In a meet-and-greet function before the season at Desert Diamond Casino and Resort with Tucson season-ticket holders, owner Kevin Guy made a bold comment that drew some gasps about his expansion team in the Indoor Football League.
“I guarantee you this team right here is going to be a playoff team,” Guy said on Feb. 26.
“Keep the foot on the gas pedal,” he said looking over at Tucson coach Marcus Coleman in the midst of the loud applause.
The Sugar Skulls are in overdrive, making good on Guy’s promise.
Their 55-50 escape of a win over Quad City on Saturday night in front of 5,018 fans at the Tucson Arena clinched the sixth (and final) spot in the IFL playoffs with a 7-7 record.
The Sugar Skulls, who have won four of their last six games and took unbeaten Arizona to overtime last week before losing in Phoenix, will play at No. 3 Sioux Falls (11-3) next Sunday at 1 p.m. in the opening round of the playoffs.
“It’s not an impossible task. It’s just a matter of us coming together, getting the right players in here, making sure we’re on point gameplan-wise and carrying that out, and we did that. We got in,” Coleman said after Saturday night’s game when asked about Guy’s bold preseason prediction.
Coleman said he knew Tucson was a playoff-caliber franchise from the outset given the IFL championship backgrounds with Iowa last season of himself, offensive coordinator Hurtis Chinn and defensive line and special teams coordinator Malcolm Nelson.
Tucson @sugarskullsfb coach Marcus Coleman said now that his expansion team is in the @IndoorFtballLge playoffs or "The Dance" that "it's all even now." The Skulls have won four of their last six games and took unbeaten Arizona to OT last week. pic.twitter.com/hxRBxZhcRK
The fact that Tucson needed a win over Quad City to qualify for the playoffs was not lost at all on the boisterous crowd, which waved their gold thundersticks like they were the Steelers’ Terrible Towels. It was the second-largest crowd of the season, trailing the 5,198 that attended the March 10 home opener against Bismarck.
“I just want to give a big thank you to the city of Tucson,” said defensive back Dee Maggitt Jr., a former Hawaii standout who had an interception and almost had another as a pick-6 but it was called back because of an encroachment penalty.
“They showed up each and every game even when we were on that horrible losing streak (losing five straight games) in April. Without them, I don’t think we come this far.”
Tucson DB Dee Maggitt Jr. said the @sugarskullsfb are the Cinderella of the @IndoorFtballLge playoffs. "I wouldn't want to play us," he said ahead of his team playing at Sioux Falls next Sunday in the first round pic.twitter.com/7INrgDkGv8
Tucson is now one of the hottest teams in the league with the confidence for a playoff run after taking Arizona, coached by Guy, to the limit last week. The Sugar Skulls also nearly beat No. 2 seed Iowa at the Tucson Arena on April 27 before coming up short 61-58.
“We’re thinking of ourselves as the Cinderella team,” Maggitt said. “We don’t think anybody wants to play us. I wouldn’t want to play us.
“We have a lot of talent and when we play our game, we’re tough to beat. We can get up on anybody. We can come back on anybody.”
Tucson was led Saturday night by quarterback Matt Behrendt, who played in place of injured Jake Medlock (out with a toe injury). Behrendt completed 8 of 11 passes for 96 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
He also rushed for three touchdowns while amassing 53 yards on 13 carries
“It’s really exciting obviously, this atmosphere today,” Behrendt said. “To be in Tucson and to have the crowd like that in a win-or-go-home game, it’s the moments like these why we play football.”
Mike Jones also fueled the offense with a season-high 116 yards on 14 carries and also scored on three runs. Rico Brown had two touchdown catches among his three receptions for 55 yards.
Behrendt said his team showed its character winning despite the dramatic ebb and flow of the game.
Other than the near collapse in the fourth quarter, Tucson trailed 28-27 at halftime after blowing its two-touchdown lead with only 4:30 remaining in the second quarter.
The Sugar Skulls immediately responded in the first possession of the second half with Brown’s 10-yard touchdown reception from Behrendt with 12:25 left in the third quarter.
After an interception by Tucson’s Edward Burns. the Sugar Skulls increased their lead to 41-28 when Behrendt faked a pitch out and ran into the end zone from 3 yards with 8:27 left in the quarter. Tucson’s two interceptions doubled the season total for Quad City quarterback E.J. Hilliard Jr. entering the game.
Tucson's Keith Jones Jr. comes rumbling and stumbling from the end zone with the Strip of the ball. Sugar Skulls lead 41-28 with 4:17 left 3Q. pic.twitter.com/0hGLSzwmpA
Another defensive stop resulting in a turnover took place at an opportune time for the Sugar Skulls. On a third-and-goal play from the Tucson 1, defensive lineman Keith Jones Jr. stripped the ball from Hilliard and ran to the Quad City 23 with 4:17 left in the quarter.
Keith Jones, a vital defensive leader of the team, had to be helped off the field after the play with an apparent right leg injury. His presence against Sioux Falls will be a must.
Zach Allen, another defensive stalwart, also left the game in the second half with a leg injury.
“I know they’re both a little sore right now,” Coleman said. “I don’t know necessarily what they’re dealing with, per se. I didn’t want to bring them back in. They wanted to come back in at the end but it was not worth it once we felt like we had things under control.”
Some of Tucson's players look on concerned for Quad City's Kewan Alfred. Tucson coach Marcus Coleman is kneeling in prayer in the background. pic.twitter.com/M3kSl4chwA
Quad City defensive lineman Kewan Alfred also went down, suffering a serious upper-body injury that resulted in him having to be wheeled off the field on a stretcher to an ambulance. Sugar Skulls representatives indicated medics wanted to keep Alfred’s head immobilized to the point of trying to saw off his helmet.
Tucson increased its lead to 48-28 with 3:20 left in the third quarter on an 8-yard touchdown run by Mike Jones, his third rushing touchdown of the game.
After cutting the lead to 55-42 with 3:50 left, Quad City recovered a Mike Jones fumble at the Steamwheelers’ 2 only 38 seconds later. It appeared Maggitt would get his second interception of the game, resulting in a touchdown return, but Tucson was ruled for an encroachment penalty.
Sugar Skulls fans smell the playoffs. Tucson leads 48-28 going into the fourth quarter. pic.twitter.com/mwCLIWta7A
Given another opportunity, Quad City scored on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Hilliard to Robert Jones with 1:00 left. The two-point conversion run by Quinton Pedroza cut the lead to 55-50.
Tucson managed to run out the clock after a touchdown scramble by Behrendt was nullified by a holding penalty. All that remained was the celebrating with fans a playoff spot in the Sugar Skulls’ first season.
“We’re proud for the players and everybody else in that room; they’ve been working their butts off all year,” Coleman said. “We got the first rewards of hopefully many.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.