After finishing their 2013 campaign at a dismal 4-14, Cleveland Gladiators head coach Steve Thonn brought in some new guys as they began preparing for the 2014 season.
This year, Thonn, head coach of the Glads since the 2010 season, turned his fortunes around as Cleveland set an Arena Football League single-season record with a 17-1 record during the regular season. On Saturday the Gladiators knocked off the Philadelphia Soul in the first round of the AFL playoffs, 39-37, thanks to a last-second field goal as time expired.
Veteran defensive back LaRoche Jackson is in his second season with the Gladiators, playing under Thonn’s four-win team last year and helping this Cleveland squad reach an unheard of 17 wins this year. Jackson, 30, played two seasons for the Jacksonville Sharks (2011-12) where he won an ArenaBowl championship at the end of the ’11 season. He’s put up great numbers in his two seasons with the Gladiators and has his sights set on another ArenaBowl championship with Cleveland this year.
As he and his Gladiators teammates prepare for the Eastern Conference Championship game against the Orlando Predators this week, Laroche took time out of his day to speak to us at All-Out Blitz regarding Cleveland’s historic season and how coach Thonn and his coaching staff managed to turn things around so quickly:
All-Out Blitz: Coming off a 4-14 campaign a season ago, you guys came out here and set an AFL record with a 17-1 record this season. What’s the biggest difference between this season and last season?
LaRoche Jackson: “Coach Thonn brought in a lot of good guys that wanted to win, and they fit into the system they had set for us. And also the chemistry was good, we feed off each other. The bonds we built together as a team is what has gotten us to where we are today. We all believe in each other and the system that coach had for us.”
AOB: Steve Thonn has been the head coach in Cleveland since the 2010 season. Other than bringing in the new guys and building great chemistry, did you see him come in with a different mindset this year as opposed to last year?
Jackson: “Coach Thonn was always kind of a laid back coach, and this year we just got back to focusing on taking it one game at a time. Not looking ahead to the next opponent or worrying about our record. None of that. As far as we’re concerned, were 1-0. We’re just focusing on going 1-0 every week. He’s just had us focusing on one game at a time and staying together as a team.”
AOB: You’ve won some close games this season––especially in three match-ups against Philadelphia––is that something the coaching staff has been preaching this season in practice, finishing games strong?
Jackson: “Oh man, coach preaches that every day. He’s preached that in camp. You know, just finishing the game, staying together, everyone playing their position. Nobody thinking they’re better than the team. We’re all focusing on doing our job and trusting in the next man to get the job done.”
AOB: Quarterback Shane Austin has had a terrific season, what has he brought to the table for Cleveland that you didn’t get from the quarterback position a year ago?
Jackson: “I wouldn’t say we didn’t get it from the position a year ago, Dieker (CLE’s backup QB Chris Dieker, who was last year’s starter) is a good quarterback. Austin has brought leadership this year. No matter what goes on, whether he’s throwing picks, we got his back. Chris Dieker has been a good leader, too. To sit back and lose that role, and still be a part of this team, you don’t hear a word out of his mouth about not playing. It’s just his role. That’s the thing with this team, everybody understands their role and what part they play on this team. Everybody plays their role to the best of their ability.”
AOB: You won an ArenaBowl championship with the Jacksonville Sharks in 2011, so you know what it feels like to play on an AFL championship squad. As the season has progressed and you’ve started winning game after game, did you start thinking that this Gladiator team has a similar feeling to your Sharks championship squad from 2011?
Jackson: “Oh most definitely. I was telling guys in camp, like Dominic Jones and some other guys on the team, that this team reminded me of my Jacksonville team in 2011. When we were in camp I felt that chemistry. You get that vibe or feeling from your teammates, and it was like the vibe I got from teammates in Jacksonville. Our bond is so strong off the field that it was hard for us to be torn on the field. The chemistry we have as a team, it all brought back memories to my Jacksonville days in 2011. And the way our defense is playing is just like back in Jacksonville too.”
AOB: As you prepare for the Conference Championship against Orlando, is there a different approach in practice to better prepare for the Predators, or is it just business as usual?
Jackson: “Yeah, same approach. We haven’t changed anything. One week at a time. We’re just hungry, man. We’re not gonna settle. One playoff win, that’s not our goal. We won’t settle with winning the division championship. That was just a part of it though, now comes the (conference) championship. So now we gotta win that, that’ll be our second goal. And then on to the next one (ArenaBowl). So right now we’re just focused on the conference championship. We’re not changing anything, coach Thonn is preaching the same thing every day since camp.”
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LaRoche’s bond and trust in his Cleveland teammates is so strong that he didn’t even feel his past playoff experience helped him in any way during their first-round win over Philadelphia. He simply said he trusted in his teammates to do their jobs, and if they managed to do so they’d come out on top.
With the American Conference Championship, at home against the Orlando Predators, right around the corner, Jackson and his Gladiators teammates are working hard to do everything they can to come out on top and earn their right to play for the ArenaBowl championship on Saturday August 23.
Be sure to check out LaRoche’s and the Cleveland Gladiators on Sunday, August 10 (3 P.M. eastern time), and follow LaRoche on Twitter (@Lil_Georgia22).
Photo credit: CLE Gladiators’ Facebook Page