As the road team, the Cleveland Gladiators were first to the Wells Fargo Center turf. They waited with a message prior to an American Conference semifinal against the Philadelphia Soul.
The Soul, running out of an inflatable helmet behind four revving motorcycles in the midst of a screaming public address announcer and loud music, got its clearest communication once it got to the middle of the field.
“When we came out of the tunnel tonight, they’re standing there waiting on us saying, ‘We know everything you guys are going to do,’” Soul quarterback Dan Raudabaugh said. “You look at them like, ‘Alright, here it comes.’”
It was too much for rival Cleveland for the fourth time this year. Behind four interceptions, the top-seeded Soul won 47-35 and advanced to the American Conference championship.
The Soul topped Cleveland three times in the regular season, but the Gladiators ended Philadelphia’s season in the conference semifinals last year on a last-second field goal.
“It was real sweet,” Raudabaugh said. “We don’t like them … Especially the way it went last year, I know we’re not looking back, we’re looking forward, but it kind of sits in your mind a little bit.”
Dwayne Hollis and LaRico Stevenson each had two interceptions. Hollis took the second 31 yards for a touchdown.
“We made plays tonight,” Soul coach Clint Dolezel said. “Normally, it’s an offensive game. If you get two-to-three stops, you should win football games. We’re getting four-to-five-to-six, and we’re winning by a couple digits. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you get that many stops.”
The Soul trailed by a point before it recovered an onside kick on the last play of the first quarter. Including the proceeding touchdown, the Soul ripped off 24 straight points and never looked back.
“The onside kick kind of switched the momentum,” Dolezel said. “When things are not going our way or they are going our way, there’s a point in there when you look at it.”
Raudabaugh, an MVP candidate who led the league with 119 touchdowns, finished 16-for-28 passing for 190 yards and four scores. Shaun Kauleinamoku was his top target. He had eight catches for 108 yards and three touchdowns.
The Soul advanced to the conference championship for the third time in four seasons. In the previous two trips, the Soul won before falling in the Arena Bowl.
“It’s the most successful franchise in Philadelphia, I’ll tell you that,” Soul owner and former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski said with a laugh. “I couldn’t be more fired up for our coaches, our players, our fans. It was an incredible crowd today. They wereinto the game. This is football. This is the championship game coming to Philly. That’s exciting.”
The Soul will host the winner of Jacksonville and Orlando, who play in Orlando Saturday night, in the conference championship next Sunday at 5 p.m. While the Soul finished 15-3, it lost two of three against Jacksonville and won two of three versus Orlando. All three losses were on the road.