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Thunder must make late-season noise


Arena playoffs still within reach, but it will take solid finish

Taking everything into account, Portland Thunder coach Matthew Sauk is generally pleased with the way his expansion team has been playing this season.

The Thunder are only 3-10, but they have battled in almost every game, and Portland is still in the hunt to make the Arena Football League playoffs.

“We want to be better,” Sauk says. “But overall, the organization and the players have done a great job. We’re 3-10, but we’re still in the playoff hunt, which is a little bit crazy. We’ve been in every single game and we’ve had a chance to win every game except about three. For a first-year team, that’s never played together, that’s a very positive sign.”

The key for the Thunder over their remaining five regular-season games will be turning the kind of close games that they “could’ve” won into games they actually win.

“It’s just a different mentality,” Sauk says. “Believing that we can win those games. Because almost every single game, we’ve been in. A lot of the good teams will finish strong and get the win. We’re trying to learn that with our young guys.”

The strength of the Thunder this season has been their defense. Portland has held teams to just 54.4 points per game.

“The defense has been really consistent all year,” Sauk says. “We’ve been getting takeaways all year. I’m extremely happy with our defense.”

Sauk says the offense, which is averaging 44.2 points per game, is improving with Kyle Rowley taking the majority of the snaps over the last three games. Rowley is 73 of 129 passing for 929 yards, 17 touchdowns and one interception.

“We’re better off than we were,” Sauk says, of the quarterback position. “Kyle has come in and played well. (Backup QB) Darron (Thomas) has done a good job of knowing his role, and he’s performed his role very successfully for me.

“Our last five games, we’ve averaged right around 57 points, which would be good for second or third in the league. The last five games, we’ve performed very well. We keep getting better on the offensive side.”

The Thunder are battling the Los Angeles KISS for the fourth and final playoff spot in the National Conference. Both teams are 3-10, but the Kiss hold the tiebreaker after the Thunder lost to them 69-61 on the road on June 14.

The Thunder will not look past their home game against the 2-11 New Orleans Voodoo (7 p.m. Thursday, Moda Center). However, the game against the KISS in Portland on July 12

(7:30 p.m., Moda Center) will be crucial.

Sauk predicts that the Thunder will need to win three of the remaining five games to make the playoffs, which would be a monumental feat for Portland in its first season as a franchise. The schedule also includes a July 5 trip to the 12-1 Cleveland Gladiators, a July 20 visit to the Arizona Rattlers (14-0) and the home and regular-season finale July 26 against the Spokane Shock (7-7).

“We’re tied with L.A.,” Sauk says. “We need to beat them when they come to our place. And we’ve got to continue to win. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s something that we can achieve.”