ALBANY – It was really a meaningless game in many respects, but don’t tell that to the Albany Empire.
With 10,981 screaming fans in attendance, many hoping to beat the oppressive heat, the league-leading Empire crushed the Philadelphia Soul 72-27 Saturday night in the regular-season finale at Times Union Center.
The game meant nothing in terms of the standings, but the Empire clicked on all cylinders despite using several backup players in the second half against their archrival.
Albany (10-2) now hosts Baltimore in the first game of the Arena Football League playoffs next Saturday.
Roommates Cheatham Norrils and DJ Stephens were two of the big heroes for the Empire. Norrils, a rookie defensive back, intercepted three passes to help set up the offense. Stephens, a speedy wideout out six weeks with a hamstring injury, caught four passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns.
“Our main focus was to go 1-0 and get some momentum for the playoffs,” Norrils said. “We all believe in coach and his preparation. I think we were staying focused. It’s difficult to beat us as a team when we’re hitting on all cylinders like this.”
“Cheatham got the hat trick,” Albany Empire head coach Rob Keefe said. “He’s a rookie, and to have three interceptions against a great team like Philadelphia is really something.”
Stephens felt great coming back and making an impact in his return.
“It feels great to be back. I’ve been out for six weeks,” Stephens said. “It was really good having both sides of the ball clicking tonight. It was a gradual release of energy for me, because I’ve been out for so long. I think we made a statement.”
Big half for Grady
Although starting QB Tommy Grady completed 13 of 18 passes for 196 yards and four TD passes in just the first half, the Empire didn’t lose a beat when he went to the bench. Backup quarterback Mason Espinosa was 5-for-5 for 81 yards and two passing scores. He also scored on a keeper.
AJ Coney, another backup who is predominately a kick returner, caught two passes for 25 yards and a touchdown. He also ran in for a score.
Fullback Mykel Benson added two rushing touchdowns, while Quentin Sims (two TD passes) and Malachi Jones (five catches, 74 yards, one TD) also contributed. The Empire defense was dominant and put points on the board with a safety.
“It was good to see Mason get some playing time,” Grady said. “We’re ready. It’s good to get some momentum heading into the playoffs.”
Keefe knew that both teams wouldn’t use their starters the entire game, but he was thrilled that he got a complete effort from his entire roster.
“Obviously, it was awesome to win in that fashion,” Keefe said. “The way we were prepared gave us those opportunities. I’m proud of our guys. We did what we had to do. Successful people have momentum. I think the biggest thing is that we’re all hyper-competitive people. I always want to win in everything I do. We couldn’t take a week off. We’re fine-tuning everything for the playoffs. Our depth is so strong.”
Philadelphia 7 13 0 7 – 27
Albany 14 16 21 21 – 72
A – Stephens 40 pass from Grady (Trevino kick).
P – Bunn 34 pass from Raudabugh (Spencer kick).
A – Sims 3 pass from Grady (Trevino kick).
A – Team safety.
A – Stephens 24 pass from Grady (Trevino kick).
P – Williams 23 pass from Raudabaugh (kick failed).
A – Jones 35 pass from Grady (Trevino kick).
P – Prince 13 pass from Raudabaugh (Spencer kick).
A – Espinosa 1 run (Trevino kick).
A – Benson 1 run (Trevino kick).
A – Sims 7 pass from Espinosa (Trevino kick).
A – Coney 1 run (Trevino kick).
A – Coney 20 pass from Espinosa (Trevino kick).
A – Benson 4 run (Trevino kick).
P – Williams 4 pass from O’Brien (Spencer kick).