday’s win over Milwaukee and was replaced by Mervin Brookins, has a “hip/groin thing,” Keefe said. “I have every intention of playing him.”
One of the benefits of playing last Thursday is the additional recovery time. Mulder has had four days of treatment. Tampa Bay beat Orlando for the American Conference championship Saturday and faces a quicker turnaround and a cross-country flight Wednesday.
Keefe has already chewed himself out. Now, he’s urging fans not to reach over the dasherboards into the field of play Friday. There were a couple of instances during last week’s game when fans got a little too hands-on with players from both teams, Keefe said.
Keefe himself took a swipe at the ball (and missed) as Milwaukee’s Damian Harrell was attempting to secure a catch near the dasherboards. Keefe wasn’t penalized.
“I was so embarrassed, thankfully I didn’t hit the ball,” he said. “My family was like, ‘What were you thinking?’ It was really just my reaction. I called the league the next day.”
The league has told Keefe that fans reaching into the field of play could result in fan interference and possibly a 15-yard penalty.
“If the ball comes into the stands, that’s one thing,” he said. “I think they’re going to make an announcement before the game.”
Notes: There were about 1,300 tickets remaining on Monday. Only upper-level seats are available. … Keefe is 0-3 when tossing the red flag to challenge an official’s call, but he’s a staunch supporter of instant replay. “Bottom line, get the call right,” he said. The replay system has been in effect for games televised on NFL Network. The Jacksonville-Spokane regular-season finale was the first game with instant replay.