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2009 East Division Preview

March 13, 2009 - arenafootball2 (af2) News Release

CHICAGO - The af2's 10th anniversary season begins next Friday, March 20, when the Central Valley Coyotes host the Tri-Cities Fever. The two-game slate that is 2009's "Kickoff Weekend" finishes up on Saturday, March 21, when Florida hosts South Georgia in a South Division showdown. The year gets into full swing the following weekend with 12 Week 1 affairs, including six on Saturday, March 28. Over the next week, a special team-by-team preview will be presented for each division. The first division profiled is the American Conference's East Division, which features four teams: Albany, Mahoning Valley, Manchester and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

EAST DIVISION

Albany Firebirds (2008: 5-11 - as Albany Conquest)

Home Field: Times Union Center (13,901)

Head Coach: Tony Bowick, first year with Albany, first season overall

Rookies Invited to Camp: 19

Key Players Lost: QB Dan Cole, WR Antwun Williams, WR/LB Vernard Abrams, DL Michael Lewis, DB Brandon Taylor

Key New Faces: WR/DB Alvin Ray Jackson, QB Stephen Wasil, DB Patrick Horne

Key Returners: OL/DL Kevin Marchant, OL/DL Norman Bauer

Burning Questions: Can rookie head coach Tony Bowick get things turned around in Albany? On a team filled with new faces, who will step up to lead this young squad? Will local fans embrace the new Firebirds?

Last Game: Lost at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, 37-51, in 2008 regular season finale (July 25)

Comments: The Firebirds are back in Albany and so is new Head Coach Tony Bowick. After being a notable Arena Football League franchise in the 1990s, the Firebirds have been reborn in the af2. The af2 organization was formerly known as the Conquest for the last seven af2 seasons but the group chose to rename and rebrand the team this past offseason. Bowick, who was an assistant with the Conquest in 2006, played two seasons with the Firebirds (1996-1997), helping the team win the 1996 Eastern Division title. His new team looks nothing like the Conquest club that took the field in 2008. In fact, the Firebirds training camp features 19 rookies and only two players who saw significant action in Albany last year - linemen Kevin Marchant and Norman Bauer. Marchant, in his second af2 season, played in six games with the Conquest in 2008 and posted eight total tackles, three sacks, three pass breakups and one forced fumble. Marchant's rookie campaign was cut short due to injury. The quarterback race looks to be an open competition among a group of three players - Adam Bednarik of West Virginia, Neal Sharma of C.W. Post and Stephen Wasil. Wasil might be the player most ready to assume the controls after appearing in eight games last year with the af2's Texas Copperheads. The 6-3, 220-pound Albion College product completed 122-of-264 attempts for 1,205 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2008. No matter who is under center, however, the team's offense will only be as good as its line play. Last season the Conquest led the af2 in sacks allowed with 59, an average of nearly four per game. One proven player the team will likely lean on to be a consistent playmaker in 2009 is Alvin Ray Jackson. Jackson registered 27 tackles, three interceptions, four pass breakups and five fumble recoveries last year with the South Georgia Wildcats and also added three receiving touchdowns. The 6-1, 195-pound two-way threat is entering his third season in the af2. Bowick and his young Firebirds bunch are out to try and snap a string of five straight losing seasons since the team formerly known as the Conquest won back-to-back division titles in 2002 and 2003. Albany looks to be headed in the right direction, but the Firebirds will likely only go as far as their young players take them in one of the toughest divisions in the af2.

Mahoning Valley Thunder (2008: 3-13)

Home Field: Chevrolet Centre (6,100)

Head Coach: Mike Hold, third year with Mahoning Valley, seventh season overall; 37-50 record (including playoffs)

Rookies Invited to Camp: 18

Key Players Lost: FB Tim Murphy, DL Royce Morgan, LB Kellen Driscoll, WR Clenton Rafe, FB/LB John Tackmann

Key New Faces: DB Brandon Taylor, DB Rob Carey, DB Clarence Curry, WR Quorey Payne

Key Returners: QB Davon Vinson, DB Ray Williams, K Derek Schorejs

Burning Questions: Has veteran coach Mike Hold assembled enough talent to help Mahoning Valley rebound from a sub-par 2008 season? Can the Thunder make some noise with QB Davon Vinson under center? Who will step up to replace the impact of two-time All-af2 FB Tim Murphy on offense and All-af2 DL Royce Morgan on defense?

