1997 Results | Game Coverage
Rattlers Shaken, Storm Stirs to 42-30 WinBy Andrew Mason
As the Tampa Bay Storm prepared for its 1997 season, there were questions surrounding the four-time champions. Sure, the club is regarded as Arena Football's "Team of the 90s," at least at this point of the decade, but there was a lot that was new about the 1997 edition of the Storm. Namely a new quarterback in Peter Tom Willis, a new kicker in Terry Belden, new uniforms with shadowed numerals and a new home arena in the Ice Palace.
But if their first game is any indication, these changes are merely aesthetic---at the team's core, it's still the same old Storm.
The Storm strode into America West Arena on Saturday night to face an Arizona Rattler club hell-bent on revenge for the two defeats they suffered to the Storm last season, including a 55-54 loss in the AFL semifinals in the last game played at the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg. But thanks to consistent defensive pressure, a dink-and-dunk offensive strategy and some Rattler mistakes, the Storm (1-0) tamed the Rattlers and silenced the near-sellout crowd, leading the last two and a half quarters in a 42-30 win.
The Storm played solid defense, holding Arizona (0-1) to 212 yards, 75 below their average last season. They held Rattler receivers Hunkie Cooper and Calvin Schexnayder---two players who combined for 172 catches and 2188 yards last year---to just two catches for 34 yards. Rattler quarterback Sherdrick Bonner was never sacked but crumbled under the Storm's relentless pass rush, completing just 14 of 33 passes for 186 yards and only one touchdown.
However, Bonner got off to a decent start, going three-for-four on the Rattlers' first drive, leading them to a touchdown on a one yard pass to receiver and Tampa native Sir Mawn Wilson. From that point on, he was plagued by the Storm's linemen and butterfingered receivers. Arizona receivers dropped five passes throughout the game, making themselves their own worst enemy, rather than the Storm defensive backs.
Befitting an early-season game, there were moments of sloppiness. Each team committed ten penalties, many coming on false starts, illegal defense calls and other penalties that will probably become less frequent as the players gain more repetitions in practice. The referees were also in similar form, doing an equitable job calling the game but being far from perfect. In the third quarter, for instance, Storm defensive specialist Johnnie Harris was whistled for a late hit after he shoved Arizona lineman Richard Ashe after a run by Bo Kelly. Harris was whistled for a penalty, and rightfully so. But replays showed that Ashe dove into Harris at least a second and a half after Harris had completed assisting on the tackle of Kelly. Storm coach Tim Marcum went ballistic on the sidelines, and in his rage, was whistled for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. As a result, a four-yard run turned into a 20-yard play. There's no arguing with the penalties on Harris and Marcum---but there should have been one on Ashe, too.
But officiating rarely wins or loses a game---it's the teams and their players, and what things they do on the field. And at the risk of sounding cliched, it was the little things that made the difference for the Storm. Take third-down conversions, for instance---Tampa Bay went five-for-five while the Rattlers were only two-for-seven. The most important of the Storm's five conversions came in the fourth quarter with around four minutes left and the Storm clinging to a five-point lead. Tampa Bay faced third-and-ten at their own five-yard-line, and Willis had just thrown two incompletions in LaFrance's direction. Momentum teetered as the crowd reached its loudest level of the night. But on third down, both players showed their poise in the cluch. Willis got the pass off in the face of a thunderous rush by Rattler lineman Richard Ashe, and LaFrance made his cut just beyond the 15-yard-line, eliminating any possibility of being stopped short of the marker. Three plays later, Willis hit LaFrance on a beautiful diving catch for a 23-yard touchdown, effectively ending the Rattlers' comeback hopes.
Arizona next travels to Orlando to take on the Predators. Kickoff in the Orlando Arena for the Preds' home opener will be Friday at 7:40. 85 miles southwest on Interstate 4, Tampa Bay comes home next week to take on the Florida Bobcats in the Ice Palace's Arena Football christening. Kickoff in Tampa will be next Saturday night at 7:40 p.m.
Thunderclaps...Stats and Stuff - Tampa Bay is now 5-1 against the Rattlers, including 3-1 at America West Arena...The Storm sported new uniforms for the fourth time in team history, with blue and gold numerals shadowed with black trim...Bruce Plummer's interception of Willis on the Storm's first possession marked the second straight year that Tampa Bay's first possession of the season ended in an interception...Rookie WR/DB Walter Sutton was on the receiving end of Willis' first AFL completion---it was for nine yards and set up a third-and-one for the Storm...The Storm adopted a dink-and-dunk, West Coast offense-style of passing game; their longest play was only 23 yards, a departure from the days of long bombs from now-retired quarterback Jay Gruden...Kicker Terry Belden went four-for-five on extra points and hit the net or some portion of the rebound net support system on every kickoff. He didn't attempt a field goal, however.
From the Living Room Couch - For those of us who remained back home in West Central Florida, Sunshine Network's coverage was our window on the proceedings in the desert, and Rick Peckham and Jerry Johnson did a good job bringing the action home. There were a few brief glitches, such as when Antoine Worthman was misidentified, but on the whole the telecast was a success. Sunshine will carry five more Storm games: May 23 at Nashville, June 7 at Albany, June 21 vs. New York, June 27 at Orlando and July 5 at Texas.
Radio Daze - Storm radio announcers Jack Harris and Jason Dixon went to unusual extremes to broadcast the game from America West Arena. The duo told listeners on WDAE-AM 1250 that they had to sit on phone books in order to see the action over the fans. Evidently, it worked---the broadcast ended up coming through without a hitch.
Awards - The Player of the Game as voted on by the Storm Shelter staff was Willis, for his 21-for-32, 224-yard performance. Seven receivers caught footballs for the Storm on Saturday night, but Willis was the constant force, delivering some balls with forceful zip and others with a feathery touch. The Ironman of the Game was Samuels, who recovered a second quarter fumble and caught two passes for 22 yards and a second quarter touchdown.
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