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Thunder debut has little lightning

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Bryce Pella of the Portland Thunder celebrates an interception in Mondays franchise-opening game, a 64-34 loss at home to the San Jose SaberCats.A month ago, Matt Sauk asked for patience from the Portland Thunder fans.

“It’s going to take a couple of games to understand what we have in our team and to begin the building process,” the Thunder’s head coach told me.

As it turned out, the Thunder weren’t quite ready for what hit them Monday night in their Arena Football League debut at the Moda Center.

Quarterbacks Russ Michna and Nathan Stanley combined for 255 yards and eight touchdowns passing as San Jose flattened Portland 64-34.

Portland’s quarterbacks — AFL rookies Darron Thomas and Nathan Enderle — weren’t nearly as effective. Thomas, who hadn’t played a football game since his junior year at Oregon in 2010, started and completed 11 of 27 passes for 73 yards and one touchdown with one interception. Enderle, a former Idaho QB, was 10 for 19 for 96 yards with two TDs and no picks.

“It was nasty,” Thomas said afterward. “The score got out of hand. On the offensive side, we all learned what the game is going to be.”

It’s different from outdoor football, for sure. Everything is a little faster. And to be fair to Thomas and Enderle, they faced heat from SaberCat defenders all night.

“I got a big wakeup call with the pressure,” Thomas admitted. “I’m going to work on getting the ball out quick next week.”

It was the first Arena Ball game in Portland in 15 years, since the Forest Dragons left town in 1999. Attendance wasn’t announced, but Thunder owner Terry Emmert told me the crowd was more than 8,000. The fans were boisterous, at least until things got out of hand.

“The atmosphere was fantastic,” said Sauk, in his first head coaching role after five years as an assistant in the league. “The fans came out. They were loud. Unfortunately, we didn’t give them a lot to cheer for. The times we did, it’s about as loud as you’re going to see anywhere.

“This is an amazing facility. I’m so happy it’s our home. I know eventually we’ll give them more things to cheer about.”

Sauk quarterbacked for seven teams during an eight-year career in the AFL and AF2 (a secondary league no longer in existence), earning Hall of Fame honors in the latter category. Asked how long it took him to get comfortable in the league, he responded, “You want the truth or a lie? I had a full year to learn (as a backup). (Thomas and Enderle) are learning on the run. They’re capable of doing it, and they showed it at times.”

Portland receivers Duane Brooks (seven receptions for 58 yards and two touchdowns) and Jeffrey Solomon (six catches, 56 yards, one score) had productive outings, and defensive back Bryce Peila out of Western Oregon made a splash with a big hit on a kickoff and an interception. As a whole, though, the Thunder were out of their league against the more experienced SaberCats.

“It’s just all new to them,” Sauk said. “The good thing is, we got some live reps. We’ve seen the potential we have and where we’ve got to go.

“I told my guys, there are going to be some bumps in the road. Our defense played well. We have to eliminate the minor mistakes, become a little more efficient on offense and we’ll be OK.”

Monday’s game was telecast nationally over the CBS Sports Network, meaning timeouts were extra long. Over time, the long delays caused the enthusiasm in the house to wane as much as the Thunder’s ineffective play. The rest of Portland’s eight home games with be shown on Comcast Sports Northwest, with shorter timeouts. That’s a good thing.

At the least, the Thunder will be a nice diversion and a welcome addition to the sports calendar in Portland from spring through early summer. It’s a feisty game — there were plenty of skirmishes, some of them at least mildly entertaining — with speed and pop and a good deal of excitement.

The Thunder’s next game is at home, too, against an Iowa team that was bounced by nearly the same score — 64-35 — in its opener against Spokane on Sunday.

“I know we’re going to get better next week for Iowa,” Thomas promised. “We know we have to tighten up those screws and get ready to go.”

Sauk thinks the second time around will be better, too.

“I love my guys,” he said. “They played so hard. None of them quit. It’s just a learning-on-the-fly type of thing for us.”



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  • 24 Oct 2014

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