KENNEWICK -- Adam Shackleford knew he had a competitive team with the Tri-Cities Fever this season -- even when his squad started out the Indoor Football League season with a 1-5 record.
With the Fever (7-7) heading into a first-round playoff game at top-seeded Billings (12-2) set for 2 p.m. Sunday in Montana, Shackleford believes it's anybody's game.
"Everybody has the same record (to start) the playoffs," he said. "Now you can be one and done. We are a good team when we choose to be."
It wasn't that way in January.
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Back then, Pat O'Hara was the Fever's head coach. But O'Hara was offered the Orlando Predators' head coaching position in the Arena Football League.
Shackleford, who hired on as his assistant after being let go by the Spokane Shock -- even though he led the Shock to the af2 title the season before -- stepped right in as the Fever's new head coach.
"Typically, you're hired in September or October," said Shackleford. "I didn't know when I took the job 21/2 months before the season started whether we'd be competitive. We got a late start as a staff, and there wasn't a whole lot of time at the start to do anything."
But he had a strong nucleus of players.
"I think going into camp we had a good group of guys, some athletes," he said. "There was some spots where we could use improvement. We changed some spots on the roster.
"But am I surprised how well we did? No."
Neither is Fever wide receiver Thyron Lewis, who was named to the second team offensive unit of the All-IFL squad Thursday.
"When you're new to the league and you haven't played together, it's going to take some time to learn how to play together," Lewis said.
Lewis said it didn't take long.
"After the first game, we learned a lot together," he said.
That was a season-opening 69-67 four-overtime loss at Fairbanks.
Lewis was a standout this season for the Fever. He caught 50 passes for 675 yards and 25 touchdowns.
There were games this season in which Lewis was double and triple-teamed and was held to just a catch or two. But that never bothered him.
"I'm a team player," he said. "I want to win. There was no frustration when that happened. It doesn't make a difference as long as we win."
Shackleford and Lewis both agree that the Fever's offensive system was one key to Lewis' success.
"It's not a one-sided offense," Lewis said. "We have more options."
Many, in fact.
"We have a system where we're able to get it to a guy, and get other guys involved when we can," Shackleford said. "We spread the ball out (to everyone), but there are also games where he takes over. It also has to do with matchups, and the addition of Joey Hew Len and the four-receiver sets give him chances to go 1-on-1."
Either way, Shackleford thought Lewis might get a chance for an honor, and perhaps a shot in a bigger league.
"I hope so," Shackleford said. "You never know. It's certainly a good thing to put on his football resume."
As for the rest of the team, Shackleford said he's proud of theway the Fever bounced back after the slow start.
He points to the 57-50 road victory at Kent on June 4 as a great moment.
"I told the guys, after beating Kent to get us into the playoffs, that I felt the same as I did -- the same satisfaction -- as when we won the Arena Cup the year before in Spokane," said Shackleford. "Because of the expectation when I got here, we wanted to be a competitive football team. I think we exceeded those expectations. But we're not done. We want to be a premier team."
The Fever leaves the Tri-Cities by bus at 6 a.m. Saturday, planning to have a walk-through at the Billings Outlaws SportsPlex on Saturday night.
The teams are playing at the SportsPlex, rather than Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark (the Outlaws' normal home), after a tornado destroyed the MetraPark last Sunday -- less than 24 hours after the Fever played the Outlaws there.
"I was just thankful my guys weren't in there when that happened," said Shackleford. "I called (Billings) Coach (Heron) O'Neal on the phone the next day. I'm just thanklful his staff or players weren't in there."