The first full season of indoor football in Tucson has come and gone, with a myriad of memories for players, coaches, fans and executives alike.
The Tucson Sugar Skulls went 7-7 in their first season in the 10-team Indoor Football League under coach Marcus Coleman, becoming the first IFL expansion team to make the postseason in their inaugural season.
The hometown team's memorable campaign came to an end on Sunday, June 23, with a 50-47 loss to the Sioux City Storm. The single-digit loss in the opening playoff round couldn't spoil Coleman's outlook on the season, however.
Coleman, who previously served as a defensive coordinator for the IFL's Iowa Barnstormers, found plenty of silver linings in the team's yearlong performance.
"I think it was a successful season," Coleman said. "Obviously we would have liked to have had more wins and made a deeper run in the playoffs. But the fact that we had the opportunity to make it to the playoffs and finish with a .500 record, I think lays a pretty good foundation and lets us know that we're going in the right direction."
The Sugar Skulls' inaugural season featured a litany of highs and lows, with the team winning three of its first four games. Their fortunes slid from there, however, falling in four straight contests by a combined score of 241-200, with three of their four losses coming by double digits.
Despite the slip, the season rebounded from there, and the Sugar Skulls defeated the San Diego Strike Force twice in a row before beating the Bismarck Bucks to move to 6-5 for the season. They were then foiled twice by in-state rival, the Arizona Rattlers, including a one-point overtime loss in the penultimate game of the season.
Coleman found that his team responded to adversity well on the field, given how they were able to close out the regular season with a five-point win over the Quad City Steamwheelers to clinch a postseason berth.
"From here on out, we just make adjustments in regard to how we do everything, both on and off the field," Coleman said. "That's the next step in trying to get better. But overall, I thought it was a pretty good year."
Oro Valley native Robert Metz, who played in 10 of the Sugar Skulls games this season, touched on a similar narrative. The Canyon del Oro High School alum, who finished the season with 21 tackles, said playing for his hometown team was a dream come true.
Metz is confident Coleman is the right man to lead the team to success down the road, with a philosophy that resonates with players on both sides of the ball.
"Even though the record didn't show it, we came out and set the tone for years to come with the organization," Metz said. "It think we gained the respect of the IFL and we look forward to building off our success next season."
A big part of the team's on-field success this season came from the support of the team's fans, according to Coleman, with the Sugar Skulls drawing the second-most fans per game in the league, at 3,574 attendees.
"The response was great in my opinion," Coleman said. "I know us being the new kid on the block made everyone curious to see how we'd do. We still had a lot of support and a lot of people come in, and as the year went on you could see more and more people come to the games."
Such support is key to a team's on-field success, according to Coleman, as it inspires players to leave it all on the field each week.
"I thought it was great the way that the city stepped it up," he said. "They embraced us with open arms, and they've become part of who we are."
Sugar Skulls Executive Director Mike Feder, who previously served in similar roles with the Tucson Baseball Fiesta and the Tucson Sidewinders AAA baseball club, had a similar takeaway.
Feder, who stepped down from his role with the team last week, believes the city has a chance to become a hotbed for indoor football, mirroring the home field advantage the Rattlers have built in Phoenix.
"I think we set a good foundation for the future," Feder said. "Maybe the attendance wasn't exactly what we wanted it to be, but it definitely wasn't disappointing. By the end of the season, we had people calling us saying they wanted to buy season tickets. They knew they needed to step up, which I think they're going to."
The key to ensuring the team's positive growth continues is to build up revenue sources, like sponsorships, ticket sales and concessions, according to Feder.
Feder is confident that the team will take their on and off-field success to a new level in 2020, giving fans something to cheer about.
"When you look at which way the arrow is going, up or down, well that's easy, the arrow is going up," he said. "We're going to do better on the corporate side [in 2020], we're going to do better on the ticket side, and then we obviously we can't affect the players, but we hope that we do better on that as well."
Coleman hopes the team's success in 2019 serves as a rallying cry to Tucsonans, proving that they're for real and only getting better from here.
"We really want their support," Coleman said. "We're going to do everything we can to bring a winning program and continue a winning tradition here in Tucson, and hopefully one day bring the city a championship." ■