With the Arena Football League having all teams take a bye week, we take a look back at the last 13 weeks and see how the Cleveland Gladiators ended up 7-6, sit second in the National Conference and a fourth seed in the playoff bracket.
Week one was not how the Gladiators wanted to start out their season. The longtime rival Philadelphia Soul came to Cleveland and looked just as good as they did last year when they made it to the American Conference Championship game. Philly manhandled Gladiators QB Chris Dieker and the rest of the offense with a 69-41 victory. If that wasn’t enough, Dieker took a big hit in the fourth quarter and was taken out of the game and put on injured reserved shortly after the opening game.
After Dieker went down, Dennis Havrilla filled in at QB and his first game was against the Tampa Bay Storm. Coming right out of training camp, the former Spokane Shock QB was a bit shaky at first but got his and the team’s first victory of the season and improve to 1-1 on the season. Not only did Cleveland lose their starting quarterback but head coach Steve Thonn had a medical issue and had to be rushed to the hospital before game two. Luckily, he was released the next day and was back at the next practice.
Havrilla was impressive the next few weeks with only limited time in camp and not being able to play with the team’s starters but lost to the LA KISS and to the Philadelphia Soul for the second straight time and the sixth game in a row. Unfortunately, in the game against the Soul, Havrilla hyperextended his knee and was taken out of the game and replaced by another former Shock QB and Cleveland linebacker Arvell Nelson. Nelson started the next week against Orlando in another losing effort. On their fourth string QB and a 1-4 record, Things were looking grim for the Gladiators.
It wasn’t all bad news for the team though. WR Collin Taylor came into the year with 16 games in a row with a touchdown catch and by week five, he extended his streak to 21 games. Due to injuries to the WR core, Larry Beavers showed that he is more than a kick returner. He found himself in a starting role on the receiver core and, besides a fumbling problem, has helped take the pressure off of Taylor. Another gem found this season was breakout receiver Quinten Simms. He has been a red zone threat since becoming a starter and has become one of Nelson’s favorite targets. He even landed a spot on sport center’s top 10 with an incredible one handed touchdown catch at the number two spot.
Sitting behind Philly and LA in the standings, Cleveland needed a boost to get back into the race for the division. The Northeast Ohio native Nelson had a solid game against last year’s American Conference champion the Jacksonville Sharks as the defense held Jacksonville to a field goal attempt with time expiring as Cleveland won 41-40. This was the second win of the season in a very heavy home friendly first half of the season. Nelson proved he could run this offense and the gladiator defense led by Brandon Stephens, Joe Powell and Marvin Ross was becoming one of the best secondary in the game.
Including the Jacksonville win, Cleveland went on a four game winning streak by beating . The team improved to 5-4 on the season and everything was going Cleveland’s way. The defense was leading the league interceptions and fourth down stops. The offense was impressing everyone as Nelson, Taylor and Simms became a forced to be reckoned with. If that wasn’t sweet enough, Cleveland defeated Philadelphia at home for the first time since the 2014 season.
The Arizona Rattlers came to Cleveland in 2014 and left Arena Bowl Champions as they embarrassed and dismantled the “Team OF Destiny” Gladiators. That will forever be embedded in the minds of the fans who witnessed it and the players that played in the game. Arizona was another team that Cleveland hasn’t beaten in a good amount of time and Cleveland still hasn’t as future AFLHOF Nick Davila led the Arizona offense to a win in week 10 and the Gladiators final home game. They also lost on a last second field goal the very next week against the Orlando Predators and were back under .500 and lost two in a row. Cleveland quickly got back into their winning ways as they finish with a two game win streak before the bye week by defeating both Portland and a fourth quarter comeback against Jacksonville.
Cleveland sits in second place in the conference with a 7-6 record and a four seed in the playoff bracket as of now. If they hope to obtain a home playoff game, they only need to win 2 more games to lock in that last spot for the top four seeds. Let’s see if they can keep the momentum going next week in Philly as they take on the Soul one last time.