Starting out the Indoor Football League season with three straight losses is not exactly a winning recipe when it comes to cooking up a playoff spot.
But with the 7-8 Duke City Gladiators’ regular-season finale set for Saturday against Northern Arizona (12-3) at the Rio Rancho Event Center, the team has clinched the fourth and final postseason slot in the Western Conference.
“You want to talk about a kick to the stomach, right, 0-3. You really had to re-evaluate your processes; how you’re going about things,” said receiver Jared Elmore, who led the team with 19 touchdowns catches, third-most in the league. “You want to be accountable but you don’t want to point fingers.”
The team was able to pull together after a number of long talks, longer days on the practice field and letting their talent take over, said offensive lineman Jordan Mosley.
“It’s been a consistent grind towards the ultimate positive goal of winning a championship,” he said. “Because we already have playoff-level credence about ourselves. We already have a playoff-level mystique about ourselves. We understand what it takes to be in the tournament.”
Despite that mystique and credence, it wasn’t until rookie quarterback Ramone Atkins solidified the quarterback position, however, that the Gladiators really began to take off as a team, Elmore said.
“Once we knew that he was the guy, once we knew that he was very capable,” the team gelled, Elmore said. “Because he had showed us flashes in his short stints after Nate Davis was injured but he never got the full time just to get his feet wet and get comfortable. When that happened, things started. We knew what we had and we were excited about it and things started rolling a lot better.”
Atkins, out of New Mexico Highlands University, leads the league with 2,160 yards passing despite playing just 13 games. He has thrown for a league-best 50 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions and he also has run for 311 yards and 15 scores.
“He gets my vote for rookie of the year, without a doubt,” Elmore said. “The growth of that young man from a quiet, shy man to a leader, now vocal, it’s kind of why you play the game. As an old man who gets to see a young man from his first start from the opposite end of that spectrum, it’s one of the most awesome things to see. I feel like a proud papa.”
Even with a playoff berth in hand, that doesn’t mean Saturday’s 505-celebration game against the Wranglers loses any of its importance because it sets the tone going into the playoffs. There, Duke City will travel to face the 13-3 Arizona Rattlers, who knocked the Gladiators out of the playoffs last season.
“I’m a champion in pro arena football in my career. And this time of year, you want to be doing what they call clicking on all cylinders,” Mosley said.
“So offensively, defensively, special teams wise and coaching, we’re all on one accord and we’re all trying to make sure whoever touches the field, creates and generates an excellent and positive and good outcome. And a consistently positive and consistently excellent outcome going forward because that’s what creates a championship pedigree about yourself.”