Third Time Isn’t Charm for Avengers

Times Staff Writer

Despite first-round playoff flameouts in each of the previous two years, the Avengers began the season confident they could reach the ArenaBowl for the first time.

They held on to the belief after backing into the postseason last week.

Reality finally set in Sunday when the top-seeded Arizona Rattlers eliminated the eighth-seeded Avengers for the second year in a row with a convincing 59-42 victory in front of 11,035 at America West Arena.

“We have to go back to the drawing board,” said Avenger quarterback Tony Graziani, who completed 25 of 37 passes for 297 yards and four touchdowns with an interception. “We can’t win the big games, and it’s frustrating.”


Arizona turned three Avenger turnovers into 17 points and improved its record to 12-5 with its ninth consecutive victory. The Rattlers will play Colorado, a 47-44 winner Sunday over New Orleans, in a semifinal next week.

San Jose, a 56-52 winner Saturday over Tampa Bay, plays Chicago, a 59-49 winner over Orlando, in the other semifinal.

The Avengers finished 9-8 after suffering their worst loss of the season.

“We definitely did not accomplish anything that we thought we could going into the year,” Avenger Coach Ed Hodgkiss said.

The season began here with a 51-32 victory that featured five Rattler turnovers, including quarterback Sherdrick Bonner’s franchise-record four interceptions.

But on Sunday, Bonner completed 26 of 33 passes for 227 yards and six touchdowns with one interception while leading a team that appears on track for a third consecutive ArenaBowl appearance.

“We weren’t ready the very first game of the season,” said Bonner, an 11-year veteran who played at Cal State Northridge. “We’re a different team now.”


Arizona led, 24-20, at halftime, and extended its lead to 18 points after defensive back Kelvin Hunter intercepted a pass by Graziani with 2:42 left in the third quarter.

Hunter’s play set up a two-yard touchdown run by Bo Kelly that gave the Rattlers a 45-27 lead with 13:27 left in the game.

The Avengers answered with a 45-yard touchdown pass from Graziani to Kevin Ingram, and got the ball back when defensive specialist Damen Wheeler intercepted a pass by Bonner in the end zone with 7:56 remaining.

A two-yard run by fullback Kevin Clemens and a two-point conversion pass from Graziani to Chris Jackson cut the Rattlers’ lead to 45-42 with 2:27 left -- setting the stage for one of the game’s key plays.

An onside kick by Remy Hamilton bounced several times before former Avenger Vince Amey pounced on it for the Rattlers.

Bonner’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Tom Pace on the first play of the ensuing possession boosted Arizona’s lead to 52-42.


The Rattlers sealed the victory when Ricky Parker forced Avenger receiver Henry Douglas to fumble after catching a pass. Orshawante Bryant recovered the ball at the Rattler 17 with 28 seconds left, and put the finishing touches on the win with a 35-yard touchdown catch.

“A lot of things happened this year with injuries and other adversity,” said Jackson, the Avenger offensive specialist. “But we underachieved, no doubt about that.”


In other playoff games:

Colorado 47, New Orleans 44 -- John Dutton completed 23 of 35 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns as the Crush held on to defeat the VooDoo at New Orleans.

Chicago 59, Orlando 49 -- Raymond Philyaw threw four touchdown passes, and DeJuan Alfonzo intercepted a pass at the Orlando 1-yard line to help the Rush beat the Predators at Rosemont, Ill.