By John Bassetti
The Thunder begins its third season with the same coach, who believes the team’s talent level has improved.
YOUNGSTOWN — Think of it as a playpen for men.
In an area 50 x 26 yards with padded walls and netting, teams of mostly big and some average-sized men who run fast and get paid for hitting each other for four 15-minute periods are supposed to attract spectators.
The Mahoning Valley Thunder would like to invite you to be an observer of such serious frolic starting Friday at the Chevrolet Centre.
The Valley’s af2 franchise begins its third year after finishes of 7-9 and 3-13 the first two seasons.
There’s an interesting development for a developmental league as the af2 celebrates its 10th year, which kicked off with two weekend games at the Central Valley Coyotes (Fresno, Calif.) and Florida Firecats (Estero, Fla.).
Friday’s Albany at Mahoning Valley game will be the third opener on the league’s 2009 schedule.
The aberration for 2009 stems from the suspended status of the AFL — af2’s big brother.
Although a new collective bargaining agreement was signed recently, the AFL won’t resume until 2010.
That further enhances af2’s importance in the arena world this spring/summer.
Careful not to pit af2 against its sibling, af2 president Jerry Kurz acknowledged that af2’s uniqueness this year will strengthen the overall product and bond the fan base of both leagues.
“There’s an alternative, especially in Ohio, where fans from Cleveland [Gladiators] and Columbus [Destroyers] will make the trek to Mahoning Valley.
“However, where we’re going to see a large increase in fans is via live broadcast on the Internet. I think web broadcasting is where we’ll see an increase.”
This season, fans in AFL cities will see af2 players before they move up.
“I think they’ll see more of our players, so that’s good,” Kurz said, noting that 40 percent of AFL talent is elevated from af2.
Another side benefit is that more scouts will attend af2 cities to evaluate players who, otherwise, would jump directly from college to AFL.
“Af2 has always been very good caliber, but now that it’s the only game in town, seeing those coming out of college to af2 is great for us and our fans. As good as the quality has been in the past, this could be a year with an even higher level of talent.”
Kurz recently returned from Dallas where the National Football League conducted a three-day clinic to train af2 officials.
“They oversee af2 officiating by training, supervising and grading them all year long,” Kurz said. “Out of seven officials in Super Bowl XLIII, two started in af2. That’s pretty good, but it also assists our league so much.”
Of the last eight NFL officials hired, six started in af2.
“The NFL prefers officials who go from Arena to outdoors because it makes the outdoor version seem slow,” Kurz said.
“So af2 is a great training ground.”
One-hundred fifty af2 officials work in Kurz’s 25-team league.
Mike Hold, the Thunder’s only head coach, has seen an evolution with linemen that reflects more athleticism.
“In the old days — a couple years ago when you had to play both sides of the ball — a lot of these bigger guys maybe weren’t the type of linemen you’re looking for,” Hold said. “They’re pretty quick. Now that we’re specialized and single platoon, you can go after the big offensive lineman who might have to play a little defense, if necessary.”
Hold is assisted by defensive coordinator Brennen Booth, who helps with both lines; line coach Jason Freshwater; defensive back coach Nick Ward; and volunteer line coach Paul Hulea.
The team trainer is Scott Yurcisin and Hanna Berg, a student at Kent State from Boston, is his assistant.
Before cuts, the Thunder’s preseason camp roster included eight Ohio players: Wally Sonnie (Cleveland/Ashland), Tim Cheatwood (Cleveland/Ohio State), Maurice Smith (Howland/Michigan State/YSU), Derek Schorejs (Bowling Green), Chris Schubert (Oberlin), Billy Back (Miami, O.), Shawn Donaldson (Dover/Kent State) and Carlos Spinner (Steubenville/U. of Toledo).