The Cleveland Gladiators have finished their Inaugural season by clinching a berth in the 2008 AFL playoffs. Finishing with a 9-7 record in regular season play they have locked the 4th seed in the National Conference. The Gladiators started off strong going 3-0 to start the season with some good momentum. The great start is especially noteworthy considering the previous year the Gladiators, then playing in Las Vegas, finished their season with a 2-14 record. Head coach Mike Wilpolt might have had a lot to do with it, but he had a helping hand from a good squad that continued to play above expectations all season.
After the big start Cleveland would drop their next three games moving back to .500. These losses included one to a good Dallas Desperados team (3 seed in National Conference), and a match up that was hyped as Bernie Kosar’s Gladiators versus John Elway’s Colorado Crush. After splitting the next two games ( Win against LA Avengers and Loss against New York Dragons) Cleveland saw another three game winning streak. Moving into the final 4 weeks of the season Wilpolt’s squad was sitting at 7-5 in the Eastern Division which is undoubtedly the toughest in the AFL. This is how the Gladiators finished out their season:
Vs. Dallas Desperados: 3rd in National Conference, 2nd in Eastern Division (12-4): L 68-52
Vs. Chicago Rush: 1st in American Conference, 1st in Central Division (11-5): W 65-44
@ Philadelphia Soul: 1st in National Conference, 1st in Eastern Division (13-3): L 62-21
Vs. Columbus Destroyers: The Battle of the Buckeye State, Last Years Runner up in Arena Bowl (3-13): W 47-35
It bodes well for the Gladiators that they finished out strong with a couple key wins to clinch a playoff spot. The most important of the final weeks coming from the victory over the Rush who is the American Conference’s top team. Equally as important was the effort against the Soul on the road in which one point was the difference against the best team in the AFL.
The Key to success will be an offense that has been very fluid all season. Raymond Philyaw has been great behind the helm posting the second best passer rating this season with 124.5. He threw for 4287 yards on 358 completions (68.2%) for 83 Touchdowns to only 10 interceptions. As always his two favorite targets will be Robert Redd and Amey Otis who both cracked the top ten in receiving this year with Otis claiming the top spot in touchdowns with 50. One of the most unsung heroes for the Gladiators will be Marlion Jackson who claimed the AFL Rushing title with 356 yards on the season. The running game is one of the most overlooked aspects of the fast paced Arena game, and Jackson will be a huge asset during the playoffs.
On the defensive side of the ball DB Brandon Hefflin will have to come up big. In his third year in the league he posted a team high 110 tackles, 89 of which were solo along with 2 INTs. He will without a doubt have to step up in a leadership role for other defensive standouts such as Rookie DB Alex Teems who posted the second highest tackle numbers with 82.5.
Monday June 30th will see the Gladiators (9-7 3rd in Eastern Division) moving into the first round of Wild Card play against the Orlando Predators (9-7 2nd in Southern Division). These teams met one time during the regular season where the Gladiators came out on top 62-43.
Quick Match Up Rankings (Overall in AFL)
Defense: Gladiators 2nd, Predators 10th
Rushing: Gladiators 3rd, Predators 8th
Passing: Gladiators 2nd, Predators 10th
Kicking: Gladiators 8th, Predators 10th
All in all the Gladiators match up well on paper, but I would not be looking to the next round just yet. It should be a good game and you can catch it on ESPN2 a week from today.