Tampa Bay Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard says this season is “probably the most fun I’ve had” while playing professional football.
Life is good when you’re on a three-game win streak and own the second-best record in the Arena Football League at 4-1.
The Storm will go for four in a row and try to pull into a tie with league-leading Philadelphia on Saturday when they host Washington in the second half of a home-and-home series. Last weekend, Tampa Bay defeated the Valor in Washington 41-33, the Storm holding on thanks to Paul Stephens’ fumble recovery in the final minute after the Valor had drove to the Storm one-yard line in search of the game-tying score.
The five-time ArenaBowl champion Storm are looking for their best start to a season since winning seven consecutive games to begin the 2001 season.
“Anytime you’re playing for a team that has had so much success and has the pedigree of the Tampa Bay Storm, it means a lot to the community and to our family and friends just to continue that success, to live up to that standard that they’ve set in the past,” Hippeard said. “But as far as starting quick, the coaches stress it’s this game and then on to the next one. So all focus is on this game. We’re not worried about records and what we’ve done and this and that. It’s all about Washington this week.”
Hippeard leads the AFL for passing yards (1,374), completion percentage (71.4%), passing touchdowns (32) and quarterback rating (128.1). His two main targets – Joe Hills and LaMark Brown – rank first and second, respectively, in the league for catches, Hills hauling in 49 passes and Brown 41. Hills paces the AFL for receiving touchdowns. Brown is tied for third.
“I think the one thing about our team that separates us from others is everybody is just focused on one thing right now and that’s trying to get to the championship and we do it a week at a time,” Brown said. “Every time we go out there, we’re just trying to get better.”
Storm head coach Ron James has created a family atmosphere inside AMALIE Arena. Players enjoy coming to work every day. They push each other to succeed at practice in a friendly yet competitive manner. They’re friends on and off the field.
That close-knit feeling has been a major reason the Storm have found success in the early going of the 2017 season.
“It’s one of the teams that I think has gelled together quicker and faster than any other team I’ve been on,” Hippeard said. “It’s been a pleasure being here. It’s just super fun this year.”
It’s a team that continues to learn more about itself and get better each week too. After suffering its only loss of the season to Philadelphia in Week 2, the Storm rallied from a 19-point deficit to knock off Cleveland the following Saturday.
A Week 5 victory at Baltimore showcased the Storm’s one-minute drill, their perfectly navigated execution at the end of the first half and again in the game’s closing moments serving notice to the rest of the league that giving the ball to the Storm in a one-possession game with less than a minute to play is a losing proposition.
And in last week’s win at Washington, the Storm proved they can make game-winning plays on the defensive side of the ball too as Stephens’ fumble recovery thwarted a last-ditch effort by the Valor to tie the game.
“Really it’s about these guys bonding together and starting to learn together and embracing exactly what it is that we’re trying to accomplish week after week,” James said. “It takes a while for that to happen, and now, five games into this, we’re really starting to get ourselves aware of what the systems entail and how to better prepare ourselves for these challenges week to week.”
The challenge this week is the same Washington team the Storm defeated by eight points at the Verizon Center seven days earlier. The Storm had opportunities to close out the Valor earlier in that contest but let them slip away and the Valor hang around.
This Saturday, the Storm’s focus is putting away their opponent early so the game doesn’t come down to a final-second drive or a last minute goal line stop.
“We’ve just got to be able to finish,” Brown said. “We can’t put ourselves in situations where we give them a chance to get back into the game and it comes down to a one-minute drill. We’re very good at that, but at the same time we know we’re capable of so much more.”