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SOUL WIN ARENA BOWL XXX 44-40
Wells Fargo Center, the home of the 13-1 Philadelphia Soul, was the site of Arena Bowl XXX, the 2017 AFL Championship Game. The visiting Tampa Bay Storm, with a regular-season record of 10-4 came in hoping to gain their sixth AFL title game and their first win of the season over The Soul. 0-3 during the regular season vs. The Soul, The Storm came in with determination as well as four All-AFL offensive starters, including QB Randy Hippeard, WR’s Joe Hills, and Kendrick Ings. The Soul, playing in front of 13,648 boisterous fans, defeated the team from Tampa the last eight meetings in a row including three times in this season. Those victories were hard-fought affairs but in the end, Philadelphia always took home the W by an average score of nearly 13 points. With that kind of dominance Head Coach Clint Dolezel had every reason to be confident Philly would reward their fans support with their second straight Foster Trophy.
On the opening drive, Hippeard missed a wide-open Kendrick Ings for an easy six. Missed opportunities would plague both teams throughout the first half. A couple of plays later, Hippeard was bumped from behind causing an errant pass which was picked off by Soul DB #25 James Romaine. With the ball for the first time, Soul QB Dan Raudabaugh hit #24 Torez Jones for a long gain into the Tampa Bay end of the field. Unable to close the deal and backed up by penalties Philadelphia chose to try a field goal. It went wide and was played off the net and returned for a Tampa TD by Ings.
All season long the Soul’s special teams had played spotty and Tampa knew it was a weakness they could exploit. They kicked off and pinned Philadelphia on their own 7. Raudabaugh missed a wide open #7 Darius Prince for an easy touch, and then Prince dropped another big gainer on 4th and one. With the ball back in Tampa’s hands, #81 Joe Hills missed a gimme 6 after falling in the end zone on 4th down. Philly got the ball back on their own 11, and after a Raudabaugh run for a 1st down the quarter ended with Tampa up 6-0.
The jittery play continued into the 2nd quarter as Raudabaugh missed #21 Shaun Kauleinamoko for an easy big gainer which would have put the Soul, if not in the end zone, then at least inside the Tampa 5-yard line. After that, Philadelphia chose a more methodical approach. The drive ended with a Darius Prince 2-yard reception for a TD giving the Soul a one-point lead 7-6.
After a kick-off through the goal posts for a touchback, Hippeard and the Storm finally began exploiting the opportunities the Philly D were giving them. Hills hauled in a 35-yard pass for the TD and this time Kicker Mark Lewis hit the PAT giving Tampa the lead at 13-7. Philadelphia’s return unit sputtered again and a couple of plays later, Raudabaugh threw a pick 6 to Storm Jack Linebacker, Alvin Ray Jackson. Lewis hit the PAT and Tampa extended their lead to 13 points 20-7. With another poor kick return and the crowd quieted, Philly appeared to be on the ropes. Continuing their methodical approach The Soul fought their way back. They worked the ball down to the 1-yard line and All-Arena First Team FB Mykel Benson powered his way into the end zone for the 6. K Adrian Trevino tacked on the PAT, and the teams went into halftime 20-14.
Having won the coin toss and deferring until the second half, Philadelphia caught Tampa by surprise. Expecting Philadelphia to continue its dink and dunk approach, they were shocked by a 40-yard strike to Darius Reynolds for the tie. After Trevino tacked on the PAT, The Soul regained the lead 21-20. The Lewis missed PAT appeared to be having major consequences for The Storm and with the crowd coming back to life Tampa had their work cut out for them.
Three minutes and thirty-two second later, The Storm retook the lead with what was possibly the best pass throughout the night from either quarterback. From their own 22 playing over the left hash, high-motion man Kendrick Ings streaked down the right side of the field and hauled in the strike just ahead of Soul DB #22 Dwayne Hillis. He ran the last few yards into the end zone and The Storm retook the lead by 6, 27-21.
Raudabaugh hit Prince with a short pass and after breaking a tackle, he turned it into a 34-yard gain down to the Tampa 6. That is when the most controversial play during the night occurred. Mykel Benson ran right side off-tackle but was called down by contact just short of the end zone. On replay, it appeared he might have been in and with crowd's encouragement Soul Head Coach Clint Dolezel threw out the challenge flag. The end zone view clearly showed when Benson’s knee went down, but not where the nose of the ball was at that moment. The sideline camera angle clearly showed the ball, but it was hard to see when the knee came down. Though it appeared to be a six-point play, without incontrovertible proof, the Referees were forced to uphold the ruling on the field. Undeterred, Raudabaugh hit Prince for the touch on the very next play. With the PAT good The Soul captured the
momentum, and extended their lead to eight.
On the kick-off Ings barely made it onto the field of play, and on the next play Philadelphia Safety # 55 Sean Daniels wrestled Randy Hippeard down in the end zone for the safety and a ten-point lead. Tampa succeeded with the surprise onside kick and Hippeard hit #15 Justin Hilton for the 42-yard TD to bring The Storm back to within 3. Then, with 5:54 left in the game, Tampa ordered up another onside kick. This time Philadelphia was ready, and they recovered the ball deep in the Tampa end. One minute and twenty seconds later, they sealed the victory with a beautiful 16-yard pass to Kauleinamoku. The Storm D bit on the Benson off left tackle run. Raudabaugh ran to his right parallel to the line of scrimmage drawing the remaining defenders towards him. They were hoping to prevent him from picking up the 1st down or possibly scoring. That’s when he spotted Kauleinamoke running from right to left along the end zone wall. Raudabaugh stopped and popped back across the middle for the clinching points. Tampa would hit for another 6 on a Hippeard to Ings pass, but it was too little too late. With five lead changes, long TD passes, some power running, and a few timely defensive and special team plays. The AFL Championship game offered everyone in attendance something to cheer about.
This past AFL season was marred by the defections of several of the leagues best teams. With the addition of Baltimore and DC, the league was barely viable with only five teams. Next year, it was announced two expansion teams will be joining the league bringing the number of teams up to the minimally adequate seven. While the AFL still considers itself to be the top league in the world, it's a claim is built on shaky ground. There's no question both Philadelphia and Tampa can claim to be two of the best teams in any league. The other three teams, however, would be competitive but not dominant in the NAL. The AFL's strength is its perceived longevity and marketing ability, but until they once again have a deep well of competitive teams throughout the country, they will only be a regional league boasting a big name with a dearth of competition. In the meantime, the nearly 14,000 fans in the Wells Fargo Center were treated to a good old-fashioned arena football game between two of the best teams in the world. Congratulations to the Philadelphia Soul taking advantage of your opportunities and delivering everything your fans could hope for two years in a row.
|AFL Final Standings|
|Tampa Bay Storm||10||4||.714||710||662|