Storm Roll By Gladiators To Clinch Spot In ArenaBowl XXX
TAMPA BAY, FL - For a remarkable 10th time in franchise history, the Tampa Bay Storm will be playing for an Arena Football League Championship. With a 73-59 win over the Cleveland Gladiators on Monday night at Amalie Arena in a playoff semi-final matchup, the Storm will move on to face the Philadelphia Soul in ArenaBowl XXX on August 26th.
“Very proud of these guys…very proud of how we worked hard all season and how they just kept bouncing back,” said first year Storm head coach Ron James. “Now we have an opportunity to win a championship and that doesn’t come along that often.”
Just a year after finishing the regular season 2-14, firing a head coach, and essentially cleaning house with the roster, this 2017 Storm team completed one of the best statistical turnarounds the Arena Football League has ever seen.
The 73 points scored on Monday night was the most by any Storm team in a playoff game, and the 10th most all-time in the postseason. Leading the way again, with seven catches for 78 yards and four touchdowns, was stud WR Joe Hills. The AFL Wide Receiver of the Year Candidate could not have done it without the help of his quarterback Randy Hippeard, who also enjoyed an impressive 2017 campaign.
Hippeard finished the game 24-of-33 for 313 yards and seven touchdowns. Storm WR/KR specialist Kendrick Ings added eight catches for 124 yards and two scores.
The teams went back and forth for the majority of the first half, but it was the Gladiators who took a 32-31 lead at halftime. Storm kicker Mark Lewis nailed a 30-yard field goal with just nine seconds remaining in the second quarter to trim the Gladiators lead to just one.
“Mark’s a legend,” said teammate Hills. “If the game’s on the line and we send Mark out there, we have full confidence he can make just about anything.”
It was the first, and last, lead of the game for Cleveland.
The Storm wasted no time in taking control of the game to start the second half, scoring just two plays in to the third quarter. After both teams again exchanged touchdowns, the most crucial play of the game came when the Storm recovered a surprise onside kick after taking a 44-39 lead.
“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.”
Ings was able to scoop up the perfect onside kick from Lewis only to set-up his touchdown and two-point conversion just moments later to give the Storm a commanding 52-39 lead.
Tampa Bay improved to 7-0 when leading after three quarters and managed a two score lead through a large part of the fourth quarter. Hills snagged a Cleveland onside kick attempt in stride and returned it for a touchdown to make the score 66-53 Storm.
“Once we were up by 14, I was very confident we could hold that lead going into the final minute.” James said.
The trip to ArenaBowl XXX in Philadelphia marks the first trip to an ArenaBowl for the Storm since 2010 when Tim Marcum, Brett Dietz and company lost the championship game to the now defunct Spokane Shock. The Storm are 5-4 all-time in ArenaBowl games and a sixth title will give the franchise the most in AFL history and first since 2003.
Meanwhile, the defending champion Philadelphia Soul, are making their fifth ArenaBowl appearance in just their 13th year of existence. The Soul are 2-2 in ArenaBowl games.
The Storm are 2-8 in their last 10 meetings with the Soul. Their last win? 2014
So who will it be? The storied, celebrated Tampa Bay Storm franchise? Or the newcomer, young dynasty driven Philadelphia Soul franchise?
Neither recent history nor the crowd will be in the Storm’s favor at ArenaBowl XXX. But like Ron James said,
“We’re up for the challenge.”
Connor Akeman is a freelance sports writer and aspiring radio broadcaster who resides in Tampa, FL. A Tampa native, he considers himself emotionally invested in the Rays, Buccaneers, and Lightning by enjoying season tickets to all three teams. He has followed the Storm since the early Tim Marcum days and can remember attending his first ever Arena Football game in 2007. Studying Mass Communications/Journalism, Connor graduated from the University of South Florida in May 2017. He has spent time with RantSports.com and has been published by the Orange County Register in Anaheim, CA as well as other outlets. He currently contributes to TheDailyStampede.com of SB Nation. You can follow Connor on Twitter @ConnorAkeman.