Thunderhawks Flying High In 2010
Grand Rapids, Michigan - Nowadays, a little change can make a big difference. Just ask the West Michigan ThunderHawks of the Indoor Football League. They moved to a new town, gave the franchise a new name, hired a new coach and replaced almost the entire roster after last year's 1-13 finish.
Admittedly the changes weren't all small, but turning around the fortunes of Michigan's only professional indoor football team required a willingness to leave no stones unturned. The team, formerly known as the Muskegon Thunder, made the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 before falling on hard times last spring. Now 2-0 on the young season, everyone knows there's still plenty of work to do, but it's hard not to get a little excited seeing the early fruits of those efforts paying dividends.
Head Coach Terry Foster, who served as the defensive coordinator for the Thunder during their inaugural season in 2007, credits the turnaround to attitude.
"It's been a pleasant surprise to see how the guys have accepted the challenges the coaching staff has put forth," said Foster, a Detroit native. "We have established a more aggressive and competitive demeanor in practice."
The coaching staff had an immediate impact on players like receiver Bryan Pray, new to the team this year.
"They're winners," said Pray of the staff's many ties to Grand Valley State. "They win championships. They instilled their determination and will and what it takes to win on us."
Pray knows a thing or two about winning himself, having played at Pittsburgh State, the winningest Division II program in the country. He felt pressure right away to raise the bar.
"The first game was an identity check for us," added Pray, who leads the team with 12 receptions and has scored three times. "We had to see what kind of players we are."
After last season's run through the IFL gauntlet, the ThunderHawks knew they'd have to stretch their search for talent beyond the state's borders.
"We're not just keeping it local," said offensive lineman Vernon Burden, who played at the University of Findlay in Ohio "We have guys from all over. Courtney Abbott of Florida State is from Atlanta and Jermaine Pruitt played down in Mississippi at Alcorn State. When all of these guys come together, it's the best of everything."
Burden, a teacher and coach at Southfield High, has already formed strong bonds to his fellow out-of-town teammates.
"There's great camaraderie," continued Burden who is with his fourth indoor franchise. "When you're friends with your teammates, that makes you want to go that extra mile for them. This is the most fun I've had since I played in college. We have one common goal."
That goal is to expect the best from yourselves and your teammates, regardless of the past.
"Even coming off a 1-13 season we had high expectations for this year," said defensive back Amp Boone, who played collegiately at Arkansas-Pine Bluff before joining the team last year. "We were looking forward to building off that."
Players new and old are meshing together under Foster's leadership.
"We hold each other accountable," added Foster, who is assisted by Mike Wilford, Curt Anes, Richard Gills and Drew Burton. All but Gills (Northwood) played at GVSU. "Each player is 1/30th of the team, and if they all do their part, as a whole, we'll maintain. When any of those parts are missing, the wheels don't roll."
The wheels have been rolling in unison so far in 2010. The team is averaging 55 points and over 270 yards of offense per game, both near the top of the 25-team IFL. But Foster knows the finish line is nowhere in sight.
"We're making sure the players understand there is still a sense of urgency about what is going on," said Foster. "We haven't proven anything yet. We celebrate for 24 hours. Then it's right back to putting the helmets on and going back into the trenches."
Burden echoed those sentiments.
"We're not satisfied," he stated. "There's still 12 games to go (in the regular season)."
Foster, who also serves as the defensive coordinator and director of player personnel, compares the length of the season to that of a single game.
"We're still in the first quarter," continued Foster of the 14-game regular season schedule. "If we make if out of the first quarter 4-0, then maybe we can start looking ahead."
Last week's opponent, the Rochester (N.Y.) Raiders, weren't ready to heap any praise on the upstart ThunderHawks either.
"They came in with a little disrespect," said Pray of the Raiders, who knocked off West Michigan in all three meetings last year before dropping a 59-55 decision last weekend. "They kept calling us the Muskegon Thunder and saying we were the same team in a different town. If we keep winning, though, the whole league will be turning their heads wondering what's going on in West Michigan."
Some are keeping their calendars open just in case the winning continues.
"As far as summer plans," added Burden, "I've written them all in pencil."
The ThunderHawks get another chance to prove something to themselves and the Raiders when Rochester plays at the DeltaPlex Arena this Sunday at 3:00 p.m.
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