Last Game: Lost at Green Bay, 13-61, in 2008 regular season finale (July 26)

Comments: The Thunder enter the new season with renewed hope despite a sub-par 2008 campaign that saw the club earn just three victories. The team's trail to improvement will likely be paved by returning QB Davon Vinson. Vinson played well in three midseason appearances for the club in 2008 after starting the year with Iowa. He completed 53-of-97 passes in that stretch for 708 yards with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions. He also had three rushing TDs. After Vinson, the offensive unit looks brand new. Stepping in to replacing receivers Clenton Rafe and Henry Tolbert will be three-year veteran and 2008 late season addition Quorey Payne along with rookies Jamar Landrum, Darwin Salaam and George Shackleford. Payne started all four games in which he appeared in 2008 after arriving in the Valley in June. He finished the year with a combined 49 catches for 656 yards and 12 TDs. Payne played in seven games for Green Bay before being acquired by the Thunder. Coach Hold also has big shoes to fill at the fullback/linebacker position due to the departure of All-af2 performers Tim Murphy and John Tackmann. Murphy was a two-time All-af2 FB who led the af2 in rushing in 2008 while Tackmann scored a team-high 16 rushing TDs in addition to earning Second Team All-af2 status at the jack linebacker spot (69 total tackles, 4.5 TFLs). Local product Maurice Smith (Youngstown State) and Toledo alum Michael Alston, both rookies, are currently in camp and look to be the likely replacements for Murphy and Tackmann. Another hole to fill on the defensive side will be on the line as Royce Morgan has migrated to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

While there may be questions for Mahoning Valley on the defensive front, the team's strength looks to be in the defensive backfield. In addition to the returning Ray Williams (44.0 total tackles, 13 pass breakups), the Thunder welcome experienced defenders Brandon Taylor, Clarence Curry and Rob Carey to the fold for 2009. Taylor and Curry both played in Albany in 2008. Taylor led the Conquest in tackles (80.5) and interceptions (7) while Curry contributed 52 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Carey spent two seasons in the AFL with Georgia after getting his Arena Football start with the Manchester Wolves in 2004. Overall, the Thunder's best chance to help fans forget their tough 2008 season lies squarely with Vinson. His steady play will be crucial if Mahoning Valley is to make any real noise in 2009.

Manchester Wolves (2008: 9-7; 2-1 playoffs)

Home Field: Verizon Wireless Arena (9,650)

Head Coach: Danton Barto, second year with Manchester, seventh season overall; 60-45 record (including playoffs)

Rookies Invited to Camp: 15

Key Players Lost: WR/LB Bradly Chavez, DL Joe Crear, DB Dahnel Singfield

Key New Faces: WR Deyon Williams, WR Corey Williams

Key Returners: QB James Pinkney, DB Carlton Brown, WR Steven Savoy, LB Dwan Wilson, DL Larry McSwain

Burning Questions: Can QB James Pinkney be equal or better to the player he was during his impressive second half surge from 2008? Will the Wolves suffer from the departure of Ironman of the Year Bradly Chavez? Does Manchester have enough talent to contend with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the East Division title?

Last Game: Lost at Tennessee Valley, 35-45, in 2008 ArenaCup playoffs (American Conference Championship)

