Year 1 for the Tucson Sugar Skulls was just like any other season for the expansion teams in the Indoor Football League.
With one exception: The Sugar Skulls are still playing.
Tucson’s professional indoor football team needed all hands on deck from the get-go in order to have a successful inaugural season — from the ownership level, to the players and team staff, the opening year was an uphill climb that offered plenty of rewards.
But building something from the ground up, garnering sponsorships, organizing team meals and workouts can take a mental toll on a new team.
“We have to deal with that on top of getting these guys ready to play,” said Tucson head coach Marcus Coleman. “It’s definitely a journey and there’s ups and downs, but that’s part of it and that’s what makes it fun.”
Unlike the other expansion teams or newcomers to the IFL, the Sugar Skulls are set to compete in the playoffs after they beat the Quad City Steamwheelers 55-50 Saturday night at Tucson Arena in a winner-take-all game.
Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora famously went into a tirade in a press conference after he was asked about his team making the NFL playoffs in 2001. His response: “Playoffs? Don’t talk about — playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?”
Yet, all season long, the Sugar Skulls never lost sight of making the postseason as an expansion team, especially with a coaching staff that served as assistants for the 2018 IFL champion Iowa Barnstormers.
“Considering the success that myself and (Hurtis) Chinn and (Malcolm) Nelson had, whether it was at Iowa or Nebraska, with some of the teams we were on staff with before, it’s possible,” Coleman said.
“It’s not an impossible task. It was a matter of making sure us coming together and getting the right players in here, make sure we’re on point game-plan wise and carry that out.”
“We did that, so we got in.”
What’s next? The Sugar Skulls will travel to take on the Sioux Falls Storm at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Here’s what to know about the Sugar Skulls as they get set for the postseason game in South Dakota:
IMPRESSIVE, YET COSTLY DEFENSIVE PERFORMANCE
Quad City quarterback E.J. Hilliard finished his season leading the IFL, averaging 195.6 passing yards per game, along with 57 total touchdowns.
Before Saturday night, Hilliard had thrown only one interception all season, which dated back to March 29, so the Quad City quarterback went eight straight games without throwing one.
He tripled his season total Saturday night, tossing two interceptions to Dee Maggitt Jr. and Edward Burns. Maggitt had an interception returned for a touchdown erased following a penalty.
“We realized that if we can eliminate the deep ball, more turnovers will come,” said Maggitt.
However, the Sugar Skulls had to finish the fourth quarter without arguably the two top defenders on the team in defensive lineman Keith Jones Jr. and linebacker Zach Allen after both left the game with injuries. Jones stripped Hilliard at the goal line and was tripped up near midfield.
On the following defensive possession for Tucson, Allen was shaken up near the goal line and sat out the remaining minutes with an unspecified injury. Defensive back Micah Eugene Jr. replaced Allen at linebacker.
As members of the 2018 All-IFL team, having Allen and Jones would help the Sugar Skulls in the franchise’s first postseason game.
“Both of them are a little sore right now and I don’t know what they’re dealing with per se,” Coleman said. “I didn’t want to bring them back in even though they were trying to get back in and it just wasn’t worth it. Once we thought we had things under control, there was no point in using them now when we can use them next week.”
Allen and Jones’ status for this week is unknown.
TUCSON’S 1-2 RUSHING PUNCH
Replacing the injured Jake Medlock (toe), who was active on Saturday, Tucson backup quarterback Matt Behrendt stepped in and started under center for the first time since the road loss to Nebraska in April.
Behrendt completed 8 of 11 passes for 96 yards and scored three touchdowns. Behrendt and running back Mike Jones combined for 169 rushing yards with 116 coming from Jones, which was a season-high. Jones leads the IFL, averaging 59.3 rushing yards per game.
“When you feed that guy the rock, it’s fun to watch. Once you give Mike Jones the handoff, you can just hear the crowd gasp,” said Behrendt. “He’s another one of those playmakers, it’s awesome. We got a lot of those on offense.”
Tucson’s 169 rushing yards was also a season high for the team, which broke the home-opener mark of 154. Medlock started the majority of the games this season at quarterback and the Sugar Skulls are rated as the third-best passing offense in the IFL.
With two producing quarterbacks, the Sugar Skulls feel confident just in case one of them goes down with an injury.
“It makes my job easier having two quarterbacks you can trust going into any game,” Coleman said. “Regardless of who they’re playing, you know they will go out and play well. (Behrendt) carried us tonight and he was a big reason why we were so successful on offense.”
PLAYOFF BRACKET BREAKDOWN
No. 6 Tucson will take on the No. 3-seeded Sioux Falls Storm, with the winner advancing to the next round to play second-seeded Iowa on June 29 at 5:05 p.m.
On the other side, the fourth-seeded Green Bay Blizzard will host No. 5 Nebraska Danger on Friday at 5:05 p.m. The winner of that matchup will travel to Glendale to face the top-seeded and undefeated Arizona Rattlers on June 29.
WHO IS SIOUX FALLS?
The Storm finished as one of the top IFL teams with an 11-3 record, including a win over Iowa in April, which was one of the Barnstormers’ two losses.
Sioux Falls is led by quarterback Lorenzo Brown Jr., who is third in the IFL in passing yards (156.9) per game and total touchdowns (46).
“They’re a very sound team. Like the Arizona Rattlers, they don’t make too many mistakes so you have to beat them. That’s going to be our biggest challenge,” said Maggitt. “I have no worries about us being able to match up with them physically, mentally, but the biggest challenge is who makes the least amount of mistakes.”
This week will be the first meeting between the teams.
HE SAID IT
“We’re thinking of ourselves as the Cinderella team. We don’t think anyone wants to play us, I wouldn’t want to play us,” Maggitt said.
“We have a lot of talent and when we play our game, we’re tough to beat. We can get up on anybody and we can come back on anybody.
“I love Tucson, but I love playing on the road as well. You really have to bring your big-boy pants when you’re playing on the road and I think it’s a huge challenge. It’s good for us to be away and we get closer on the road — we’re more locked in. I’m looking forward to it.”