KENNEWICK -- When the Colorado Ice (1-1) visits the Tri-Cities Fever (2-0) at 7:05 p.m. Saturday night in the the Toyota Center, expect to see two evenly matched teams.
At least that's how both coaches of their Indoor Football League teams feel.
"We're pretty familiar with their players," Fever coach Adam Shackleford said. "Either we've played against their players before or we've recruited them. We kind of feel like they're almost a mirror image of us."
Heron O'Neal agrees.
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"The thing is, you have two great quarterbacks going head to head," O'Neal said. "They've got great skill position guys. So do we. We both have opportunistic defenses."
In other words, neither coach would be surprised if Saturday's game comes down to the final play.
Because guess what? That's what happened in all three of their contests in the 2011 season:
* On April 23, Fever quarterback Houston Lillard connected with receiver Joey Hew Len on a 25-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds remaining to give Tri-Cities a 48-42 win in the Toyota Center.
* On May 20, Lillard moved the Fever down the field trailing 58-54 in Loveland, Colo., when -- with 12 seconds remaining -- his lob pass into the corner of the end zone intended for Hew Len was intercepted by Ice linebacker Prince Hall (a former Central Washington University player) to end the game
* On June 28, Gary Cismesia's 39-yard field goal with 1.5 seconds left gave the Tri-Cities a 45-42 playoff victory in Colorado, vaulting the Fever into the Intense Conference championship game against Allen.
"I just think we're two evenly matched teams," said Shackleford. "I don't think this year will be anything different. When the game is played right, on a short field, it should come down to the last possession. And you want the ball last. Each time last year, we had the ball last."
O'Neal had never seen anything like last year's series.
"It was very unique," he said. "I've been around the arena game for eight years and have never seen anything like that. The media turned it into an instant rivalry. That last play of the playoff game turned it into an instant classic.
"I guess I used up a couple of years of my life and got a few more gray hairs from those games," said O'Neal.
O'Neal is back as a head coach after being the Ice's defensive coordinator last season.
Fever fans may remember him as the head coasch of the Billings Outlaws from 2006-10.
He led the Outlaws to a National Indoor Football League title in 2006, then to IFL titles in both 2009 and 2010.
The franchise folded after the 2010 season, and O'Neal signed on as the head coach of the Kent Predators for the 2011 season. But he resigned after two months in the offseason when he hadn't gotten a paycheck.
That's when he ended up as the defensive coordinator at Colorado last season for head coach Collins Sanders. After the 2011 season, Sanders moved into the team's front office as president, making way for O'Neal to run the football operations.
"I told the fans 'Don't judge me on my first three games. Judge me on my last three games,'" said O'Neal. "Hopefully that includes the (IFL) championship game."
NOTES: The Ice flys into Spokane today, then takes mini vans to the Tri-Cities. O'Neal said he's just happy to fly. Of Colorado's seven road trips, five are by bus and only two are by plane. In comparison, the Fever have five plane trips and just two bus trips -- both to Everett. ... The Fever lost DL Shane McCord for Saturday's game. He was suspended one game by the league after being ejected from last Sunday's game at Nebraska. "He got hit very late at the end of a play and there was no call," said Shackleford. "He got mad and retaliated. The league admitted there should have been a call. But you can't retaliate."