The Tampa Bay Storm just completed one of the best regular seasons in franchise history.
Despite a loss to Philadelphia in the regular season finale on Saturday, the Storm reached the 10-win milestone for the first time since 2010 and the 10th season all-time.
Randy Hippeard led all Arena Football League quarterbacks for regular season passing yards (3,506), completions (328), pass attempts (494) and passing yards per game (250.4) and is one of the top candidates for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Joe Hills, another MVP candidate, led all AFL wide receivers for regular season receiving yards (1,353), catches (129), receiving touchdowns (36) and touchdowns per game (2.8). Fellow pass catcher Kendrick Ings paced the AFL for regular season kick return yardage (1,063), return average (21.7) and return touchdowns (4) while hauling in 98 catches as a receiver, good for second in the league.
Storm jack linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson was tops in the AFL for regular season fumble recoveries (5) and ranked tied for fifth for interceptions (4).
All of those accomplishments mean nothing now, however, as the slate is wiped clean for the start of the 2017 postseason. The Storm are the number two seed for the playoffs and host Cleveland on Monday at AMALIE Arena in a semifinal game.
The winner advances to ArenaBowl XXX on Aug. 26.
“I’m like a kid at Christmas,” Storm head coach Ron James said about the upcoming playoff game. “The tree’s been stocked for a while, and you’re looking under there going, ‘When can I open this stuff?’ And so we’re finally at that position right now. The day’s arriving and it’s coming up on us quickly. We’re very excited about it, and we could not ask for anything more than to be playing in front of our fans here in the playoffs.”
Tampa Bay is hosting its first playoff game since the 2010 season, which is also the last time the Storm won a playoff game and advanced to the ArenaBowl.
The Storm finished 6-1 at AMALIE Arena this year in the regular season, the only blemish coming to top seed Philadelphia in the home opener in a narrow, four-point loss.
“Just to be able to bring (a playoff game) home to Tampa and bring that to our fans and give them something to watch in the playoffs and be at home, it’s big,” Hippeard said. “We hope they pack the house and bring that enthusiasm they’ve brought all year.”
The Storm are plenty familiar with their opening round opponent having played Cleveland four times during the regular season and defeating them three times, including both games in Tampa. In their last meeting, the Storm put together perhaps their finest performance of the regular season, thumping the Gladiators 57-27 in the regular season home finale on July 22. The 30-point margin of victory was the largest for the Storm all season.
“Despite records, every team in this league has been good,” Hippeard said. “If you look at the games throughout the year, every game, other than a few, have been competitive. A lot of them come down to that last drive. So it’s one of those things where you can’t look past anybody. We’ve got to come in focused, prepared and mentally ready to play for four quarters.”
The Storm enter Monday’s contest as the favorite and are seeking their 10th ArenaBowl appearance with a win. They’re relatively healthy too as a late bye week before the regular season finale allowed players to recover from nagging injuries picked up throughout the season.
“That bye week a couple weeks ago, it really helped everybody,” Ings said. “Me, I’m feeling great. I feel like I’m flying, running faster than I ever ran this whole season.
"It’s going to be a good week. Everybody’s healthy. Everybody’s in tune, so I’m happy about that.”
The Storm wrapped up a playoff berth all the way back on June 10 with a victory at AMALIE Arena over Washington and secured home-field advantage for the first round three weeks later in another home win over the Valor. The Storm have been waiting patiently ever since to begin the second season, the most important season.
Collectively, they say they’re ready for Monday’s win-or-season-over postseason tilt.
“The key for our victory is to play Storm ball: play four quarters the way we’re capable of playing and feed off the energy in the building,” James said. “(The Gladiators) know us well too. We’ve played them multiple times. We have to be on top of all the details and make sure this week we have great practices.
"We’re just trying to win the day today. If we win the day everyday leading up to our game, then the outcome’s usually a foregone conclusion.”