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Storm falls short in bid for repeat

Shane Stafford's seven touchdown passes aren't enough to complete a fourth-quarter rally.

BRIAN HIGGINS
Published June 6, 2004

SAN JOSE, Calif. - If looks could kill, Tampa Bay kicker Ignacio Brache would have been carted off the field Saturday afternoon in the opening round of the Arena League playoffs.

"We fight and we fight and ... , " said Storm coach Tim Marcum, biting his lip minutes after his team's reign as Arena Football League champions came to an end with a 56-52 loss to the SaberCats. "It would have been a shame if we had gotten in position and hadn't been able to kick a field goal."

It turned out to be a moot point. Marcum's wilting glare accompanied the kicker off the field after Brache's third errant point-after sailed left with 26 seconds remaining, and his subsequent onside kick was recovered by his teammate at the University of California, Keala Keanaaina. That concluded the drama of a desperate comeback from a 31-point fourth-quarter deficit, as well as a six-game winning streak and the Storm's title defense.

"We scored six points in the first half," said Tampa Bay quarterback Shane Stafford, who threw four touchdowns in the final 11 minutes, "so it doesn't fall on the kicker."

Six days after Stafford passed for seven touchdowns at Dallas to sneak the Storm (9-8) into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, he repeated the feat. However, Stafford's nightmarish start - 6 of 18 with a single touchdown pass in the first half - had the Storm in a 35-6 hole at intermission, and it trailed 56-25 after three quarters.

"Halftime was quiet," Stafford said. "There wasn't a lot of finger-pointing. It was more like "Let's fight and try to make this respectable - and win the game.' "

The Storm began digging a hole in the second quarter when it was denied the end zone on four consecutive plays after securing a first and goal at the 1.

The second-seeded SaberCats (12-5) subsequently surged ahead 28-6 when James Roe casually collected Mark Grieb's toss on a 20-yard crossing pattern. To add insult to injury, the drive was kept alive when 6-foot-4, 330-pound lineman George Williams performed a catch-and-rumble that netted 19 yards on fourth and 4.

If Marcum's team had illusions of the type of road rally the SaberCats mounted in Tampa two months earlier (bouncing back from a 17-point halftime deficit en route to a 62-55 victory), Brache effectively ended those hopes.

Coming off a regular-season finale in which he missed three extra points and forced Tampa Bay to sweat out a 59-57 playoff-clinching win at Dallas, Brache could only watch as San Jose's Omarr Smith picked up an onside kick and sprinted past him for an 8-yard TD with 11:21 left in the third quarter.

In the blink of an eye, the Storm trailed 42-12 and the struggle, even in a league where no lead is a safe, became decisively uphill.

"It's going to be tough for Coach Marcum to sign me back," Brache conceded. "Considering the last two games, I'd even question that signing."

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