Repeat just as sweet
Gladiators win second straight APFL2 title
The game was ugly, but the scoreboard was as pretty as a picture.
The Grand Junction Gladiators stumbled, tripped, fought, clawed and toughed out a 24-22 win over the Mile High Hurricanes to win their second straight American Professional Football League II championship Saturday night at Stocker Stadium.
Playing in front of its largest and most rambunctious crowd of the season, the Gladiators turned to a good old-fashioned football formula to subdue the Hurricanes and finish off a perfect 9-0 season.
Grand Junction ran the ball, played great defense and used big plays on special teams to overcome three turnovers, 17 penalties and two blocked kicks.
Tailback Tony Kemper was a workhorse and a half. With 8:02 remaining Kemper got big blocks, including one from fullback Adam Burke, to scamper in for a 17-yard touchdown to give the Gladiators a 24-20 lead.
Kemper had 177 yards on 33 carries.
“I’m pretty tired, but it feels great,” said Kemper, who also scored from three yards out to tie the score at 14-14 early in the second half.
Grand Junction head coach Matt Surad said the Gladiators knew they had to stick with the running game.
“We were just stubborn with the running game today. We missed a lot of chances with the fumbles and the bad snaps, but the running lanes were there,” he said.
The Hurricanes took advantage of two fumbles, including the first snap of the game by the Gladiators to take a 14-0 lead. The Gladiators looked out of sync and had no rhythm in the first half and for parts of the second.
First-year cornerback Deshaunte Webber helped snatch the momentum away from the Hurricanes with a 91-yard kickoff return for a TD to cut the lead to 14-7.
To start the second half, Grand Junction came out with the ferocity of a hurricane and looked like they were going to blow away their opponent.
Showing some fiery intensity, Webber had a big hit on the kickoff, followed by Kyle Key stuffing a run for a three-yard loss. Then Keith Mikhail pancaked Mile High quarterback James Reedy for a seven-yard loss.
Grand Junction’s Adam Swanson snagged the punt and returned it 41 yards to set up Kemper’s three-yard TD.
As quickly as the momentum seemed to be with the Gladiators, it evaporated.
The Gladiators took the lead with 4:44 remaining in the third quarter when Danny Wehner made a line-drive field goal from 27 yards out.
All game long, the defense stuffed the run but had no answer for the Reeder to James Greer combination.
Greer had scoring catches of 35 and 44 yards and finished the game with five catches for 137 yards.
His 44-yard TD stunned the hometown crowd. Webber and Mitch Howard looked like they were in position to knock the ball down, but it bounced off Howard’s hands and nestled into Greer’s hands, and he trotted in for the score to give the Hurricanes a 20-17 lead.
With injuries to big fullback Kris Means, who didn’t play, and Jesse Kirstatter, who played with a broken hand, the Gladiators had trouble in short-yardage situations.
Kirstatter, who wasn’t with the Gladiators last year, said it’s special to be part of a championship team.
“This is my first championship at any level, so for me it’s great. It’s great for my teammates. I’m happy for everyone,” he said.
Both teams kept the officials busy. After the Gladiators’ fifth personal-foul penalty, they looked to be in big trouble. Facing a third-and-27 from their own 30, a first down looked hopeless.
But the Hurricanes were called for pass interference to give the Gladiators an automatic first down. That was followed by another pass interference and an off-sides call to set up Kemper’s second TD.
The defense stepped up again on the Hurricane’s next drive. Adam Warren, a 37-year-old Dove Creek High School graduate in southwest Colorado, had a huge sack. Key sniffed out a screen play and forced an incompletion to get the ball back to the offense.
In a game where nothing came easy for the Gladiators, they drove to the two-yard line. Two yards and the game was over, but a bad snap was recovered by the Hurricanes.
With 2:29 remaining, Swanson grabbed an interception. But still the game had plenty of drama.
After getting stopped on third down, the Gladiators tried to punt out of their end zone, but the ball was blocked resulting in a safety.
After the ensuing free kick, Mikhail had a sack, and a bad snap by the Hurricanes ended the game.
“It was very, very frustrating,” defensive end and team founder Ed Johnson said. “I was very nervous, but we got it done.
“Four years and two championships, we’re just blessed. We just have a good group of players and coaches, and we really hung together.”
The special-teams play and the returns by Webber, who only had one other kickoff return this year, and Swanson helped turn the game around for the Gladiators.
“They had all the momentum, then (Webber) made a huge return, and that lit a fire under our whole team,” Swanson said. “Then they kicked it to me, I made one guy miss, got a couple of great blocks that led me down the sidelines, and the offense finished it off.
Cody Roark said winning a second championship is a dream come true.
“To come out here and repeat is just amazing. I love my teammates,” he said.
For defensive tackle Arvis Sanders, who overcame a cancerous tumor on his brain stem, he said it’s an amazing ending.
“We did it. Everything I went through is done, our undefeated season, we overcame everything, we did it, we’re number one,” he said.