Comments: The Wolves and Coach Danton Barto enter 2009 with high expectations after last year's strong finish that saw the team win eight of its last nine regular season games and reach the American Conference title game before bowing out to the eventual champs from Tennessee Valley. Manchester has a solid group of cast members coming back from the 2008 team, most notable among them being QB James Pinkney. The veteran signal caller from East Carolina, now in his third af2 season, accounted for 74 total touchdowns (59 passing, 15 rushing) in just 12 regular season games played. One of Pinkney's favorite targets is also back for another season, WR Steven Savoy. Savoy caught 83 passes for 1,155 yards and 24 scores in 12 games as an af2 rookie. The team is also high on the addition of Deyon Williams and Corey Williams, a pair of non-related rookie receivers with good size and speed. The team's offensive line looks to be a bit slim overall at present but Barto expects the group to round into a capable cast by season's start. On the opposite side of the ball, the Wolves will need to make up for the loss of two of their best players, DL Joe Crear and DB Dahnel Singfield. Crear led the club in sacks a year ago with 10. Singfield was the team's top tackler (60) and was also a strong cover man who had a team-high 13 pass breakups. Second-year DBs Carlton Brown and Al Phillips along with LB Dwan Wilson are expected to make up for the loss of Crear and Singfield and be big contributors in 2009. Brown led Manchester with five interceptions in 2008 while Wilson ranked second on the team in sacks (6) in only 10 games. Phillips was a late season addition who showed great potential in the playoffs, recording 11 total tackles and an interception. Overall, if Pinkney carries over his stellar stretch play from last year, the Wolves have a great opportunity to earn their fifth straight trip to the postseason.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers (2008: 14-2; 1-1 playoffs)

Home Field: Wachovia Arena at Casey Plaza (7,950)

Head Coach: Rich Ingold, fourth year with W-B/Scranton, seventh season overall; 75-30 record (including playoffs)

Rookies Invited to Camp: 11

Key Player Lost: DB William "TuTu" Ferguson

Key New Faces: WR James Lukowiak, DL Royce Morgan, WR Irving Campbell

Key Returners: QB Ryan Vena, WR/LB Larry Kendrick, WR/DB Rich Musinski, WR J.J. Outlaw, DL Isaac Hilton, DL Justin Parrish, DB Micheaux Robinson, DB Barry Drakeford, OL/DL Troy Blackwell, K David Davis

Burning Questions: How good will the new-look offensive line be in protecting veteran QB Ryan Vena? Can the offense and defense be as dominant as they were in 2008? Does this Pioneers team have what it takes to make a return appearance in the ArenaCup like they did in 2007?

Last Game: Lost to Tennessee Valley, 30-34, in 2008 ArenaCup playoffs (American Conference semifinal)

Comments: It would be hard to argue that the two-time reigning division champion Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers aren't the clear cut favorites in the East yet again entering 2009. After all, Coach Rich Ingold was able to bring back the majority of his club from last season, the same team that went 14-2 in the regular season and reached the American Conference Semifinals with QB Ryan Vena under center. Overall, the Vena-led offense averaged a whopping 63.6 points per game in 2008. In two years with the team, the veteran signal caller has guided the Pioneers to a 30-5 overall record (13-2 in 2008, 17-3 in 2007). Despite missing the first three regular season games last year, the veteran gunslinger still threw 87 touchdowns and led the af2 in completion percentage (69.7). Also back in the mix from last year's potent offensive cast are receivers Rich Musinski, J.J. Outlaw and Larry Kendrick. All three recorded over 1,000 yards receiving and at least 25 receiving scores in 2008. Rookie WR Irving Campbell has impressed early on and has a good chance to make a name for himself even with all the veteran talent back in town. As strong as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's offense was, the club's defense was just as impressive. As a group, the Pioneers defense allowed the fewest points in the league (604 - 37.8 ppg), forced a league-best 53 turnovers and ranked second overall in sacks with 54. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton boasts a trio of returning lineman in Isaac Hilton, Troy Blackwell and Justin Parrish. Together the group registered 41.5 sacks with Hilton leading the way with 15.5. The bullies up front will also be bolstered by the addition of 2008 All-af2 Second Team member Royce Morgan. Morgan led Mahoning Valley last year with 15.0 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. The secondary looks to be in good shape as well thanks to the expected return of DBs Micheaux Robinson (First Team All-af2, team-high 78.5 tackles and 14 INTs) and Barry Drakeford (68.5 tackles, 8 INTs). With so much talent and experience on both sides of the ball and on the sidelines, the Pioneers look primed for another division title and deep postseason run.

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