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Empire set to host defending champion Valor

Empire set to host defending champion Valor

Valor upset top-seeded Empire in last year's playoffs
Empire set to host defending champion Valor
The Empire's Week 2 game is against the Valor.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

ALBANY — It hasn’t been the sole focus this week for the Albany Empire, but the team hasn’t ignored it, either.

As Empire head coach Rob Keefe sees it, there is little use in pretending this Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. matchup with the Washington Valor at Times Union Center doesn’t mean a little something extra for the Empire.

“Look, every year is different and there’s a lot of guys that are on this team that were not here last year — but we talked about it [this week] with our players,” Keefe said. “How can you not think about last year?”

The Valor ended the Empire’s inaugural 2018 season in abrupt, unexpected fashion. The Empire was the top seed for last year’s Arena Football League playoffs, then couldn’t advance past the Valor in the semifinals after Albany had defeated Washington in each of the teams’ four regular-season meetings. The Valor — which won only two regular-season games last year — ended up winning ArenaBowl XXXI.

“We felt like were robbed of an opportunity to host the ArenaBowl, so that will factor into how we feel this year,” Keefe said. “But, more importantly, they’re a new team, we’re a new team. You can’t let [last year] get involved with [Saturday’s game], but it will be in the back of your mind.”

“Of course,” Empire wide receiver Malachi Jones said. “We’re not happy with the way last season ended.”

The Empire won its opener last week, while the Valor lost. Jones said the Empire expects the Valor to do everything it can not to fall to 0-2.

“We have the national champions coming back into town,” Jones said, “so we definitely want to play to our highest ability.”

DEFENSE STARS

In Week 1, the Empire played in the AFL’s lowest-scoring game of the week.

If the defense can continue to play as well as it did in Albany’s 35-19 win against Columbus, that could become a trend this year for the Empire.

“We have a really good defense, and Columbus struggled getting down the field,” Keefe said. “Nothing against them, but when the clock is constantly running, well, then, there’s only so many opportunities to have a possession.”

The Empire scored on 5 of 9 possessions in its Week 1 win and controlled possession for 55.4% of the game, but Albany’s defense kept the game from becoming a high-scoring — and high-possession — matchup. While the Empire’s Week 1 game saw a total of 54 points scored, the league’s other two games saw 110 and 89 combined points scored.

The Empire’s 19 points allowed set a new franchise-best mark. Last year, the Empire allowed at least 21 points in every game it played.

HICKS OUT

Offensive lineman Hayworth Hicks suffered what Keefe termed a “small fracture” in his lower right leg during the Empire’s first play of the season, and last year’s AFL Offensive Lineman of the Year had surgery Wednesday.

Keefe didn’t offer up a definitive timetable for Hicks’ return to playing, but the coach said he’s optimistic Hicks will play again this season.

“It looks good that he could possibly come back — maybe halfway through the season,” Keefe said.

To replace Hicks, the Empire added lineman Jakobi Smith — a rookie from Florida Atlantic — to its roster.

AFL ON ESPN3

The AFL and ESPN announced Friday that ESPN3 will carry all of the league's remaining regular-season games. The games will also be available on the ESPN app.

All of the Empire's games will also still be shown on MY4 (WNYA).

As part of the deal with ESPN, ArenaBowl XXXII will be televised on ESPN2.

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