One thing 25-year-old Cherokee Nathan Stanley learned from his grandmother Ann Lamb growing up in Tahlequah, Oklahoma was to walk with humility and let the rest sort itself out.
The soft-spoken San Jose rookie quarterback completed 18-of-35 passes for 193 yards with five touchdowns to lead the SaberCats past Spokane 55-28 and into the National Conference Championship game. They will next play the Arizona Rattlers, and the winner of that game (Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN2) goes to ArenaBowl XXVII.
“I got to play in the Cotton Bowl in 2010, but this was definitely one of the biggest games I’ve ever played in for sure,” Stanley told ICTMN. “For me, the whole playoff atmosphere is what you dream about when you’re growing up. It’s win or go-home-time, and we all want to get to the ArenaBowl.”
Stanley finished the regular season completing 201 of 335 passes for 2,436 yards with 50 touchdowns since taking over on June 5 when starter Russ Michna suffered a broken collarbone. Michna was activated Saturday, but SaberCats coach Darren Arbet stuck with the rookie. “Nate’s been playing great. He’s hot. He's focused,” said Arbet. “The thing I like about him is it means something to him, and the guys really believe in him. They’re really fighting for him.”
That shot of confidence from the coaching staff is a big reason why the SaberCats have won eight of their last nine games. “It’s unfortunate what happened to Russ, but we hit a real hot streak and coach decided to go with the momentum we had,” said Stanley, who was coming off a six-touchdown performance in the regular-season finale against Iowa. “We have a good group of guys, and I really feel like they have confidence in me. I’ve been fortunate to have the talent I have around me. I try to show them it means something to me. I think they see that. We build off that and we all have each other’s back.”
San Jose took a 28-0 at halftime and led 31-0 by the time Spokane scored its first touchdown, midway through the third quarter. San Jose answered that score with Stanley's fifth touchdown pass of the night to clinch a trip to Sunday’s conference final.
But the road doesn’t get any easier. The No. 3-ranked SaberCats (14-5) will make one more trip to Phoenix to face the defending champions, the Arizona Rattlers (16-3). It also means one more gunslinger’s shootout with future AFL Hall of Famer Nick Davila, who has completed 362 of 544 passes for 4,778 yards and 127 touchdowns this season.
“We just need to go out there and do what we do,” said Stanley, who led San Jose when the SaberCats handed the Rattlers their first loss of the regular season. “It’s two really good offenses going up against each other. I would expect it to be a shootout. I’d say there’s a feeling where you have to score every possession.”
Arizona comes into this matchup with a 9-3 record in the postseason under head coach Kevin Guy, including three straight ArenaBowl appearances and two consecutive championships. The Rattlers, who limped into the postseason, having lost three of their last four games, did bounce back with a 52-48 win over Portland in the quarterfinals.
But the Arizona defensive unit is as accomplished as they come by AFL standards. Nose guard Anttaj Hawthorne, defensive end Cliff Dukes and linebacker Tyre Glasper provide the pass rush pressure. Defensive back Marquis Floyd led the league with 13 interceptions this season. Jeremy Kellem and Arkeith Brown have combined for 11 picks and nearly 200 tackles.
“Playing quarterback is such a mental strain as far as making reads,” Stanley said. “The quarterback defines your team. There’s times when it’s all on me, which is the nature of the position. Throw a few picks and it seems like it’s all your fault. But there’s also the times when you do things right, and you get the win, and that makes it all worth it.”
ArenaBowl XXVII will be will be televised August 23 on ESPN.