Orlando Predators look to build on success from 2014 season


Danny Morales / Valencia Voice

The Orlando Predators went 11-7 in 2014 and advanced to the Conference Championship game before losing to the Cleveland Gladiators.

This upcoming season will be make it or break it for Orlando’s Arena Football team the Orlando Predators as they will start training camp the first week of March to prepare for their 2015 season opener against the Philadelphia Soul.

After hiring on new head coach Rob Keefe and cleaning house within the organization, the team went 11-7 in the 2014 season and made it to the Conference Championship but lost 46-56 to the Cleveland Gladiators.

The team seemed to be in turmoil last season as their owner David Pearsall made a scene at an AFL owners meeting and left the team in the league’s hand. That is when David Siegel, owner of Westgate Resorts, stepped in and purchased the team. He also relinquished the debt the team had with the city of Orlando after a disagreement with past owner Brett Bouchy left the team in disarray and unable to use the city-owned Amway Center located downtown.

“The main thing we wanted to do was get better on all levels and I think when you hear us going to the Amway Center and us practicing in the Citrus Bowl and the type of athlete we are now recruiting because of what we’ve done last year,” said Keefe about the upcoming season, “With what Westgate has to offer, with this ownership group we are thriving and we will be on the forefront of Orlando entertainment.

“And thats a place I want to be, I want to be in a great arena, I want to be at a great practice facility and I want to have great players.”

Even through the trials and tribulations of coaching and managing the team’s ownership responsibilities while the state of the team was unknown, Keefe helped bring the team to above .500 for the first time since 2011 as the Predators went 4-14 in 2012 under head coach Brent Munsey and 7-11 in 2013 under coach Doug Plank.

“Westgate created balance for a team that needed balance, last year we did great on the field and now off the field we have the backing to allow us to be great again.” said Keefe on the Westgate ownership.

Looking at the upcoming training camp, Keefe is looking at much more than just physical ability to fill his roster. With a high intensity sport like football tensions can be high among players and Keefe plans to curb that mentality and ensure his team works as just that, a team.

“We look at the whole package, we want to see how people work together, you want to make sure people are respectable and they get along, the worst thing you can do is put people in a locker room that do not get along.“ said Keefe about the prospected players set to attend training camp next month. “You don’t want people that aren’t really good people, you don’t want people that take away from the football aspect of the system. You want people that are smart, people that are courteous and people that are good teammates.”

Going into training camp, the organization has ten receivers currently signed onto the team’s tentative Training camp roster and looks to trim down to five or six depending on the performance of the perspective players. Of the receiving core, the organization can rest easy in the resigning of their big three receivers Greg Carr, Larry Brackins and Kendal Thompkins.

Returning to the grid-iron for Orlando will be the 2014 AFL Rookie of the Year, Greg Carr. Carr made 114 receptions for 1440 yards and 36 touchdowns. At 6’ 6”, Carr towers above the average height receivers and can make catches others have only dreamed about.

“To get an athlete like that, the best rookie player that the AFL has to offer. It’s amazing, talking to him, Greg wants to do even more, he has his own accolades, but he is such a team player. His biggest goal is to help us win a championship title.“ said Keefe about the returning player. “If not a vocal leader, he will definitely be a passionate leader, and we want him to step up into that leadership role.”

Also returning to catch the ball will be veteran receiver Brackins who the Preds signed on late last season but made a mark for the team catching 48 passes for 612 yards and 17 touchdowns. Former University of Miami wideout Thompkins will also make a comeback after making 72 receptions for 932 yards and 16 touchdowns.

The position under center is also up for grabs as Orlando signed former Tampa Bay Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard during the offseason. Hippeard completed 350 of 597 passes for 4406 yards and 93 touchdowns while also throwing 27 interceptions.

The competition for starting quarterback is underway as the Predators also still have late arriving QB Bernard Morris who joined the team in the middle of the season after Jason Boltus was out due to injury and later took the reins as starting quarterback. Morris completed 157 of 242 passes for 2191 yards and 47 touchdowns while only throwing six interceptions. He also managed to lead the team’s rushing effort rushing 283 yards for 12 touchdowns.

“Competition breeds success, right now I couldn’t put a finger on it [who will start at QB], I think Bernard is a great athlete and a great leader but I think Randy has the capabilities to lead a football team as well. Randy has a strong arm and can make all the throws,” said Keefe about who may start under center at the end of March, “Right now in the AFL, theres only 12 coaches, only 12 teams, only 12 starting quarterbacks, and so theres gonna be competition,

“Theres only so many places these guys can go, so its rare that you’re going to have a solidified starter with how much talent there is going around.”

Looking at the defense, The Predators just signed two-time All-Arena and championship winning Mac linebacker, Aaron Robbins  who has 80 career tackles and 29.5 career sacks in five years in the AFL.

“Aaron is a great player, he’s been to a championship, he’s been there, done that. He’s still at the prime of his career and he’s somebody that I’ve coached before and have a great rapport with.” said Keefe about their new veteran linebacker. “He’s a player you want on your team who’s going to rally the troops and will be able to disrupt and get to the quarterback based on his size and capability.”

During the offseason the AFL lost three teams, the Pittsburgh Power folded after four seasons in the league and a record of 33-40, along with the San Antonio Talons while also losing the Iowa Barnstormers — who left for the Indoor Football League — reducing the number of teams in the league to 12. This created a stir in the league and raised the question about the sustainability of an indoor league that some argue has seen it’s glory days come and go. With dropping attendance around the league and with the departure of three major teams in the market, many are left asking, “Who will be next?”

“You have to make sure you have a great ownership, and that comes with the league finding and securing the right financial backers for these organizations. I think the league always has their heart in the right place, the league cares about how we market ourselves.” said Keefe about the AFL and its ability to stay afloat. “But, I think its about what we do this year that will decide the future of the Arena Football League, I think locally we have to make sure that we win, and we have to make sure local attendance is up, and we want to make sure our players are doing the right things off the field so that we are viewed in a good light.

“We control our own destiny, and if we do all those things, financial backers will be attracted to teams even more in communities that really want arena football the better we do this year.”

But, as we look into the Predators upcoming season, they are hopeful of an AFL revival and are keeping their eye on the most important prize in sports, the Championship game and taking home the Foster Trophy.

The Predators will kick off their 2015 season against the Philadelphia Soul on Sunday, March 29, at their new home in the Amway Center.