River Kings 65, Strike Force 48

Sometimes a night just feels snakebit, you know?

Saturday March 9 felt like that.  The rain that had been threatening all day started falling around 4:00, bringing twilight down early and turning the roads to freezing slush just in time for fans to start seriously thinking about staying in for the night.  It was a miserable end to a lousy week of what seems like neverending winter.

Things were slushy inside the arena, too.  The setup crew gets there by noon, and they’d done their usual excellent job, but I passed San Diego’s team bus parked on the river bridge at First Avenue on my way to the 2:30 sound check (for those not familiar with Cedar Rapids, that’s a fair hike away from the US Cellular Center).  Whatever the issue was with the bus, the Strike Force had made it in, but they weren’t real organized.  The roster, for instance…

Nic Ryder is our Sports Information Coordinator.  He’s good at it.  A coordinator is only as good as the information he’s coordinating, though, and the Strike Force didn’t give him much to work with.  The best teams — us, for instance — have lovely media guides.  On game days, the folks who need them have updated rosters arranged both alphabetically and numerically, as well as by “two deep” by position.1 There’s a page of stats, updated at the end of each quarter.  Most importantly for your friendly neighborhood Public Address Announcer, we get a pronunciation guide.

San Diego didn’t have that, so I caught up with their coaching staff.  They gave me an updated list of cuts — including the ex-offensive coordinator, Todd Marinovich — but nobody could tell me exactly how to pronounce the kicker’s name.  Shouts of “Hey, kicker!” didn’t produce the man himself (he was probably in line getting his pregame meal), so I went with my gut.  If I blew it, Mr. Lacayo, I’m sorry.

And I might well have blown it.  It’s bad form to talk about yourself too much in a project like this, but since I’m all about the “nonfiction” part of “creative nonfiction,” I’m compelled to inform you that I had a major case of the stupids Saturday night.  It started with the sound check — you know, my very first task — when I kept reading DL Isaiah Matthews’s alma mater as “North Carolina College of Science” (it’s actually North Dakota).  For some reason, I also read our roster off the website rather than my printed copy — even though I had it right in front of me — which prompted a text message from the Strike Force’s head coach, informing me that DL Rafael Lamas plays for him now.3

And it got worse once the game started.  I called veteran DB Ricky Johnson “Ricky Jackson” — especially egregious, as Ricky was one of the players who has gone well out of his way to help me out.  Despite our excellent sports information coordination, I kept mispronouncing “Nate Chavious” — it’s “chay-vee-us,” three syllables, not “chay-vus.”  I can’t tell you how many ball spots I screwed up, and I even got the down wrong once.  My Dad, the play clock operator, tells me I accidentally called quarterback Kurt Palandech “Connor Hollenbeck” a few times, but I honestly don’t remember doing it.  (Hollenbeck is a wide receiver, and he plays for our hated rivals the Iowa Barnstormers.  Nice guy, though).

Not my night, in other words, though there were a few isolated bright spots — I got to do my best Bob Uecker impersonation when Strike Force QB Derrick Bernard tossed a pass juuuuuuust a bit outside, and when DJ Tim was pumping up the crowd with some Will Smith, I got to ask an entire arena full of people if they were “getting jiggy with a River Kings victory.”

It doesn’t make up for all the mistakes, but at least I can check that item off my bucket list.

The snakebit feeling lasted throughout the game.  It wasn’t just me.  The referee forgot to key his microphone during the coin toss, so we had to wait for the teams to line up to see which side was kicking off.  We were, as it turns out, and since my thesaurus only has so many words in it, let’s just say our kick coverage, ummm, “continues to be problematic.”  Letting the Strike Force start near midfield didn’t help, and when they crammed it into the end zone in five plays I thought we were in for a long night…

We got it together, of course, and the final score looks like a pretty thorough beating.  It wasn’t — though San Diego was all but mathematically out of it by the middle of the fourth quarter, it never felt like it.  A couple of blown plays handed the Strike Force fourteen easy points — a rare stop in kickoff coverage nullified in one play by a long bomb to WR Julian Stafford, plus a long touchdown jog from QB Bernard that I thought for sure was going to end in a taunting flag, a bench-clearing brawl, or both.  All credit to our guys for keeping cool heads under some extreme provocation.

There were bright spots too, of course — QB Palandech only missed on four of his seventeen pass attempts, meaning he threw one less incompletion than his five touchdowns.  The running game looked particularly impressive, getting back on track from the disastrous Arizona game — Nate Chavious (“chay-vee-ous,” damn it!!) averaged 6.3 yards per carry en route to 75 yards and three touchdowns, with Palandech chipping in another 59 yards on the ground and RB Khalif Phillips adding another score.  Marquel Wade caught 6 balls for 51 yards and two scores, and Jordan Smith added two TDs on five catches for 50 yards.

In all, an uneven performance, but with lots to build on.  It’s a short week this week, but we’ve got some momentum going into Friday night’s tilt with Quad Cities.

Some random notes:

RB Khalif Phillips didn’t get too many touches, but he’s a punishing blocker when he’s in.  He sprang Palandech on a long run, and did a nice job picking up blitzes.  He’s not much bigger than Chavious on paper — 5’11”, 215 vs. 5’10” 200 — but he’s doing well in a power back-type role.  Coach Stoute mixes him into the passing game, as well.  He only caught one on the night, but it was big — a 28 yard touchdown on what looked like a good check read from Palandech over the middle.

Coach Custer informs me that I don’t have to write about him in 24-point glowing golden font with fireworks and whatnot.  Which is good, because I don’t know how to get WordPress to do that, but also bad, because I was looking forward to calling someone the River Kings’ Grand High Exalted Poobah and All-Around Eminence.  Any volunteers?  Looking your way, Coach Smith….

We didn’t have any sacks on the night (a big one was nullified by penalty), but the pass rush consistently got to Strike Force QB Derrick Bernard, causing him to heave a few up for grabs.  We missed one sure interception, and another one somehow got batted into the arms of San Diego WR David Carter.  Ricky Johnson had an up-and-down night — he had one interception called back for pass interference, but snagged another with a nifty move.  He’s also credited with three pass breakups, one of which left him visibly shaken — Bernard’s off-target pass smacked him squarely in the facemask.  Tuff Johnson broke up another pass and recovered a fumble.

Our offense has some shiftiness to it.  The O-line held up well, but Palandech can wriggle out of pressure when he needs to.  The “best moves of the night” award, though, has to go to Marquel Wade.  San Diego’s defense perfectly diagnosed a tunnel screen on the right side, so Wade took it back left, coming completely around the formation to score a touchdown while juking at least two guys out of their cleats.

Confidential to the production crew: Props to Claire Folkerts, the Game Ops Coordinator, for some top-notch coordinating.  Speaking as a college professor, it’s great to see students actually doing the things they’re training for, and doing them very well.

1 That is, listing the starter and his primary backup.
2 Thus depriving me of a shot at a fantastic interview, damn it. You might not remember Marinovich, but he’s one of the NFL’s all-time busts and pretty much the poster child for the dangers of helicopter parenting. ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series did an entire episode on him. I would’ve loved to meet the guy.
3 Thanks, Coach Grossman! I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating: Not everyone has been real interested in my project so far, but everyone I’ve spoken with in the IFL, regardless of interest, has been courteous and helpful.

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