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Fortunes change, but rivalry doesn't

Even when both teams are below .500, Orlando vs. Tampa Bay is intense.

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002

TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Storm and the Orlando Predators meet for the 30th time in Arena Football League history today, and something about the rivalry feels different. Perhaps it is because of what the teams bitterly share in common.

Two of the most storied teams in the league, with six AFL championships between them, are struggling to reverse this season's losing records.

This poses the question:

Does the War on I-4 lose its fun if the teams are just trying to stay alive?

"There aren't a whole lot of things you can say, and that's why there's not a whole lot of talk about that War on I-4 anymore," Storm wide receiver/linebacker Lawrence Samuels said. "It's just line up and play football."

Still, Samuels said, there's a lot of talk "going on between the lines," though no Storm player wants to be responsible for giving the Predators "that added incentive."

With both teams coming off wins -- Tampa Bay against Georgia and Orlando against Carolina -- the Predators hold first place in the Southern Division and the Storm stands last.

The difference between the teams' positions is one game, and if either wins the next three games, it could win the division and host at least one playoff game.

Though the losses by the Storm (4-7) and Predators (5-6) have turned down the volume on taunting or bragging, the teams look forward to the meeting, and intensely so.

The fans, the familiarity and the prospect of making the playoffs are enough to keep those feelings afloat.

"It's still a fierce battle, whether we're both 12-0 or 0-12," Predators and former Storm quarterback Jay Gruden said. "We've played (the Storm) so much and had so many close games, and it's no different this Sunday."

Storm coach Tim Marcum said this meeting is no different than any other because the teams are neighbors. Plus, they see so much of each other.

"The Dolphins and the Jets, for example," Marcum said. "Why do they hate each other? Because they see each other twice a year.

"This is the only sport where these two towns participate with each other. We're 85 miles apart. Our people don't like their people, and vice versa. I don't think it matters whether we're undefeated or without victory."

The Predators, like the Storm, have had more personnel changes and injuries than usual, contributing to the season's troubles. Gruden admitted his switch from coach to quarterback could have been smoother, and rookie defensive backs Andre Cooper, Reggie Doster and Rashad Floyd have been adjusting to the learning curve.

The Storm, in turn, is hoping former New Jersey receiver/defensive back Alvin Ashley will pad the loss of defensive specialist Melvin Cunningham, who injured his knee three weeks ago. Backup quarterback Shane Stafford, filling in for injured Scott Milanovich, seemed confident in practice after throwing six touchdowns to lead the Storm to a 50-40 victory June29 over Georgia.

"The intensity has picked up," Stafford said. "I feel pretty good about what's going on here."

And for the Tampa and Orlando fans?

"Stay tuned," Marcum said. "It's never-ending. ... It's ever-changing. We're trying to find the best players for the best fit possible."

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