Arena Football League Cleveland Gladiators Tampa Bay Storm

Storm Punch Ticket to Philly, ArenaBowl XXX

On a night that would decide who would travel to Philadelphia to face the Soul in ArenaBowl XXX in just under two weeks’ time, the Tampa Bay Storm (11-4) and Cleveland Gladiators (5-10) proved that records really don’t matter when it comes to the playoffs, playing a thrilling semifinal in front of over 9,600 fans at Amelie Arena. It proved to be historic for Tampa Bay, as they scored a playoff-record 73 points in a 73-56 win.

Getting the ball first, Tampa Bay wanted to send a message, and Joe Hills did just that. Randy Hippeard found Hills wide open in the back of the end zone for an early 7-0 lead. It didn’t take long for Cleveland to respond, as Arvell Nelson found Quentin Sims for a catch and short scoring run. Sims’ score on his return from injury shone a little less thanks to a missed extra point.

Both teams had to hold serve, and they did throughout the first half. LaMark Brown found himself in the end zone for the first time to make the lead 14-6, but Sims struck yet again. Sims’ catch in the front of the end zone ended the first quarter, cutting the deficit to a slim 14-13.

Hills scored yet again to extend the lead to start the second quarter, but Sims quickly answered to complete a hat trick, keeping the game close at 21-20. Kendrick Ings rolled in the back corner of the end zone to catch a 29-yard pass from Randy Hippeard to extend the lead to eight yet again.

While the scoring pace slowed down, the tension mounted even more. After a drive that lasted more than six minutes, fullback Jeramie Richardson ran across the goal line to cap another scoring drive, but the lead remained at two points thanks to a missed two-point conversion.

Defense started to tighten as the half closed, as Hippeard couldn’t find Hills on fourth down, giving Cleveland their first stop of the night, and the biggest stop of the half. The Gladiators capitalized, as  Sims scored yet again to give his team a 32-28 lead. Sims became the first wide receiver with four touchdowns in a half since 2015, and the first player to score four times in a half in the playoffs since last season.

The fireworks weren’t over just yet, as Mark Lewis made a 30-yard field goal to end the first half after a Cleveland turnover on downs. While different angles showed Lewis missed, the call stood and the score remained 32-31.

Kendrick Ings picked things up where they left off in the second half, as he returned the kickoff 48 yards to set up a  Hippeard sneak and for the Storm to retake the lead.  Richardson took the ball and scored again to answer right back, giving Cleveland a 39-38 lead. While the Gladiators forced Tampa Bay into a 4th-and-1 situation on a long drive, Hippeard found Hills in the end zone for a score, but a missed extra point kept the lead at five points.

The chess match began after that score. The Storm attempted – and recovered – an onside kick, and gained better field position thanks to an unnecessary roughness penalty. The drive quickly became sloppy, as both teams suffered penalties to take away big plays, including a Mario Norman interception for Cleveland. Nevertheless, Tampa Bay faced a 3rd-and-13 to begin the final 15 minutes.

The Storm initially thought Hills found the end zone again to start the fourth quarter, but the referees rule the pass incomplete. The play still worked in Tampa Bay’s favor as the Gladiators were again called for unnecessary roughness. The drive became a comedy of errors, as penalties and fan interference led to a third down where Ings caught a pass over a defender and with one foot in the end zone. Ings’ two-point conversion catch increased the lead to 52-39.

Cleveland got a big boost thanks to a Kenny Veal (who finished with 169 return yards) kickoff return past midfield, and another boost thanks to an illegal defense penalty. The Gladiators cashed in with a touchdown from Nelson to Michael Preston to cut the lead to six. Tampa Bay was not deterred, as Hippeard found Hills for the fourth time on the night to bring the lead back to 13 with just 5:30 left in the game.

It was more than enough time for Cleveland to strike back, and in only a few plays, Preston made a diving catch in the back of the end zone to keep the Gladiators within arm’s reach at 59-53. Any celebration was short lived, as Hills returned the onside kick for a touchdown.

Cleveland mustered one more big drive, and Tampa Bay did themselves no favors with two big penalties to back themselves up. Sims was the go-to man, catching his fifth touchdown of the night to cut the lead to six thanks to another missed extra point. Terrance Moore appeared to recover the onside kick, but the referees called the Gladiators for offside.

The Storm worked the clock as best they could, and the final nail in the coffin came in the form of another Randy Hippeard sneak for a 73-59 lead.

Hippeard, denied a historic season in 2016 due to injury, made history tonight. He set records for touchdown passes (7) and passing yards in a Storm playoff game.

The matchup is now set, as the two best teams this season will face off one more time, as Tampa Bay will travel to the Wells Fargo Center to face the Philadelphia Soul in ArenaBowl XXX. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 26. The game will be available via Twitter and on AFLNow.

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