ALBANY — In so many ways during its 2018 season, the Albany Empire impressed.
The first-year franchise earned the top seed for the league’s playoffs. Its players won numerous awards. The product Albany put together helped result in the Empire leading the Arena Football League in attendance.
And, yet, the Empire’s mantra throughout the preseason has been that the team has “unfinished business” after a disappointing conclusion to last year’s inaugural campaign.
“You’re only as good as your last game,” Empire head coach Rob Keefe said earlier this week.
The Empire lost that one, a surprising 47-40 postseason defeat in which it lost for the first time in six tries to the Washington Valor. Instead of heading to ArenaBowl XXXI as the Empire expected, the team began the wait for its 2019 season to start — and that wait ends 7 p.m. Saturday at Times Union Center, when Albany hosts the Columbus Destroyers.
“It’s been a long offseason,” Empire wide receiver Malachi Jones said, “and [with] how everything finished last season, we’ve just been waiting for the opportunity to get back on the field.”
While the Empire features plenty of new players for the 2019 season, enough return that the end of last year still stings. Defensive lineman Joe Sykes said that loss provided all the offseason motivation a player could need.
“If you were on that team,” Sykes said, “and you lost the way we did — to the worst team — it burned.”
With the amount of stars the Empire was able to bring back from last season’s roster such as quarterback Tommy Grady, Jones and Sykes, Albany believes it has put together a stronger team for its second season.
The first test of that belief comes Saturday night.
“For us, you just wait,” Keefe said. “It’s a lot of anxiety. You just can’t wait to get back on the field.”
AN EXPANDING LEAGUE
The Empire debuted last season as part of a four-team AFL, but the league includes six teams for this season.
That’s both good for the league’s overall health, and also for the level of competition.
“It helps a lot,” Sykes said. “When you beat the same team four or five times, I think you can get kind of lackadaisical in your preparation.”
The Destroyers are one of two teams the AFL added for this season, along with the Atlantic City Blackjacks.
“To be honest, I think it’s great from an opportunity standpoint. When you look at it from a coach’s or a player’s perspective, it’s more opportunities for the players to choose where they want to go and it’s more opportunities for the coaches to build a staff,” said Keefe, who has past AFL ties to Columbus head coach Matthew Sauk, and Columbus assistants Clay Harrell and Stanley Franks. “In any profession, when there is job growth, it’s a great thing.”
“I relish more competition,” Keefe said. “Sometimes, you get a little bored playing a team four times in a row.”
‘TOMMY’S A LUCKY GUY’
At his team’s media day event earlier this week, Sykes was already eager to get playing — and hitting opposing quarterbacks.
“Exciting times, huh?” Sykes said. “Just a couple more days.”
Sykes led the league in sacks last season with 7.5 and is the all-time AFL leader in that category with 61.
“Tommy’s a lucky guy,” Sykes said of the Empire’s Grady who doesn’t have to face him as an opponent.
When the two did face off in their past?
With a laugh, the 6-foot-4 Sykes said he often utilized a trusted move to help bring down the 6-foot-6 Grady.
“I punched him in the face a couple times,” Sykes said. “That’s why he always drags me [now] onto his team.”
ON THE AIR
The Empire announced earlier this week that each of the team’s regular-season games will be televised on MY4 (WNYA). Brent Harris will serve as the play-by-play announcer, JJ Raternik as the analyst and Meredith Gorman as the sideline reporter.
On the radio, Empire games will again be found on WQSH-FM (105.7) with AJ Kanell serving as the play-by-play announcer and Pete Porcelli as the analyst.