Having an 0-3 Spokane Shock team host an 0-2 Kansas City Command squad seems like a nasty April Fool’s joke. The Spokane Shock, as the two-time defending Arena champions, felt more like they were living a nightmare.
In five seasons, the Shock have amassed three championships in four title game appearances. Their worst regular season record was 12-4 in their second year, so a loss tonight would have guaranteed that Spokane would, at best, tie their worst season.
The 0-2 record wasn’t exactly reflective of Kansas City’s performance to date. They lost close games to two quality teams, Chicago (3-0) and San Jose (2-2). With as close as they’ve been, it seemed like they just needed a little spark to get over the hump. This led me to double-check their roster to verify that jersey number 85 wasn’t being used, alleviating any concerns that Chad Ochocinco was on loan from Sporting Kansas City.
Spokane also seemed like they were just one spark away from getting on track. They’ve had two close games when they couldn’t quite finish, and have entirely too much talent on the team to continue to struggle like they had. Enter Kyle Rowley, MVP of Arena Bowl XXIII in 2010.
The offensive leader during the 2010 season had struggled at times this season. Different personnel on the field and a recent change in the offensive coordinator position seemed to challenge Rowley and the offense. He’d already given up almost as may INTs in three games (seven) as all of last year (11). The Shock needed the old Rowley back and they certainly got him.
Following the game I asked head coach, Rob Keefe, about the some of the challenges the team had faced and if the coaching change has helped Rowley and the team come together a little better. “Our team needs discipline. Sometimes when you’re younger you have a fun spirit, but it doesn’t come across as a disciplinarian. What we had earlier in the year was more of a friend atmosphere. Right now it’s I’m not a friend, I’m your coach. You need a coach, you need to be led.”
Spokane was given the first chance with the ball, as Kansas City won the toss and elected to defer. The first kick of the game sailed out of bounds, giving the Shock the ball at their 20 yard line. Rowley wasted no time taking advantage of the field position, throwing a perfect pass to the goal line to Shaun Kauleinamoku, notching his second TD on the season.
The Command countered with a TD on their first possession. After a missed PAT it was a 7-6 lead when the Shock took over.
As good as Rowley’s first pass was, his second throw of the game was equally bad. For a moment the crowd thought he had his eighth INT of the season notched, but the Command’s interception was nullified by an offside penalty. Rowley rallied just a few plays later, hitting Raul Vijil in the back of the end zone. This was his second TD catch of the year as well.
Vijil’s demeanor after the game was certainly more upbeat than prior weeks. “It was a good team effort tonight. I think all our receivers got in the end zone once or twice. Greg, Shaun, Emery, myself. We came out with a good game plan and our offensive coordinator, Andy Olson, is bringing something to the table and we’re excited now.”
I asked Vijil if they are feeling a little more comfortable with Olson’s system. “Oh yeah, definitely. He’s got a little bit of time under his belt now and we’re getting a little more comfortable with him and he’s learning the guys and (we’re) learning the new offense and we put in the time this last week. It was a refocused week and we took advantage of it. Everyone was hungry, and this is more like it.”
Kansas City’s first TD came when J.J. Raterink barely avoided a sack and converted a fourth down attempt from the Shock seven, hitting Bradley Chavez just over the goal line. Their second possession gave them a fourth down from their own seven, though, after crowd noise caused the Command to call two consecutive time outs on fourth and one. Teams are not allowed to call two time outs without running a play, though, resulting in a five yard delay of game penalty and a decidedly more difficult attempt to gain a first down. Raterink’s pass was a little wide of his target, landing in the first row of the stands 25 yards downfield.
Spokane couldn’t quite take full advantage of the short field. Rowley was under tight pressure from the defense and was just a little off on all three throws. The fourth down FG try was good, giving Spokane a 17-6 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The margin was short-lived, however, as the Command scored just a few plays into the second frame. While the first PAT of the night was wide right, Brian Umsteed’s second attempt was blocked. Spokane made a valiant and exciting attempt to return the point after try to the Command end zone, but a violent collision just over midfield ended the effort.
The Shock returned the kick to the 15 yard line, and Rowley wasted little time extending the Shock lead. After converting a first down on third and one, Rowley hit the outstretched finger tips of Emery Sammons as he raced across the goal line. As if the catch wasn’t spectacular enough, his second step sent him crashing over the wall and into the Shock bench area. The spectacular effort gave his team a 24-12 lead, and earned him the “Cutters Catch of the Game.”
Spokane’s defense kept Kansas City in check for most of the game. Their next possession included a Shock sack, setting up third and 17. Following an eight yard gain, the Command was looking at fourth and nine. They picked up 13 yards on the next play, but an illegal formation call nullified the effort and set up fourth and 14. J.J. Raterink sent a nice spiral deep down the field, but the ball hit a wide open end zone after his receiver cut off his route.
The Shock didn’t waste the short field on their ensuing possession. On second down, Rowley hit Greg Orton who made a nice move to shake the Command defender. He did an electric slide into the blue end-zone, giving the Shock a 31–12 lead.
Shock K Taylor Rowan continued his kicking clinic on the ensuing kickoff. He popped the ball up high, landing it on the cross-bar. It took a high bounce to the goal line where Command return man Christian Wise bobbled the ball over the head of a teammate. It landed on the five yard line, where two Shock players converged on the ball.
