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Arena

Storm trying to avoid digging a deeper hole

The team is surprised by its 1-2 start but will try to turn things around today at Grand Rapids.

By FRANK PASTOR

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003


TAMPA -- This wasn't supposed to happen.

Not after last season's nightmarish start. Not after the team added $100,000 in salary during the offseason.

The Storm was supposed to be better, to challenge for an ArenaBowl title. Even after a defeat at Orlando in its second game, players shrugged off the loss with talk of a 15-1 finish.

But three games into the season, Tampa Bay is right back where it was a year ago.

"By far, I'm surprised," offensive/defensive lineman Darion Conner said. "You expect, with the talent we have and the guys from other teams, we should go on the field and it should be easy."

Controversial officiating in Orlando, followed by a fourth-quarter collapse in Las Vegas left Tampa Bay 1-2 entering today's game at Grand Rapids (3-0).

The Storm needs a win to avoid a third consecutive road loss and slipping further behind the Predators (4-0) in the Southern Division.

"It is a very critical game," coach Tim Marcum said. "We have to go get this thing level at 2-2 before we come back to our homestand for four of the next five games. If we get to 2-2, we'll feel good about the season. If we go 1-3, we're down. We've dug a hole and will be fighting our way out of it."

Last season, the Storm started 1-5 en route to a franchise-worst 6-8 record. But the team recovered to make the playoffs, which has the players believing they can overcome the slow start.

Marcum was disappointed with the secondary, which allowed a 40-yard post on third and 18 to keep Orlando's final drive alive, but Tampa Bay otherwise could blame officiating for its 54-51 loss to the Predators.

The Storm sent the league a list of 12 calls it disagreed with, including three Tampa Bay touchdowns that were disallowed and a Predators score the Storm contested. The league agreed with the team on 11, Marcum said.

The secondary played better in last week's 61-55 loss at Las Vegas, but Tampa Bay had no one to blame but itself after blowing a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter before losing in overtime.

Two tipped passes that were intercepted, including one returned for a touchdown, and three missed extra points opened the door for the Gladiators comeback.

Players said complacency also played a role.

"I think we kind of relaxed and felt we had the game in our hand, and it cost us," Conner said. "We've got to finish, and I think we've got to take five minutes like 15 minutes, and that's the way we've got to treat it."

So, what's to keep the Storm from stumbling to last season's depths?

Talent and experience, the players say.

Through offseason trades and free-agent signings, Tampa Bay significantly upgraded along the line and in the secondary, two areas crucial in Arena football.

And with 15 players with at least four years in the league, including several with ArenaBowl experience, the team knows what it takes to win.

"Basically, we've got the same nucleus from last year," wide receiver/defensive back Keita Crespina said. "There were a couple of key changes here and there, but this is basically the same team. We came together last year the second half of the season and started to put it together down the stretch."

Now, they have to do it again.

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