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–  Arena Football League team out to prove it's better than the record/



COURTESY: ARENA FOOTBALL LEAGUE - Quarterback Shane Austin and the Portland Steel will play at home Friday against the Tampa Bay Storm, as the Arena Football League heads into the second half of its season.Forgive the Portland Steel if they need directions to their home arena for this week’s game against the Tampa Bay Storm.

Almost half the Steel is new since the last time the team played at Moda Center. And the players who are still on the roster haven’t been to the arena for a game since April 1.

After seven consecutive road games, the Steel will get to be the host team when they face the Tampa Bay Storm in a 7:30 p.m. Friday Arena Football League clash.

“It’ll be good to play in front of a friendly crowd instead of a hostile one,” says Ron James, Steel coach and general manager.

The Steel are last in the AFL with an 0-8 record, although three of the games were close and “we should have won,” James says.

How much fan interest remains in the team or for a club no one has seen live for two months? James hopes it’s enough to give his club a needed energy boost.

“We’re entering the part of the season that means the most, and the fans can make a big difference,” he says. “Having a home crowd come out and cheer for us can really help, so I’m looking forward to seeing what type of support we can get.”

The Steel suffered tough losses of 53-50 at Orlando, 55-48 in overtime at Cleveland and 54-42 last week at the Los Angeles KISS, in what probably was the hardest one to swallow. Portland was leading 42-41 when the KISS scored two touchdowns — one directly — by recovering kickoffs that bounced wildly off the goalpost bars in the back of the end zone.

“I’ve been involved in hundreds of arena football games over the years and cannot remember ever having two turnovers like that,” James says. “It was just really bizarre. ... We let an opportunity slip through our fingers.”

And that was just the latest in a series of bad breaks for the Steel.

First, the team got off to a late start because of a league ownership takeover and subsequent coaching change.

Then quarterback Shane Austin missed five games while trying out for the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Repeated injuries have made continuity and consistency almost impossible, especially at wide receiver. Starter Nick Truesdell was lost for the year in the first game, starter Colt Lyerla got hurt soon afterward, and every week, it seems, the Steel have had at least one receiver either forced to the sideline or go on the injured list.

“We’ve gone through nine receivers, and I don’t think any other team has done that,” James says.

The Steel also lost a home game that had to be moved after the Trail Blazers upset another team crippled with injuries, the Los Angeles Clippers, in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

But, with all eight AFL teams guaranteed a playoff berth this year, the Steel are focusing on the second half of their schedule more so than the struggles of April and May.

“It’s a brand-new season,” says Austin, a fourth-year AFL pro from the University of Hawaii who will be playing his fourth game with the Steel on Friday. “You throw the records out the window. The season starts now, and we want to get that first win at home.”

Friday’s opponent is only 1-7, but Tampa Bay got its win last week, knocking off one of the league’s perennial powers, the Arizona Rattlers, 63-56, at Phoenix.

Arizona owns wins over Portland this year of 80-28 (April 1 at Moda Center) and 68-21.

“They’ve got a lot of talent, and they’ve been playing well” Austin says of the Storm. “So they’re a little better than their record. But we’re a lot better than our record.”

Portland’s personnel shuffling continued this week. The Steel were hoping to get back a couple of players from injury, such as receiver Jared Perry and defensive back Terrence Mitchell, both considered day-to-day. But Portland was not expecting the return of others still in healing mode, such as linebacker Bryce Peila, defensive back Tim Shelley and receiver Darryl Thompson (who went down with a hamstring injury during warmups before the opening kickoff last week against the KISS).

Special teams have been a focus in practice for Portland this week.

“Our special teams have underperformed all season,” James says. “We’re just not getting the kickoff coverage and kickoff returns we need. We’re giving up field position in a game with a short (50-yard) field.”

Highlights for the Steel in 2016 have included the play of receivers Tom Gilson (83 receptions for 786 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Tyrone Goard (47 catches for 437 yards and 11 TDs).

“We have two receivers playing at a very high level, but you really have to have three, if not four guys performing like that,” James says.

Austin, who was with the Steel for a while in training camp, has brought stability to the QB spot, succeeding Danny Southwick, Kasey Peters and Darron Thomas in the starting role. Southwick and Peters have been released; Thomas, the former Oregon Ducks star, is in his third year as a backup for Portland, waiting in the wings again after coming back this year from a 2015 knee injury that came just after he had supplanted Kyle Rowley as the starter.

Austin says he and his teammates have kept the faith.

“The confidence is still high,” he says, “because there are good things to build off, as well as things we can still improve on. And as long as we’re improving and building each week and peaking toward the playoffs, we’ll be OK.

“Wins will help us do that. These last three games, we know we should have won two of them (versus Cleveland and L.A.). It’s important for us to get some of those under our belt.”

sbrandon@portlandtribune.com

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