ALBANY — This spring, the fans in the Capital Region have embraced the Albany Empire and arena football being back in Albany. They have come to the Times Union Center in droves in hopes of the team having success.
On Saturday night and all season, the Empire have held up their end of the bargain. They have given the fans eight wins, finishing it off by clinching the regular-season title on Saturday with a 71-57 win against the Philadelphia Soul.
“When this all started, the vision they planted in me when I got hired by the ownership group about what this team was going to be, it was (to) give the people something they’re missing, filling a void, being the best professional sports team in an area that doesn’t have a lot of professional sports. So I took it upon myself and the coaching staff, saying this is bigger than arena football. This could be a beautiful thing,” head coach Rob Keefe said.
However, Saturday’s win took some sweating. The Empire took a 63-43 lead with 59 seconds remaining, but with the Arena Football League final-minute rules which allow the clock to stop after every play, the game was not over. Philadelphia showed that they were not out of it, scoring with 33 seconds to play on a pass to Darius Prince. On the ensuing kickoff, Philadelphia’s James Romain recovered it after an Albany fumble, making it 63-57 still with 33 seconds to play. However, with 24 seconds left, Albany scored on a pass to Joe Hills to finally put the game away for the second time. It seemed as though it would be close to a repeat of the last time the two teams played each other on June 16, when Philadelphia completed a comeback and scored the game-winning touchdown on the final play of the game, but the comeback fell short when Terence Moore recovered an onside kick that led to Albany’s final score.
The scoring in the final minute was representative of the entire game, especially for the Empire. The team scored 10 touchdowns on the night. Empire quarterback Tommy Grady passed for eight of them, combining seven between Joe Hills and Malachi Jones, who have been his primary targets all season long.
“You couldn’t ask for a better guy to catch a ball from. Tommy’s one of the best to ever do it,” Jones said.
The momentum really shifted the way of the Empire in the early stages of the second quarter as Joe Hills got into the end zone to make it 13-7 Albany. On the kickoff, Greg Carr tackled Philadelphia return man Poppy Livers to earn two extra points on a safety. When the Empire got the ball back after, they scored a quick touchdown to Jones that took it from a 7-7 game to a 23-7 Albany lead in just over four minutes.
“A safety in this game is a huge momentum shifter. In the outdoor game, if you get a safety, when you kick off, you’re still kicking eighty yards deep. Who knows if a team is even going to cross midfield? You just concede two points. Here, you’re pretty much conceding nine, and that’s the difficult part of that safety, so that was huge,” Keefe said.
The Empire offense cruised following that, owning a lead of no less than eight points until the final minute of the contest. In fact, this was the first game this season that the Empire scored in every possession that they had for the entire night. Keefe said postgame that it was a goal that they had had for every game this season but had not been able to achieve until Saturday.
With the win the Empire finish off the regular season with a mark of 8-4 after starting the year 0-2, and three of the team’s four losses have come by three points or less. They come into the playoff confident that they can score a series win against the Washington Valor and get into ArenaBowl XXXI, which they will host if they get to that point.
The playoffs will begin on Saturday, July 14 as they face the Valor on the road. After that, the two teams will come to Albany for the second game of the two-game set on July 21, and the team that scores the most combined points in those two games will move on to face either Philadelphia or the Baltimore Brigade in the championship game.