It’s a storyline all too familiar to Tampa Bay Storm fans over the past couple seasons.
One unfortunate play begets a second poor play which leads to another bad play and suddenly the Storm find themselves staring at an insurmountable deficit.
The scenario repeated itself the last time the Storm took the field on April 22 at AMALIE Arena against the Cleveland Gladiators.
Early in the second quarter, Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard was sacked on fourth and goal from the seven to end Tampa Bay’s second drive.
Kendrick Ings’ fumble on the Storm’s next possession preceded a long touchdown heave from Cleveland’s Arvell Nelson to Quentin Sims
A failed onside kick by Tampa Bay led to another Cleveland score, and with 3:34 remaining in the second quarter, the Storm found themselves trailing 33-14.
A 19-point hole would have proved too tall to climb out of for last year’s Storm team.
But this team isn’t last year’s Storm team.
Against the Gladiators, Tampa Bay regrouped.
And then it rallied.
Tampa Bay held Cleveland without a point in the third quarter and scored four consecutive touchdowns to grab the lead late in the third. The Storm held off a final Gladiators push and won for the second time this season when Hippeard ran into the end zone from a yard away with three seconds remaining in a 62-61 Storm victory.
“I call that win a mentality maker,” Tampa Bay head coach Ron James said during the Storm’s bye week. “It shows the team what they’re mentally made of and how tough they can be because we put ourselves in that situation where we were down but we came back and won the game.
"What I told the players after the game was that in this league, half of your games are going to be one-possession games. So if you can win the majority of them, it tells you you’re going to be a good team.”
Tampa Bay has played three games this season and all three have come down to the final possession. The Storm have won two of them.
The home victory over Cleveland, however, could be a season-defining moment for a Storm team that likely would have folded in a similar situation the last couple seasons.
“They showed me a tenacity that I knew was bubbling under the surface but wasn’t tested,” James said. “The way I’m looking at it right now, early in the season, we’re getting to learn a lot about how we should play. They’re new to me; I’m new to them. I’m new obviously here to Tampa too. But when you look at the situation, there’s a certain way that I want the guys to play, and they’re starting to learn that and situations bear that out. "We had some tough situations in that game, all the from how we’re going to get extra possessions, how we’re going to manage the half and how we’re going to finish the game.
“A lot of valuable lessons in that one game.”
Maybe the most valuable lesson of all: the Storm learned they have a resilience that has been missing in recent times.
“We never gave up,” said wide receiver Kendrick Ings, who is playing his third-consecutive season with the Storm.
“Everybody was positive on the bench, saying positive things. Nobody’s head was down. I look at people’s eyes, I look at my coaches’ eyes, we all have a spark in our eyes like it’s not over. It’s not over until it’s over. We just kept on fighting and that’s what everybody was saying on the bench.”
A pair of plays in each half brought the Storm back from the brink of defeat against Cleveland. After answering the Gladiators’ fifth touchdown with a score of its own, Tampa Bay recovered an onside kick with less than a minute remaining in the first half and Hippeard found Joe Hills in the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown with nine seconds to go before halftime to cut the Storm deficit to five points.
“This is what I talked to the guys about on the bench: All we have to do is score and we’re down by five,” James said. “We’re getting the ball coming out of the second half. It’s a totally different game. Once we recovered the ball, then everybody was like, ‘Wow, I can see that.’ And then we went in and scored and made it happen.”
In the third quarter, Nelson drove the Gladiators down to the goal line but coughed up the ball as he tried to force his way into the end zone on a quarterback keeper. A few plays later, Hippeard hit Hills for a three-yard touchdown pass, and the Storm enjoyed their first lead, now up 35-33.
“That was enormous for us because if they go down there and they score, it makes it a totally different game,” James said. “I thought (the fumble) really turned things around for us.”
Cleveland didn’t go away without a fight, however. The Gladiators continued to match the Storm score for score in the fourth quarter and took a brief lead late when they recovered an onside kick and converted it into a touchdown with 28 seconds remaining.
The Storm, however, have already been through a lot in 2017. The late deficit was just one more challenge for them to overcome.
Hippeard methodically drove the team down the field and, on the one yard line with three seconds remaining, ran into the end zone for the winning score when both his initial and check-down read were covered.
“For us to come back against a team like that, the way we came back, the way we stuck together, the way we handled adversity, that game shows a lot,” Ings said. “The last minute, the last drive of the game, we’ve done that plenty of time in practice, so it was nothing new to us…There wasn’t anything we weren’t prepared for in that game.
"We finished. We didn’t give up. All four quarters, we finished.”