By Spencer Lee
TAMPA (92.3 The Fan) – The positives for the Cleveland Gladiators (0-3) in the first half equaled their negatives in the second half, and all that was left was more heartbreak.
After leading 27-7 early in the second quarter, led by a remarkable performance by the “Cleveland Cannon” Arvell Nelson in his first start of the season under center, a slew of Cleveland miscues allowed Tampa Bay Storm (2-1) quarterback Randy Hippeard to bring his team back and triumph over the Glads again, 62-61. The loss gives the Gladiators their third straight by a total of only 10 points.
The positives: Nelson was electrifying, throwing for 358 yards and seven touchdowns and running in another touchdown with zero interceptions; wide receiver Quentin Sims was unstoppable, catching 14 passes for 205 yards and setting a new career-high with five touchdowns while adding a sixth rushing touchdown to open the game; four sacks in the game from the defense, including two from nose tackle Willie McGinnis and another one-and-a-half from defensive end Nick Seither; a great performance from newcomer Michael Preston, who scored his first two AFL touchdowns since 2011; two fourth down stops thanks to great pressure up front and great coverage in the back; two solid games from defensive backs Kelvin Rodgers and Terry Johnson, who were just assigned to the Gladiators this week and combined for 17 tackles, a pass deflection and a forced fumble; and the Gladiators recovered their first onside kick of the season which led to them retaking the lead in the final minute.
The negatives: Holding a 33-28 lead after one of those fourth down stops, Nelson fumbled on third-and-goal from the one-yard line, and Tampa Bay recovered the ball and took their very first lead on the ensuing possession; two missed extra points by rookie replacement kicker Ben Deighton, which made a difference in the end; after taking a 61-56 lead in the final minute, the Gladiators allowed the Storm to strike back with the final go-ahead score in 35 seconds; still no answer for Hippeard, who had another field day with the Gladiators defense, out-dueling Nelson with 387 passing yards and nine total touchdowns (two rushing, including the game-winner); and Collin Taylor struggled to break the Storm coverage and was left without a touchdown reception, ending his franchise-record touchdown streak after 33 games.
In the end, the only statistic that matters is the loss. The Gladiators have started the season 0-3 two other times in franchise history, in 2010 and 2013. In 2010, the team bounced back with three straight wins and ended the season 7-9, which could be enough to put them back in the playoffs this year. However, in 2013, the team never recovered and fell to 4-14, which will cut their season short.
As head coach Ron Selesky said last week after falling short against Baltimore, this team’s effort has never been a problem. They will keep fighting until the final whistle and always give Cleveland something to cheer for in the end. But eventually, the team needs to start making plays in the critical moments. And, in a game where the room for error is always paper-thin, the Gladiators believe perfect execution will be the only way to get out of this slump.
They will have another chance to notch their first win next week against the expansion Washington Valor at Quicken Loans Arena. Kickoff will be Friday night at 7pm.