Diesel miss playoffs, show improvement
07/12/02 Kearney Cyberhub
KEARNEY - It wasn't the sea-son the Tri-City Diesel was hoping for - but it was close.
"Now that it's over I can look back and see some positives," Tri-City coach Leland Skeen said. "I thought we improved from last year. We didn't make the playoffs, but we were one step closer. … We showed good character and played well."
Tri-City (7-7) lost five of its first seven games, including a three-game skid in which the Diesel were outscored by a total of 19 points.
The worst of these losses may have been a 44-42 home setback against Rapid City in Week 8. The Diesel lost a fumble - and starting running back Dale Van Housen to injury - in the game's closing seconds and found themselves sporting a 2-5 record at the midway point of the season.
"I think that stretch was the most important part of the season," Skeen said. "We could have been in the driver's seat if a couple of those games would have gone the other way.
"The same thing happened to us last year. We have to learn that the first part of the season is just as important as the last."
Fortunately, the last part of the season was as good to the Diesel as the first part was bad.
Tri-City won five of its final seven games, including victories over divisional foes Lincoln, Omaha and Sioux City.
Critics may have questioned the Diesel's ability to hang with their bigger, more experienced, in-state rivals. But when the dust cleared, all three Nebraska teams had beaten each other.
"A lot of people thought we couldn't play with those guys," Skeen said. "But nobody can say they owned the state this year. I think Lincoln, Omaha and us were the top three teams in the division.
"We are in the upper part of the league. I don't want to say we are the best, because our record doesn't indicate it. But I think we are close to making the next step."
In fact, the Diesel had an opportunity to clinch the best record inside the Pacific North Division heading into the season finale against Lincoln. Both teams boasted 5-2 divisional records heading into the contest and the Diesel had come out on top in the team's first meeting, 44-41.
Five days before the game, the NIFL announced that a win would give the Diesel the division crown and a trip to the playoffs. But the league backtracked on its decision three days later and said overall record, not divisional record, would determine divisional champions.
The last-second ruling transformed the once must-win situation into a near meaningless game in terms of playoff implications. The Capitols went on to claim a 61-48 win and the right to host a first round playoff game.
"We had heard rumors that they were thinking about making a change after we beat Sioux City," Skeen said of the controversy. "I basically just tried to focus on our last game no matter what the circumstances were.
"If we would have won that game we would have had that best record inside our division, and that's something they couldn't take away from us. … That's how I approached it, and I think the play-ers did too. We played hard in the last game and I don't think it had any effect on our performance."
One thing that did have an effect on the Diesel's 2002 season was the signing of quarterback Justin Cole-man.
The former University of Nebraska at Kearney standout signed up in Week 4 and went on to complete 55 percent of his passes for 2,097 yards and 36 touchdowns.
Coleman, who was a member of the Arena League's Indiana Firebirds before joining the Diesel, quickly established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NIFL.
"The big thing was having someone back there who had some knowledge about indoor football," Skeen said. "His size and ability to sit in the pocket definitely helped us too."
Coleman threw to a myriad of targets as the Diesel's receiving corps was ravaged by injuries throughout the season. First-year receiver Jermaine Brooks proved to be his favorite target, snagging 45 passes for 440 yards.
Fellow rookie Mitch Ables sup-plied Coleman with a second target midway through the season and finished with 494 yards receiving in just eight games.
After Van Housen went down with a broken collarbone, newcomers Andre Hatcher and Sherman Jones stepped into the backfield and combined to rush for 491 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Linebacker Eric Ryan anchored Tri-City's defense by carding 121 tackles, while defensive back Charles Verdone snagged eight interceptions.
"Once we got some people back and got some new faces in here, we started generating again," Skeen said.
Skeen added that he hopes to get some of those faces back for next season.
"After you play 14 games you are pretty beat up and tired," he said. "We'll wait for football sea-son to roll around in the fall and then the guys will start getting the itch. That's when we'll approach them about playing next season."
FINAL INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
RUSHING - Andre Hatcher 75-299, Ray Rubins 17-77, Dale Van Housen 68-253, Sherman Jones 64-242, Tavares Thompson16-76, Justin Coleman 33-107, Jermaine Brooks 5-16, Brian Smith 2-5, Eric Ryan 1-5.
PASSING - Justin Coleman 348-193-10 2,097 yds. Tavares Thompson 26-10-3 139 yds.
RECEIVING - Mitch Ables 43-494, Greg Albright 33-440, Tyrone Thomas 34-373, Jermaine Brooks 45-388, Dale Van Housen 15-172, Andre Hatcher 13-184, Dustin Morgan 6-72, Sherman Jones 15-87, Tavares Thompson 2-24, Juan Zarate 2-10, Eric Ryan 1-10.