The New Mexico Stars always figured they’d be the last team standing in the Western Division of the American Indoor Football league when the season ended in late May. They promised from Day One they’d be in the AIF postseason tournament.
How right they were. On Saturday, the Stars (6-1) will face the host Columbus (Ga.) Lions (8-0) in a first-round AIF playoff game.
But the Stars surely couldn’t have foreseen how the season played out. Or maybe more accurately, how it didn’t play out.
One by one, New Mexico’s regional rivals dissolved, some folding before opening day. Included was the Corpus Christi Fury, which less than 24 hours before its scheduled game in Rio Rancho on May 15 pulled the plug on its season. The Fury became the eighth and final division team finding a home on the AIF’s Boot Hill.
That officially left New Mexico alone in the AIF western wilderness. Yet through it all, the majority of the Stars players stuck it out.
“It’s just nuts how these guys have believed in us,” Stars co-owner Tracy Duran said during Tuesday’s outdoor practice at the Rio Rancho Sports Park. “It’s paid off with a playoff berth. It’s been a hell of a journey.”
And as far as journeys go, they ain’t seen nothing yet.
Their trip to Columbus began at 10 a.m. and figured to last about 20 hours.
And if the Stars beat the AIF’s lone unbeaten team, next up is likely a trip to Estero, Fla., to play the Florida Tarpons (7-1).
Stars coach John Fourcade, 55, a veteran of the indoor game and an ex-QB for the NFL Saints, has done the math.
“If we beat Columbus, we’ll turn around and come home. We’ll then go back to Florida, which is another 26 hours.”
For Stars quarterback Percy Turner and linebacker Kendrick Causey, this weekend will be a homecoming. Both are natives of Mississippi and said they figure to have friends and family in attendance cheering on the visiting team.
“A lot of our guys are from Florida, Tennessee, Georgia …,” said Turner, who has thrown for 45 TDs and three interceptions in the team’s seven-game season that’s not been a murderer’s row. The Stars’ last four games were against semipro teams that agreed to play at the 11th hour. The AIF’s Steel City (Colo.) Menace managed two trips to Rio Rancho early on, but on the team’s second visit it borrowed three Stars players to fill out its roster. Fourcade said the Stars had roughly 800 to 1,000 fans on hand each game at the Santa Ana Star Center.
In the Stars’ last outing, they defeated the visiting semipro Capital City Warriors of Santa Fe 102-6 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score might indicate.
“They scored on the last play of the game on a tipped pass,” Fourcade said laughing. “Their team was having a ball.”
Causey, who is “a beast,” according to Fourcade, admitted sticking it out for the season despite storm clouds – some of which were self-inflicted by the Stars – was sometimes tough.
“At the beginning, it was,” said Causey, who has 11 sacks. “But the Durans (Tracy and wife Crystal) worked really hard to put this together. At one point everyone had doubt, but the ones that stayed around, it came out a positive outcome.”
Duran’s reign with the Stars has been filled with misadventures.
He and Crystal took over the franchise in the winter of 2015 and just before training camp, coach Dominic Bramante resigned, which set off a domino effect that caused Duran to put the Stars on ice for the season. He vowed the team would return the next season and in early spring of 2015 conducted an elaborate news conference to introduce a new coach and new league.
Three coaches and a handful of leagues later, the Stars are playoff-bound. But, according to Fourcade, there was some arm- twisting that went on with the league commissioner to convince him that New Mexico deserved one of the eight berths despite playing only three league games (going 2-1).
“What Tracy did,” Fourcade said, “was he got (Commissioner) John Morris on the phone and pretty much said, ‘Hey, look, you got us in this league, you took our money, and you left us on this island. So, how about us?”
Morris had a different take on the phone Wednesday: “I don’t think that was true at all. They earned their way in. They played and won almost all their games and earned the right to be included.”
Duran said there were a lot more lows than highs along the way.
“I’ll be honest, every week was a low point,” he said. “When you go and scheduled for the last seven weeks and you’re trying to figure out game after game because teams don’t want to play you or teams can’t financially afford to play, you have to create backup plans. And backup plans for the backup plans.”
THE GAME: Fourcade said he thinks the Stars have a puncher’s chance to win Saturday.
“The thing about it is, we’re definitely healthy,” he said. “I do know that Columbus has a few players that are hurt. And we’ve added a few guys to the roster and they have fresh legs.”
Among the newcomers is ex-UNM Lobo Jaymar Latchison, a defensive end, who signed last week.