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AVENGER REPORT

Game of Keepaway Proves Beneficial

March 15, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

On the final possession of last week's game against the New York Dragons, Avenger quarterback Tony Graziani dropped back to pass and watched receiver Greg Hopkins break free behind the defense.

Hopkins was wide open and certain to score if a pass was thrown his way.

So Graziani did exactly what years of training in high school, college and the NFL told him not to do: He ignored Hopkins.

Instead, Graziani dumped off a short pass to offensive specialist Greg Jackson. The play kept an eight-play drive alive -- and the clock ticking. The Avengers won the game when fullback Kevin Clemens scored on a one-yard run as time expired for a 65-61 victory.

"In the Arena league, you have to look at it like basketball," Avenger Coach Ed Hodgkiss said. "When it's close at the end, you want to score without giving the other team enough time to answer."

Hodgkiss and Graziani have managed the clock as well as any coach and quarterback in the league this season. The Avengers, who are 4-2 and tied for first place in the American Conference's Western Division, have won three games on the final play.

The Avengers defeated defending ArenaBowl champion San Jose, 73-72, on a two-point conversion pass from Graziani to Hopkins on Feb. 9. The following week, they defeated Denver, 59-53, in overtime on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Graziani to Hopkins.

Graziani, who played at Oregon and with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons before signing with the Avengers near the end of the 2001 season, is still learning to resist temptation when obvious scoring opportunities are available.

"It definitely goes against everything you're taught when you're running two-minute drills in stadium football," Graziani said. "If you have a chance to score, you take it. That's what you work for.

"In the Arena league, it's all about who has the ball last at the end of both halves."

Hodgkiss said he expected another close game on Sunday, when the Avengers play the Indiana Firebirds (3-3) at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

"Most teams in the Arena league are going to play five or six games each season that come down to the last play," Hodgkiss said. "It's a little bit unusual that we've played this many so early.

"But I wouldn't be surprised if it happens again Sunday."

There is precedent when it comes to the Avengers and Firebirds.

Last season, Indiana won, 56-53, at Conseco Fieldhouse on a 50-yard field goal by Nelson Garner as time expired.

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Indiana opened with three consecutive victories but has lost its last three games.

The Firebirds are in third place in the Central Division, behind Grand Rapids (4-2) and Dallas (4-2).

Hodgkiss coached in the Firebird franchise for five seasons, four of those when the franchise was in Albany, N.Y.

"They are, by far, the most physical team in the league," Hodgkiss said. "And I'm sure they are eager to end their losing streak."

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The Avengers, who are giving up 55.7 points a game, signed defensive specialist Cornelius Coe, who established an Arena league record with 121.5 tackles for Indiana during the 2001 season.

Coe played for Indiana last year and was selected by Las Vegas in the AFL expansion draft in November.

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Fullback-linebacker Mathias Vavao (rib) and lineman Tony Plantin (back) will not play for the second consecutive game. Both were injured during warm-ups for a game against Georgia on March 2.

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