By Spencer Lee
CLEVELAND — After Sunday’s game, players were emotional in the Cleveland Gladiators (0-2) locker room. The eyes of center Joe Madsen and nose guard Willie McGinnis were red with fire as they made their way back on the field postgame, just wanting one more play to try to change the outcome. After a 52-49 loss to the Baltimore Brigade (1-1) at Quicken Loans Arena, they remain winless two games into the season.
With only five teams in the Arena Football League, winning early is key, and they are now the only team in the AFL without one. They expect more out of the 2017 season.
“We don’t take it lightly; we take it seriously,” said Gladiators wide receiver Quentin Sims, who led the team with 12 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns in his first game since last year’s AFL playoffs. “When we lose, we’re going to come out and do better.”
Injuries took away three out of four defensive backs from a vaunted secondary last week against Tampa Bay, and a quarterback new to the Arena Football League made his first career start…
“Stop. No excuses,” said head coach Ron Selesky after the game. “These guys are getting paid. They’re pros. It’s our job to coach them. It’s their job to go out and execute, bottom line.”
The lack of execution cannot be ignored. The offense sputtered early under rookie quarterback Tanner Marsh, turning the ball over three times (two fumbles lost, one interception) and going one-of-three on fourth down. The defense only managed one sack on Brigade quarterback Shane Carden, who torched the wounded Gladiators secondary for 159 yards and seven touchdowns.
And still, epitomizing true Gladiators with the spirit of Cleveland, Ohio, the team battled to the end. Cleveland’s pass rush ignited in the second half, chasing Carden around the field and forcing errant throws in critical moments to give the offense a chance to overcome a two-possession deficit late in the game.
“We had a nothing-to-lose mentality, so why not go out there and give it our all?” said defensive back Terence Moore, who intercepted Carden for the only Gladiators takeaway in the game. “Some plays we wish we could’ve had back that could’ve eventually turned the game around.”
With five minutes left in the game, offensive coordinator Siaha Burley went to starting Jack linebacker Arvell Nelson, who is an experienced AFL quarterback as Glads fans saw last year, assigned to the team this past week. After delivering a couple big hits on Baltimore’s ball carriers earlier in the game, “The Cleveland Cannon” returned under center, bringing his trademark deep ball back to The Q and igniting two consecutive scoring drives with touchdowns to Sims and Collin Taylor to cut the Brigade lead to 52-49.
However, the Gladiators failed to recover any of their three onside kicks, including their final attempt with 44 seconds left, securing the Brigade’s first win in franchise history.
“I definitely was proud of the effort; I was not happy with the execution,” Selesky said. “You have to be able to execute, too. [The game] boils down to doing your job when you know it’s a critical time and [when] it’s going to be tough to do your job.”
In over three-and-a-half quarters of play, the rookie Marsh put together a solid outing in his AFL debut, completing 23-of-36 passes for 228 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. Taylor caught six passes for 97 yards and two scores to extend his franchise record streak to 33 consecutive games with a receiving touchdown, which is now the second-longest active streak in the AFL. 350-pound fullback Phillipkeith Manley’s only reception went 31 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. He followed it up with a one-yard touchdown plunge in the fourth. Nelson threw two touchdown passes on three attempts.
For the Brigade, Reggie Gray was Carden’s top target, catching 10 passes for 92 yards and three touchdowns. LaQuan Williams only caught three passes, but two of them were scores. The Baltimore defense came through, with defensive end Dexter Davis accumulating three sacks and forcing two fumbles his team recovered. Khreem Smith added two more sacks, Jack linebacker Josh Victorian had one interception and Varmah Sonie led the team with 7.5 tackles and a 50-yd kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
After this close loss, all the team wants to do is get back on the field.
“When you lose, nothing is sweet,” Moore added, “and if you accept losing, you shouldn’t be playing here. That’s the mentality… We’re just anxious to get back out there and get in the ‘W’ column.”
Gladiators will travel on Saturday for the first time this season in a rematch with the Tampa Bay Storm, who handed Cleveland another close loss last week. Kickoff from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., at 7 pm. You can hear all of the action live on 92.3 The Fan.