It took all of six seconds into the game for the Thunder to score on a 53-yard return of the opening kick off by Henry Tolbert. Even more impressive were the 36 unanswered points produced by the Thunder in the second half, turning a 33-23 deficit into a win Saturday in an Arena Football2 game before 3,735 at the Chevrolet Centre.
“This is a mentally tough team,” Thunder coach Mike Hold said. “We came back and played a great second half defensively. Offensively, we played a lot better. Obviously, there are some things we need to work on, but it was the first game.”
The Thunder’s first-half showing after Tolbert’s kick return wasn’t always a pretty sight. The Conquest scored four touchdowns in the half to take a 26-23 lead. The Thunder dropped three potential touchdown passes in the first 30 minutes.
Hold is breaking in almost an entire new team to arena-style football, but he didn’t blame the transition from the outdoor game for the poor first-half showing.
“The bottom line is that we dropped three touchdowns in the first half,” Hold said. “That’s not getting used to the game. It’s making plays. Had we caught those balls, it’s 33-26 at half, and now we have the lead.”
Perhaps the best part of the game for the Thunder was the play of their defense. In a style of football where points are scored at a rapid pace, the Thunder’s ability to limit the Conquest to seven second-half points was crucial.
“We didn’t change anything,” Hold said. “We just started playing. We created some opportunities. We made a great interception on that one by Anthony Jackson. Offensively, we kept the pressure on them. They had to start throwing the ball to catch up, and it’s tough to do that in this league.”
Youngstown Ursuline graduate Josh Swogger had a solid performance at quarterback for the Thunder in his first AF2 game. Swogger completed 10-of-24 passes for 157 yards and four touchdowns.
“I didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas of how he would play,” Hold said. “I just tried to give him a gameplan he was comfortable with. When he’s just dropping back and throwing, he has great talent. For the first time on a small field, I thought he made some great throws.”
John Tackmann, lining up at quarterback, scored on touchdown runs of 9, 2 and 5 yards for the Thunder. Tolbert caught a 9-yard touchdown pass, in addition to his kick return for a touchdown. DeMarcus Mathes hauled in scoring passes of 18 and 33 yards, and Marlon White had a 7-yard touchdown reception. The Thunder also scored on a second-half safety.
Tolbert’s kick return ignited the fans before they had time to get comfortable in their seats. It was his first game action since his senior season of 2006 at Grambling State.
“Taking it back on the first play was great,” Tolbert said. “It couldn’t have started any better.”
The dropped passes in the first half are something Tolbert and the other receivers will need to work on in coming weeks.
“There are a lot of cobwebs,” Tolbert said. “It’s been about two years since I played a game. Overall, I’m excited about this team. This is the most fun atmosphere I’ve played in. Once we eliminate the mistakes, we’re going to be a really great team.”
Conquest quarterback Dan Cole was 22-of-47 for 276 yards and four touchdowns. Receiver Jared Jones caught two touchdown passes and had 139 yards in receptions. Vernard Abrams had 112 yards in receptions and one touchdown, and Antwun Williams caught one touchdown pass.
The Thunder remain at home Saturday to play the Manchester Wolves.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Mahoning Valley’s Marlon White catches a touchdown pass from Josh Swogger. Albany’s Brandon Taylor defends on the play.