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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Empire primer: Here we go again with indoor football

Spokane Empire coach Adam Shackleford says “I think potentially we have a heck a team.” The Empire’s first practice is Friday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Empire coach Adam Shackleford says “I think potentially we have a heck a team.” The Empire’s first practice is Friday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

After an offseason like no other, the Spokane Empire is ready for some actual football.

Players have arrived. Practice gear has been distributed. Playbooks have been handed out. Meetings have been held. Next: A two-week training camp that begins with Friday’s practice at the Spokane Soccer Center.

“This is uncharted waters, like my first year with the Shock (in 2007) or the (Tri-Cities) Fever (in 2010),” said Empire coach Adam Shackleford, referring to his previous head coaching positions. “We only have four guys that have played for me. I know what we have. If they buy in and do the right things I think potentially we have a heck a team.”

To recap from September to present day: Spokane left the Arena Football League, citing instability and the league’s failed business model, for the Indoor Football League. The AFL retained the Shock name and trademarks, forcing the team to rebrand.

The IFL dropped two Minnesota-based teams, one an expansion franchise that never made it to the starting line. Spokane has gone from being in a three-team West Division to the five-member Intense Conference in the 10-team IFL. The initial schedule has been adjusted twice but Empire home dates weren’t affected. It remains a 16-game slate, but now contains three bye weeks. Six teams qualify for the playoffs with the top seeds from the Intense and United conferences receiving first-round byes.

“Part of the reason we joined this league and why I was so high on the other owners is the consistency of the decisions they make. They really do what is in the best interests of the league,” Empire director of operations Ryan Eucker said. “Rather than enter the season, comparable to the AFL days and float a team financially, the league made a decision to terminate their membership.”

Meanwhile, the AFL is down to eight teams. Portland is already under league control and head coach Andy Olson, the former Shock coach, lost his job.

Spokane won big on the field and in the stands since its inception in 2006, but tailed off in both aspects in its last few AFL seasons. Eucker said roughly 75 percent of season-ticket holders renewed for 2016. The Empire has sold 3,000 season tickets, down from 4,000 last year, but Eucker is optimistic the numbers will climb.

“A lot of people got right back on board, especially with ‘Shack’ coming back,” Eucker said of the popular coach. “There are people that are going to be skeptical and want to see the changes and style of play. We’re confident we’ll be the same organization.”

The Empire has roughly 40 players in training camp. They must be at 25 two days before the Feb. 20 opener at Tri-Cities. The roster includes five with AFL experience, including former Shock players Samuel Charles, Josh Ferguson and Dominique Duster. There are 14 IFL veterans, including running back Andrew Pierce, a standout for Shackleford with the Fever.

Charles Dowdell is the probable starter at quarterback but he’ll be challenged by 6-foot-5 rookie Aaron Aiken, who had signed with the Mankato franchise that folded.

Shackleford will keep a close eye on the lines.

“The defensive line is where we’ve typically struggled to get quality numbers in the IFL,” he said. “When I look the O line and the D line I can’t envision my starters. We’ll have to work that out.”

Another issue to be resolved: What, if any, impact will the fledgling Major League Football league have on the IFL? The outdoor league offers a nice paycheck and hopes to debut in April but hasn’t announced participating cities or a schedule. The MLFB recently held a draft and selected four Empire players. Three of the four, including Pierce, are expected to report to Empire training camp.

“It’s just a matter of whether the (MLFB) will play or not,” Shackleford said. “If it comes to fruition I’ll fully support it.”

The Empire held two ‘Chalk Talks with Coach Shack,’ where fans learned about the nuances of the IFL. Fans can exchange a Shock t-shirt for an Empire t-shirt at Umpqua Bank locations through Saturday.

“Rebranding was tough for a lot of people and I get that, but we had to do it. I think the result has been tremendous. I had people come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t want to like it, but I really like it,’ ” Shackleford said. “The group that doesn’t like it, I get that, too. We’re doing the best we can to put a great product on the field. Our owner (Nader Naini) made quality decisions to maintain football in Spokane and I think a lot of fans appreciate that.”

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