The Tri-Cities Fever set a franchise record in 2012 with 14 victories and a second trip to the Indoor Football League championship game, the United Bowl.
But the Fever could never figure out the puzzle that is the Sioux Falls Storm, which handed Tri-Cities all three of its losses.
The last one came Saturday night in the title game in the Sioux Falls Arena, where the Storm completed a perfect 17-0 season with a 59-32 victory.
We played as hard as we could for as long as we could, said Fever coach Adam Shackleford. They made some big plays off of our mistakes. And we played like rookies at times in the second half. We still havent found a way to beat this team yet.
Things looked so promising in the first half, when the Fever at one point led 20-10.
Tri-Cities defensive back Lionell Singleton intercepted Storm quarterback Chris Dixon on the opening series at the Fever 2 yard-line, and he returned it 48 yards for a touchdown.
Offensively, we had to regroup after that first half, Sioux Falls head coach Kurtiss Riggs told the Herald in a phone conversation. We were trying to go for the home run. I thought Lionell Singleton was the defensive player of the year in this league. In the second half we stayed away from throwing his way.
We did well in the first half, said Singleton. But they just took advantage of our mistakes in the second half.
The Storm had to get back into the game, and it used one run to do that and a second run to put the contest away.
The first run came with just 1:25 left in the first half.
Trailing 20-10, the Storm scored a touchdown when Dixon hits Carl Sims on a 4-yard touchdown pass. Parker Douglass extra-point kick cut the lead to 20-17.
On the Fevers next series, Jeremiah Price broke through on the outside and sacked Tri-Cities quarterback Houston Lillard for a safety. The Fever still led 20-19.
Jeremiahs safety changed the momentum of the game, said Dixon.
After the Storm got the free kick, Dixon moved his offense from his own 17 to the Tri-Cities 13, where Douglass kicked a 28-yard field goal with 2 seconds left in the half and a 22-20 Storm halftime lead.
The thing was I felt very good about was that even as poorly as we played in the first half, our defensive line was playing really well, said Riggs, who hinted after the game he may be leaving the team next year for a football academy. I felt we were getting a hand in Houstons face, and Tri-Cities was having to work hard to score.
As a matter of fact, two of the Fevers offensive drives ended with Brady Beeson field goals of 45 and 30 yards. They were scores, but against the Storm, a team needs to keep scoring touchdowns.
Way too many field goals, said Lillard. Scoring touchdowns was our goal. I think we kicked field goals just to be sure to get points. We just tried to do too much. They flew around on defense, and we just missed too many opportunities.
Still, the Fever came out in the third quarter and retook the lead 23-22 on another Beeson field goal, this one a 29-yarder.
After that, though, things turned south quickly about 5 minutes and 43 seconds quickly as Sioux Falls went on a 23-0 run and was never threatened again.
It started and ended with bookend Dixon-to-James Terry touchdown passes of 24 and 1 yards. In between, the Storms Korey Williams returned a short Beeson field goal attempt 55 yards for a touchdown, and Price sacked Lillard again in the end zone for another safety.
It was Williams return that gave Sioux Falls a two-score lead, and Prices second sack clinched him being named the games MVP.
Between Prices two sacks, Corey Johnsons sack, and Rachman Crable putting pressure on Lillard, the Fever quarterback had trouble trying to go vertical.
We actually had tried to go vertical, said Whitehead. I think this was actually the most prepared weve been for them. The momentum just shifted.
We knew we had to get after Houston, said Dixon. The defense knew he could do some damage to us. He did his job in the first half. In the second half, Price took over.
Lillard finished the day with 163 yards and one TD pass, while Whitehead had eight catches for 78 yards. He also tossed a TD pass of 2 yards to Giovanni Stanley.
At the end of the day, they beat us, said Lillard. They made plays and we didnt.
Dixon had another stellar game, going 15-for-20 for 181 yards and four TD passes. He rushed for 58 more yards and another touchdown.
But he was more interested in his fifth league championship.
This season was perfect, said Dixon. It stays in my heart as perfect. With Coach Riggs being suspended, losing a couple of players, staying together was worth it for this.
For the Fever, the loss was bittersweet. But it still doesnt ruin a strong season for the franchise.
We go 14-3, and we make it to the championship game for the second year in a row, said Singleton. Im definitely proud of this team.