SaberCats look for first championship

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Barry Wagner is a two-time Most Valuable Player who scored 26 touchdowns this season, yet few people who aren't die-hard fans of the San Jose SaberCats know his name.

Like most players in the Arena Football League, Wagner is rewarded by the joy of competition, not stardom. Still, he's still looking forward to the national television exposure that will be given to Sunday's ArenaBowl, when his SaberCats will go for their first league title against the Arizona Rattlers.

''We always joke that people who don't have cable can finally watch us play in this game,'' Wagner said.

''People who are locked up in prison can watch this game. This is the time of year when everybody you know from back home can watch you play.''

Even for those unfamiliar with Arena ball, it's easy to follow the storylines in the league's 16th championship game.

The SaberCats and the Rattlers are archrivals. They also are the league's best two teams this season, with just four combined losses, and two of the most successful franchises in the league's 16-year history.

''It's a match made in heaven for Arena football,'' said Arizona coach Danny White, who has won two championships in 11 seasons in the league. ''It's not very often that the two best teams end up in the championship game. Usually conference play gets in the way, but our playoff structure makes it possible.''

There's also a grudge element to the game. Last month, San Jose was 12-0 -- just two games shy of the first perfect regular season in Arena football history -- when it lost to the Rattlers in Phoenix 59-52.

Adding injury to insult, the Rattlers broke the collarbone of star SaberCats quarterback Mark Grieb, the league's offensive player of the year. He'll be wearing a sling on the sidelines at the ArenaBowl.

''We haven't even really talked about the championship,'' said quarterback John Dutton, who has slipped easily into Grieb's spot. ''We've just talked about beating Arizona. Sure, it's the championship game, but to us, it's even more of a rivalry game.''

White and San Jose coach Darren Arbet know essentially everything about two of the league's most inventive game plans.

The SaberCats led the league with 62.7 points per game, while the Rattlers allowed a league-low 44.6 points per game.

The SaberCats have perhaps the league's most athletic team, with Wagner, James Hundon and Clevan Thomas using their speed to maximum effect on the league's small field. Arbet has built a fleet-footed team that combines its speed with some of the league's best linemen.

Hundon, who played four seasons with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals and starred in the XFL, scored 35 touchdowns this season to finish second in the league behind Arizona's Chris Horn, who scored 36 -- including the winning TD with 43 seconds left in the Rattlers' win over San Jose last month.

The Rattlers are led by Arena league veterans Hunkie Cooper and Sherdrick Bonner, who wore their championship rings this week as the team prepared for the game at Compaq Center -- where the boards used by the NHL's San Jose Sharks still line the field for Arena ball.

Cooper wore his 1994 ring -- a symbol of the title won on the road against fans who were just as hostile as the expected sellout crowd in San Jose will be.

''Everybody who knows this game knows what a perfect matchup this is,'' Cooper said. ''This is Redskins-Cowboys. This is Green Bay-Chicago. This is what you play for.''

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