After back-to-back titles, ‘expectation hasn’t changed’ for Rattlers

Arizona Rattlers players celebrate their 2012 ArenaBowl title. The Rattlers also won last year's championship and enter Saturday's 2014 season opener looking for a three-peat.

PHOENIX — There was plenty of the usual "one week at a time" and "one step at a time" rhetoric at Arizona Rattlers media day Tuesday, and that’s to be expected of pretty much any team on the brink of a new season.

But the Rattlers were playing both sides Tuesday when they gathered inside US Airways Center, making no qualms about what they’re after this season.

"The expectation hasn’t changed," coach Kevin Guy said. "The plan is to compete for a championship. It’s not really how we start, it’s how we finish."

Coaches across the Arena Football League probably uttered the same or similar this week. But such a sentiment means more coming from a team that’s been to three straight ArenaBowls, winning the last two.

The Rattlers open the season at US Airways Center — where they are 29-5 the last three seasons — Saturday night against the Philadelphia Soul, the same team they beat last August to win the ArenaBowl. As a new season begins, so too do the expectations of a three-peat.

Obviously, though, the Rattlers aren’t new to entering a season with the proverbial target on their backs. They did this last year, too. Having succeeded to the highest level under those circumstances, they’re confident they can do it again.

"Our team is a confident bunch anyway," receiver Maurice Purify said. "We feel like we’re the Arizona Rattlers and we’re the team to beat."

The Rattlers could have only been better last season had they gone a perfect 21-0 through the regular season and playoffs instead of 18-3. It’s not hard to imagine them matching that or better this year. Nearly all the key pieces are back from 2013, starting with quarterback Nick Davila and top receivers Rod Windsor, Purify, Kerry Reed and Jared Perry.

Davila ranked second in the league last season in passing yards (4,847) and touchdowns (110), also becoming the first quarterback to ever throw for 100 or more touchdowns in four consecutive seasons after becoming the first to do so in three consecutive seasons the year before.

Davila, who played two college seasons at Cincinnati, has been one of the league’s top passers since joining the Rattlers in 2008, and the 28-year-old only expects more of himself this season.

"I’m trying to be the greatest quarterback to play this game," Davila said. I want to prove every day — not just on game days — that I’m the leader and I’m the guy here."

The Rattlers did lose First-Team All-Arena cornerback Virgil Gray, the team’s leading tackler, to free agency. His 15 interceptions last season were tied for most in the league. But the AFL is an offensive league, and the Rattlers believe they have improved on that side of the ball.

This offseason, Guy — also the team’s general manager — brought in offensive lineman Keith Williams, who spent the past two seasons on NFL practice squads, and former Tulsa running back Alex Singleton, who will play fullback.

As important as the team’s ability, players insist, is their mindset. Playing for a back-to-back champion, it’s hard not to be confident.

"There’s no doubt our guys believe," Guy said. "They believe in themselves, they believe in the coaching, they believe in the organization. And to be great, you have to have great owners, great coaches and great players. We’re fortunate enough in this organization to have all three."

Of course, cliche as it may be, the "one-game-at-a-time" approach applies. It would be easy — perhaps even understandable — for a team with so much success to get caught looking at the big picture.

"You’ve got to take it one game at a time to get to your goal," Purify said. "The 18 weeks are just the chance to build toward the big picture of winning the ArenaBowl."

Added Davila: "As far as the three-peat or anything, that’s for the media and the fans to talk about. We’ve got to stay focused on taking it one play at a time, one game at a time."

Guy says the Rattlers want to "set the stage" on opening night Saturday. Beating the Soul again on the same night when another championship banner rises to the rafters would be a good way to do it.

Saturday also is the start of what Guy on Tuesday more than once called a "journey." However the Rattlers’ journey plays out through the regular season, Guy has firm expectations for where it will end.

"We will find a way," Guy said. "I don’t know how we’re going to start, but I know how we’re going to finish."

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