By Matt Popchock
And now, presenting…our mock Pittsburgh Power team awards for 2011! Okay, so we don’t have thousand-dollar wardrobes, a red carpet, or a big orchestra, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun looking back on the first year of the Arena Football League’s return to Pittsburgh after a 20-year absence, and honoring those who made it memorable.
After every hockey game at CONSOL Energy Center, the media votes on the “Three Stars” of that night’s contest. Similarly, during each AFL game held there–and everywhere else–we have the sometimes daunting task of voting on individual awards that honor the best players and top plays of the evening.
For our purposes, however, we’re going to dig a little deeper. We’re going to look back on the Power’s inaugural season from start to finish and give those same post-game awards to the team’s top players and most spectacular highlights from their recently concluded campaign.
Here are our mock Pittsburgh Power regular season awards for year one:
Offensive Player of the Year
…and the winner is: Mike Washington. A number of people contributed to the vitality of the Power’s offense throughout the season, particularly the receiving corps, but ultimately, the Aliquippa native was their most consistent player on offense in a season wrought with inconsistency. Last Friday he capped a solid rookie campaign with a game-high 11 grabs, 155 yards, and four touchdowns in a 61-48 win over the host Philadelphia Soul. Washington led all Power receivers in catches (114), yards (1,367), and TD receptions (30) this year.
Defensive Player of the Year
…and the winner is: Carlos Campbell. The second-year defensive back provided the Power’s secondary, which is never an easy place to play in arena football, with valuable experience and pass protection. That value was underscored when Campbell was injured and sat out much of the second half of the season, and the general performance of the secondary, as a whole, took something of a nosedive. Despite missing the last five games of the regular season, Campbell still led the Power with 57.5 tackles (52 solo) and 11 pass breakups to go with two forced fumbles and three interceptions.
Ironman of the Year
…and the winner is: Lonnell DeWalt. Head coach Chris Siegfried’s decision to put one of the tallest, most physically imposing players on his team at jack linebacker, while easing his workload at wide receiver, turned out to be one of the best ones he made all year. DeWalt became an impact player on defense, and, in his first full season in the AFL, led the Power with four interceptions (a lead he shared with Josh Lay), and finished third on the team with 52 tackles (40 solo) to complement his four pass breakups and two forced fumbles. But he was not derelict in his duty when it came to making big plays on offense either, and he finished with 21 TD’s on 45 catches totaling 489 yards.
Playmaker of the Year
…and the winner is: Mike Washington. Speaking as someone who enjoys following WPIAL football, Washington definitely slipped under my radar when he was with the Quips, and I’m sure he slipped under a lot of other people’s radars; the program usually lists him as 5’7″, and even that might be charitable. However, he never let his dimensions define him. His aforementioned numbers speak for themselves, and even when he didn’t jump off the page, he gave opposing DB’s fits, and proved himself a very well-rounded and reliable athlete.
Play of the Year
…and the winner is: DeWalt’s game-tying TD reception vs. Milwaukee Mustangs as regulation time expired (June 25). The Power were mere seconds away from what would have been a very disappointing and very damaging loss to the struggling Mustangs, when, incredibly, Terrance Carter’s forced fumble and DeWalt’s subsequent heroics gave them a stay of execution. Down 38-32 and facing a 3rd and 10 in the game’s final moments, backup QB Chris Wallace threw against the grain to the back left corner of the end zone. DeWalt, who had recorded the game-winning TD in the previous meeting at Milwaukee, made a leaping catch and hung on for dear life as he was pushed over the wall to send the crowd of 8,227 at CONSOL Energy Center into a frenzy. That allowed Paul Edinger to kick an untimed extra point that gave the Power a dramatic Week 16 win and kept them atop the East Division at the time.
Catch of the Year
…and the winner is: Washington’s one-handed TD reception vs. Spokane Shock (May 7). When we asked Power quarterback Bernard Morris after this game if he was as surprised as we were when “The Joystick” made this amazing grab, he said no, because it was the kind of play, in his estimation, that Mike Washington was brought in to make…but that certainly didn’t stop us from jumping out of our seats when they connected. With the Power trailing 34-21 midway through the third quarter, Morris threw a 31-yard bomb to Washington down the far sideline. Washington secured it with one hand and somehow kept his balance, skipping into the end zone to cut the deficit to 34-27. It was a brilliant score that, in hindsight, changed momentum big time, as the Power would rally for a 51-41 win over the defending ArenaBowl champs at CONSOL Energy Center.
Highlight of the Year
…and the winner is: Campbell INT in end zone vs. Cleveland Gladiators (June 4). In the first meeting ever between these teams, a battle for divisional supremacy at CONSOL Energy Center, the Power clung to a 35-32 lead late in the fourth quarter as rookie Kurt Rocco was methodically marching the Gladiators downfield. On 1st and 10 from the Pittsburgh 16, Rocco overthrew Thyron Lewis to the right side of the end zone, and Campbell, who spent last season with Cleveland, picked it off to preserve the lead. The interception proved to be a dagger; the Power won by that same score to reach the high-water mark of their inaugural season: a 7-4 record, a season-best fourth straight victory, and sole possession of the East Division lead for the first time in team history.
Player of the Year
…and the winner is: Mike Washington. If you were to watch the way the patchwork Power, amidst a rash of injuries, came together to end their first season with a 9-9 mark and second-place finish in their division, you would be reminded of what a team game football is. As we said earlier, a lot of players pulled their weight at various points of the season, which made our decision tough, but Washington gave them some of the finest leadership we saw all year. On the field, he was quick, elusive, and sure-handed enough to get looks from NFL scouts. Off the field, he was approachable and candid, holding both himself and his teammates accountable. He’s even worked with students at the Summit Academy, a reform school in Butler County. Washington’s work ethic never seemed to waver, and as the Power try to build for a better future, he would be a logical cornerstone for this team.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)