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Spokane Empire

Blanchette: Newest version of Shock looks familiar

Sun., March 16, 2014

Spokane Shock 3.0 comes off very much like the first two versions.

Loud. Orange. Explosive.

Ahead on the scoreboard.

Not that the Shock didn’t make their new boss sweat through his fresh-off-the-rack licensed apparel in the early going of Saturday’s 2014 Arena Football League season opener.

“They had me a little worried,” admitted Nader Naini, the Seattle businessman fronting the ownership group that’s assumed control of football under the big top in Spokane. “I guess their butterflies were just as big as mine.”

But by the time the Shock flipped the game on its head in the moments before the half, Naini was in full fist-pump mode. Surely he would have donned an orange wig if one of the hard-core Shock fans had brought a spare.

The new guy didn’t get around to clap the shoulders and enthusiastically massage each of the announced 10,224 who witnessed Spokane’s 64-35 drubbing of the Iowa Barnstormers, but give him time. If it took just one game last year to set the hook for the transfer of power, Saturday’s romp reeled him in.

“Now I’m an engaged fan,” he said, “so every play matters.”

The Barnstormers learned that lesson the hard way on the last snap before halftime. Trailing 22-15, they tried to squeeze out a few extra points with a 46-yard field goal, only to see Jose Martinez’s kick bounce off the net and into the arms of Terrance Sanders – never a good sign in this league.

“As soon as I saw it, I thought there was about a 75 percent chance he’s taking that to the house,” said Shock coach Andy Olson. “When you’ve got six offensive linemen in there to block, you’re taking a huge risk kicking that field goal. Whether it’s TS or anyone, the speed of the returner against those linemen … I was happy they went for it.”

Sanders indeed took it all the way for a touchdown that gave Spokane a two-score lead – leaving Barnstormers coach Mike Hohensee with that vaguely familiar Nick Saban expression as he trudged into the locker room.

With a chance to break it open with the first at-bat of the second half, the Shock offense whiffed. But a defensive stop late in the third quarter helped push the lead to three touchdowns, and then the Barnstormers melted down completely in the fourth as Spokane ratcheted up the pass rush.

“Our defense is going to lead us this year,” predicted Sanders. “We’ve got a great offense, but I really think our defense is going to do some special things.

“Just the way we’ve been locking up the offense a little in camp. We’re more advanced this year. Last year, we finished dead last in defense and that’s definitely not going to be the case this year.”

They do have an intriguing new piece in Bryant Nnabuife, a tallish corner out of Cal who came up with some big pass breakups on key downs, and nose guard Gerrance Taylor and linebacker Derrick Summers each had their moments.

The offense, well, it’s the first game. When the first two snaps result in a pair of sacks, an illegal formation flag and a safety – and a 9-0 hole – it’s the sort of thing that leads to buyer’s remorse.

“Last year, we started off so hot that we were living in a different world,” Olson said.

The world changes in a hurry. The Shock travel to play rival and two-time defending champion Arizona next week “and their pass rush is probably twice what you saw (from Iowa) tonight.”

Though this is Season 9 for the Shock as the spring-summer amusement of choice, we’ll call it version 3.0 just to simplify the timeline.

Brady Nelson brought the first to Spokane in the old af2, the AFL’s small-market brotherhood, with the $200-a-game paychecks and part-time operations that resulted in too many 70-12-type scores. The Shock singlehandedly made that level irrelevant.

Then came 2.0 – the move up to indoor’s big leagues four years later, which produced another championship immediately followed by three years of unfulfilled expectations, the franchise having set an impossible standard for itself.

Now comes new ownership, and since Naini can’t put on the pads and play the game, he’ll talk a good one.

“The same electricity you feel in this building tonight is what made me want to be a part of it when I saw it for the first time,” he said.

He pledged additional resources to enhance the game-going experience, indicating an impending hire to handle the day-to-day operation he can’t oversee from Seattle. And he offered more medicine to soothe any worries that a getaway car is parked outside the Spokane Arena.

“This is the perfect market for this sport,” he insisted. “This venue is fantastic for this game, and the market is particularly good for this team. This is a civic asset – just hearing the fans tells you as much.”

Loud being their idea of a civic asset.

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