New-look Storm turns to same cast of characters

03/24 Sioux Falls Argus Leader
At this level of professional football, it's not unprecedented for rosters and coaching staffs to be dynamited, then rebuilt, from season to season. Here, simply keeping your team in the same league for any stretch of time is a mark of stability.

Given that threshold, the Sioux Falls Storm is something like the General Motors of the two-year-old National Indoor Football League. Some battle-tested veterans and wily coaches can remember performing for Sioux Falls all the way back in the 2000 season. In this universe, that's an eternity.

And it's not just a handful of holdovers. Most of the coaches, all of them in their 20s, are beginning their third season with the organization. The starting defensive unit - and this is a coup on any rung of the football ladder - is exactly the same as it was last year.

Will that translate into victories? The Storm will find out over the coming months, as it welcomes the Billings Outlaws to the Arena for its home-opener at 2:05 this afternoon.

To explain this durability, you must peer back to 2000 - the team's initial season - when it was known as the Cobras and played in the Indoor Football League. The IFL dissolved following that season, and the Sioux Falls club hopped into the NIFL and became the Storm.

It was a late move, so rather than looking far and wide for players, Coach Mike Aldrich canvassed the ex-Cobras who lived in the area to join the Storm. While the team also brought in transplants, those local players seemed to carry most of the load - and win the fans' hearts.

So Aldrich followed a similar tact this season, recruiting area players with relish. Since no one in the league is getting rich - the standard salary is $200 a game - he appealed to their pride.

"All those guys are saying, 'Hey, we left with some unfinished business last year,' " he said. "So that was a really easy selling point to get some of our marquee players back.

"A lot of them live in the area, so there's that increased sense of natural pride. They live here and know the people here, so they want to do well for them." \Spearheading the defense is Don Hilsenroth, the 245-pound zealot linebacker who hopes to change the fortunes of his hard-luck career. "This is kind of his year, he feels, if he's going to make his shot at the next level," Aldrich said.

In the secondary are Shannon Poppinga, the Augustana alum who Aldrich called the team's best cover man last season, and Bobby Perkins, a free safety from the University of South Dakota. Perkins has snared 20 interception over the last two seasons - a total that might be unmatched anywhere in pro football. And there's reason to believe that he'll be more effective this season.

"Previously when he's taken chances, there was nobody to watch his back. So they were chances," Aldrich said. "Now he can take chances, but he's covered."

The Storm's biggest on-field alteration is at quarterback, as 6-foot-5 Ryan Aulenbacher steps in for the retired Kurtiss Riggs. But even this isn't as jarring a transition as it seems. Aulenbacher was with the club last season, and he and Riggs, now the offensive coordinator, have like minds for the game, Aldrich said.

In his first start, Aulenbacher didn't disappoint, going 18-for-21 for 227 yards and three touchdowns in Sioux Falls' season-opening 48-20 win at Bismarck, N.D., on March 9.

There are no questions about the other side of the Storm's passing equation. Corey Walker, who reeled in 54 receptions last season, returns after flirting with a possible ticket to NFL Europe. Also back are Adam Syphers and do-everything Chad Gomarko while newcomers Jesse Haines and Josh Buckholtz have mouth-watering potential.

Those players comprise what Aldrich thinks is the best receiving corp in the league. As a result, look for the Storm to pass first, run second.

While much about the Storm is the same as last season, there has been a change at the top, with Ted Thoms and Kent Vucurevich purchasing the club over the summer. But this was a welcomed move, Aldrich said.

"That's probably been the best thing that's happened with this team," he said. "Ted and Kent, the first thing they asked me was 'What do we need to do to make the players happy?' "

In that spirit, the Storm now stay at a hotel on longer road trips, and its transportation is a bit more comfortable. The players have also been showered with Storm caps and clothes.

"Is that going to make a team win or lose?" Aldrich said of the new policies. "Not necessarily. But it's one of those intangibles where, if you look good, you feel good. And if you feel good, you play good."

Roster - Todd Tryon, cornerback, 5-11, 205. Damien Harmon, running back, 5-11, 210. Philip Wilson, strong safety, 5-10, 200. Dax Michelena, quarterback, 6-3, 210. Shannon Poppinga, cornerback, 6-1, 180. Chad Gomarko, wide receiver, 6-0, 185. Jesse Haines, wide receiver, 6-2, 190. Ryan Aulenbacher, quarterback, 6-5, 205. Bobby Perkins, free safety, 6-1, 185. Corey Walker, wide receiver, 6-2, 210. Nate Krull, kicker, 6-2, 205. Joe Evenson, linebacker/strong safety, 6-1, 215. Jim Bean, running back, 5-10, 185. David Ruter, running back, 5-10, 185. Don Hilsenroth, linebacker, 6-2, 245. Jason Schwab, offensive line, 6-1, 290. Garret Hoffman, offensive line, 6-4, 275. John Green, defensive line, 6-1, 290. Rich Wirkus, offensive line, 6-2, 295. Roger Pederson, defensive line, 6-4, 255. John Semchenko, offensive line, 6-1, 305. Josh Buckholtz, wide receiver, 6-2, 210. Jeremy Klaasen, defensive line, 6-4, 275. Adam Syphers, wide receiver, 5-8, 180. Malcolm Coleman, defensive line, 6-3, 255. David Kimura, wide receiver, 5-11, 185. Lynn Tryon, wide receiver, 6-4, 240.

Schedule - March 24: vs. Billings Outlaws, 2:05 p.m. March 30: at Rapid City Red Dogs, 8:05 p.m. CST. April 7: vs. Wyoming Cavalry, 2:05 p.m. April 14: at Sioux City Bandits, 3:05 p.m. April 20: vs. Tri-City Diesel, 7:05 p.m. April 27: at Omaha Beef, 7:05 p.m. May 11: vs. Lincoln Capitols, 7:05 p.m. May 18: vs. Bismarck Roughriders, 7:05 p.m. May 24: at Tri-City Diesel, 7:05 p.m. June 1: at Billings Outlaws, 8:05 p.m. CDT. June 15: vs. Sioux City Bandits, 7:05 p.m. June 21: at Wyoming Cavalry, 8:05 p.m. CDT. June 29: vs. Rapid City Red Dogs, 5:05 p.m.

 
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