GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. _ If this was truly the last hurrah for the Nashville Kats, then the players should pray that their performances in ArenaBowl XV will not be the way they are remembered by their fans.
"This year was a little different," said veteran wide receiver-linebacker Darryl Hammond in reference to last year's 41-38 last second loss to the Orlando Predators. "This year I thought we were beat. Last year I thought we were robbed. It is a totally different feel.
"No wins are guaranteed. I know I gave my all and I'm going to keep trying. But we couldn't stop them on defense _ period."
For the first time since 1998, the Kats dressed in white jerseys and white pants at their own request, a color scheme that has been considered bad luck in the past, the Kats didn't have enough lives as they fell 64-42 to the Grand Rapids Rampage here in Van Andel Arena on a gray, rainy Sunday afternoon. A standing room only crowd of 11,217 formed a sea of white and red T-shirts.
"To get here two years in a row and fall short it burns, it hurts and I don't care what sport you play it burns real deep,"said lineman James Baron whose voice quivered with emotion during the postgame press conference.
Defensive specialist Ron Carpenter, who has failed two years in a row to added an Arena Football League championship ring to his collection, sat by himself on the Kats bench, still wearing his helmet, and solemnly watching the celebration by the Rampage players and fans as silver and red confetti fell from the sky amid a deafening din of indoor fireworks.
"I stayed out there on purpose," said Carpenter who set ArenaBowl records for most kickoff returns (7), most yards gained (139) and most combined kick returns (8). "I wanted to see the celebration. Last year, in Orlando, I didn't stay and watch. I've been in celebrations at the Super Bowl and the XFL. I wanted to watch this celebration and let it sink in. To lose two years in a row and not play to our capabilities is rough."
The Kats struggled early on both offense and defense. Quarterback Andy Kelly threw his first interception in 135 tries dating back six games to June 16.
"We didn't play as well as we are capable of playing," Kelly said. They got out to an early lead and it was tough catching up."
Defensively, the Kats let the Rampage live up to their nickname offense as quarterback Clint Dolezel set the ArenaBowl record for touchdown passes in half with four and offensive specialist Terrill Shaw set a record for most TDs passes with three in the first half. He set the record for TDs in a title game with six and receptions with 12 on the way to earning MVP honors.
"We let Shaw in the game early and he got his emotions going," said Kats defensive specialist Adrian Lunsford. "We just let him stay in the game and that is what we didn't want to do. They did a lot of three steps and got the ball to the receivers quick. It kind of got us frustrated."
The Kats defense, the best in the league this season, was unable to stop the Rampage from scoring until the final series of the game. The Kats went into the dressing room at halftime down 37-21, their largest deficit of the season. They were down 51-35 at the end of the third quarter and no team down that late in the game has ever come back to win an ArenaBowl.
"Defensively we were a little bit out of synch," said Kats coach Pat Sperduto. "They made a couple of calls and made us change our game plan just a hair. They just kept coming at us. Everytime we wrapped up one of their guys I thought we had a shot, but they never put the ball on the ground."
The Kats made the only turnover of the game with an interception, but early in the second half their failure to convert on fourth-and-one situation may have been the turning point in the game as Travis Reece fell short.
"It just didn't work," Sperduto said.
If the team doesn't return to Nashville next season, Sperduto thinks the fans will remember the injuries this team overcame and the level at which they played the game on the way to a 12-5 season and the Southern Division title.
"I'm going to give credit to a bunch of guys on our dressing room who played their butts off for the past six weeks, and then it just wasn't their night," Sperduto said. "I think we prepared very well. It is a credit for Grand Rapids and a downer for us. They made the plays and we didn't make them.
"I hope the lasting memory will be of a Kats team that just kept fighting. These guys put such time and effort into this. It isn't 1991 and 1992 anymore where guys get $400 and an apartment and go play football and then teach school in the offseason. I think it is time that people start giving these guys the credit that they deserve. The AFL players are great professional athletes."