Once, the Arizona Rattlers knocked around San Jose whenever the teams would meet, like an older brother meting out punishment to his annoying younger sibling.
But little brother has grown up to be bigger and stronger.
The teams meet today in San Jose, Calif., in an Arena Football League semifinal game, the 21st time they have played since the SaberCats came into existence in 1995. The series is tied, 10-10, but the SaberCats have won nine of the past 12 meetings. Included in that stretch was a playoff win in 2001, an ArenaBowl XVI victory last season and a sweep of the two-game season series from the Rattlers this year.
“We taught those guys how to play the game,” Rattlers quarterback Sherdrick Bonner said. “We have to get on the right side of this rivalry again.
“In their early days, we took them out back (and whipped them). Their owner did the right things, got a good system, got good players and now they caught up and raised the bar.”
Added receiver/linebacker Hunkie Cooper, “We used to own San Jose.”
That was a while ago.
Never was that more apparent than the end of last season, when the teams met for the championship and the SaberCats crushed Arizona, 52-14. The hangover lasted until the beginning of this season, when San Jose ripped the Rattlers at America West Arena in the opener, 49-28. Bonner was injured at the end of the first half in that game, causing him to miss the next two outings.
The Rattlers then blew a late lead in San Jose in the rematch, falling to the SaberCats, 59-58, on a touchdown pass on the last play of the game. In both games, the Rattlers lamented their own bad play — which is exactly what the SaberCats wanted.
“We know what the deal is,” Rattlers defensive back/receiver Ricky Parker said. “A lot of teams self-destruct against San Jose. They wait for the other team to make a mistake.”
The Rattlers have managed to make few mistakes in their two playoff games so far. In fact, their defensive play has netted seven turnovers, while Arizona has turned the ball over just once. Coach Danny White stressed the need for the defense to continue playing at what has been its highest level of the season.
The many Rattlers veterans, along with the team’s intimate knowledge of San Jose given their frequent meetings, could make the disparity in seeding (San Jose is the No. 1 seed, Arizona No. 6) meaningless.
The experienced Rattlers have been to this point many times, having played in a league-best 10 semifinal games over the past 12 seasons.
“First and foremost,” White said, “(we can’t) do anything stupid.”
The SaberCats aren’t about to count on their recent successes against Arizona as a guarantee of today’s outcome, a nod of respect toward their longtime rival.
“We know they are a good team,” said San Jose defensive specialist Clevan Thomas. “I know this: Whoever wins this game is going to win the ArenaBowl.”
The Rattlers seem confident they know which team that will be.
“We are not intimidated,” Bonner said. “They are a great ballclub and have talent out the wazoo. But we are a good ballclub, and I think we are ripe right now. “It is a good time for us.”