By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001
TAMPA -- The Storm had eight months to seethe over last season's Arena Football League playoff loss to the Orlando Predators.
To replay the three possessions when it was stopped inside the Predators 5-yard line.
To mull a third consecutive playoff loss to its I-4 rival.
Saturday night at the Ice Palace, Tampa Bay took out its frustration on the ArenaBowl champs.
Gunnard Twyner caught a 3-yard touchdown from backup quarterback Shane Stafford with 9 seconds left as the Storm spoiled the Predators' comeback bid 55-50 before an announced 8,224 in its final tuneup before Saturday's regular-season opener against Florida.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game, a tough fight down to the end, because that's the way this game goes," said offensive specialist Harvey Middleton, whose two first-quarter touchdown passes helped the Storm to a 21-7 lead.
Tampa Bay led by 18 before Orlando's Chris Wallace threw three fourth-quarter touchdowns to put the Predators ahead 50-49 with 42 seconds left.
But Stafford, who led Tampa Bay to 35 second-half points in last week's 49-27 victory over Buffalo, completed the last of his four touchdowns to lift the Storm to its fourth undefeated preseason.
On third and goal from the 3 with 13 seconds remaining, Stafford lofted a fade pass into the left corner of the end zone for Twyner, who leaped for the catch before Chris Jackson slammed him into the boards.
Tampa Bay's Brad Ford broke up Chris Wallace's Hail Mary as time expired.
"To see (Twyner) go up and make the catch he made and get hit, I feel I can depend on him the last few seconds of the game," said fullback/linebacker Darion Conner, who had seven tackles and a touchdown.
Stafford completed 13 of 21 passes for 193 yards against a secondary that featured 2000 Defensive Player of the Year Kenny McEntyre and two-time AFL tackles leader Damon Mason. Twyner had five receptions for 60 yards and three touchdowns. The game was as balanced as the 26 regular-season and playoff meetings, which the teams split 13-13.
The Storm drove 38 yards in the first 2:10 and took a 7-0 lead on John Kaleo's 9-yard pass to Middleton.
The Predators quickly answered, as Branif Bonaventure found a sliding Bret Cooper in the front left corner of the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown.
Each team scored three more times before Stafford connected with Gregory Spann on a 31-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds remaining in the half to give Tampa Bay a 35-28 lead.
NOTE: Conner switched from uniform No. 46 to 43 this season to honor the memory of his brother, Casey, who died in a car accident in 1990. Casey Conner wore the number when he played at Jackson State.