The best team in the Arena Football League saved its best for last.
The Spokane Shock, despite losing two defensive starters in the first 5 minutes, put together their most complete performance of the season, punctuating their inaugural AFL campaign with a convincing 69-57 ArenaBowl XXIII victory over the Tampa Bay Storm on Friday in front of a franchise-record 11,017 at the Arena.
The No. 1-ranked Shock (16-3) will hang another championship banner on the Arena walls, to go along with the two Spokane earned in four seasons as a member of arenafootball2. Tampa Bay (13-6), the most successful franchise in the AFL’s 23-year history, was denied as it tried to add to its league-record five titles.
“It’s called seeing the mountaintop,” Shock first-year head coach Rob Keefe said. “We talked about it all year that we haven’t peaked, that we haven’t planted that flag yet. There wasn’t too much that went wrong in that game. That’s because we knew what was on the line and we knew how to play hard, tough football.”
Spokane’s defense was without end Jerry Turner (ankle) and defensive back Alex Teems (knee) for most of the game, and season-long starter William Mulder was sidelined with a groin injury suffered a week ago. As they’ve done throughout the season, the Shock had plenty in reserve. Mervin Brookins replaced Teems and came up with a key interception. Antwan Marsh shifted from linebacker to DB and made nine tackles. Receiver Emery Sammons, playing for the first time since July 10, stepped in at Jack linebacker and had a team-high 10 tackles and blocked a field goal.
“We believe in each other,” Brookins said. “When one man went down, we had faith in the next man to step up.”
The Shock scored on their first 10 possessions. The only time they didn’t score was when they ran out the remaining seconds in the fourth quarter. Kyle Rowley, named the game’s Most Valuable Player, passed for 237 yards and an ArenaBowl-record nine touchdowns. Markee White and Huey Whittaker each had four TD catches.
“Total team effort,” Rowley said. “There’s no line distinguishing our offense and our defense, and I mean that literally. People went from offense to defense and vice versa, our kicker (Taylor Rowan) makes tackles. It’s not about positions; it’s about being a team and focusing on a goal.”
Rowley wasn’t sacked as Spokane’s offensive line handled Tampa Bay’s four pass rushers, three of whom earned first- or second-team All-AFL honors.
Spokane took control early, rattling off 20 straight points after the Storm scored on their first possession. Whittaker’s touchdown catch put Spokane on the scoreboard. Then Storm quarterback Brett Dietz fumbled after being blind-sided by Jeremy Geathers and nose guard Richard Clebert scooped up the ball and returned it 31 yards to Tampa Bay’s 5.
White made the first of his four first-half TD catches and Spokane led 13-7.
Brookins’ diving interception set up Spokane at the Storm 4, where White snagged a bullet pass from Rowley and hung on to the ball, despite getting knocked over the dasherboards.
“We knew they were going to play man (defense),” White said. “Once a team plays us man, our eyes just light up. It was one-on-one and we can do our jobs.”
The Storm picked up an extra possession by recovering an onside kick with 49 seconds left in the half. Terrence Royal’s 6-yard touchdown run put Tampa Bay back on top 28-27.
Spokane reclaimed the lead when the Storm left White uncovered on a 22-yard scoring pass, giving the Shock a 34-28 lead with 11.9 seconds left. The Storm had a chance to trim the deficit, but Sammons blocked Garrett Rivas’ 41-yard field-goal attempt to end the half.
Spokane extended its lead to 20 in the third quarter. Dietz tried to hit Hank Edwards deep, but Travis Williams raced in for an interception. Whittaker’s 20-yard TD reception hiked Spokane’s lead to 48-28.
The Shock were never threatened as the teams traded touchdowns the rest of the way.
“I’m just excited, winning another (championship) right here in Spokane,” White said. “There were a lot of doubters, a lot of naysayers, with the first-team (All-AFL only having one Shock player, Ed Ta’amu) and Keefe not getting coach of the year. I think we proved a lot tonight showing the whole league and nation what we can do.”