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Mission accomplished for Thunder

It was not always pretty, and they did not always make it look easy.

But the Portland Thunder finished their first Arena Football League regular season with a 5-13 record, good for the fourth and final playoff spot in the National Conference.

The Thunder will travel to Phoenix and face the team with the league’s best record, the 15-3 Arizona Rattlers, in a first-round game on Sunday at 3 p.m. PT at US Airways Center.

A victory would be a huge upset — and a bonus for the expansion team owned by local businessman Terry Emmert.

“The only thing we cared about was getting to the playoffs,” Thunder coach Matthew Sauk says. “To do it in our first year was special. That means that the players were good, the coaches coached their butts off and the organization did their job.”

The Thunder got into the postseason by finishing ahead of the expansion Los Angeles KISS and the San Antonio Talons, who both wound up at 3-15.

“Everyone did their job, and that’s all that matters,” Sauk says. “Our record isn’t that great, but with 19 rookies we played pretty well.”

The Thunder went 5-8 over their past 13 games. This season, they had four losses by eight points or less and four others by 10 or 11 points.

In many of their defeats, the Thunder led in the second half or were within striking distance until the final minutes, or even moments.

“We played every team tough,” Sauk says. “There were never any serious blowouts where you were like, ‘Wow, they suck.’ We’ve played well.”

The Thunder overcame a slow start, especially on offense, where the quarterback spot was a revolving door. The defense led the way most of the season. But the team fought to the end, even challenging the Spokane Shock (the No. 3 playoff seed in the conference at 11-7) in Saturday’s finale at Moda Center before coming up short 45-40.

“They play their hearts out and that’s the main reason I love my guys,” Sauk says.

The Rattlers dropped their regular-season finale 56-50 at Orlando, but they are led by AFL MVP candidate Nick Davila, a 29-year-old QB from the University of Cincinnati whose 127 touchdown passes are the second-most in league history.

The biggest thing Sauk wants out of the week leading up to the playoff game is simply to get his players better physically.

“We need to get healthy,” Sauk says. “It’s not about practice time right now. I could care less whether we practice one day this week. It’s about getting as many healthy people on the turf as we can come Sunday.”

The Thunder have played the Rattlers three times this season, losing all three games. Portland was blown out 61-32 on May 11, but the last two meetings have been closer. The Thunder lost 70-59 on June 6 and 65-55 on July 20.

“We’re not going to do anything differently as far as play- calling,” Sauk says. “It’s literally all about getting these guys as healthy as possible so we’re as close to full strength as possible against Arizona.”

Sauk says fundamentals will be critical for the Thunder.

“We’ve played them three times, so we know what they’re going to do and they know what we’re going to do,” he says. “It’s about executing, not turning the ball over, not getting into fourth downs on offense and stopping them on fourth downs.

“If we can do that, we have a very good chance of winning that game.”

Still, Sauk knows Portland will go into the game as the underdog. But he feels as though that is true of his team every time it steps onto the field.

“We’re the underdog every single game,” Sauk says. “We’re going to go into it and be physical. We’ve got to be a little bit smarter on the field, but we’re the same team we’ve been since Week One. We play hard, we’re physical and every single game we’re in it.”

Staying power and performing in crunch time could be huge, he says.

“It’s about getting the second half and learning how to win,” Sauk says.

The Thunder started winning quite a bit more when they acquired AFL veteran quarterback Kyle Rowley halfway through the season. Rowley helped Portland win two of the seven games he started. The 6-0, 195-pounder out of Brown University completed 168 of 285 passes for 2060 yards and 39 touchdowns, with nine interceptions.

“He did well,” Sauk says of the 35-year-old Rowley. “He took a very young team and got them into the playoffs. He played well and did his job.”

The Thunder truly buttered their bread with their defense, though. Portland held opponents to 53.6 points per game.

“Everybody is hungry, and we all play together,” says defensive back Eric Crocker. “We genuinely love each other on and off the field.

“Whatever is going on in the game, we don’t ever let it get us down. We have veterans who know how these games go and try to keep the group up.

“The ball bounces funny ways sometimes. You’ve just got to keep fighting until the final buzzer.”

Portland finished the regular season averaging 8,586 fans per game, just above the AFL average of 8,473.

The crowd for Saturday’s game against Spokane was a franchise high 12,848.

Rafael Arevalo, a Portland resident, says the crowd and the atmosphere made Thunder games very entertaining. He says the biggest draw, though, was former Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas, who backed up Rowley and got the call to lead the Thunder on Sunday against the Shock..

“It’s fantastic for a first season football team in Portland,” Arevalo says. “And, having a local star being back in Oregon brings on the experience of what was before. You’re reliving that whole (Ducks) experience now. It makes it fun.”

Thomas began the Arena season as the Thunder starter, but he struggled with the indoor game and after being out of football since Oregon won the 2011 Rose Bowl. Thomas finished the regular season 66 of 159 passing for 863 yards and 10 touchdowns, with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Thomas also rushed for a team-high 10 TDs.

The former Ducks star says he was ecstatic just to be back in Oregon and feels like he improved this season.

“I loved every minute of it — it was one of the reasons I came back and it’s why I’m happy to be here,” Thomas says of the fan support he receives. “This whole season hasn’t gone exactly how I wanted it, but it couldn’t have went no better for me.

“To get an opportunity to play, to get an opportunity to learn, to learn behind a veteran guy like Kyle Rowley, he’s teaching me the game. I finished the season showing a little bit of improvement.”

Even if the Thunder cannot find a way to pull off an upset against Arizona, the season still will be viewed as a success. And Sauk says there will be plenty more success in the franchise’s future.

“Year Two, with 19 rookies becoming veterans,” Sauk says, “that’s going to be a big difference.”