Based on every metric imaginable, the Soul have been the best team in the Arena Football League this season. They lead the league in scoring, have allowed the fewest points and are undefeated at home. They’ll try to put the finishing touches on a nearly-perfect season Saturday night (7 p.m./6ABC) at the Wells Fargo Center, where they’ll host the Tampa Bay Storm in the ArenaBowl XXX.
Before the showdown, the AFL held its annual awards ceremony Friday afternoon to recognize the best players and coaches in the league. Unsurprisingly, nine of the 18 selections to the 2017 All-Arena First Team were members of the Soul.
One of those players, linebacker Beau Bell, also won the Commissioner’s Award and the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Bell led the league with 13 sacks, despite missing two games.
AFL commissioner Scott Butera presented Bell with the Commissioner’s Award, which honors the player deemed the best representative of the league, both on and off the field.
“I didn’t expect to win this award so I don’t have a second speech planned, but this is a big honor,” Bell said. “It takes a lot of sacrifices to be an arena football player, but I hope I can show people it’s possible to do what you love.”
Bell thanked the commissioner, his teammates, head coach Clint Dolezel, and the front office, including majority owner and Eagles legend Ron Jaworski. Tampa Bay president Derrick Brooks, the former Buccaneers linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Famer, was in attendance as well.
Tampa Bay also won its fair share of awards. Storm coach Ron James was named Coach of the Year, while Tampa Bay quarterback Randy Hippeard won Offensive Player of the Year and MVP honors, edging out Dan Raudabaugh, the Soul QB. Though Raudabaugh’s 82 touchdown passes led the league, Hippeard posted impressive regular-season numbers, with 3,506 yards passing, 80 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions.
James, who guided the Storm to a 10-4 regular season after the franchise went 2-14 last year, had ample praise for Soul coach and AFL Hall of Famer Dolezel, who he coached on the Las Vegas Gladiators in 2005.
“You know on tape when you’re watching a Clint Dolezel team,” James said, “because they always play hard, and they play the right way.”
While Dolezel missed out on his third consecutive Coach of the Year honor, his assistant head coach, Phil Bogle, won Assistant Coach of the Year.
Bogle, Dolezel and the Soul will hope to beat Tampa Bay on Saturday for the fourth time this season. Raudabaugh doesn’t expect it to be easy.
“We know Tampa is going to bring their A-game,” he said. “I’m very excited to play in front of the home crowd; we know it will be really loud in here. Still, we know Tampa is a good team and is going to play their best.”
Raudabaugh, in his sixth season with the Soul, will be making his fourth ArenaBowl appearance, and looking to win back-to-back titles after last year’s 56-42 triumph over the Arizona Rattlers.
“After losing a couple ArenaBowls early in my career (to Arizona in 2012 and 2013), I feel a lot more confident now in crunch moments and big games,” Raudabaugh said. “I’m thankful the organization has continued to have faith in me.”
However, the Soul quarterback said he doesn’t derive much extra confidence from the team’s 3-0 record thus far against Tampa Bay, or from the Soul's 13-1 regular season.
“I’m sure both teams will make some adjustments, but really arena football is a pretty simple game,” Raudabaugh said. “It’s all about who executes best that night.”