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ARENA FOOTBALL

Avengers Preparing for Early Start

January 06, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

The NFL playoffs are barely underway and the next professional football season is gearing up.

The Arena Football League will begin its 17th season in February instead of April, thanks in part to a national television contract with NBC. So several teams, including the Avengers, opened training camps Sunday.

Thirty-five players reported to the team's practice facility at West Los Angeles College for physicals, meetings and equipment. The team will start contact drills Tuesday. The season opener against the Las Vegas Gladiators will be Feb. 2 at Staples Center.

After struggling in their first two seasons, the Avengers had a season to celebrate last year.

It began with the hiring of Ed Hodgkiss as coach. It ended with the Avengers reaching the playoffs for the first time, although they lost their first-round game to Tampa Bay, 66-41.

In between, the Avengers posted their first winning regular season, 8-6, and finished third in the Western Division.

Continuing the team's ascent will be a major challenge, Hodgkiss said.

"Last year we gave our guys a winning attitude," Hodgkiss said. "They now know we are one of the top teams in the Arena league; that's different than it was a couple of years ago."

Several key players are back.

Quarterback Tony Graziani set team records for yards passing (3,568) and touchdowns (67) last year. Also re-signed was wide receiver and linebacker Greg Hopkins, who led the Avengers in points (202), touchdowns (33), receptions (33) and yards receiving (1,285). On defense he recorded 38.5 tackles and had five interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns. He received the league's "ironman of the year" award, given to the top two-way player.

Another standout was offensive specialist Chris Jackson, who caught 85 passes for 1,205 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Gone is running back Chad Dukes, who was the league's top rusher (226 yards) and became the first Arena player to lead the league in rushing three times. Defensive back Mark Ricks won't return either, having signed with Arizona.

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