Orlando Predators pushing for championship for Orlando

The Orlando Predators are playing their best football as the season comes to a close. That is important for a city that could use something to celebrate.

Brandon Thompkins, Orlando Predators
Brandon Thompkins led the Orlando Predators in receiving as they defeated the Jacksonville Sharks on June 18, 2016. Photo by David Pearce.

The Orlando Predators left the field three weeks ago following an emotional game against the Tampa Bay Storm energized. There were dark days behind Orlando as a city and the Predators as members of the community. Their 56-33 win over the Tampa Bay Storm was their contribution to a city healing.

The Predators and sports certainly play a role in the city healing. Orlando came out in full force for Orlando City’s first game following the tragedy of just more than a month ago that is still showing its effects throughout the city. Things have begun to be normal.

But so many are still seeking a reason to celebrate. That is the escape sports is supposed to provide.

“We said if anybody was tired, if anybody was hurt, if anybody was sore, you just had to look up at the crowd and understand who you are playing for,” coach Rob Keefe said after the team’s win over the Storm on June 24. “We’re playing for the City of Orlando. I did not have to ask these guys to run through a brick wall for us. They understand exactly what this season is. It is dedicated to the victims of Pulse. We’re here for Orlando. We recognize we have a great chance to win a championship and we want to bring a winner to this city because 100 percent it deserves it.”

That is a big burden to bear. But one the Predators are gladly shouldering to help them achieve their goals.

That goal, all that emotion, is likely one of the big drivers for a team with some much deeper local ties. The 25-year-old Predators feature several players that played high school football in Orlando and are from Central Florida in addition to their longevity in the market.

The Predators have had the Arena Bowl on their mind all season. But playing at a higher level and peaking at this moment toward the end of the season is a sign that goal has come into clearer focus.

The Predators were one of the favorites at the beginning of the season and got out to a quick start. At 12-2 they have the best record in the league heading into this weekend’s showdown with the second-best team in the league, the Arizona Rattlers. The Predators get a bye week and then finish their season off at home against the third-place Philadelphia Soul.

The Predators can put a huge stamp and claim to the Arena Bowl championship with a pair of victories to close the season. Their dominance this year has been pretty thorough.

And this even with Randy Hippeard out for the year and backup Bernard Morris taking over.

The Predators are not statistically the best team in the league by any means — they are fifth in total offense, passing offense and rushing offense and second in points allowed per game — but they always seem able to do enough to win. Their defense has always seemed able to come up with the big play at the right moment to seal a victory.

Orlando has held a vice-like grip over the league by record, but have had its fair share of escapes too. All that is necessary when trying to win a championship.

And that is squarely the goal for the Predators. It always has been. One that has been achievable too.

Throughout the season, Keefe has held his team to a higher standard knowing a title was within their grasps this season — especially after two early playoff exits the last two years. He has walked out of wins shaking his head in disgust with how his team played.

The tragedy and the responsibility a sports team has in representing its city certainly weighs on the team. Since that first game at home, the Predators have had a new focus, dominating the Storm and then dominating most of the game against the Portland Steel on the road. Orlando is rolling and playing more disciplined and better football than it had before. The penalties are down. And while the team still gets caught in long down and distances, Orlando finds a way to convert with a multi-faceted attack that now can feature Morris running out of the backfield in addition to the quick hitters to Brandon Thompkins and long throws to Greg Carr.

The Predators have turned to home and have their goals clearly in sight, with everything it can mean and provide the city.

“I think now we’re in the healing process,” Keefe said. “Now you recognize exactly what our mission is and it is to make people feel joy again. If they can take pride in what their city is doing in all accounts, we’re going to do our part. I’m very proud I can bring joy to a city that was dark for a long time. Now the sun is coming back out and we’re going to make sure that we are there for every single fan that wants to enjoy Orlando Predators football.”

There is still more enjoyment to come as the Playoffs get set to begin and the shot at an Arena Bowl championship becomes a reality.

Orlando Solar Bears re-sign Johnny McInnis

The Orlando Solar Bears continued to shape their roster re-signing assistant captain Johnny McInnis.

McInnis was a grinder for the Solar Bears last year, often described as the team’s heart and soul. He scored 19 goals and 22 assists for the Solar Bears last year, his second with the team.

“Johnny McInnis is a heart-and-soul player that leaves everything out on the ice every night,” Solar Bears head coach Anthony Noreen said in a press release. “He’s a leader for us, extremely active in the community and he’s consistently productive on the ice.”

McInnis won the Kevin L. Heller Memorial Award as the team’s unsung hero last year. Bringing him back is a big get for the Solar Bears as they continue to announce the players they are bringing back.

Orlando seems more focused on establishing a good core of players that are more under the team’s control to serve as its backbone for a playoff run rather than having constant call ups and inconsistent rosters week to week.

The Solar Bears so far have signed captain Eric Baier and goalkeeper Ryan Massa to ECHL contracts in addition to two-way players with the Toronto Marlies like T.J. Foster and Eric Faille.

Former UCF goalkeeper playing for Brazil

Former UCF All-American goalkeeper Aline Reis has been named to Brazil’s Olympic team. It is her first time on the Brazilian national team.

Reis played for UCF from 2007-11 and is now the fifth UCF alum to make the Olympics.

“So many people have reached out to me and made sure I knew they are sending me good vibes and cheering for me. It is absolutely awesome to have my fellow Knights supporting me!” Reis told UCFKnights.com. “My years at UCF were crucial at shaping the person and the player I am today. (Former coaches) Amanda Cromwell and Donna Fishter were incredible mentors to me and helped me take my game to the next level. Undoubtedly, my experience at UCF put me a lot closer to achieving the Olympic dream. So, I’m proud to be a Knight and thankful that UCF helped me become a part of this elite group of student-athletes who made the Olympics.”