Jacksonville Sharks Clinch Conference Crown, Head West for ArenaBowl XXIV
Characteristically calm, cool and collected, Jacksonville’s Aaron Garcia unleashed eight touchdown passes as the top-seeded Sharks (16-4) outscored the upset-minded Georgia Force 64-55 to win the AFL’s American Conference title before a Monday night crowd of 10,891 at Jacksonville’s Veterans Memorial Arena.
The victory — Jacksonville’s third against the Force this season — clinched a trip to Phoenix to take on the league-leading Arizona Rattlers in ArenaBowl XXIV on Friday at 8:30 PM Eastern Time.
The third-seeded Force kept the game close most of the way and led briefly on five separate occasions in the first half before the Sharks pulled ahead 40-34 at the intermission.
Forcing a turnover on downs to start the third quarter, the Sharks increased their lead to thirteen when Garcia, who connected on a blistering 22 of 28 passes, threw a 17-yard touchdown toss to Jeron Harvey.
Both teams traded scores until the final minute when the Sharks, clinging to a precarious 61-55 lead, were forced into a fourth-and-long situation and had to rely on the kicking prowess of Marco Capozzoli to give themselves a little bit of breathing room against their pesky rivals from Atlanta.
The former Montclair State place-kicker, who connected on 7 of 11 field-goal attempts during the regular season, didn’t let them down. Poised under pressure, Capozzoli’s 36-yard field goal — the longest of his AFL career — split the uprights, giving the Sharks what proved to be an insurmountable 64-55 lead with less than a minute left in the game.
The road-weary Force, playing their fourth consecutive game away from the friendly confines of Duluth’s Gwinnett Center, made a valiant effort to rally from behind in the waning seconds before Jacksonville’s Bill Alford intercepted a pass from Darnell Kennedy to seal the victory for the second-year franchise. It was Alford’s third nifty pick of the season.
While Jacksonville’s 40-year-old Garcia, playing in the first conference championship game of his storied 17-year Arena Football League career, threw for 313 yards and eight touchdowns, the legendary star’s offensive fireworks were matched, almost stat-by-stat, by Georgia’s Darnell Kennedy, who completed 29 of 48 passes for an identical 313 yards and eight touchdowns — three of them to the majestic Maurice Purify who finished the game with thirteen receptions for 153 yards.
Remarkably, Purify caught eleven touchdown passes — nearly a quarter of his season total — in the three games against the Sharks this year.
Jeff Hughley, who stands just 5’8” tall, caught seven passes for a game-high 168 yards and three touchdowns for the Arena Bowl-bound Sharks.
The Sharks, who will travel to Phoenix tomorrow, haven’t fared particularly well in the West during their two seasons in the Arena Football League. In fact, they have never won a game west of Salt Lake City, losing at Spokane last year and dropping their season opener to the Arizona Rattlers in Phoenix on March 12.
The Sharks, of course, rebounded from their heartbreaking season-opening loss to Arizona by winning thirteen straight games only to see their record-shattering streak snapped in — you guessed it — the wicked west when the downtrodden San Jose SaberCats, a team that had lost seven straight, stunned the then-sizzling Sharks in an 83-70 shootout in early July.
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