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Spokane Empire

Much at stake in AFL’s first outdoor game

Fri., July 8, 2011, 6:52 p.m.

The first outdoor football game in Arena Football League history. Two teams tied for the last National Conference playoff spot as the regular season winds down. Two rivals that swapped four key players in late May.

Spokane appears to be near full strength. Utah is depleted by injury and the exodus of several players to other leagues. The return of ex-Shock offensive coordinator Matt Sauk and several former Spokane players.

Other than that, not much to the Spokane-Utah game tonight at 6 at Albi Stadium. Both teams are 7-8, but Utah holds the tiebreaker with a 69-62 win earlier this season. Spokane can take a one-game lead and the tiebreaker edge with a victory by at least eight points.

“I think it’s great for the sport,” head coach Rob Keefe said after the Shock’s walk-through on a breezy Friday afternoon at Albi. “We’re going to have to be very aware of the wind and sun, but outside of that both teams will be playing in the same environment.”

Spokane practiced at Gonzaga Prep this week to get used to playing outdoors. It’s expected to be in the mid-70s at kickoff with winds between 5-10 miles per hour. The Shock’s artificial turf was down and the dasherboards, minus pads, were in place for the walk-through. The goal posts and nets were to be suspended via cranes later Friday.

The conditions, particularly wind, could challenge kickers, quarterbacks and receivers. AFL kickers already deal with uprights separated by just 9 feet. Add in some wind and the chore becomes more challenging. Spokane’s Taylor Rowan, who last played outdoors for New York in the 2009 UFL season, liked the fact that, as opposed to arena games, he can kick into a practice net on the sidelines.

Quarterback Erik Meyer, acquired along with center Raymond McNeil from Utah for Khreem Smith and Antonio Narcisse, hasn’t played in an outdoor game in four years, but Friday reminded him of his playing days at Eastern Washington University.

“We had to deal with a lot of wind at Eastern, so it really doesn’t bother me,” Meyer said. “I might have to alter some throws here and there.”

Utah, ranked third in scoring offense, has had an interesting week. Starting quarterback Tommy Grady (ribs) has been placed on injured reserve. The Blaze signed E.J. Nemeth and AFL veteran Todd Hammel. Keefe expects the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Nemeth will start. He played for Trenton this season in the Southern Indoor Football League. Hammel, who has 27,000 passing yards in 17 AFL seasons, spent time with Jacksonville and Chicago last season.

Smith, a standout defensive lineman, receiver Ernie Pierce and defensive back Anthony Barnes accepted promotions to other leagues this week.

“It could be windy, sunny and there might be more people that we’re used to seeing,” Keefe said. “Let’s enjoy it and embrace it, but let’s do what it takes to win the game.”

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