In the Tampa Bay Storm’s 73-59 victory over the Cleveland Gladiators to advance to ArenaBowl XXX, Storm wide receiver LaMark Brown put the final exclamation point on one of the greatest turnarounds in Arena Football League history.
Playing defense on the game’s final play and Cleveland all-but out of hope, Brown picked off Arvell Nelson’s final desperation heave toward the end zone and returned it to midfield before sliding to the turf and ending the game, setting off a raucous celebration inside AMALIE Arena following the Storm’s semifinal-round victory. A year ago, Tampa Bay finished 2-14 and capped a dismal season with a 22-point loss in the opening round of the playoffs.
Under first year head coach Ron James, the Storm are now one game away from reaching the pinnacle of the Arena Football League.
“I tell (defensive coordinator Doug) Kay all the time back in high school I played free safety and running back, so it’s sort of a natural thing to do for me to go out there and play defense,” said Brown, who also caught eight passes for 97 yards and a touchdown on offense. “I was excited about getting the opportunity to seal the game and get us into the ArenaBowl.”
The Storm earned their first playoff victory since 2010 and are in the ArenaBowl for the first time since that same 2010 season and 10th time overall.
The victory over Cleveland wasn’t as easy as the game’s opening sequence would indicate, however.
Cleveland received the ball to open the game but could only advance the ball two yards and went four and out on its opening drive.
The Storm needed just two plays to take advantage, quarterback Randy Hippeard lofting a pass in the middle of the end zone for a wide open Joe Hills to put the home team ahead 7-0.
The teams traded scores throughout the first half until, trailing 28-26, Cleveland forced a turnover on downs with under a minute remaining in the second quarter. Nelson connected with Quentin Sims in the end zone to give Cleveland its first lead at 32-28.
The Storm were able to drive a sizable portion of the field in just nine seconds, though, and Mark Lewis booted a 30-yard field goal as time expired to cut the deficit to 32-31 entering halftime.
“Mark’s a legend,” Hills said. “If the game’s on the line and we send Mark out there, we have full confidence he can make just about anything.”
The Storm took control of the game in the third quarter. After both teams scored on their opening possession of the second half, Hippeard found Hills in the end zone from 17 yards out on a fourth and one play to put the Storm ahead 44-39. On the ensuing kickoff, Lewis perfectly executed an onside kick, booting the ball directly into the path of Kendrick Ings to recover.
“An onside kick is a big momentum swing for us,” James said. “We’ve been practicing that look all week long and hoping for an opportunity to utilize it. It just so happened Mark hit a great kick and we went down and got it. It was awesome to see the plan come to fruition.”
The Storm converted the extra possession into points when Ings made a spectacular catch in the back of the end zone at the start of the fourth quarter, hauling Hippeard’s pass in over his shoulder while dragging his foot in bounds. Ings also caught the two-point conversion pass to put the Storm up 52-39.
“I knew I only needed one (foot in),” Ings said. “I practice that all the time -- it’s called tap your toe -- in warm up drills and practice, getting that foot down. It’s a ritual.”
Up by two scores, the Storm rode the efficiency of their offense over the final quarter to seal the semifinal victory. Cleveland scored three touchdowns in the final quarter, but so did the Storm. Hills recovered the Gladiators’ onside kick attempt after a Cleveland touchdown and then scored on a 14-yard touchdown for a 59-46 lead. Following another Cleveland touchdown, Hills snagged Cleveland’s onside kick attempt in stride and returned it for a touchdown to make the score 66-53 Storm. Cleveland cut the deficit to 66-59 and had a minute left in the game, but another onside attempt failed and Hippeard engineered the game-clinching drive, calling his own number and running into the end zone from two yards out with 38 ticks remaining on the clock
“Once we were up by 14, I was very confident we could hold that lead going into the final minute.” James said.
Hippeard finished his night going 24-of-33 for 313 yards and seven touchdowns. Hills caught four of those touchdown passes and finished with 78 yards on seven receptions. Ings made eight catches for 124 yards and two scores.
The Storm will travel to Philadelphia to play the Soul in ArenaBowl XXX at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday, August 26. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
“We’ve got a 24-hour rule,” Hills said. “We’re definitely going to celebrate for 24 hours and then get back to work on Wednesday, start chopping wood toward Philly.”