Digging into the Gladiators & Soul Rivalry

If Gladiators-Soul wasn’t already one of the top rivalries in the Arena Football League, three last-second Gladiators victories over the then-defending American Conference Champion Philadelphia certainly fixed that.  Now, with the teams set to meet in back-to-back weeks- the regular season finale and the playoff opener- the rivalry could be put over the top.  Philadelphia has the upper hand in 2015, but the Gladiators have a chance to cancel out their two defeats at the hands of the Soul with a strong showing in the month of August, when games matter most. 

Cleveland hosts Philadelphia tomorrow at 7:00 p.m. to finish the regular season, and the Gladiators will visit the Soul to open the playoffs a week later, on Saturday, August 15th, for a 5:00 p.m. kickoff in the Arena Football League Quarterfinals.

“I’m excited to play them twice.  You don’t often get that opportunity, to play a team back-to-back” said quarterback Shane Austin.  “It’ll be interesting to see how the two teams play in the first game compared to the second game.  We’re looking forward to it in the same mindset, to take it one game at a time and get some confidence.”

“My rookie year, I didn’t really know much about it, but my first game I started figuring out that usually whoever comes out of this division goes to the ArenaBowl,” said receiver Dominick Goodman regarding the rivalry between the two teams.  “The rivalry has always been there, and the games have always been crazy, close, and good games to watch.  We just hope to put on another show in this game.”

Receiver Thyron Lewis said Philly “has been one of our toughest rivals since everything started."  And it’s grown every year, especially with last year’s three games that came down to the last clutch play in each game.

It’s easy to recall the three games last year starting with Lewis’ game-winning touchdown catch at The Q that capped off the Gladiators erasing of a three-score deficit in the final minute; then Shane Austin’s end-to-end, TECMO Bowl-style throw that ended in a deflected ball being caught by Goodman for a game-winning score; and finally Aaron Pettrey’s game-winning field goal to move the Gladiators into the second round of the playoffs. 

“The first game that we played against them was special, being able to score three times in [under a minute].  The second one was a great one just because of the play: a Hail Mary, 50 yards, the whole field, the kind of plays you just don’t get.  The third one kept us going in the playoffs with the kick.  It probably wasn’t the best game, but because it was in the playoffs, that made it a huge game,” Head Coach Steve Thonn said.

With the playoff matchup set in stone, this week’s matchup is about making a statement.  Both teams know the value of entering the playoffs on a high note, and all eight teams who graduate to the postseason will hope to “get hot at the right time.” 

“It’s still a very good rivalry, but they’ve gotten two wins against us [this season].  We have to come out here Saturday night and get a win just to put the pressure on that anyone can win this playoff game,” Thonn said.

But facing the Soul in a do-or-die matchup is something a good number of this year’s squad has already done, and the players who were in that situation last season saw a game go down to the wire.  Philadelphia took a 37-36 lead on a touchdown, followed by a two-point conversion, with 25 seconds left in regulation.  It was at that point that Pettrey, then the Gladiators kicker, wanted the opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal.

“I remember talking to [Dominic Jones] after Philly got the two-point conversion.  I told him I had them and “I’ll take us to the next round.”  At that time I knew I wouldn’t miss as long as I got the opportunity.  I loved kicking in pressure moments,” Pettrey said.  “Luckily, I didn’t let D.J. down and the Gladiators got to continue playing that year.  It only made it that much better being against Philly.”

“It was one of my best moments on a football field,” Pettrey said.

A key difference between last year’s first round playoff matchup and this year’s version on August 15th: the playoffs will open in Philadelphia this season.  Pressure situations at the Wells Fargo Center?  The Gladiators have been there, too.

The Soul took a 68-63 lead on a touchdown with two seconds remaining last June 21st.  After the ensuing kickoff went out of play, the Gladiators had time for one length-of-the-field play.  Austin heaved a pass toward the opposite end zone, and after the ball was batted, Dominick Goodman snagged it from mid-air and trotted into the end zone to secure a 69-68 Gladiators win.

“We said we were just going to throw it up, go up for grabs, and see what happens.  Luckily, T-Lew was able to get a hand on it, bat it, and I was right there to get it.  When I caught it, I couldn’t believe it,” Goodman said.  Goodman also said the Soul, without a doubt, still think about what the Gladiators pulled off against them last season.  “[Philadelphia] knows every time we play each other it’s going to go down to the wire.”

Every Gladiators win against Philadelphia last season fueled the rivalry,  but the game that pushed it to a new level was the first matchup between the teams last season.  On May 23, 2014, the Gladiators trailed 52-35 with under a minute to play.  Two touchdowns and two onside kick recoveries later, the Gladiators had a final drive to win the game.  The final play ended with the ball caught in the end zone by a diving Lewis, and the Gladiators won 54-52.

“It’s all about the will to win,” Lewis said.  “It helps and builds confidence if you can play all the way to the end, and come out and win, it helps you build as a team and know that you can get through anything together.”

Philadelphia has controlled the season series in 2015, but eight more quarters remain between the two East Division heavyweights in 2015.  The team that plays the best for the 120 minutes will probably be playing for a trip to the ArenaBowl.