The Tampa Bay Storm will compete in ArenaBowl XXX tonight at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center for the Arena Football League championship.
Last season, just winning a game was cause for celebration for Tampa Bay, the Storm winning just twice in a frustrating 2-14 season.
The Storm’s turnaround in 2017 is one of the greatest turnarounds not just in AFL history but in all of professional sports.
“I haven’t seen anything like it,” AFL commissioner Scott Butera told the crowd at the league’s awards ceremony on Friday.
Not too many have.
With an all new coaching staff and only a handful of holdovers from the previous season, the Storm finished the 2017 regular season with a 10-4 record, their first winning season since 2010. In the AFL semifinal, the Storm throttled the Cleveland Gladiators 73-59 at AMALIE Arena, pulling away in the second half to reach the championship game for the 10th time in team history.
The Storm can become the first six-time winner of the ArenaBowl with a victory over the Philadelphia Soul Saturday night.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to be the best at what you do and win a championship, especially for this franchise, it’s exciting,” Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard said.
Ron James was named the AFL’s head coach of the year at Friday’s awards ceremony, his second time earning the honor (he also won with Utah in 2012), for his role in returning the Storm to prominence. James is an AFL veteran, having spent 20 years in the league in various capacities.
Saturday will be his first ArenaBowl appearance however.
“You’re playing against brothers, really, and guys that I’ve known for a long time,” James said. “Their head coach [Clint Dolezel] I’ve coached before. It’s an interesting dynamic that way but when the coin toss goes up and the first kick is in the air, all that goes to the side. We’re here to try to win a game and that’s our focus.”
James certainly has been the driving force behind the Storm’s remarkable turnaround, but the biggest difference between 2016 and 2017, he says, is the quality players the Storm acquired during the offseason.
That was certainly reflected at Friday’s awards show. In addition to James winning head coach of the year, Hippeard was named offensive player of the year as well as league MVP. Earlier, Joe Hills won the league’s wide receiver of the year award and Kendrick Ings was selected as the playmaker of the year.
Hippeard, Hills, Ings, center Raymond McNeil and jack linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson were named first team All-Arena. Ings was listed twice as both a wide receiver and for his special teams play.
Of those players, only Ings was with the Storm last season.
“When I look back on it and see players that have been here last year, a guy like Kendrick ings that has gone on a team that only won two games last year and now he’s getting into the championship game, that’s what I’m most proud of, giving those individuals an opportunity to perform on the biggest stage,” James said. “Yes we’ve come a long way and that’s a great thing. But I think the fans of Tampa deserve that and it’s been a long time coming. Hopefully we can take the next step that we have to and bring a championship back to them.”
Bringing a championship back to Tampa will involve beating a Philadelphia Soul team the Storm lost to in all three meetings during the regular season. The Soul are the defending ArenaBowl champions. They dropped just one game in 2017. They’ll have home-field advantage and the backing of a raucous fan base for Saturday’s game.
The challenge is daunting for the Storm. But so too was the task of rebuilding the team after last season’s disaster.
The Storm are ready to complete the turnaround with a victory in Saturday’s ArenaBowl.
“I think we’ve got a good game plan, and we’ve executed things all week pretty well,” Hippeard said. “It’s put up or shut up time.”