However, a flag was thrown for interfering with an attempt to catch the kickoff, claiming the Shock had passed the five yard line prior to Kansas City touching the ball. They quickly drove the field from their 10 to the Spokane eight yard line.
A third down pass in the end zone was bobbled, leaving them with an attempt on fourth and four. Following a Command time out, the Shock gave up a three yard passing play, giving the Shock the ball back.
An unsportsmanlike penalty following the play gave the Shock the ball at their own two yard line. However, they enjoyed working a full field all game. Spokane picked up 20 yards on the first play, and followed that up with a 13 yard completion to Vijil who made a great catch against the boards just after the 1:00 warning.
Spokane went to the run on the next play, burning the game clock down to 18 seconds. Vijil scored his second TD of the game on the following play. The leaping grab by Vijil was Rowley’s fifth TD pass of the game, which moved him into the all-time lead for TD passes for the Spokane Shock.
When I asked Rowley if the win was any more special after setting the Shock career TD record, he responded “I didn’t know. I had no idea.” Upon being congratulated for hitting the milestone he showed the poise that has made him such a valuable weapon leading the offense, stating “I didn’t know, but I appreciate it.”
The command made a valiant effort to put points on the board at the end of the half. They worked the sidelines to stop the clock and move into Spokane territory. Their last play started with 0.3 seconds on the clock, but the Shock made a tackle at the two yard line, sending the Command to the locker room trailing 38-12.
The Command would come out firing in the second half. Raterink hit Savoy for a 47-yard TD on the second play from scrimmage. Umstead was finally successful on a kicking try, and the Shock lead was down to 38-19.
Spokane took over at their 10 yard line following a call on Kansas City for interfering with Spokane’s attempt to field the kickoff. After a nice 10 yard reception that sent Orton into the first row of seats, a roughing the passer penalty gave Spokane the ball at the Command 20 yard line. Rowley then teamed up with Kauleinamoku for their second TD on the night, giving the Shock a commanding 45-19 lead.
On the Command’s next possession, a pass attempt by Raterink on third and three was batted at the line and intercepted by Jon Williams at the four yard line. I asked if the win was any sweeter because of the interception. “The ‘W’ is all I need.” He credits the defensive performance on good old-fashioned hard work and preparation.
“Everybody pitches in. No one cares about themselves. We have great coaches and great players.”
Despite taking over inside the Commander five yard line, the Shock again failed to find the end zone, notching another field goal.
Raterink again came out firing downfield, and it appeared as though he had a TD on his first play. However, Josh Ferguson made an amazing close on the pass and batted it down at the goal line. I asked him after the game if he knew the Command was considering filing a grievance with the league for illegal use of a jet-pack.
A wide-eyed Ferguson replied with a laugh, “Oh man, you had me there. That was a good one.” When asked about the performance of the defense he replied, “We just had that hunger tonight. You get into a position where you’re 0-3 and you’re backed into a corner. How are you going to respond? The coach told us before the game that tough times don’t last. Tough guys do. We came out and played with that tough guy mentality and came out with a win. We were all stepping up tonight.”
That play proved to be crucial. Bret Smith made an 18 yard reception on the following play, but had the ball ripped out of his hands by Ruschard Dodd-Masters.
The Shock were going in reverse following on their ensuing series, though. A holding penalty created a third and 20 attempt in their own territory. However, an offside penalty on the Command resulted in a first down—they were over three encroachment penalties on the game, making the infraction an automatic first down.
This led into the fourth quarter with the Shock leading 48-19.
Rowley made the Command pay for their mistakes all night, and did so again at the start of the fourth quarter. He connected with Emery Sammons for the sixth time on the night and his second TD reception. Sammons needed all 6’2” of his frame to get up and catch the pass over a Command defender. Rowan had his first miscue on the night, though, and after the missed PAT the lead was 54-19, Shock.
Kansas City drove the field and scored on their next possession. Their ensuing onside kick was batted into the stands by a Shock receiver. The ball was batted forward, resulting in a five yard penalty, but given the issues Spokane had with the short field tonight, perhaps that was OK. A Shock TD followed, and with 5:30 left, the laugher was officially on at 61-26.
Kansas City responded with one last touchdown. Bill Stull replaced Rowley and did get to throw one pass in mop-up duty, but an amazing play by a Commander defender led to an INT in the end zone.
As many felt heading into the season, this Shock team has too much talent to not start winning. After the game coach Keefe acknowledged there have been some leadership issues, and the team has taken steps to fix them. “Regardless of our record, I know we’re the team to beat,” Keefe said.
He also said the team needed to use the bye week to heal up a bit. Regarding the timing of their bye-week, “it’s huge. We’re a little banged up right now. A lot of people don’t know there’s a difference. You’re sore, you’re hurt, or you’re injured. We have a lot of guys hurt right now.”
Perhaps no Shock player is as relieved as Rowley following their first win on the season, as he acknowledges his role in the earlier losses. “Really it’s about playing mistake free ball. And as a QB I have to do that or we’re not going to win. I hadn’t done that.”
I had the opportunity to ask if the change in the offensive coordinator is having an impact, and if the team has been slowed in picking up a little different system. “Yeah, there was a new offense we had to learn, but it was new terminology to learn. I think we’re hitting our stride with knowing where to be and when to be there.”
Rowley also acknowledged how nice it was to pick up a win in front of their fans. “They’re the best crowd in the league. I know a lot of people say that, but we believe it.” And following this win, the Shock faithful will again start to believe they support the best team in the league.