Empire win National Arena League championship


ALBANY — Albany Empire head coach Tom Menas wasn’t pleased with his team’s first-half performance — especially on defense — during the National Arena League championship game Saturday night.

“I told them don’t have any regrets tomorrow,” said Menas after his team regrouped in the final 30 minutes to bounce the Columbus Lions 79-62 at Times Union Center.

The win gave Albany another indoor football championship after winning the Arena Football League crown in 2019. That league folded after the season, despite Albany’s success on the field and at the gate.

Ironically, Albany couldn’t stop the Columbus offense until there was 1:06 left in the third quarter, as both teams scored on every possession up to that point. The turnaround on the defensive side occurred when Kenneth McGrude broke up a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone, allowing the

Empire to take over on downs. Phillip Barnett scored on a TD pass about a minute later to push the Empire’s lead to 66-50, and the game was virtually clinched right there.

McGrude then intercepted a pass with 3:50 left in the game to make a Lions’ comeback nearly impossible.

“We came back to pick it off,” McGrude said. “We didn’t do what we expected to do in the first half, but in the second half, I thought we had to finish strong.”

“We had 37 plays in the first half, and they had 10,” said Menas, referring to the fact that his defense couldn’t slow down the Lions’ quick-strike attack. “I told them at the end of the first half that they didn’t want to remember the game this way. They really showed who they were in the second half.

They stepped it up. We just do what we do. We win.”

Malachi Jones, the Albany Empire’s most electric offensive player back in 2019, was named the game’s MVP after scoring five touchdowns — even though he was only the second receiving option this season behind the NAL Offensive Player of the Year Darius Prince.

“He [Jones] came to us and said use me,” Menas said, “Very rarely do coaches get to coach all-stars, and I did that all year. We are very proud of all the players. It was a joint effort.”

“I’m so thankful for this team,” said Jones. “I’m so glad to do this in Albany. I left it all out there.”

The Empire (9-1) only had one loss to Jacksonville during the regular season and dominated the league all season. The win over the 6-3 Lions completed a three-game series sweep.

The Empire took a 21-20 first-quarter lead and held a 48-44 cushion at halftime, despite allowing Columbus quarterback Mason Espinosa to complete his first seven passes — all for touchdowns.

Albany’s defense stepped up in a low-scoring third quarter with an 11-6 edge. Special teams also played a large role as kicker Craig Peterson kicked a pair of rouges — two-pointers on kickoffs that went through the uprights, similar to the Canadian Football League.

Empire QB Tommy Grady, who was a three-time MVP in the AFL before coming over to the NAL this season, completed 26 of 39 passes for 9 TDs. Jones caught 14 passes for 178 yards, while Prince hauled in 9 passes for 118 yards and two scores. Fullback Jeramie Richardson ran for one score and caught a TD pass as well.

Espinosa, who served as Grady’s backup back in 2019, finished 24 of 37 for 9 TD passes. Four different receivers caught 2 TD strikes apiece.

“I knew we were going to win the championship when I first signed to play here,” Grady said. “This league is in slow motion for me. We had a great team, and this was a lot of fun, but I think I probably played my last game in the league.”

Menas laughed when asked if he thought the Capital Region embraced him after replacing Rob Keefe, who was signed to coach the team but stepped down before the season began in April, giving Menas little time to put together a team.

“I think they would probably give me a free hamburger somewhere in town,” Menas said with a grin. “I told our players that I thought we are the best team in the NAL, and without that little glitch in Jacksonville, we would have had a perfect season.

“I’m fortunate to do this for a living. I hope to be here for a long time, and I hope we win a bunch of these. I really do. My goal next year is to win again. Then, you are really good, and it wasn’t a fluke.”

Columbus 20 24  6 12 — 62
Albany 21 27 11 20 — 79
A — Jones 13 pass from Grady (Peterson kick)
C — Grant 5 pass from Espinosa (run failed)
A — Jones 27 pass from Grady (Peterson kick)
C — Outlaw 30 pass from Espinosa (Reynolds kick)
A — Jones 4 pass from Grady (Peterson kick)
C — Reece 30 pass from Espinosa (Reynolds kick)
A — Richardson 2 run (Peterson kick)
C — Grant 30 pass from Espinosa (kick failed)
A — Prince 28 pass from Grady (Peterson kick)
C — Dobbs 1 run (kick failed)
A — Prince 2 pass from Grady (Peterson kick)
A — Jones 6 pass from Grady (kick failed)
C — Lewis 5 pass from Espinosa (pass failed)
A — Rouge
C — Outlaw 6 pass from Espinosa (kick failed)
A — Jones 6 pass from Grady (Peterson kick)
A — Rouge
A — Barnett 27 pass from Grady (Peterson kick)
C — Lewis 13 pass from Espinosa (pass failed)
A — Richardson 1 run (Peterson kick)
A — Prince 1 run (kick failed)
C — Dobbs 1 pass (Espinosa kick)

Reach Bob Weiner at [email protected].

Categories: Sports

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