Skeen proud of Diesel's efforts
06/29/02 Kearney Cyberhub
KEARNEY - Regardless of the final scores of the Tri-City Diesel's remaining two games of the season, coach Leland Skeen said he is proud of this year's squad.
"We finished strong last year and we are doing it again this year," Skeen said. "We have im-proved all the way through the season, and I'm happy with where we are sitting.
"I feel like we had one of the toughest schedules in the league this year. … With that in consideration, I think we have responded well."
The Diesel (6-6) bring a three-game win streak into tonight's divisional showdown with the Sioux City Bandits (8-4) and are playing their best football of the season.
That's good, because the importance of the game is crystal clear from the Diesel's perspective - win or start thinking about next season.
"We have been in a playoff run for the last four weeks," Skeen said. "And this one is no different. We are looking at it as a playoff game. … Everybody is healthy and we are looking forward to the challenge."
Perhaps the most important name on the Diesel's improving bill of health is quarterback Justin Coleman.
Coleman broke two bones in his left hand while being sandwiched in a Week 9 loss to Rapid City and has been playing with a protective cast ever since.
But the former University of Nebraska at Kearney standout had had the cast removed earlier this week and is expected to be back at 100 percent tonight.
"He played as well as can be expected while wearing the cast," Skeen said. "But it's got to feel better to have it off."
But as much as the game means to the Diesel, it probably means even more to the Bandits. A win will give Sioux City an excellent chance of winning the Pacific North division - and an automatic ticket to the NIFL playoffs.
Sioux City won't be hurting for confidence either. The Bandits left the Tri-City Arena with a 51-48 win in Week 8, and are 2-1 against the Diesel in the last two years.
Turnovers, including a fumbled kickoff return in the game's final moments, cost the Diesel dearly in the team's first meeting.
Skeen said Tri-City won't pay that price again.
"We have pretty much cut down on our turnovers," he said. "Things didn't go right the first time, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. Turnovers are the difference be-tween winning and losing in this league.
"Hopefully this time we can re-turn the favor and stay in the play-off hunt."
The Diesel wraps up its regular season by traveling to Lincoln on July 5. The Capitols (8-4) are tied with Sioux City for the lead in the Pacific North division.
Coming off last week's sour 53-46 road setback to the Wyoming Cavalry (record: 3-10), Sioux Falls was a bit surprised to still be in the running for one of the Pacific Conference's four postseason berths. And while a number of things must work out just so for this long shot to come through, its tenuous grip on survival seems to have enlivened the Storm.
"Practice last night was really good," Sioux Falls coach Mike Aldrich said Friday. "Guys were flying around, going hard, having fun. ... When you're focusing so hard on trying to win a game, sometimes that fun factor leaves you a little bit. We maybe lost that a little."
The Storm (7-6) will conclude its regular season tonight, welcoming fellow South Dakota club Rapid City (6-7) to the Arena. The game gets under way at 5:05 p.m. and will be televised live statewide on PAX-TV.
Assuming Sioux Falls beats the Red Dogs, it still needs a boatload of assistance. Its unwilling accomplices are Lincoln, Omaha and Sioux City. If two of those teams lose in both of their final two games, the Storm would grab a wild-card bid.
"We obviously need some help, and our loss out in Wyoming didn't help our cause," Aldrich said. "But, mathematically, we're still alive. So it's kind of one of those deals where if we can go out and play a good ballgame on Saturday night, and if we come away with a win, it's going to be a matter of watching the scoreboard."
While the Storm has cooled after starting the season 4-0, it still hasn't lost its touch at the Arena. Sioux Falls holds a 5-1 home mark entering this game. The other side of that, of course, is a 2-5 away record.
"It's not a matter of us being a terrible road team," Aldrich said. "Really, it comes down to our guys playing with so much energy and enthusiasm when we've got those 4,000 people behind us."
That factor should help the Storm accomplish the most crucial part of the calculation: a win tonight. Otherwise, the math nerds can toss their slide rules in the trash.