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First Shock practice has Keefe excited

Spokane pointing to April 2 AFL opener

Rob Keefe has always been high energy on the football field as a player and an assistant coach. You didn’t expect him to change now that he’s the head coach of the Spokane Shock?

Keefe conducted his first training-camp practice Monday at team headquarters in Spokane Valley as the Shock opened a new chapter in their short arena football history. Spokane is one of 15 teams in the new AFL, a combination of AFL holdovers and graduates from arenafootball2, a league the Shock dominated in the franchise’s first four years.

It was Keefe’s first on-field glance at roughly 40 players who will be trimmed to 23 in less than two weeks. Spokane opens against Milwaukee on April 2 at the Spokane Arena.

Keefe bounced around the periphery of the drills, jotting down notes and barking out instructions, primarily to receivers and defensive backs.

“Today was Christmas, it really was, like opening up a whole bunch of presents,” he said. “I haven’t felt this way in a very long time. I miss playing a lot but I’m so happy to be a coach.”

A few Shock players were teammates of Keefe’s on Spokane’s ArenaCup championship team in 2006. A handful, including defensive end Ben McCombs, were on last year’s af2 championship squad when Keefe was as assistant coach.

“He’s fired up, man,” McCombs said. “It’s easy to play for a guy that really wants to win and has fun doing it.”

There were five players absent, including high-profile additions Jeremy Unertl, Jamarr Ward, ex-Washington Husky Juan Garcia and Brigham Harwell, who played in the UFL last season. They are fielding calls from UFL and CFL teams before deciding whether to join the Shock. Bryan Save was released and is expected to join a UFL team.

“You always have to be prepared that 5-6 guys in camp might be going to go somewhere else, which is good,” Keefe said. “It’s the same thing with (ex-Shock receiver) Charles Dillon (who recently signed with the Green Bay Packers). Of course, I wanted him here but that’s the goal.”

Keefe liked what he saw on opening day.

“In 6, 7 months we truly put together an AFL team; a top tier team is what we believe we are,” he said.

There’s an interesting mix among the 40 players. Ed Ta’amu played for Spokane in 2006, then joined AFL Kansas City for two years. When the AFL was out of business last year, Ta’amu was in Spokane with his girlfriend and 21-month-old son.

“Coming from the AFL, I wasn’t expecting much because in my mind this was still the ‘deuce’ (af2) and all they did was buy the name,” Ta’amu said. “But with the talent they’ve put together, they have a chance to make a run for the championship. … Yes, I was on the 2006 team, and yes, I know the coaches and owners and some of the front-office people, but my chances of making the team are just like the next guy’s.”

Spokane has pursued quarterback Erik Meyer the last few years, but the ex-Eastern Washington Eagle said the timing was finally right to sign. Meyer, a newcomer to arena football who hasn’t played in an official game since NFL Europe in 2007, faces stout competition from 2006 Shock quarterback Kyle Rowley, Boston College product Chris Crane and ex-Washington State Cougar Gary Rogers, who is on a two-day tryout.

“Your timing and anticipation has to be on point, especially with the guy in motion,” said Meyer, who joins ex-EWU teammates Raul Vijil and Harrison Nikolao on the Shock roster. “You can’t be late in this game or it’s incomplete or an interception.”

Receiver Huey Whittaker was All-AFL in 2008 with Utah and has had short stints with the Jets, Jaguars, Buccaneers and Steelers.

“When there’s a resume of a winner, it’s hard to overlook that,” Whittaker said of choosing Spokane over other AFL opportunities. “After that, the fans, I hear it’s crazy out here. They sell out and I like playing in front of a lot of fans and showing people that we care as players. And you talk to the coaches and Ryan (Rigmaiden, director of player personnel) and you hear how they have everything set up, that weighed heavily on my decision.”