The Tucson Sugar Skulls’ ownership group, including Kevin Guy and wife Cathy and partner Ali Farhang, watched passionately at Trident Grill on Craycroft as their team’s impressive run to the playoffs in their inaugural season in the Indoor Football League came to a close today.
The 50-47 loss at Sioux Falls in a first round game was a back-and-forth affair in which the owners cheered out loud and gave high-fives while wearing their Sugar Skulls garb.
“We want to say thank you to Sugar Skull Nation,” Guy said. “They were outstanding all year long.”
Tucson, led by six touchdown passes by quarterback Jake Medlock, finished its season 7-8. His team may have finished below .500, but the Sugar Skulls are winners in Guy’s mind.
“(The close playoff loss) is part of the growing pains,” said Guy, who as the Arizona Rattlers’ coach knows how competitive Tucson can be after the Rattlers survived with an overtime win at home two weeks ago.
“You’ve got to learn how to win together. I thought we played better the second half of the season as we got going. … It’s a first-year ownership group, a first-year head coach with Marcus Coleman, first-year team, we had a lot of rookies on our team as well, and it’s a first year in Tucson. I think it’s a great learning experience and we’re going to continue next year.”
Tucson cut the lead to 50-47 left 1:00 left in regulation on a 1-yard run by backup quarterback Matt Behrendt, who was inserted for his athleticism near the goal line. The Sugar Skulls’ two-point try failed as Behrendt could not connect with Jeremiah Harris in the back of the end zone.
The ensuing onside kick was recovered by Sioux Falls, which ran out the clock after Tucson called its final timeout.
When the last seconds ticked off the clock, Guy went around the table at Trident and hugged supporters, his wife and Farhang. He was obviously disappointed in the loss but his smile demonstrated how proud he became of his franchise in its first season.
“We’re excited to get to where we got this season,” Guy said. “We’re the first expansion team to ever make it to the playoffs (in the IFL). We’re excited about that. We’re excited about our fan base and our business partners in the community, our sponsors, that supported the team all year.
“We laid the foundation and we have something to build on.”
Farhang, an established Tucson attorney and businessman who is also the executive director of the Arizona Bowl, called the run to the playoffs in which the Sugar Skulls won four of their last six regular season games an “evolution.”
Sugar Skulls lead 21-20 at the half. Keith Jones Jr gives his thoughts on the first half. Go Skulls! pic.twitter.com/d7pu6OMMz8
“We set a foundation for success in the future,” Farhang said. “I thought the team, the coaches, the city really came together as the season progressed. Honestly, I felt our team played really tough today and I feel we can build on this and get homefield advantage next year in the playoffs.”
Tucson finished second in the attendance in the regular season averaging 3,574 fans a game at the Tucson Arena. Guy’s Rattlers led the league with 13,564 a game at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix. Arizona (14-0) hosts Nebraska in a semifinal game next weekend.
“I thought the homefield advantage made a big difference today at Sioux Falls,” Farhang said. “From the city’s passion and learning about the game to the ownership group to the coaches and players all coming together, we are poised for a long run of success in Tucson for professional football.”
Tucson was competitive throughout against Sioux Falls, which is 12-3. The Sugar Skulls led 21-20 at halftime after scoring with 13 seconds remaining in the half on an 8-yard pass from Medlock to Rico Brown. The Sugar Skulls’ momentum seemingly mounted with Sioux Fall’s Parker Douglass missing a 30-yard field goal attempt as time ran out in the half.
A 30-yard touchdown pass from Medlock to Harris put Tucson ahead 28-23 with 11:02 left in the third quarter.
The Sugar Skulls could not answer after Sioux Falls went ahead 30-28 with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Lorenzo Brown to Damian Ford with 7:38 remaining in the period. Tucson’s drive resulted in a 62-yard field goal attempt that was blocked by the Storm.
Sioux Falls scored two plays later on a 1-yard run by Brown to increase the lead to 36-28.
Matt Behrendt enters the game and punches it in from 2. The try for two is not good. Sugar Skulls down, 50-47 with 1:00 left in the game. pic.twitter.com/OetNcdP1Jq
A 6-yard scoring strike from Medlock to Harris with 14:09 left in the fourth quarter cut the lead to 36-34. The two-point conversion attempt, a run by Behrendt on a fake extra-point try, failed.
The teams kept sharing touchdowns. Tucson’s Shaq Thornton caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Medlock with 6:38 left in the game to cut the lead to 43-41.
Sioux Falls answered in the next possession, scoring on a 7-yard run by Calin Campbell, to increase the lead to 50-41 with 4:45 left.
Medlock was near perfect, completing 22 of 25 pass attempts for 273 yards. He did not throw an interception. Harris, a midseason acquisition who proved to be vital to Tucson’s late-season run, had seven catches for 86 yards with two touchdowns.
Curenton also had seven receptions for 78 yards with two scores.
The defense, playing without injured captains Keith Jones Jr. and Zach Allen on the defensive line, was led by former CDO standout Robert Metz and Rayshawn Henderson, both of whom had a tackle for loss.
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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.