05/25/2012 8:40 AM - By Tim Bee, JaxSharks.com
Florida vs. Georgia. Ohio State vs. Michigan. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Celtics vs. Lakers. Every sport has deep-seeded rivalries. The passion and intensity make for exciting matchups that mean a little extra to players, coaches and fans alike. For the Arena Football League, one of those rivalries is the Jacksonville Sharks and the Orlando Predators.
While heated, this rivalry is a new one. After all, the Sharks are in the middle of just their third season of existence. But with that said, the Sharks have faced the Predators more then any other opponent, meeting six times over the last two years.
“Man it’s one of the biggest rivalries we’ve got in the AFL,” said Sharks defensive back Micheaux Robinson, who has played in every game between the Sharks and Predators. “I’ve played against Orlando a lot and it hasn’t been easy. Every chance they get they want to come up here and beat us and vice versa.”
The Sharks currently hold a 4-2 edge over the Predators (3-1 regular season, 1-1 playoffs), having won both South Division championships since entering the league. During the Sharks’ expansion season in 2010, the team finished with an impressive 12-4 record that gave Jacksonville the top seed in the American Conference and set up a first-round matchup with their division rivals.
But the Predators did not let the Sharks come in and dominate right away. Orlando played spoiler in Jacksonville’s home building, scoring a last second touchdown that ended the Sharks’ season and championship hopes.
“Looking back at it, it was just one of those things that we had to go through to win the title,” Sharks managing partner Jeff Bouchy said of that playoff loss. “That defeat catapulted us in to the 2011 season and gave us that hunger and that desire that maybe would not have been there without that devastating defeat to Orlando.”
That was the last time Orlando got the best of the Sharks. In 2011, after Jacksonville swept the Predators in the regular season, it seemed fitting that the two teams would meet again in the American Conference semis. This time it was the Sharks who defeated the Predators, 63-48, on their way to the franchise’s first ArenaBowl title. For the Sharks, after losing to Orlando the year before, it was only fitting that they had to beat them to achieve their ultimate goal.
Now, the Sharks and Predators prepare for the first of two regular season matchups in 2012. At 4-5, the Sharks are still right in the thick of the South Division title race, just a game and a half behind the first-place Georgia Force. On the other hand, the Predators have struggled since the start of 2012. With a record of 1-8, Orlando would love nothing more then to make a third straight playoff appearance for the Sharks a little harder to achieve.
“It’s like finding a raccoon in your garage,” Robinson said. “He’s going to fight. He’s going to claw. He’s going to do whatever he’s got to do to survive. That’s the point where they’re at right now. They’re not going to lie down. There ain’t nothing left for them to do then to lay it all on the line.”
This rivalry has had everything from playoff matchups to billboards trashing the other team and their hometown. But tonight’s game might have a little extra intensity then some the past contests between the in-state rivals. That’s because the man who will be quarterbacking the Predators is none other then Chris Leak, who began the season with the Sharks.
After an open competition in training camp, Leak started the Sharks’ season opener in Kansas City in place of an injured Omar Jacobs, but became frustrated after learning that a healthy Jacobs would take over that role beginning with the team’s second game. After being suspended for missing practice and team meetings, Leak was eventually traded to Orlando in April.
Leak has since taken over the reins as the Predators' starting quarterback but has yet to lead Orlando to a victory. Tonight, the Sharks hope to show Leak what he’s missing out on.
“Oh yeah, you know we haven’t forgotten about that at all,” Sharks receiver Terrance Smith said. “We’re going to definitely remind him that he walked away from us. We understand the circumstance. It’s just about the way you go about handling things. Here in Jacksonville we felt like he could’ve handled it better, which he didn’t, so you know we’re just going to remind him about it.”
Florida is a football hotbed, so it only makes sense to have a deep in-state rivalry. It didn’t take long for this one to develop. The teams are so familiar that it has become more then just about football. It’s about bragging rights at the Bouchy family dinner table during the holidays. It’s about that short stretch of road on I-4 and I-95 that connects two of the biggest cities in Florida. It’s about showing a team or a player that you’re better off without them.
While the story of this rivalry is a short one, the chapters that have already been written have propelled it to its place as one of the fastest-growing rivalries in the AFL. The next chapter will be written tonight in Orlando.