The game is one he’d just as soon forget, the team’s performance that late May Saturday its worst of the season.
The Tampa Bay Storm were hosting the Philadelphia Soul at Amalie Arena, a week after surrendering a 21-point, fourth quarter lead against long-time rival Orlando and dropping a key divisional matchup by a point in overtime.
The hangover was palpable.
Against the Soul, the Storm were shut out in the first half for only the third time in team history. The Storm offense didn’t score until eight minutes remained in the third quarter.
By then, Tampa Bay trailed 34-0.
The Storm fell 71-27 to Philadelphia to drop two games below .500 at 3-5.
The losing margin was the largest in Storm franchise history.
After the “disappointing” loss, Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels vowed to “get it fixed.”
The Storm have won three of their last four since that wake-up call, pulling into second place in the Southern Division just a half-game behind Orlando.
They can move above .500 for the first time this season and win their third in a row with a victory in the rematch against Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday.
The Storm are using the mulligan as a chance to prove last month’s result was an anomaly, that the team has matured since.
“We didn’t play up to our expectations,” Samuels said Tuesday at Skyway Park during the team’s first practice session following a come-from-behind, 52-48 victory Saturday over defending American Conference champion Cleveland, the Storm’s second-consecutive win. “I think our guys are very, very in tune, paying attention to detail in practice and I think we’re going to have a better showing this time we play them.”
The Storm are learning to close teams out, winning tight games late, games they were losing earlier this season.
Case in point: the four-point win over a Gladiators team the Storm had lost to twice in the season’s first five weeks by a combined 24 points.
Tampa Bay trailed 48-37 when Storm quarterback Jason Boltus hit T.T. Toliver for a two-yard touchdown pass and subsequent two-point pass to Julius Gregory to pull to 48-45 with 47 seconds left in the game.
Gregory recovered Craig Peterson’s onside kick, and the Storm methodically moved down the field, eating chunks of yards and time off the clock simultaneously.
With three seconds to go, Boltus hit Gregory in the end zone, an eight-yard touchdown pass that culminated an 11-point, last-minute rally for the Storm.
“That just shows the championship mentality,” said Gregory, who won his second-straight Cutters Catch of the Week award for the game-winning grab, his 18th touchdown of the season. “Championship teams find a way to win late in games. In order for us to be a championship team, we have to play championship football. If that means being down late in the game and rallying to win, that’s what we’ve got to do. That’s what we get paid to do. That’s what we come out here and work hard to do.”
A week earlier, the Storm let a 14-point lead at home to Jacksonville slip away when the Sharks tied the game with 2:42 remaining. Boltus drove the Storm down the field for the go-ahead score with 56 seconds to go, however, and Alfred Phillips batted down Jacksonville’s final, fourth down pass to preserve the 63-56 win.
“We’ve just been holding each other accountable since that (first Philadelphia) game,” said Phillips, a potential All-Arena defensive back who ranks first in the AFL with 30 pass breakups. “We just said, ‘Every man look in the mirror and come to the table ready to work, put something on the table ready to get a win.’ That’s what it’s going to take from here on out.”
With six games remaining in the regular season, Tampa Bay has played itself back into a playoff position. The Storm are tied with Jacksonville at 6-6 in a tight Southern Division, both teams just a half-game behind 7-6 Orlando for the division lead.
Tampa Bay owns the tiebreaker over Jacksonville based on head-to-head record.
The Storm could take over first place with a victory in Philadelphia combined with an Orlando loss Saturday vs. New Orleans.
Five weeks ago, the playoffs were the last thing on anyone connected with the Storm’s mind following a 44-point loss that left them 3-5.
The Storm, though, have come together as a team since.
“I think the Orlando game when we fell short and we were up by 21 and we fell short at the end in overtime, I thought we learned from that game, I thought we learned to keep competing and to finish the game,” Samuels said. “Last week, we finished the game down 11 points with a minute left, we score and we get the onside kick and we go down and make the big play with three seconds left in the game. I thought that was huge for our team. But I thought we learned our lessons throughout the course of the season. We faced a lot of adversity through the year, good or bad, and this team’s been through a lot. It’s time for things to go their way, and they’re going to make things go their way.”