The last time the Duke City Gladiators took the field, on July 13, 2019, team owner Gina Prieskorn-Thomas was filled with anxiety as her team attempted to hold off the Salina (Kan.) Liberty for its second straight Champions Indoor Football crown.
The tension lasted until a Salina pass fell incomplete in the Gladiators’ end zone as time expired, enabling Duke City to prevail 35-29. Confetti fell from the Tingley Coliseum rafters and many in the announced crowd of 4,650 joined the on-field celebration.
But then came 2020 and a whole different kind of anxiety.
That’s when Duke City’s season in the prestigious Indoor Football League was aborted shortly before its opening-game kickoff in Frisco, Texas.
“We literally had just showed up there,” Prieskorn-Thomas said in an interview at team headquarters on Menaul Boulevard NE earlier this week. “We were at the field and arena officials said you’re not playing. We were told to just get back on the bus.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had hit the team head-on.
On alternate weeks ever since she’s been on proverbial pins and needles when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives updates on the state’s COVID-19 situation.
As of this week, Bernalillo remains a “yellow” county, which for Gladiators purposes means they wouldn’t be permitted to allow fans at their games if the season opened today.
Moving up a notch to green means 25% of capacity would be permitted in the building.
“I’m assuming we’ll go green by time the kids go back to school (April 5),” Prieskorn-Thomas said. “If not, we’ll play without fans and figure what we’re going to do.”
Assisting in that endeavor is $300,000 from sponsors, up from $180,000 in 2019.
Part of the figuring out process is where they will play, with the home opener set for May 29. Tingley, the team’s home since its inception in 2015, is currently off-limits. The state facility is being used to administer virus vaccines and there is no timetable as to when the building will be available for games, concerts, rodeos, etc.
“Right now we are fully committed to getting as many shots in arms as we can.” said Expo New Mexico spokeswoman Oona Gonzales. “As a state facility, we’re not open for public events now. It’s going to depend on how (COVID) numbers continue to go down and when we are given the green light by the governor’s office.
“But we are optimistic and definitely looking forward to welcoming people back when it’s safe to do so.”
Prieskorn-Thomas said the Gladiators have reached out to the Convention Center, and that’s an option.
Tingley seats almost 9,800 for football and the Convention Center would have about 10,000. Duke City averaged 4,500 to 6,500 in announced attendance in 2019.
Prieskorn-Thomas also said site options include playing at an outdoor venue or even at the arena in Amarillo.
IFL commissioner Todd Tryon said he marvels at Prieskorn’s resolve.
“Gina’s not a quitter,” he said in a phone interview from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “She’s doing an outstanding job in facing all her challenges. She’s committed to the season.”
By comparison, Tryon says three of the league’s 12 active teams (five are on hold till 2022) have no current fan restrictions — the Bismarck (N.D.) Bucks, the Sioux Falls Storm and Frisco (Texas) Fighters.
LEAGUE SCHEDULE: Counting last year, Tryon said he has spent an enormous amount of time reworking league schedules because of the pandemic and adhering to often-changing wishes of the franchises.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve done about 50 rebuilds (dating to 2020) and it takes about six hours for each,” he said.
This year Duke City requested a late start to its season in hopes of getting to “green” status and will play 14 games with no byes. Meanwhile, Green Bay, Bismarck, Sioux Falls and Louisville were open for business earlier and will play 16-game schedules, in addition to having two byes. In fact, Green Bay will have played five games before Duke City’s opener.
Winning percentage will determine placement in the standings.
“I’m a big fan of bye weeks because the players take a beating,” said Gladiators Director of Player Personnel Matt Avila. “So not having any will be difficult. But we all had to make compromises on something.”
The Tucson Sugar Skulls are the only other team without a midseason bye.
THE ROSTER: Recently hired GM Jon Lyles said there are 40 players currently trying to make the Gladiators’ 30-man team, up from a roster limit of 25 in past years. Twenty-one players would be active on game days.
He said 14 of the Gladiators have even made the Albuquerque metro area their home.
“When you’ve got players who want to live where the franchise is, it’s definitely a bonus,” Lyles said.