In a meeting earlier this year, I was asked a very interesting question, “Which Lehigh Valley professional sports team will win a championship first?”
I really had to think.
At the time of the question, the Phantoms were headed for the Calder Cup Playoffs, and I knew they had the talent to make a run. However, I also knew that they had lost an important scorer (Weal) and that the hockey playoffs are a long and difficult gauntlet to run–especially for a franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs in some time.
I also knew the IronPigs would continue to be the beneficiary of the Phillies re-build as top prospects would be coming through Coca Cola Park over the next few seasons. But, the baseball season is a long grind, and the Phillies would be anxious to get those prospects to the big team (you’d think…) to hasten their own relevance. It’s just a couple rounds of playoff games to hardware in AAA baseball, but it’s always going to be a question of what kind of team we have left around here in September.
Bethlehem Steel FC is still in it’s infancy–in this incarnation anyway. And, if last season was any suggestion, I was guessing the Philadelphia Union as parent would continue to monkey with the roster on a week-to-week basis such that any kind of continuity necessary for a major run would be lacking. I also was unaware of any top soccer prospects in line to contribute to the local professional soccer club. It must be said, they’re on a nice run as I write this, so don’t count them out. Some nice veteran signings and leadership to go along with some developing talent and some first-team contributions have them looking good on the pitch. Like baseball, though, it’s a long, long season so the jury is still out on their second season.
That leaves the SteelHawks. They’ve been to the playoffs every season, save one. The problem for them has been the nature of the sport has had them exclusively on the road for each and every round, every season. That’s a difficult row to hoe. They have come close, but have ultimately fallen short of a championship.
This season has been different. The ‘Hawks have won every home contest and lost only one overall. The addition of veteran QB Warren Smith Jr has allowed the offense to develop and flourish throughout the season. Experienced and consistent play from WRs Brandon Renford, Darius Prince, and Warren Oliver Jr have culminated in the top-scoring offense in the nascent National Arena League (NAL).
Defense has always been the strength of the previous SteelHawks teams–and this season is no different. Strong play up front by DL Tim Hume and LB Chris Alvarez force quick passes by opposing offenses, which are often “hawked” by talented DBs like Dom Joseph, Rodney Hall, and Ray Wagner. Firey defensive coordinator Bob Kohler and linebackers coach Lori Locust will have their squad ready to go tonight.
Here’s What You Need To Know About Tonight’s Game:
Tickets: Good Seats Still Available
Visitors: Columbus (Ga) Lions
Previous Meeting: The second seeded SteelHawks (9-1) beat the third-seeded Lions (9-3) at the PPL Center 60-54 on 4/9/2017. The SteelHawks held a strong lead through most of the game, but allowed the Lions to come back and take a 54-53 lead with a minute left. A deep pass from Smith to Renford locked up the win in the final seconds.
The Other Semi-Final: Tomorrow night, the Monterrey Steel (4) visit the Jacksonville Sharks (1) in a rematch of a game the Steel won last weekend.
If The SteelHawks Win: We’ll await the Jacksonville result tomorrow. Should Jacksonville win they’ll host the SteelHawks I believe July 9 or 10. If the Steel win, they’ll come to the PPL Center July 8, I’ve been told.
If The SteelHawks Lose: Then that’s it for 2017. See you next season.
SteelHawks Keys To The Game
- Playcalling: Creative but conservative playcalling versus a team who has seen you before.
- Mistakes: Turnovers and sloppy play with the ball could allow the Lions to stay in the game or come back.
- Quarterback and O-Line: The O-Line needs to keep Warren Smith Jr upright and healthy in order to maintain our advantage at that position and run the ball enough to keep the defense honest.
- Ball Skills: the DBs need to keep their heads up to find those errant passes.
- Turnovers: The SteelHawks need to maintain the turnover advantage which has helped them all season.
- Little Points: Those extra points, 2-pt conversions, and deuces all add up when the game is on the line in the fourth period. Mis-cues on these plays could cost them the game.
Preview From The Team:
GAME PREVIEW: STEELHAWKS VS LIONS IN THE PLAYOFFS
Hawks’ First Ever Home Playoff Game inside the PPL Center
Allentown, PA: Friday Night Lights come to the Valley this week as the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks (9-1) host the Columbus Lions (9-3) in the franchise’s first ever home playoff game. This is the second time these teams will meet this season, the Steelhawks claiming a narrow victory in the final seconds back in week four. The playoff game will kick off Friday, June 23rd on Embassy Bank Field inside the PPL Center at 7:30pm; presented by BINANAT CAPITAL. The game will be broadcast live locally on Service Electric Cable TV/TV2 Sports and fans will be able to view the game through a YouTube streamed broadcast.
In this first round playoff game, the #2 seed Steelhawks host the #3 seed Lions. This will be a meeting of the league’s top two scoring offenses – the Steelhawks lead the league with 61 points per game, the Lions scoring an average of 58.1 points. By the numbers, the defenses are nearly even – scoringwise: 34.4 for LV and 34.9 for Columbus. The Steelhawks have a slight edge in turnover margin, +19 compared to +17 for the Lions.
A big difference between the teams lies in HOW they’ve gotten to this point offensively. Columbus has had two starting Quarterbacks under center this season; their current starting QB Mason Espinosa has played in eight games this season, throwing for 23 touchdowns and 953 yards on 97-148-4 (comp-att-int). Lehigh Valley in turn has been led exclusively by Warren Smith Jr. at the helm– 61 total touchdowns (56 passing), 1,953 yds passing on 66% completion (169-256-8 comp-att-int).
It’s a win or go home game scenario for the Steelhawks, who will need a complete effort from all three phases of the game for 60 minutes in order to advance to the National Arena League Championship.
In the other first round game, the #1 seed Jacksonville Sharks host the #4 Monterrey Steel on June 24th, at 7pm. The NAL Championship will be played the weekend of July 8th. The highest seed playing will host the game – as the #1 seed, if the Sharks win, the game will be on Monday, July 10th in Jacksonville.
The Steelhawks Annual Post-Season Party and awards ceremony will be the day following the first round game at Roosevelt’s 21st Bethlehem. This outdoor picnic will be from 1-4pm. Keep checking for the latest news and events from the Steelhawks. For further information please call Lehigh Valley Steelhawks Executive Vice President and General Manager Mike Clark at (610) 282-3100, or visit our website at www.LVSteelhawks.com for the latest Steelhawks news. Reserve your seat for the home playoff contest now by calling the Steelhawks office at 610-282-3100. The Steelhawks play all of their home games on Embassy Bank Field inside the PPL Center.
Stay up to date with the Steelhawks by visiting the team website at www.LVSteelhawks.com or following them on Facebook: Lehigh Valley Steelhawks.
See you at the arena,
Cover Photo by Jack Mitroka