Yesterday I attended the final Massachusetts Pirates game of the regular season. I won the tickets in a Mark Fidrych Foundation raffle at the 2018 Make Your Mark Kickoff Event. (NOTE: the Make Your Mark softball tournament will be held on August 18th at Casey & Memorial Field in Northborough). I went to the game with my dad, my longtime friend Paul Alfonso, and his dad Tony.
The Pirates play in the National Arena League (NAL), one of many Arena Football leagues across the country. The season takes place between April and August, ending right around the start of the NFL season. I’ve been to one Pirates game earlier this year when they played the Maine Mammoths back in May, so I knew that although Arena Football has many differences from NFL football, it was still very exciting.
Arena football is an 8 on 8 game. There are no designated running backs, but offensive linemen will sometimes run the ball. Typically, the starting offense is made up of a QB, three wide receivers, and four offensive linemen. The defense typically has three defensive linemen, two linebackers, and three defensive backs on the field. The Pirates fans are often called the 9th man, because like the Seahawks in the NFL, they are the league’s loudest fans. The game is played on a 50-yard field rather than a 100-yard field and is often played in hockey stadiums. Players will often be pushed into the boards which is considered out of bounds, but sometimes wide receivers dive over the boards to make catches and if they do, it’s considered a completion. The downsized field makes for much higher scoring. Although the uprights are narrower, kickers can often make it through the uprights on a kickoff from the opposite end zone, scoring what is often called a “deuce”, worth two points. The smaller field also makes it so nobody ever punts. On fourth down, teams will either go for it or go for a field goal.
The 10-5 Pirates were scheduled to play the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks, the worst team by win-loss record in the NAL. They had not won a game all season long, and they were 0-14 going into this game, their final game of the regular season. The game was held at the DCU Center in Worcester, the home of the Massachusetts Pirates. The stadium also currently hosts the Worcester Railers, the ECHL affiliate of the New York Islanders, and was formerly home to the Worcester Sharks (now the San Jose Barracuda), the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate.
We all made score predictions on our way to the game:
We arrived at the game, bought some pizza, popcorn, and soft drinks, and took our seats. Before the game, the Pirates welcomed members of the Special Olympics of Massachusetts team, who were attending the game.
The game began and the Pirates got off to a fast start after the Steelhawks won the toss and deferred. Pirates QB Sean Brackett was out with a sprained ankle but QB Darron Thomas was doing a good job filling in. He completed a deep pass to WR Lavon Pearson to get the Pirates close to the end zone. A Pirates o-lineman ran in the TD to put the Pirates up 7-0. Steelhawks kicker Spencer Hotaling was off to a rough start. He attempted a “deuce” on the opening kickoff and missed. He also missed in a Steelhawks FG attempt, but the Pirates defense had shut down Lehigh Valley quickly in their first drive, making for a difficult kick. Despite a nice catch by WR Charles McClain, the Steelhawks were shut down again in their next drive, and Spencer Hotaling’s field goal attempt was blocked.
The Pirates scored another TD on a huge catch by WR Mardy Gilyard. He was being covered very closely by the defense, yet he still scored. Although Pirates K Ali Mourtada missed the extra point, he scored a “deuce” on the kickoff, making it 15-0 Massachusetts.
To start the 2nd quarter, Lavon Pearson made a catch that set the Pirates up to score another touchdown.
The Pirates scored another one soon after on a one-handed catch by Lavon Pearson. The Steelhawks did not make much progress offensively in the 2nd quarter, and they were so far behind that they had to start going for it every time on 4th down. With little time left in the half, the Pirates had one more scoring opportunity. Darron Thomas had one long pass that was deflected into the stands but completed a long pass on the next down to make it 1st and goal for the Pirates. The Pirates tried to eat some clock before scoring in order to make sure the Steelhawks did not get another chance before the half. But they lost the ball in a fumble, losing the opportunity to score. However, they were up 29-0 at halftime. The Steelhawks nearly scored on a nice pass just before the half but failed.
During the half, I enjoyed a mini football game between the Worcester Police Department and the Worcester Fire Department. More fans were rooting for the fire department but it ended in 14-14 tie. Here is some video I took of this mini-game:
The Pirates scored another pair of touchdowns in the third quarter. They scored one on a fumble by Steelhawks QB Patrick Ryan that was recovered for a TD by RJ Roberts, and the other on a deep pass to Lavon Pearson. Ali Mourtada scored a deuce after that one to make it 44-0 Pirates. Mardy Gilyard scored another TD just minutes into the 4th. Here is Gilyard’s TD:
The Steelhawks scored their only TD of the game by recovering their own fumble. The ball was nearly recovered by two Pirates players but found its way into the end zone, where Jason Johnson recovered it for the TD. The Pirates scored 2 more touchdowns before the end of the game. Lavon Pearson scored on a long ball to make it 58-7 Pirates, and another Pirates TD was scored when Spencer Hotaling missed a long field goal that Pirates DB John Hardy-Tulieau returned for the touchdown. Mourtada made one more deuce to make the final score Pirates, 67, Steelhawks, 7. My dad came the closest to predicting the score but we all overestimated the Steelhawks offense.
During the game, I noticed a man with a laptop sitting near us. I gave him my business card and it turns out that he was writing a recap on the game for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. His name was Bill Gilman.
The Pirates, who finished the season 11-5, will play at home in the NAL semifinals next week. They will host either the #3 seed, the Carolina Cobras, or the #4 seed, the Columbus Lions. It all depends on whether the Jacksonville Sharks beat the Maine Mammoths tonight. If the Sharks win, the Pirates are the #2 seed and play Carolina. Otherwise, the Pirates are the #1 seed and host Columbus. The Steelhawks missed the playoffs after a 0-15 finish.
After the game, they allowed fans to walk onto the field for an autograph and photo session. Paul and I took plenty of pictures on the field, some of them with Pirates players. I gave the players and a couple fans my business card as well. Paul got his Pirates football signed by all the players we took photos with.
I even met Special Olympic powerlifter Joe Morrill, Team Massachusetts’ only powerlifter at the USA Games, on the field. He had his USA Games medals with him. He won two golds (combo and deadlift) and two silvers (bench press and squat). He had roomed with Tyler Lagasse in Marlborough before. Speaking of Tyler, I am meeting with him and his family at APEX tomorrow to celebrate his silver medal win at the USA Games, where I will go live on Facebook with Tyler and compete with him in simulation golf, go-kart races, Olympic bubble hockey, candlepin bowling, and other games.
I had a great time at the Pirates’ final game of the season. Arena football is fast-paced and very exciting. The rule differences from the NFL give football fans a nice indoor viewing experience during the NFL offseason. I’d like to thank Ann Fidrych, Jessica Fidrych, and the Mark Fidrych Foundation for making this amazing experience possible.