San Diego Riptide: A look back
Has it really been a decade? Ten years ago tonight, the San Diego Riptide kicked off its four-year run as an arenafootball2 franchise. I was there as its Vice President of Communications for the first two seasons before leaving for the Grand Rapids Rampage. Though the Riptide lost that night, that season was something special and my time in San Diego was the most memorable of my 11 years working in Arena Football.
In 2002, the af2 in just its third year of existence, expanded into ten new markets including three in California (San Diego, Bakersfield and Fresno). This night the Riptide hosted the Bakersfield Blitz at the San Diego Sports Arena.
The Riptide jumped out to a 27-3 lead with less than 30 seconds left in the first half thanks to one of the most dominating all-purpose yardage performances in football history by San Diego offensive specialist Marty Graham. He compiled an af2 record 400 (197 receiving, 199 in returns and four rushing) to go along with touchdown scores from 40, 16, 36 and 46 yards. However, the Blitz converted three interceptions into 20 points, including one in overtime that led to the game-winning touchdown. Both teams missed field goals in OT before Bakersfield won it with 4:22 left.
A week later, the Riptide won its first game 69-52 at Fresno thanks to eight touchdowns by quarterback Kane Claunch (seven passing, one rushing). San Diego lost its next two at home against Tulsa and at Arkansas. In the Tulsa loss, the Talons' quarterback (and game MVP) Anthony Buich, would eventually play for the Riptide in 2005.
After weeks of my urging, the Riptide hired AFL Hall of Famer George LaFrance as the team's general manager on April 29. My friendship with LaFrance began when were both were with the Tampa Bay Storm and when I joined the Riptide I knew I wanted to have his expertise to help the team in the community and on the field.
When LaFrance was hired, the Riptide was 1-3. Two weeks later, the team was 3-3 and 5-5 through 10 games. In that tenth game at Bakersfield, the Riptide forced an af2 record eight field goal attempts and limited the league's top offensive unit to just 195 yards. The Riptide scored two touchdowns in the final 1:21 to win.
San Diego achieved its first over .500 record on June 22 when the Riptide came back from a 21-0 deficit to beat the eventual ArenaCup champion Peoria Pirates 28-21 and a week later blew out Fresno 67-33. That was the last regular season win for the Riptide as the team dropped its final three games, but still qualified for the playoffs despite a 7-9 record.
Two of those late-season losses were by less than a touchdown. Backup QB Wes Phillips, son of Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, came off the bench against Wichita with San Diego trailing 22-3 and nearly pulled off the victory. With 57 seconds left, Phillips tossed his fourth touchdown to bring the Riptide within five points and the team recovered the ensuing onside kick. However, the officials called San Diego offsides and Wichita ran out the clock.
In the season finale at Quad City, the Steamwheelers were led to victory thanks to the dominating defensive efforts of a little known rookie OL/DL named Tim McGill. Fast forward a decade and McGill is still dominating force with the San Jose SaberCats, which host the San Antonio Talons tonight at HP Pavilion in San Jose.
The Riptide upset West Division champion Bakersfield in the playoffs becoming the first af2 team to win a playoff game with a losing record. San Diego trailed 17-16 at halftime, but scored on all of its second half possessions en route to a 40-27 victory.
Next was a rematch with Peoria, which San Diego beat earlier in the season. Including that game, the Riptide shutout the Pirates for 75 minutes and 29 seconds before Peoria finally scored with 13:50 left in the playoff game. Sadly for the Riptide, San Diego failed to score again and eventually lost 22-12 in the lowest scoring playoff game in Arena Football history. The Pirates went on beat the Alabama Steeldogs and Florida Firecats to win ArenaCup III.
In that inaugural year, Riptide WR/LB Rico Curtis earned All-af2 First Team honors after setting an af2 record with 121.0 tackles. He was named the team's Most Valuable Player and Ironman that season after also tallying 34 receptions (third most on the team) for 405 yards with six scores. Curtis also had three rushing touchdowns, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries (one returned for a TD), forced four fumbles, broke up three passes and scored on a two-point conversion.
Nearly ten thousand people filled the stands for that game ten years ago. Sadly, it was the largest crowd in team history. Attendance began to dwindle after the thrilling overtime loss and four years later the team folded.
In 2003, the Riptide opened with impressive wins over Bakersfield and Arkansas and was 4-3 before the team lost seven of its final nine games. During the year, Claunch posted a perfect passer rating on June 28 in the 60-53 win at Wichita. He was 16-of-19 for 281 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Claunch also had a rushing score. AFL star Steve Papin joined the Riptide for five games before injuring his knee. The all-purpose legend had 13 grabs for 234 yards with four receiving scores. He also tossed a three-yard touchdown, had seven kick returns for 150 yards, recorded 6.0 tackles and recovered a fumble.
The next season marked the lone one with run-and-shoot creator Mouse Davis as head coach, who took over from Cree Morris. San Diego posted an 8-8 record, but failed to reach the playoffs. This season was highlighted by the 91-77 victory over the Hawaiian Islanders. The 91 points was the fourth most by a road team in af2 history and tenth most overall. It was also the second highest scoring game in af2 history with a combined 168 points. The Riptide started the season 1-5, but won seven of its next nine games.
In the final Riptide season of 2005, Sean Ponder took over as head coach. San Diego was 5-11 and the team lost five of its final six games.
I started a Facebook fan page for the Riptide and encourage you to go there and browse the photo galleries, "like" the page and share your memories of the Riptide. I'm continually adding things when I find them in my archives. Sadly, I don't have anything from 2004-05, but am always on the look out for more to document this team.
For me, San Diego was amazing. I helped create a team from scratch that was awarded an unprecedented six front-office awards in 2002, including Expansion Franchise of the Year (despite the 7-9 on the field record - the Cape Fear Wildcats were 13-3 that year). In 2003, I met my wife. After that second season, the Riptide (6-10) was on the brink of folding and with the future unknown; I took a job with the Grand Rapids Rampage as the team's Director of Media Relations and eventually Football Operations Manager.
Andy Lopusnak is an 11-year AFL front office veteran, spending time with the Tampa Bay Storm, San Diego Riptide and Grand Rapids Rampage. He works as a statistician for NFL and college sports for CBS Sports and is a freelance photographer. Lopusnak received two Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of South Florida and has been a fan of ArenaBall since its inception.