For the Spokane Shock, the road back to the postseason starts with a road trip. Make that three.
Today’s Arena Football League opener at Cleveland is the first of three straight away games while the Spokane Arena is occupied by the Spokane Chiefs and the NCAA Women’s Basketball West Regional.
And while the payoff will come later – nine of their last 15 will be in Spokane – the Shock are counting on a veteran group to see them through today’s contest, plus games at Chicago on March 31 and at Iowa on April 5.
The home opener is April 12 against West Division-rival Arizona.
“We’re excited,” Shock coach Andy Olson said. “I don’t mind being on the road. In fact you’re almost a little more focused on the road.
“Plus, we have a lot of veterans on this team, and they know what it’s like to travel, so we’ll be OK,” Olson said.
Olson said last week that practice sessions have focused on “a little of everything,” including aggressiveness, being in shape physically, and improving mentally.
The season opener pits two teams who missed the AFL playoffs last year, the Shock for the first time in franchise history. Spokane finished 10-8 but last in a rugged West Division, while Cleveland was second in the East Division at 8-10.
The Shock return 13 starters and 16 players overall, including record-setting receiver Adron Tennell, who last year broke franchise records for catches (157), yards (1,810) and touchdowns (40). Other returnees are Washington State product Jeffrey Solomon (33 receptions for 431 yards and eight TDs) and Steven Black (68 receptions for 770 yards and 15 TDs), plus newcomers Oliver Young and Kamar Jorden.
“I could start any five of them,” Olson said. “They all work extremely hard.”
Also back is quarterback Erik Meyer, injured early last season but “doing better this year than last year in camp,” according to Olson.
On defense, the Shock are counting on a veteran secondary of Paul Stephens, Terrance Sanders and Patrick Stoudamire to improve from the league’s worst pass defense in 2012.
“We’re trying to be more communicative on defense,” Olson said. “But the biggest thing is being more physical. We’ve got to get to the quarterback, and the defensive backs have got to put the hurt on receivers when they can.”
In contrast, Cleveland fielded one of the best defenses in the league last season, ranking second in yards and first in points allowed at 48.5 points a game. However, the Gladiators are rebuilding this season; the roster includes only eight returning starters and 18 rookies.
Pass rusher Brian Brikowski (20 tackles last year, six for loss) leads the Cleveland defense.
The Shock will return to Spokane following today’s game, then fly to Chicago next week. Because the following game at Iowa is only five days later, the team will stay in the Midwest between games.