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Avengers Aiming for a Fast Start

L.A.'s Arena Football League team, coming off its first trip to playoffs, plays host to Las Vegas Gladiators on Sunday.

February 01, 2003|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

If Los Angeles is seeking a team to embrace, the Avengers may be it.

The city's only professional football team, which opens Arena Football League play Sunday afternoon at Staples Center against the Las Vegas Galdiators, may play indoors, but it's still football, and they do win.

Last season, his first as coach, Ed Hodgkiss guided the Avengers to a franchise-best 8-6 regular-season record.

With the winning -- and a ticket structure that includes lower-level seats that start at $16 -- average attendance last season was 12,398, up 62% from the previous season.

This will be the Avengers' fourth season, but the Arena Football League's 17th. Carolina played at Tampa Bay in the league opener Friday night, and there's another game tonight, Grand Rapids, Mich., at Buffalo. There are six games on Sunday, including four televised regionally by NBC at noon. L.A. gets San Jose at Arizona.

The Avengers' 3:30 game against the Gladiators, who were based in New Jersey last season, will be televised locally by Fox Sports Net 2 and broadcast on XTRA radio (690 and 1150).

This should be the AFL's break-out year, mainly because the league has a new revenue-sharing deal with NBC that should also provide additional exposure and credibility.

The league has 16 teams and is planning to expand to 24 in the next few years. A new team this season is the Colorado Crush, which has football-crazy Denver going bonkers.

The Crush, part-owned by John Elway, has sold 11,000 season tickets and all seats for its opener Sunday against the Georgia Force and its next two games in the 16,000-seat Pepsi Center have been sold.

The Avengers may not sell out Sunday, but they are expecting a good crowd. They drew a record 14,426 for their regular-season finale last year against the Buffalo Destroyers on July 20.

The indoor game is fast-paced and high scoring. Each team has eight players on the 50-yard field, and six play on both offense and defense. It's not uncommon for a receiver to also play defense. The quarterback and a designated "offensive specialist" are exempt from playing defense.

Pat Haden, NBC's lead commentator, recently worked a rehearsal game with play-by-play partner Tom Hammond and was intrigued by the indoor game.

"The quickness, actually, did catch me by surprise," Haden said. "The opening kickoff was for a touchdown. Often times as a broadcaster you get thrown out of a rhythm when you get a couple of really big plays early when you're used to settling into a game. I think you have to go into a game like this with a little different mind-set, expecting some very big plays, very, very quickly."

Haden and Hammond have been NBC's Notre Dame announcers in recent years.

"I've really come to appreciate the game," Haden said. "There are a lot of subtle nuances in the strategy, some counterintuitive.

"I think the biggest difference the fans will see, perhaps the most exciting, is the kickoff return, which is an absolute scoring opportunity."

Last season, the Avengers averaged 52.2 points a game and gave up 41.1. They began the playoffs seeded No. 5 but lost to the Tampa Bay Storm, 66-41, in the first round. Hodgkiss called it "our worst game of the year."

The Avengers are led by quarterback Tony Graziani, wide receiver-linebacker Greg Hopkins and offensive specialist Chris Jackson. Last season, that triumvirate accounted for 69% of the team's offense.

Hopkins, from Slippery Rock, had 102 receptions for 1,285 yards and 29 touchdowns in the team's 14 regular-season games. He also returned three of his five interceptions on defense for touchdowns. Those numbers helped him win the AFL's "Iron Man of the Year" award.

Jackson, from Santa Ana Mater Dei High and UC Riverside, had 85 catches, 1,205 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Graziani, from Oregon, completed 282 of 467 passes for 3,568 yards and 67 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Avengers at a Glance

* League -- Arena Football League.

* 2002 record -- 8-6 (third in American Western Division).

* Coach -- Ed Hodgkiss.

* Arena -- Staples Center.

* Leading returning passer -- Tony Graziani, 467 attempts, 282 completions, 3,568 yards, 67 touchdowns.

* Leading returning receivers -- Greg Hopkins, 102 receptions, 1,285 yards, 29 touchdowns; Chris Jackson, 85 receptions, 1,205 yards, 28 touchdowns.

* Opener -- Sunday vs. Las Vegas, 3:30 p.m., FSN2.

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