Shane Austin leads the Cleveland Gladiators into the Arena Football League semifinals today against Orlando.
CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Gladiators adopted a simple philosophy as their battle cry during training camp, and they have taken that all the way to tonight's Arena Football League American Conference Championship Game, where they will play the Orlando Predators for a berth in ArenaBowl XXVII.
They approached each of their previous 19 games with the mentality to go 1-0 that week, and sport an 18-1 mark heading into today's conference title game at Quicken Loans Arena.
"Going into it, you never envision going 17-1," Gladiators coach Steve Thonn said of the regular season. "We knew we were going to have a good team. We thought we had a lot of good players, but you never think that far ahead that you could do that. Plus, the way we finished some of the games has been so dramatic. It's just been a really great season so far.
"We knew we had a good core group of guys coming back to this team from last year. We had a lot of AFL veteran guys, so we really focused on our first game in Pittsburgh, and said, 'Hey, let's not not think about the whole season. Let's think about just Pittsburgh and nothing else.'
"Then, after we beat Pittsburgh, one of our assistant coaches said, 'Hey, we've just got to go 1-0 every week,' so that's when it started. We were only concentrating on Pittsburgh, and after that, it was, 'Hey, who doesn't think we can go 1-0 this week?' It's one thing saying it, but our guys have done a great job of believing in it and doing it."
It has worked so well for the Gladiators that quarterback Shane Austin says the team cannot help but take the same attitude into the American Conference Championship Game.
"We've kind of had that playoff mindset the entire season, so it's just another game to us," Austin said. "It's a big game. We obviously want to win, but it just comes down to us executing our offense and defense, and just playing the football that's gotten us here. We don't need to change anything, reinvent the wheel, just do what we've been doing.
"It focuses our mind on just that game at hand. When you try to focus on the entire season, if we were to say, 'Go 18-1 this season,' that'd be tough at the beginning of the season because it's big picture. If you think about just this week, that you just have to go 1-0, it doesn't matter who you're up against. It's like, 'Oh, that's manageable.' Fortunately, we've been able to do that a bunch this year, but it's because we made it simple, made it manageable and just keep playing in the present."
While having a winning attitude is important, it takes players to execute their assignments in order to win on game day, and fortunately, for the Gladiators, Austin has been a playmaking quarterback since taking over the job in week four of the season.
Austin has completed 367 of 564 of his pass attempts for 4,478 yards and 99 touchdowns against 15 interceptions during the season, and turned 12 of his 62 rushing attempts into scores as well.
"Shane's been a huge part of it," Thonn said. "He took over, learned everything, had a stretch there where I think he had 50-some touchdowns and five interceptions. He just really stays even keel, no matter what happens out there.
"You always have to prove it on the field for everybody to buy in. It was obvious to all of us that he was a good quarterback in training camp. You could just see his accuracy, everything he was doing, throwing the ball on time, just moving the ball. You could tell this guy had what it takes."
Austin credits his success to having fun on the field, which he says includes throwing to a talented corps of wide receivers, namely Dominic Goodman (1,671 yards and 34 touchdowns), as well as Thyron Lewis (1,525 yards, 37 scores), this season.
"This is the most fun I've had on a team," Austin said. "We have the closest group of guys that I've seen, and I know that plays a huge part in our success because there's nobody who has beef with each other. Everybody's looking out for the guy next to (him), and everybody trusts the guy next to him. When you've got that on a team, that chemistry, it's powerful."
It is that chemistry that the Gladiators are counting on to propel the team into the ArenaBowl.
"This is great," Thonn said. "This is where everybody wants to be, in that semifinal game and having a chance to go to the championship game. I know it means a lot to our organization, to our fans, everybody else, but the players have worked very hard to get to this spot, so you hope we can get to that championship game.
"Hopefully, we put ourselves in a spot to keep going and get to that championship week."