By Spencer Lee
TAMPA BAY, Fla. — The No. 3-seeded Cleveland Gladiators knew the recipe to beat the No. 2-seeded Tampa Bay Storm: Be as close to perfect as you can be.
This “strategy” worked in the Glads home finale, when they took down Tampa 41-39 on July 8th. They needed it one more time in the AFL Semifinals on the road. They took care of themselves for all but two plays, and their season ended with a 73-59 loss on Monday night.
Cleveland’s opening possession was not the way they wanted to start. A two-yard run on first down and three consecutive incompletions gave the Storm the ball on the Glads 7-yard-line. Tampa only needed two plays to score. However, the Gladiators defense would break even by forcing a four-and-out on AFL MVP candidate Randy Hippeard and the Storm offense late in the first half, which allowed “The Cleveland Cannon” Arvell Nelson to connect with Quentin Sims for a 10-yard touchdown to take a surprising lead at halftime.
But that gaff by Tampa’s offense forced head coach Ron James to go for broke after opening the second half with a go-ahead touchdown with an unexpected onside kick in the third quarter. The Gladiators were not ready and were forced to play from behind for the duration of the game.
This was nothing new. Cleveland had needed to come back many times during their 2017 season. And they gave a valiant effort. Nelson connected with Sims 13 times for 137 yards and five touchdowns in Sims’ first game back from injury. Nelson himself outgunned Hippeard in the quarterback battle with 322 yards and seven touchdowns. His lone interception came on his final throw with three seconds left and the game out of reach. Michael Preston added two touchdown receptions and 91 yards and seven catches, and Jeramie Richardson reached pay dirt two more times.
But this was not a normal night for a team with the top passing offense in the AFL. With a two-possession lead, Hippeard seemed to never miss, leading the Storm to their highest playoff point total (73) in franchise history and Hippeard throwing for seven touchdowns, another franchise record, and 313 yards, which fell just shy of a franchise record. Joe Hills became the fifth receiver in team history to catch four touchdowns in a game to go with his 78 yards on seven catches. And Kendrick Ings led the team with eight receptions for 124 yards and two scores.
The Storm are headed to their 10th ArenaBowl in franchise history to face the reigning AFL champion Philadelphia Soul on Aug. 26th. The Gladiators finish their 2017 season 5-10 overall.