SALT LAKE CITY — After coming painfully close to clinching the National Conference championship and a berth in the ArenaBowl XXV — the Utah Blaze are optimistic about the progression made in 2011 and moving forward into the offseason.
"We ended I think on a positive note. It was tough losing a game like that in the conference championship," said Blaze coach Ron James, whose team squandered a nine-point advantage with one minute remaining in their 75-69 loss to the Arizona Rattlers.
"But on a positive note, we've taken the organization to a different level. We won a playoff game," James added. "We got ourselves that championship experience — fell a little short — and now we're looking forward to the offseason to retool things and get ready to go."
The 2011 campaign was the first time the Blaze garnished a winning season, finishing 13-7. The success was derivative of many individual franchise and league records just two years removed from a 2-14 record in 2010.
Quarterback Tommy Grady broke nearly every single-season passing record and led the AFL in nine statistical categories. After being named the AFL MVP, he even received an invitation to work out for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. Other players, such as Tysson Poots — a rookie receiver gaining interest from the Patriots, Buccaneers and Seahawks — are pursuing other opportunities, too.
This raises the question — will the Blaze become victims of their own success next season?
"Opportunities exist at every level. Moving forward, I only wish the best for the people in my organization," James said. "At the same time, one player doesn't define the football organization. So, if we lose a player — we'll replace that player. We'll make sure that we march forward and continue to win."
Players moving onto NFL careers isn't necessarily a negative outcome.
"What's best for them is also what's best for the organization," James said. "Some of these players that are getting looked at by NFL teams can only help our organization because not only do they gain that experience if they come back to us, but also players that potentially want to come here see the opportunities and know this is a league of development.
"Success breads (interest). Being able to be in the championship game, having the level of success we had this year, having a franchise record for number of wins; having players that have broken league records — all those things will lead players to want to come Salt Lake City to pursue their championship dreams in a Blaze uniform."
As the players exited the locker room at EnergySolutions for the last time, a somber mood was the consensus feeling. However, Mike Lewis, a first team All-Arena selection, was the exception.
"I don't seem down like the other guys because we had an historic season. We won more games than any other Utah Blaze team. We came literally four seconds short from going to the ArenaBowl," Lewis said. "I'm a historian of sports. It took the Pistons forever to beat Boston. I'd call ourselves the Pistons and Arizona is kind of like the Celtics. This is nothing to be crying about. There's no tears in our beers. Everyone is upset and disappointed but we're not embarrassed of anything."
Lewis emphatically waved his index finger, impersonated a heartbeat by pumping his chest and flexing his biceps all as mechanisms to issue an insured promise to the state of Utah that the Blaze will win the ArenaBowl next season.
"Attack mode — we'll be back. Salt Lake City I'm telling you. We'll be back," Lewis said. "We got our first playoff win, check. Best record in Utah Blaze history, check. ArenaBowl? You're waiting for the check aren't you? It's comin', trust me. I'm working out right now. I worked out this morning — 36 weeks 'til camp, I'll see you here Salt Lake City.
"Get your Jazz on, but after the Jazz come the Blaze. We will be back, believe that, baby. Mike Lewis, (No.) 53, first team All-Arena for the Utah Blaze. I am your No. 1 in your heart. We'll be back, baby."
With that level of enthusiasm it's safe to say Blaze fans have a lot to look forward to in 2012.
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