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Sharks Pummel Predators, Advance to Conference Championship Game

Jeff Hughley’s 57-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff — the first of two explosive kickoff returns for touchdowns by the 5’8” wide receiver in last night’s game and a virtual replay of his kickoff return to start the game against Spokane last week — set the stage for Jacksonville’s first playoff victory in franchise history.

It also helped put the Sharks in next week’s American Conference title game.

Avenging last year’s last-second loss to the Predators in the first round of the playoffs, the Sharks broke open a tight game in the second quarter when Micheaux Robinson — the Defensive Player of the Game — intercepted a pass from Nick Hill on the 21-yard line, leading to a three-play touchdown drive to give Jacksonville a 21-13 lead. Both teams traded scores before the end of the first half.

Trailing 28-20 at the intermission, the Predators cut Jacksonville’s lead to 28-27 before Hughley dazzled the Veterans Memorial Arena crowd of 10,189 with his second kickoff return of the night — again scampering the length of the field to put the Sharks up by eight points.

Minutes later, 40-year-old Aaron Garcia — the AFL’s ageless wonder — led the Sharks downfield, culminating in a 1-yard touchdown run by Jamarko Simmons to give Jacksonville a two-touchdown advantage late in the third quarter. Simmons had two rushing touchdowns on the night.

Smelling blood in the water, the Sharks increased their lead to 49-27 early in the final quarter when Garcia hit huge wide receiver Jeron Harvey with an 11-yard touchdown pass.

Despite trailing by three touchdowns, the Predators — making their nineteenth consecutive postseason appearance — refused to unfurl the white flag of surrender and bravely tried to battle back.

Wasting little time, quarterback Nick Hill connected with tight end Julius Wilson to narrow Jacksonville’s margin to two touchdowns — giving Orlando some desperately-needed life.

Orlando’s Kenny “The Glove” McEntyre, who was hoping for a fairy-tale ending to his long and storied AFL career, then picked off a Garcia pass with 6:27 remaining, setting up a 24-yard strike from Hill to T.T. Tolliver to bring Orlando within 49-42 of the division-leading Sharks.

Both teams traded scores late in the fourth quarter before the seasoned Garcia calmly put the game out of reach with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jomo Wilson.

Garcia, who has never won an Arena Football League championship, completed 15 of 19 passes for 148 yards and four touchdowns, while veteran Orlando quarterback Nick Hill completed 27 of 49 passes for 311 yards and six touchdowns. Hill also threw two interceptions, the first of which led to a Sharks touchdown.

Top-seeded Jacksonville, which defeated Orlando twice during the regular season, will host the winner of Sunday’s match-up between the visiting Georgia Force (11-7) and the Cleveland Gladiators (10-8) on Monday, August 8, at 8 p.m. at Sea Best Field for the American Conference championship.

The winner of that game will play either the Chicago Rush, a last-minute winner against Dallas, or the league-leading Arizona Rattlers — a convincing 62-33 winner over Spokane, the defending AFL champion, late last night — in ArenaBowl XXIV.

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