They started out being "almost the naked, ice-skating football team," their owner said.
And though they didn't exactly become a league powerhouse in their first season in the American Indoor Football League, the Augusta Spartans turned what could've been a catastrophe into a credible venture in bringing arena football back to the area.
Local businessman Jimmy Young bought the team a week before the season, squeezed the players into helmets and uniforms the day of the season opener and had to have a field shipped to Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center for the home opener on March 10.
Led by coach Bubba Diggs, the Spartans started 2-0, lost eight of nine, then played the final month of the season as if they belonged in the playoffs. Augusta ended the season Saturday night with a dramatic 48-40 overtime upset of playoff-bound Raleigh.
"That's arena football at its best," Diggs said of the finale, in which Augusta scored in the final minute of regulation to tie and stopped the Rebels on the 1-yard line to win in overtime.
"People were leaving, thinking we were done with 58 seconds left. But it's like they say, 'Don't blink or you'll miss something.' There was no better way to end the season."
Saturday's surprise victory in front of a large home crowd was a microcosm of Augusta's season. The Spartans could've been written off but in the end made a statement.
"We had a never-quit attitude," lineman John Cratic said. "You might beat us down one week, but the next time you better come with a little more ammo, a little more firepower.
"They're very lucky that we didn't start jelling a little bit earlier, because if we would have made the playoffs, we would've swept," he added. "They need to get ready for next year, because a lot of us are coming back, and we're going to be ready."
Augusta finished 5-9 - sixth in the division - with four of those wins coming against the last-place Carolina Ghostchasers and seventh-place Florence Phantoms.
But with a midseason 12-player addition and the signing of former South Carolina quarterback Mike Rathe in early May, the team became competitive with the best in the league.
"The last three or four games, playing the best competition in the league, we were right there in the last few minutes with them," Diggs said. "That's a heck of a confidence booster for these guys, and I'm excited about it."
Diggs said most of the season-ending roster, including Cratic, Rathe, OL/DL Voncellius Allen, WR Rod Price, WR Anthony Young, WR Marvin Stone, WR Terrance Haywood, FB Travis Mays, DB Shawn Sanders, DB Morris Drakeford and DB Chip Dykes, should be invited back.
Reach Steve Sanders at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
HIGHS AND LOWS
Feb. 22: Jimmy Young introduced as owner after buying Spartans from the AIFL
March 3: Spartans 33, Ghostriders 24
March 10: Spartans 37, Phantoms 27
March 24: Thunder 49, Spartans 24
April 2: Renegades 46, Spartans 18
April 9: Bandits 59, Spartans 6
April 13: 12 new players introduced
April 15: Vipers 73, Spartans 60
April 20: Rebels 48, Spartans 19
April 29: Thunder 49, Spartans 44
May 3: Former South Carolina quarterback Mike Rathe joins team
May 7: Spartans 71, Ghostchasers 6
May 13: Vipers 60, Spartans 46
May 19: Renegades 37, Spartans 34
May 26: Spartans 46, Phantoms 36; Owner Jimmy Young takes over as majority owner of Florence Phantoms
June 3: Bandits 51, Spartans 34
June 10: Spartans 48, Rebels 40
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