As the Arena Football League entered a new millennium in 2000, the ground was arguably shaky. In fact, for nearly a week (from Feb. 24 to March 1), the season was officially canceled. However, the League Player’s Union reached a collective bargaining agreement with the league and dropped their antitrust lawsuit filed over health benefits, higher salaries, and a lack of free agency.
Once the season got going, it really got going. San Jose and Arizona were not just in a divisional race throughout the season, but a race for the #1 overall seed. The Orlando Predators were the only team who won their division by more than one game, and five of the eight wild card teams were only separated by two games. It was a postseason ripe for upsets.
The Predators had a comfortable run to ArenaBowl XIV, beating I-4 rival Tampa Bay 34-24 in the quarterfinals before netting a mild upset at home against Arizona, 56-44, in the semifinals.
However, Orlando’s division foe, the Nashville Kats, had a little tougher route. After a 57-14 wild-card win over Grand Rapids, the Kats had to face the #3 seed and first-team All-Arena quarterback Aaron Garcia on the road in the quarterfinals. After scoring a 63-56 upset, their reward was a trip to San Jose to face the #1 seed SaberCats, who finished 12-2. A 52-41 semifinal upset win meant one more game and one more trip to Amway Arena.
The Jungle, as the arena was known as, had a raucous crowd of 15,989 on hand to witness the Predators in their third straight title game up against a debutante Nashville team. It didn’t take long for the home team to assert their dominance, as Ernest Allen recorded a safety inside the first minute of the game. With the ball, Connell Maynor found Clif Dell from 16 yards out to extend the lead to 9-0. After a couple of stops, Joe Douglass would score on a 3-yard touchdown run to make the Orlando lead 15-0 after David Cool missed the extra point.
Andy Kelly did find Jeff Russell on a 33-yard touchdown pass to narrow the deficit to 15-7 at the end of the first quarter, but Maynor threw two more touchdown passes to start the second, and the Kats were nearly left for dead down 29-7 just 20 minutes into the game.
However, like Orlando did to start the game, Nashville scored a safety (thanks to William Gaines) and got two touchdown passes from Kelly (one to Cory Fleming, the other to Darryl Hammond) to score 16 unanswered points and cut the deficit to 29-23 at the halftime buzzer.
The third quarter was a tight, defensive battle, with Nashville taking the lead on an Andy Kelly 28-yard pass to James Baron, and Orlando answering with a 38-yard field goal from David Cool to take a 32-30 lead going into the final fifteen minutes.
Orlando started that final frame strong with Connell Maynor finding Bret Cooper on a 15-yard pass, but Cool missed his second extra point of the game, and the lead remained 38-30. To add injury to insult, Andy Kelly went down with a knee injury, forcing backup quarterback James Brown into action to lead a comeback. Things initially didn’t go according to plan thanks to Brown throwing an interception on his first drive. The turnover didn’t hurt, though, as Cool missed a 22-yard field goal, his third miss of the game. Brown did make things right on his next drive, finding Hammond on a 45-yard bomb and then Fleming on the tying two-point conversion with 6:26 left in the game.
Defense stepped up yet again, creating another scoring drought and the possibility of the first-ever ArenaBowl to be decided in overtime. But, Maynor and the Predators had one last drive in them, and set up one last chance at redemption for David Cool.
Cool, who missed a total of five kicks during the game, had a shot at a game-winning 19-yard field goal on the last play. The snap was good, the hold was good, and the kick sailed through the uprights to give Orlando their second title in three years.
Thanks to a 202-yard, four-touchdown game on 17 completions in 28 attempts, Connell Maynor won MVP honors. James Baron, thanks to his touchdown catch and two sacks, was named Ironman of the Game in the loss.
For Orlando, they would have to wait for another chance at a title after this classic, as their next ArenaBowl appearance wouldn’t be for another six years. Nashville, on the other hand, made it right back to the big game the next year, only to run into Clint Dolezel and the Grand Rapids Rampage. The Kats wouldn’t come back to Nashville until 2005, and left the league for good in 2007.