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Pioneers fall just short of No. 1

Late rally comes up a TD short when Vena’s end zone pass is incomplete

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Larry Kendrick runs with the ball during ArenaCup8 against the Tulsa Talons. Kendrick scored a touchdown on a kickoff return late in the fourth quarter, pulling the Pioneers within 73-66 for the game’s final score.

Douglas Collier/ special to The Times leader

BOSSIER CITY, La. – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Rich Ingold took the rolled-up paper, slapped it lightly against his knee and dropped his head.

His team’s amazing comeback attempt came up just short.

Tulsa defensive back Don McGee broke up a pass in the end zone as time expired to give the Talons a 73-66 win against the Pioneers in ArenaCup8 at CenturyTel Arena.

“We didn’t come out of here with a ring, but I couldn’t be any more proud of my guys,” Ingold said. “Our guys showed a lot of heart and fought right until the end. We just came up a little short.”

The game featured a record seven touchdown passes by Pioneer quarterback Ryan Vena and two kickoff returns for touchdowns by Tulsa rookie Jeff Hughley, who showed why he’s one of the most exciting players in the league.

Trailing by 14 points with a minute remaining, the Pioneers put together a furious comeback attempt. Larry Kendrick returned a kickoff following a Tulsa score for a touchdown and defensive lineman Ernest Hunter recovered a Talons fumble with 44 seconds remaining. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton drove to the Tulsa 10-yard line before Vena’s pass to Buchie Ibeh was broken up by McGee.

“Ryan threw the ball where I like it – nice and high,” Ibeh said. “I really thought I had it, but (McGee) put a good shot on me. I won’t be walking right for about a week.”

Both teams entered the championship game with 17-2 records. Tulsa had the No. 1 scoring offense in the league, while the Pioneers were No. 2. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which started the season with 13 consecutive wins, spent most of the year as the No. 1-ranked arenafootball2 team. Tulsa was second.

There are times when those kinds of statistics don’t translate into an exciting game on the field. Saturday night’s contest wasn’t one of those times.

Neither team led by more than seven points through the first three and one-half quarters. The teams were tied five times during that period and there were seven lead changes.

Vena set an ArenaCup record by throwing his seventh touchdown pass, a score that tied the game at 59-59 with seven minutes left in the game. But for the second time in the game, Hughley took the ensuing kickoff from end zone to end zone, giving the Talons a 66-59 lead.

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton offense, which hadn’t been stopped since its first possession of the game, turned over the ball on downs at its own 9 with 2:41 remaining.

Tulsa quarterback Justin Algood appeared to seal the win on a 3-yard run to make the score 73-59 with 1:01 left in the game, but the Pioneers’ Larry Kendrick took the ensuing kickoff the distance to make it 73-66.

The 5,107 fans had barely settled into their seats when the Talons drew first blood. On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Algood connected with Hughley on a 37-yard touchdown pass to give the Talons a 7-0 lead.

Things appeared to get worse for the Pioneers when Vena, the af2’s Offensive Player of the Year, was intercepted by Jermaine Hope and the ball was returned inside Wilkes-Barre/Scranton territory. But Pioneer defensive back Kendrick stripped the ball loose on a pass completion and teammate Deon McPhee recovered it.

After another interception was nullified by a penalty, Vena got back on track and connected with former Temple University standout Ibeh on a 15-yard touchdown pass to tie the score 7-7.

Tulsa took back the lead on its next possession, using an ArenaCup-record 40-yard field goal to make it 10-7 with 8:19 remaining in the first quarter.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton responded by taking its first lead of the game, starting on its own 5-yard line and scoring on a 15-yard pass from Vena to Tyreak Saviour to make it 14-10. The big play in the drive was a 20-yard completion from Vena to Kendrick, who broke three tackles during the play.

Tulsa fullback Odie Armstrong made it 17-14, capping an impressive drive on a 2-yard plunge with 30 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

The teams battled back-and-forth during the second quarter. Offensive lineman David Dean got into the scoring act early in the second quarter. The massive 6-foot-6, 310-pound East Stroudsburg University product got wide open on a well-designed play and hauled in a 12-yard pass from Vena.

The teams exchanged touchdowns, including Saviour’s second of the game, to give the Pioneers a 28-24 lead with six minutes before halftime.

With Tulsa leading 31-28, things got wild in the final minute of the half. The Pioneers used a 20-yard field goal by af2 Kicker of the Year Dave Davis, an interception by defensive back Chris Royal and an ensuing 8-yard touchdown pass from Vena to Ibeh to take a 38-31 lead.

But Hughley showed why he’s one of the most exciting players in the league, taking the ensuing kickoff six yards deep into the end zone and returning it for a touchdown to tie the score 38-38 at halftime.

The exciting pace continued from the opening kickoff of the second half – literally. The Pioneers recovered an onsides kick and Vena scored on a 3-yard run to make it 45-38.

Hughley also continued his assault in the second half, hauling in a touchdown pass from Algood to tie the score 45-45. The teams exchanged touchdowns to make it 52-52 at the end of the third quarter.

Notes: A nice contingent of fans from the Wilkes-Barre area made the long trip to Bossier City, located near Shreveport. The Pioneers dance team and Pete the Pioneer also made the journey. … Speaking of Pete, the Pioneers mascot got into a little scuffle with the Tulsa mascot during a timeout in the second quarter. Judging by the angry reaction of the two – and several cheap shots – it didn’t appear to be part of the act. … Fans who only follow the ball during play missed an intense battle between the two biggest players on the field – Tulsa center Joe Johnson (6-5, 320 pounds) and Pioneer defensive lineman Troy Blackwell (6-9, 305). … The Pioneers received five awards at the league’s annual banquet Friday night, including Offensive Player of the Year (Vena) and Coach of the Year (Ingold).

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