Pro football returns to San Diego with the Fleet, bringing East County sons with it

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Photo by Phillip Brents. San Diego Fleet players celebrate in the end zone after former SDSU Aztec Kameron Kelly returned a 22-yard interception for a touchdown in last Saturday’s 27-25 win over the visiting Salt Lake Stallions at SDCCU Stadium.

The Alliance of American Football has reached the halfway point of its inaugural season. The fledgling league continues to generate positive press while continuing to experience growing pains.

The league is not in direct competition with the long-established National Football League but sees itself more as a development league for future NFL players.

The eight-team AAF kicked off its 10-week regular season with two strong weeks of attendance figures. But poor weather across the nation, along with perhaps the initial novelty wearing off, has since resulted in a major downturn in the turnstile count.

The league averaged 19,210 for its inaugural weekend and followed that up with an average of 19,624 for four more games in Week 2.

However, the numbers for the next two weeks showed a sharp drop – from a 14,078 average in Week 3 to just a 9,582 average in Week 4.

However, better weather led to a jump to a 13,578 average for last weekend. Still, the Week 5 figure is well below the numbers posted during the league’s first two weekends.

Locally, the San Diego Fleet saw a considerable increase from its second home game (14,789) to last Saturday’s season high of 20,823. The Fleet sold 20,019 tickets to its rain-soaked home opener on Feb. 17, though perhaps only half that many fans actually attended the game.

The Fleet is averaging 18,544 fans through three home games — third in the fledgling league behind runaway leader San Antonio (28,517) and the Orlando Apollos (20,293).

The Birmingham Iron is averaging 13,522, followed by the Memphis Express at 12,801, the Atlanta Legends at 10,773, the Arizona Hotshots at 9,989 and the Salt Lake Stallions at 9,972.

The league average at the midpoint of the season is 15,226.

In all fairness, fans in Birmingham stayed away in droves due to tornadoes that killed 23 people in Alabama. Meanwhile, Salt Lake held its home opener amid a snowstorm that chilled spectators with a 30-degree temperature.

Football weather, some fans might say. But if the league depends on ticket sales to significantly augment whatever other sources its other revenue streams might be, a midwinter to early spring schedule might not be the optimum choice.

The low numbers in Arizona are puzzling as some fans in Phoenix initially felt the Hotshots actually might be better than the NFL Arizona Cardinals.

For those who have attended games, it’s been fun to see the league develop.

Every team has posted at least one win while Orlando, coached by 73-year-old Steve Spurrier, appears to be separating itself from the rest of the league as its lone undefeated team (5-0).

The Fleet and visiting Stallions turned in the league’s most exciting finish last Saturday as Salt Lake rallied from a 24-11 deficit to go ahead 25-24 on the scoreboard with just 57 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.

But turnabout proved fair play as the hosts drove down the field in five plays to win, 27-25, on a 44-yard field goal by former SDSU Aztec place-kicker Donny Hageman as time expired.

Pandemonium quickly ensued on the field as Fleet teammates lifted Hageman on their shoulders to celebrate their last-second victory. Fans went nuts in the stands.

Those who do show up to Fleet home games genuinely seem to have embraced this new team. Chants of “Fleet! Fleet!” announce every big play amid a sea of waving yellow pompoms.

Pro football is back in the stadium, and it’s actually OK to cheer on a team other than the Chargers or Aztecs.

One city, one team? How about just maybe … one city, two teams?

Moving forward

The AAF is definitely not the NFL, nor is it trying to be. The caliber seems to be slightly above college football given that most of the playing talent is drawn from NFL training camps.

The Fleet kicked off its season with eight former SDSU players, most of whom have proven impact performers.

Hageman has kicked 11 field goals while cornerback Kameron Kelly turned in a career day with three interceptions, including a pick-six early in the fourth quarter that ignited the crowd – and the team – in last Saturday’s comeback win.

The league itself has been pretty low scoring, especially in the first half, and late arriving fans haven’t missed too much. The final 30 minutes of last Saturday’s San Diego-Salt Lake game featured 38 points between the teams — 21 by the Fleet and 17 by the Stallions — while the first half produced just 14 points, with the Stallions holding a narrow 8-6 lead.

The teams combined to score 23 points in the final quarter, including three touchdowns.

The Fleet’s defense has certainly out-performed its offense so far this season. Besides Kelly’s 22-yard interception return, the Fleet also scored on a 41-yard fumble return by free safety Jordan Martin to slip past the Stallions.

All hands on deck

A number of San Diego County high school and community college products are spread around the league.

Former Southwestern College quarterback Luis Perez is scheduled to make his San Diego homecoming this Sunday, March 17, when Birmingham takes on the Fleet in Mission Valley. Kick off is 5 p.m.

The Iron (3-2) may boast the top defense in the league; the Fleet (3-2) ranks highly as well.

Sunday’s game will pit teams with winning records; it will be interesting to see if the game matches the hype. Also making a San Diego homecoming with the Iron will be former Chargers kicker Nick Novak.

Perez, who guided Texas A&M-Commerce to the 2017 NCAA Division II championship and won the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, made headlines after leading Birmingham to a 3-0 start. But the Otay Ranch High School alumnus just as quickly met his match against opposing defenses.

After not throwing an interception in his first two games, he threw four picks in his next three games, prompting his removal from last Saturday’s game against the visiting Apollos in favor of back-up Keith Price

Price dazzled with some gaudy numbers (234 passing yards and one touchdown), but the Iron still came up on the short end of a 34-14 loss.

It will be interesting to see if Perez or Price gets the start in the upcoming game against the Fleet.

Perez’s numbers in five games include 801 passing yards, no touchdowns, four interceptions and 55.4 completion percentage.

The Fleet is in somewhat of a quarterback quandary as well after Philip Nelson, the starter for three games, suffered a collarbone injury in a 26-23 loss in Memphis on March 2 that may sideline him for the rest of the season. Nelson won two games during his stint as the Fleet signal-caller.

Mike Bercovici, the starter in Week 1, returned to lead the Fleet to its thrilling comeback win against the Stallions by passing for 304 yards with one touchdown and one interception to go with a 72.2 quarterback rating.

The physically larger Salt Lake defense limited the run-oriented Fleet to just 31 rushing yards.

San Diego County high schools had a presence in last Saturday’s game in more ways than one.

The Fleet featured a trio of locals in its line-up: receiver Kyle Lewis (San Marcos), offensive tackle Daniel Brunskill (Valley Center) and center Jeremiah Kolone (Fallbrook). The Stallions treated Trevor Reilly (Valley Center) to a San Diego homecoming.

The Fleet continued its community outreach by showcasing members of the San Diego Section champion San Diego Cavers (Division IV), Lincoln Hornets (Division II) and Cathedral Catholic Dons (Open Division) during halftime ceremonies.

The Cavers went on to win the state Division 5-A championship while the Dons finished runner-up to highly touted Folsom, 21-14, in overtime in the state Division 1-AA title game.

Also honored by the Fleet were the San Diego 14U all-star team, coached by Eastlake Panthers head man Clark Moses, and the Balboa Raiders 10U youth team, both of which won division championships at the American Youth Football national championships in Florida last December.

Former Mount Miguel standout and current L.A. Rams linebacker Cory Littleton presented the ball during opening ceremonies at the Fleet’s home opener while wearing his Matadors letterman jacket.

East County does a presence in the AAF. Former Grossmont College all-conference standout Jovann Letuli is on the San Antonio Commanders roster (but was inactive for the team’s game in San Diego on Feb. 24) while former Steele Canyon standout Chancellor James opened the season on the Salt Lake roster (before being waived on March 5).

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