(Come)back-to-back champions

Philadelphia Soul take ArenaBowl XXX crown in historic fashion

Players took turns raising the ArenaBowl championship trophy. Photo provided by Michael Corsey @Michael Corsey Photography

By Al Thompson

Trailing by 13 points with just under five minutes left in the first half, the Soul staged the biggest comeback in ArenaBowl history.

That effort started with a drive that ended with 46 seconds left in the half when Mykel Benson scored the first of his two rushing touchdowns, helping the Soul earn a 44–40 win over the Tampa Bay Storm and the third Arena Football League championship in franchise history.

The Soul became the just the fourth AFL franchise to win back-to-back titles.

The Soul’s defense pressed all evening, and with loud and spirited support from the announced crowd of 13,648 at their backs at the Wells Fargo Center, the home team eventually wore down the Storm, forcing mistakes that allowed the Soul to take a 10-point lead with 5:13 left in the fourth quarter, a lead they would not surrender.

One fatal blow came at the 7:33 mark of the fourth quarter, with the Soul up 35–27.

Soul defensive end Sean Daniels sacked Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard in the end zone for a safety, making the score 37–27.

The Storm and Soul traded touchdown passes to make the score 44–34.

On the Storm’s next possession, with time slipping away, Hippeard tried a quick strike down field. Soul defensive back Dwayne Hollis effectively sealed the Foster Trophy for Philadelphia by intercepting the pass with 2:40 left in the game.

“Defense wins championships,” defensive back James Romain said outside the Soul’s chaotic locker room after the game. “That’s all we preached week in and week out. You win the defensive battle, you win the special teams battle, you should come up with big victories. That’s what happened tonight, back to back, we brought it home for the city of Philadelphia. It’s great.”

The Soul defense set the tone on the Storm’s first possession of the game. Putting pressure on Hippeard from the first snap, the Soul forced a fourth-down play.

In the Arena Football League, there are no punts, so the Storm went for it.

Rookie defensive lineman Zach Zidian led a fierce rush on Hippeard, getting a piece of his throwing arm, causing the ball to flutter and Romain picked off the pass.

“That fourth down there, I was definitely able to get to the quarterback, disrupt him a little bit so he threw a bad pass,” Zidian said. “We get there, we disrupt him any way we can and we know our DBs are going to have our backs no matter what. That’s how it works.”

But penalties, dropped passes, a crushing pick-six thrown by Soul quarterback Dan Raudabaugh and a 47-yard return for a touchdown on a missed field goal attempt led to the 20–7 Tampa Bay lead after nearly two quarters.

Romain said they never lost faith in Raudabaugh and the offense. They rallied, outscoring the Storm 37–14 until Tampa Bay scored a meaningless touchdown as time expired.

“Not to take away anything from Tampa’s defense, but I feel we’ve got the best offense in the league,” Romain said. “First half, we struggled a little bit. Once we got on the same page, the ball started rolling, it was a snowball effect, touchdown after touchdown … ‘Money’ (Darius Reynolds), SK (Shaun Kauleinamoku) and Dan (Raudabaugh) getting those guys the ball. But I can’t say it enough, defense wins championships and in the second half we shut them down. Sean Daniels came up with a big sack.”

Several Soul players played through injuries, including Reynolds, who suffered a head injury just before the half and had to be checked out before returning; Raudabaugh, who wore a brace on his knee after sustaining what has been reported as an ACL tear in the first half; and center Brennen Carvalho, who had to be helped off the field in the third quarter in what appeared to be a leg injury. All returned and played well.

Their effort was not missed by their teammates.

“He’s a warrior,” Zidian said of Carvalho. “He’s definitely a warrior. Those guys are who I’m playing for, getting a ring for those guys. ‘Money’ was hurt last week, he was able to come out. Dan was playing with a knee brace after he got hurt, he’s a warrior…they’re proud guys.”

Raudabaugh was 20-of-34 for 232 yards, four touchdown passes and the interception.

Reynolds caught six passes for 121 yards and a touchdown, Kauleinamoku snagged eight passes for 81 yards and a score, and ArenaBowl MVP Darius Prince caught five passes for 27 yards and two touchdowns.

Prince became the first rookie since Rick Hamilton in ArenaBowl XII to capture MVP honors with the two touchdown passes to go with three tackles on special teams.

Leading the Storm were Kendrick Ings with five catches for 57 yards and two touchdowns, plus a third on the missed field goal, and Joe Hills, who had five catches for 71 yards and a touchdown.

Romain also chimed in on Carvalho, who visibly struggled through most the third and fourth quarter to stay in the game. If he couldn’t, the outcome may have been different.

“‘Valho’ (Carvalho) is an oldhead to me,” Romain said with a laugh. “When I was a rookie, he was a vet. We went to the championship and we lost. To see him fight through that, how hard he did that. The way he played his heart out to get this championship, he showed he really wanted it going out there playing hurt, it don’t get no better than that.”

Raudabaugh talked about what it takes to win a title, overcoming injuries and to stick it out.

“That’s what it’s about,” Raudabaugh exclaimed in front the the winners stage on the field after the game. “It’s the biggest game of the year. You’ve got to dig deep inside yourself and find whatever you can to get it done. I couldn’t be prouder of my guys. That’s what football’s about, this gutsy effort.”

Then the quarterback, who this season became just the 10th quarterback to throw for 30,000 career yards in Arena Football League history, made it clear about his intentions on coming back next season and beyond.

“Hopefully, we can get three or four more championships for Philly, too,” Raudabaugh said.

Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii