If it seemed like forever since a playoff party had broken out on the turf inside Spokane Arena, well, forever it was.
By Arena Football League standards, anyway.
In a game that parses its final reckonings by tenths of a second, three years is a century. For a franchise that opened its doors churning out trophies on a 3-D printer, it’s more like an eon.
In the meantime, some of the Spokane Shock’s orange army has gone AWOL. The 6,916 who turned out Thursday night for the first home playoff game since 2010 made for the smallest Arena crowd in the eight-year history of the franchise. That’s a bit of a comedown from the days when only an intramural snit over whether a cowbell was an approved accessory might keep away a true believer.
But the fans who remain are always ready for a big do, and a big to-do.
Eventually, the Shock gave them one.
Yet it wasn’t until defensive back Ruschard Dodd-Masters paired back-to-back pick-sixes 71 seconds apart that the Shock could finally shake the Chicago Rush. But shake them they did, 69-47, to move to the next week’s National Conference finals, with the ArenaBowl in Orlando, Fla., beyond that.
Round 2 will either be in Arizona against the defending AFL champs or at the Arena against San Jose, or whatever third option commissioner Jerry Kurz concocts on a cocktail napkin between now and then. Playoff procedures in the AFL seem to be written in sand these days.
But then, it’s an improvisational league.
Take the Rush, who scuffled into the playoffs as the Central Division champs despite having to play four of their last five on the road and their last three home games in Rockford, Ill., where the most famous pro team featured Dottie Hinson and Marla Hooch.
That should have earned the Rush a home game this week, but since the league has been paying their bills, that was going to be a non-starter. Same goes for the unlimited player shuttle other teams employ as needed, or even just when it moves them.
On Thursday, the Rush showed up with an emergency kicker, 36-year-old Dan Frantz – five years removed from his last AFL action and 24 hours removed from grilling burgers in his backyard. Now the proprietor of a kicking academy in Portland, Frantz promptly tweaked a leg on one of his first few kicks and spent the night grittily squibbing kickoffs downfield and knocking PATs off nets and crossbars.
And yet the Rush kept hanging and hanging, backup quarterback Luke Drone matching the Shock touchdown for touchdown. Two empty possessions in the first half had the home team reeling a bit, but the defense came up with two stops of its own, one that allowed quarterback Erik Meyer to sneak in for a go-ahead touchdown just before intermission.
“We were losing the battle up front – Erik didn’t have time to throw the ball,” said coach Andy Olson. “We’d better get that fixed.”
Actually, they fixed it in the second half, though the game was still a tossup until Frantz shanked his last PAT and Dodd-Masters morphed into the sultan of six. His first pick – a leaping tip to himself – was almost gravity defying.
“Hey, I’ve got plenty of hops,” he laughed.
He also acknowledged getting plenty of help from the Shock defensive line, which turned up the heat on Drone and forced three interceptions in the last two minutes.
“We’re playing great team football right now,” he said. “Might not always be the offense, might not always be the defense. But we have explosive players everywhere, and with the D-line playing the way it is, we’re going to be tough.”
Even if it means having to beat Arizona on the road?
“Anytime I want to win something, I want to go through the champions,” Dodd-Masters said. “I wouldn’t mind stepping on their throats.”
Having four takeaways is likely to get you through any playoff scrape, and Olson conceded that “it’s nice to have at the end of the season. If you pull two stops a half, or three, that wins championships. It’s nice to take the pressure off the offense once in a while, though I’d still like to play better.”
But what else is new? Their stumbles against three 7-11 teams cost them home-field advantage all the way through, and even in several of their wins had to overcome hiccups. They are who they are.
And they kind of like who they are.
“A.O. set the mark early this year,” Dodd-Masters said. “He came in, didn’t say nothing about first round, or conference championship. It was championship or bust. So that’s where we’ll be at the end – in Orlando. Guaranteed.”
Sounds like a party.