If there were a phrase to describe the 2016 Tampa Bay Storm football season, Groundhog Day would be an accurate description.
The Storm were perpetually stuck playing the same game every time they took the field last year.
Each game’s script would follow an identical plot line: A promising first scoring drive for the Storm would be negated by a stumble on their second drive. The opposition would capitalize, go up by multiple scores and the Storm’s tumble was now fully out of control.
As a result, the Storm finished the season 2-14, their worst season in franchise history, and were bounced out of the playoffs in the first round.
This year’s squad vows to better handle adversity.
The Storm will get their first chance to prove it in Saturday’s 2017 season opener at the Cleveland Gladiators (7 p.m. kickoff).
“When you get into a hostile environment, guys have to know how to respond when things don’t go well,” Storm mac linebacker Dexter Jackson said. “That’s one of the big things we’ve been preaching this week (of game week preparation) is never get down, never get too high and never get too low because when things are not going your way, you’ve got to fight back.”
Fighting back was something last year’s squad struggled to do. Once a couple major plays went the opponent’s way, heads would hang on the Storm sideline and a here-we-go-again defeatist attitude would permeate the team.
By the time the Storm righted the ship and rallied, it was always too late.
A more veteran Storm roster looks to be more resilient in 2017.
“I feel like we’re a very professional group,” first year Tampa Bay head coach Ron James said. “I think this group in particular is very dialed in to what the task at hand is and very focused on this first game and not looking down the road, which is always important. I couldn’t be happier with the work ethic, and right now I just believe that the strength of this team we’re going to figure out as we go but is a very solid group.”
The Storm will get a good test right away facing Cleveland on the road. The Gladiators went 7-9 last season and advanced to the National Conference Championship before falling to Arizona.
“A big challenge because they’re a veteran group,” James said. “If you look at the roster they have, they’re a self-proclaimed all-star team. That’s what their coaches are talking about. Their players are talking about how thick their roster is. It’s a great opportunity for us to account for ourselves and find out where we are game one.”
“The atmosphere there is crazy,” added Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard. “The fans bring it game in and game out for them, and it’s going to be a big test for us.”
The Storm will be ready for the challenge, however. The team added a number of proven performers in the offseason like Hippeard, Jackson and 2016 Offensive Player of the Year Joe Hills.
James too brings a wealth of wisdom to the sideline having eight years as a head coach under his belt as well as over 30 years of football coaching experience.
“We don’t go into any game fearing an opponent or worrying about whether we’re going to win or not,” James said. “We’re in it to win it every week, and we’re going to give (the Gladiators) some challenges I don’t think they’re going to be prepared for.
"We’ve always got a few wrinkles, a few tricks up our sleeve, and one thing I’ve learned over the years in this league is you’ve got to give an opponent something that they’re not prepared for just because the week-to-week preparation is so stressed.”
After two weeks of training camp and another week of practice focusing on the season opener, the Storm are ready to get 2017 started and erase the memories of last year’s lost season for good.
“Couldn’t be more amped up for a first game,” James said. “The hard work we’ve put in, the things we’re trying to accomplish game one, the sky’s the limit for us this season and it starts in Cleveland."