The Augusta Spartans might not be going to the playoffs this season, but their reputation around the American Indoor Football League has to be on the rise.
On Saturday, the Spartans took a first-place team to the wire for the second time in three weeks before falling 51-34 to the Richmond Bandits at Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center.
Two weeks ago, Augusta almost took down the Rome Renegades, who are tied with Richmond for the best record in the Southern Division at 11-2.
"We've come a long way," Augusta coach Bubba Diggs said. "We've improved our personnel, and we're getting them to play together. The last three weeks have been so much different from the beginning of the season."
Except for the first 10 minutes, when a pair of Augusta turnovers led to a 14-0 deficit, the Spartans went touchdown-for-touchdown with the Bandits.
Despite trailing by 21 points at one point, Augusta cut the lead to single digits, 43-34, late in the fourth quarter. But a Richmond touchdown pass from Robbie Jenkins to Redd Thompson on 4th-and-goal from the 9-yard line with 1:30 left put the game away.
"We started off slow, but we showed a lot of character in how we fought, especially with nothing on the line," said Augusta quarterback Mike Rathe, who went 10-for-25 for 195 yards and four touchdowns. "We're playing for nothing, and we're hanging with a team that has a chance to win it all."
Augusta, which will play its final game of the season Saturday against Raleigh at home, fell to 4-9.
Receiver Anthony Young caught three passes for 85 yards and a pair of scores, including Rathe's last touchdown toss. Marvin Stone had four catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns.
"I think it just took some time to really get used to playing arena ball," Young said. "Most of us never played it before this season, and you can see that experience coming through. It just took a while."
SPARTANS BUY PHANTOMS: Augusta Spartans owner Jimmy Young confirmed Saturday that the Spartans have taken majority ownership in the AIFL franchise in Florence, S.C.
Young said the Phantoms have been struggling financially.
He said he met with the Phantoms on Thursday, and that a deal that would make him majority owner in Florence was pushed through Saturday.
Reach Steve Sanders at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.