The Tampa Bay Storm scored a monumental road victory in Cleveland last weekend to start the 2017 regular season, the win significant not only because they were so hard to come by last season but also because it showed the team’s resilience and ability to handle adversity.
The challenge ratchets up even more this week.
The Storm open the home portion of their regular season schedule on Saturday when they host the defending ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia Soul. Philly finished last season as the top team in the American Conference and defeated the Storm by 22 points in the opening round of the playoffs before knocking off Jacksonville and Arizona in the semifinals and ArenaBowl, respectively.
The Soul return nearly their entire squad from last season, including 2015 AFL most valuable player Dan Raudabaugh at quarterback.
“I think they’ve only got two or three of their starters that haven’t returned from last year, and they know each other,” Storm head coach Ron James said.
“The quarterback/head coach combination has been together for eight years right now. You don’t have anybody else in the league that has that type of longevity and that short hand with one another. This is going to be a very challenging game for us.”
The Storm, though, enter Saturday’s heavyweight tilt with a bit of swagger having gone on the road and knocked off Cleveland in the season opener. Tampa Bay overcame an error-filled opening two drives of to score on its next six-consecutive possessions to close out the game. The Storm were sparked by a game-changing play on defense when Caesar Rayford snatched a tipped ball out of the air and walked into the end zone for the game’s first touchdown.
From there, the Storm offense went to work, producing a touchdown on every drive that followed and matching the Gladiators score for score over the final moments of the game with Cleveland scratching and clawing to rally.
“We never gave up even when they fought back,” said Storm jack linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson, who had three unassisted tackles and five assisted tackles in the win over Cleveland. “We’re anxious to show these fans that, hey, it’s a different Storm.”
Tampa Bay went 0-8 in road games last season and won away from AMALIE Arena for the first time since a four-point win in Cleveland in June of the 2015 season. The Storm are hoping the momentum from last week’s positive start to the season can carry over in front of its home crowd when they host the Soul on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a great game. It’s going to be a fun night. I can’t wait to get in front of the fans,” said wide receiver Lamark Brown, who led the Storm in receptions (9) and yards (121) in the season-opening win over Cleveland.
“I know a lot of the guys out here, we’re all excited to be out there in front of everybody just because it’s going to help spark something, spark a change as far as what’s been going on the last two years down here and just getting everything on the right path and giving the fans something to look forward to every weekend.”
The Storm will have a slight advantage in their matchup with Philadelphia having already played a game to work out the kinks and learn from their mistakes. The Soul open their season Saturday against the Storm.
“They played more games than we did last year, so even though we’re one game up, they played in the championship and won it last year,” Jackson said. “To be the champs, you’ve got to beat the champs. I’m not worried about whether they played last week or not. I’m not worried about if we played last week or not.
"Our objective -- they can play 10 games or 15 games -- is to win Saturday, so that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
The game against Philadelphia could be viewed as a measuring stick for the Storm, an opportunity to see just how much the team has improved against the league’s preseason favorite.
Jackson, however, doesn’t view the matchup that way.
“It’s not a statement game; every game matters,” he said. “We expect to win, so it’s not a statement game. We don’t come in saying that we’ve got to prove something to the league. We come in saying every game is a win. Every game is a must win.
"We don’t wonder if we’re going to win. We expect to win. So, no it’s not a statement game. We expect to win this game and we expect to win whatever game is on our schedule.”