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ArenaBowl-champion Spokane Shock open training camp

The Spokane Shock held their first training-camp practice Saturday and there didn’t seem to be any question among the front office, coaches and returning players that the talent level is better than a year ago at the same time.

For what that’s worth.

Make no mistake, head coach Rob Keefe is pleased with the 42 players that he’ll eventually have to trim to 24 by March 7. They certainly pass the eye test, including the 11 receivers and seven defensive backs who went at it in spirited one-on-one drills. But Keefe, who directed Spokane to the 2010 ArenaBowl championship in its first year in the Arena Football League, knows it takes more than 40-yard dash times and bench-press numbers to win titles.

“I’ll never forget I made this mistake after the 2006 season,” said Keefe, a defensive back on the team that won the arenafootball2 championship in the franchise’s inaugural season. “We came back in 2007 and the comment I made in the paper was that our talent level was better than 2006. I think the talent level on paper in 2011 is better than 2010, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be a better team.”

So Keefe’s first-day message to the players was simple.

“I don’t want to set any goals too far ahead. That can hurt you,” Keefe said. “First, you gotta make the team.”

That’s not going to be easy, judging by the stacked numbers at certain positions. The Shock could form a solid receiving unit just with their returners (Shaun Kauleinamoku, Emery Sammons, Eddie Thompson, Greg Orton, 2008 standout Charles Dillon and Raul Vijil).

Add in others such as Brent Holmes, a former Cleveland Gladiator who beat the Shock with a kickoff return in the closing seconds, ex-Washington State Cougar Michael Bumpus and 6-foot-6 Lonnell DeWalt, who played for af2 Kentucky in 2009, and it’ll make for interesting meetings when the staff decides who stays and who goes.

Vijil and former Washington State linebacker/defensive end Andy Mattingly (Mead High) are among several players on two-day tryouts. Vijil missed the last five games of the regular season and the playoff run with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Vijil, who has been with the team since Day 1, rehabilitated six days a week to make it back for opening day.

“I’m very happy about that,” quarterback Kyle Rowley said. “I missed him a couple times and I felt bad. Every route he ran he was wide open.”

Spokane has 12 returning players, including Rowley, who led Spokane to titles in 2006 and 2010.

“I felt like the first day of practice last year was just sloppy,” Rowley said. “This time it looked like guys were running good routes, catching touchdowns, and the DBs were in the right spots. You can’t tell with the linemen until they get in pads. The talent level is unbelievable, but everybody’s fresh right now. We’ll see who has some heart in day three, four, five.”

Spokane opens at San Jose on March 11.