Watch out for Sharks and Cobras.
The National Arena League will play its third championship Saturday night, and fittingly, the past two champs will go at it. Their fierce nicknames add some intrigue, too.
The Jacksonville Sharks will host the Carolina Cobras for the title, and while the game won't be getting any Super Bowl-like attention, it's a big deal for the players, coaches and fans of the six-team league.
"It's exciting, it's a good league," says Cobras coach Billy Back, whose team went 9-5 this season, four games behind the Sharks, then defeated Massachusetts 30-26 in a playoff matchup. "As for any championship game, we will prepare them as if it's the next game, but ask them to play it like it's their last game."
In their last game, the Sharks romped past Columbus (Georgia) 67-43. Jacksonville lost its season opener and has won every game since to be 14-1. It has averaged an impressive 7,600 per game at the JAX Veterans Memorial Arena and is hoping to match the crowd of approximately 10,000 that attended in 2017 when the Sharks beat Columbus 27-21 for the title.
This season, Jacksonville won both meetings with the Cobras, who call Greensboro, North Carolina their home.
"It is quite a thrill and reward for our efforts this season as a team to play in the championship game," Sharks coach Siaha Burley says. "As every team did, we had our share of adversities and the staff and players rose to the occasion every time. I've tried to prepare our players psychologically all year for pressure moments and games like these. We also have played everyone on the roster at some point in time in the season, so anyone called upon to play would have game experience behind them."
The caliber of play won't be compared to NFL standards, even though a few former NFL players have participated in the NAL — Carolina has seven who spent time on NFL rosters. Conceiving any parallels of the outdoor sport to the indoor game is unwise, though.
There will be pro scouts at the title game. The Canadian Football League and certainly the XFL, which debuts next February, could find some talents to nurture.
"I think a lot of people will be watching for various reasons," Back says, "but when it comes to talent that will be on the field it doesn't get any better on both teams. These two teams would compete and beat any team in any arena league.
"This league is 100% a stepping stone to the next level. It allows football players and coaches a stage to show what they have been doing since last evaluated, with quality game film and great competition."
Burley notes the quality of talent in the league has improved over three seasons.
"I do know for sure that other leagues are always watching, as I've seen guys on our roster and others get opportunities in all those leagues," he says. "As this is, has been considered and used as a stepping stone to all those leagues ... by the younger generation player, the older players tend to find a home in the NAL. Any activity in football is better than no activity when you're trying to be seen by scouts of all leagues."