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John Blanchette: Empire find Sioux Falls in a league of its own

Spokane’s Sam Charles is brought down by two Sioux Falls defenders. (JESSE TINSLEY jesset@spokesman.com)
Spokane’s Sam Charles is brought down by two Sioux Falls defenders. (JESSE TINSLEY jesset@spokesman.com)

Life is hard in the Sioux Falls Football League.

Hard for the teams that have been banging their helmets against the manhole cover for five years, and hard for expansion newbies like the Spokane Empire.

Not that the Empire are necessarily footwipes in the relationship. Their second crack at the Grand Omnipotent Storm of Triple-A indoor football on Saturday night was full of tension and noise – for a half. Then came the assorted Empire calamaties – interceptions, a missed field goal, more interceptions – that have made this the most vulnerable looking 12-win football team under cover, and order was eventually restored.

This being the Sioux Falls Football League and all.

The good news is that the Empire are likely to get another crack at the 38-time defending champions in the annual Sioux Falls Bowl, providing Spokane wins some preliminary nuisance called the Intense Conference championship game, scheduled for Labor Day, or Halloween.

Only kidding. It’s July 17. Nothing like four weeks between home games to keep football fever stoked in ol’ Spokane.

The bad news: the Sioux Falls Bowl is in Sioux Falls.

Headquarters of the Sioux Falls Football League.

Not that this is necessarily a matter of location, location, location. As the Storm showed in their first visit to the Spokane Arena, their dominance travels – and the 59-35 wipeout didn’t hint at a promising arc for either a league desperate to have Anybody Else win the championship, or for the gloaming of the Empire’s season.

“You hope when your team gets punched in the mouth that they respond,” said Empire coach Adam Shackleford. “We didn’t, and that’s disappointing.”

It wasn’t just one punch, actually, but a combination.

The Empire had a chance to take a lead into halftime after a nice interception by Adrian James with 30 seconds left – except that quarterback Charles Dowdell returned the favor on the very next play, the third of his four picks. Sioux Falls connected on a 30-yard field goal by Justin Syrovatka for a 24-21 edge, and scored again with the first possession of the third quarter.

Then Spokane’s Pat Clarke missed a short field goal – no, the kicking game is not yet fixed – and Storm receiver Caleb Holley did a layout 2 1/2 gainer to haul in a 45-yard touchdown pass to make it 37-21.

And another victim falls to the Sioux flu.

In two losses to the Storm, Dowdell and backup Aaron Aiken have thrown nine interceptions – freebies that make it hard enough to survive a Colorado Crush, much less the landlords of the Sioux Falls Football League.

“He puts too much pressure on himself to make big plays,” Shackleford said of Dowdell.

It’s understandable. The Empire are lacking a significant dimension now that one of the league’s most explosive talents, Trevor Kennedy, is done for the year with a broken leg. That was evident a week ago when the Empire managed just 25 points in a squeaker over Nebraska, and Spokane’s non-quarterback rushing yardage against the Storm totaled just 28, on eight carries.

“We’re still trying to find an identity in the run game without Trevor,” Shackleford allowed.

Relief won’t come until that conference title game, when Andrew Pierce – a second-team all-league performer a year ago – becomes eligible under some convoluted activation codicil (is there any other kind in indoor football?).

“He’s a true running back,” said Shackleford, “and when we get him, we can run some more of the stuff that we’re good at.”

But there are other problems. Spokane’s leading receiver, Carl Sims, went down with what is thought to be a broken wrist, and looks to be done for the season. Defensive lineman D.J. Yendrey suffered a foot injury that forced the Empire to go a little smaller up front, and Spokane had no answer for the Storm’s run game.

And then there’s the biggest problem: there is Sioux Falls, and there’s everybody else.

The Storm have won the last five championships in this league – it’s the Indoor Football League, but they own it. A few years before that, they won four straight in United Indoor Football, one of the two groups that merged to form this aggregation.

As much as Spokane likes to pat itself on the back for its indoor football tradition built in the last decade, Sioux Falls is in a league by itself – even if it was done at a level lower than where the old Shock (anybody else miss that name?) competed.

The Empire organization thought it could close that gap in a hurry – and, by record, Spokane’s the second best team in the league. But very much second.

“There is a gap,” admitted Shackleford. “They come out and expect to win. They play championship football and when you don’t, they smell blood in the water. We don’t have that right now.”

They have a month to find it, or life will be even harder here in the Sioux Falls Football League.


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