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Itís Time to Begin Anew for Rattlers in LA

Patrick Daly
Saturday January 28, 2006


The disappointment of 2005 seems to have faded in the wake of excitement around the 2006 season, which starts Sunday for the Arizona Rattlers when they face off with the division rival Los Angeles Avengers.

The start of the 2005 season is something this Rattlers team hopes to never live through again and itís something that left a bad taste in many playersí mouths.

"That was disgusting," said lineman Kelvin Ingram. "That was painful. It honestly was. We got hot at the wrong time; it was a little too late."

But it is the 6-2 finish in the last half of the 2005 season that did show what the team could do and it has helped the Rattlers understand what they can do when the pieces come together.

"We took away a lot good things from the end of last season," said Rattlers quarterback Sherdrick Bonner. "One thing is that we needed to work hard. Guys committed themselves this offseason to come back and try to get it done."

As it seems to go with each passing season, some things change while others stay the same. The first obvious change is the head coach position, which is now manned by Gene Nudo. Nudoís experience within the Arena Football League began with the leagueís inception and, while he hasnít been a head coach since he directed teams in the first AFL test games in the late 1980ís, he knows the game inside and out. Nudo will also have two very capable coordinators with Lary Kuharich running the offense and Mike Church, formerly with the San Jose SaberCats, calling the defense, both of whom will be on the field with their part of the team.

While thereís plenty of change this season, itís the returning pieces that provide hope for this season. A good portion of the line returns, including Ingram, Mark Tucker, Wendall Gaines, Jerry Sharp and Vince Amey, and the man they protect, quarterback Sherdrick Bonner, will serve as a critical piece in the success of the Rattlers. Bonner starts his thirteenth season with the same team he started with in 1993 and plans to make the most of every opportunity.

"I love the game and the opportunity that it affords me to compete, as well as the ability to do all the little things to help the young guys get better," said Bonner. "I donít want to be one of those guys that says theyíre retiring and then decide to come back. As long as the Lord enables me to get out of bed and go into that locker room and get in shape then I want to play until I canít play anymore. You canít get those years back."

For many, Bonnerís return is crucial since it provides continuity on the offense, established leadership and a reason for others to return.

"Without Sherdrick youíd honestly feel like you were starting over," said Rattlers wide receiver/defensive back Randy Gatewood. "With him back, we have someone here who knows the game and plays the game so well. Heís the only quarterback that Iíve really had throughout my career. Iíve had others, but the guy is just a phenomenal asset. Heís going to lead us in the right direction."

Bonner also has the confidence of his offensive coordinator, which will help matters even more.

"He knows his craft," said Kuharich. "He has great command of our offense and he knows the defenses around the league and what they can do."

Looking at the offensive weapons, the only truly established receiver returning on the roster this season is Randy Gatewood, who seems to be energized by another season. The Rattlers pursued offensive specialist Damien Groce in the offseason to help provide a spark on offense, especially with Siaha Burleyís departure, but the salary cap situation cost Groce a spot on the roster. That does give Shannon Culver a shot to become the main offensive threat at offensive specialist after a year off, something that heís capable of doing, but Arizona will also need rookie receivers Jeremiah Pope and Talib Wise to emerge as solid contributors, along with second-year WR/LB Cosmo DeMatteo.

"Itís all about the chemistry," said Ingram. "Weíre going to miss some guys, but I think weíve got a bunch of receivers that can get it done."

Time for an opponent
Arizona opens up their fifteenth season with the Los Angeles Avengers, who have many questions of their own to answer. QB John Kaleoís experience now resides in Columbus with the Destroyers, putting inexperienced QB Brian Mann at the helm. Mann will apparently platoon with quarterback Ryan Van Dyke, which may make it tough for either player to find their rhythm. Additionally, the absence of offensive specialist Tony Locke means the Avengers will start rookie Kareem Kelly at that spot.

Los Angeles does still retain the services of one the best wide receiver/defensive backs around in Kevin Ingram, as well as veteran WR/LB Greg Hopkins. The Avengers do have also lineman Silas Demary, last seasonís Defensive Player and Lineman of the Year, returning to a line that could be a strength for Los Angeles, which is an important piece with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm. Add to that the strong offensive mind of head coach Ed Hodgkiss and the Avengers will still be a strong foe.

One thing to keep an eye in this first game is the preseason preparation. The Avengers scheduled preseason scrimmage with the Colorado Crush would have served as a good tune-up and opportunity to evaluate their talent, but a poor playing surface caused the scrimmage to be cancelled. This could leave the Avengers a little behind the curve in the opener, something that adversely impacted the Rattlers two seasons ago when they did not scrimmage another team in the preseason and came out flat in a 51-32 loss to the Avengers.

Here to stay
This season the Rattlers do have the advantage of not having to worry about the future of the franchise. Throughout last season speculation about the teamís future ran the gamut of possibilities, including a very real possibility that there would be no Rattlers team in 2006.

While many players refused to admit it, the situation did play on their minds. As we all know now, Bob Hernreich bought the controlling stake in the Rattlers and the team will remain in Arizona, which means one less thing for the team to worry about, and thatís good.

"It was definitely at the back of a lot of guysí minds," says Gatewood. "That was a very real thing we were going through. We didnít know if we were going to be here or not. We were able to keep the team here and get to play on. Iím glad weíre here and I didnít want to play anywhere else."


 
Patrick Daly has been an Arena Football League enthusiast since he first stumbled across the late-night ESPN broadcasts and has followed the Arizona Rattlers since their inaugural season in 1992. He graduated from Arizona State University with an engineering degree and is currently a member of a web development team for Direct Alliance in Tempe. Patrick currently resides in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Arizona with his beautiful wife, son and a very large football helmet collection.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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