Albany Empire ready for NAL championship battle with Carolina

Albany Empire head coach Tom Menas, right, talks with team president Jeff Levack on Monday at MVP Arena in advance of Saturday's National Arena League championship game against the Carolina Cobras.
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Albany Empire head coach Tom Menas, right, talks with team president Jeff Levack on Monday at MVP Arena in advance of Saturday's National Arena League championship game against the Carolina Cobras.

ALBANY — There’s an interesting dichotomy among the players and staff of the Albany Empire about how they feel going into Saturday’s National Arena League championship against the Carolina Cobras.

On the one hand — and head coach Tom Menas represents this best — it’s a physical battle between men that he likens to a heavyweight boxing fight or a gladiator match.

On the other, this group has grown so close that they are almost emotional about how much they want to win for each other.

And if those feelings merge the right way?

“I feel everybody has gelled, clicked and we’re ready to go,” linebacker/running back Trevon Shorts said. “I feel we can’t be beat.”

Albany (9-4) is the number one seed and hosting the 7 p.m. game at MVP Arena, but that means nothing to either team, especially since Carolina (10-5) beat the Empire three times this season.

The first game, a 59-51 Carolina win, came during the first week on April 23. No one at the Empire’s media day Monday was putting any stock in that contest. The next two Carolina wins were 58-50 on June 4 and 59-56 on June 18. And there were apparently some calls that the Empire didn’t agree with. So in their eyes, it has always been a one-score game and there for the taking.

“Just a little execution we’ve got to be better at, and finishing,” quarterback Sam Castronova said.

“It all comes down to the last game,” Menas said. “You can win May and June; we won July and we plan on winning August.”

Menas said the Empire plan to leave nothing in the book.

“Plays we didn’t use, we’re using,” he said. “Things we wanted to do, people we wanted to have on the field, we’re playing them. You don’t want to go to a heavyweight fight and see two guys that can’t fight. Let’s go out and give the country a great game, and whoever is left standing, great. I’ll shake the guy’s hand, win or lose.

“I want the Carolina Cobras to come with their absolute best,” Menas added.

Both teams have potent offenses. Carolina’s is led by quarterback Jonathan Bane, who leads the NAL in passing yards per game at 237.5. He’s third in the league for touchdown passes, with 48. Running back Zack Brown has 222 rushing yards (second in the league) and 10 rushing touchdowns (tied for second).

Albany has a two-headed monster in Castronova. He is second in the league for passing yards (2,433) and touchdown passes (58), but he leads the league in all rushing categories with 226 yards, 20.5 rushing yards per game and 15 rushing touchdowns.

And when he wants to throw it, he’s got a talented receiving corps, led by Darius Prince, who leads the league with 1,308 receiving yards, 109 receiving yards per game and 39 touchdown catches.

Kicker Mark Orozco, a Grambling State graduate who is the all-time leading scorer in HBCU history, is also a weapon.

One thing that has hindered Albany this season is slow starts. Menas joked that his cardiologist might appreciate it if the Empire start fast Saturday, but he’s not banking on it. The team is what it is — and Menas wouldn’t change that for anything.

“I would give back all my rings to get them one this year, and I mean that,” Menas said. “That’s how special they are to me. I’ve never been a players’ coach, never in my life. I have a motto, the first day we had a coaches’ meeting, I say, ‘Like your players, love your coaches.’ This year, I can honestly say ‘Love your players.’ Every single one of them, they make me very proud.”

SEVERAL EMPIRE HONORED

The Empire had seven players receive All-National Arena League recognition.

Offensive lineman Cornelius Lewis, defensive back Dwayne Hollis, Castronova and Prince made the first team. Named to the second team were center Melvin Hollins, linebacker Trevon Shorts and Orozco.

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