WHEELING — With championship banners of the Ohio Valley Greyhounds hanging overhead, arena football officially returned to Wheeling on Saturday night.
The West Virginia Roughriders got things started in dominating fashion with a 95-18 stomping of the Burgh Defenders in front of a solid crowd at WesBanco Arena.
Despite the lopsided score, there weren’t many fans headed for the exits early. In fact, many stayed to serenade the Pittsburgh team with a well-known West Virginia lyric to the song “Sweet Caroline.”
“Wow, we had great fan support,” Roughriders owner/general manager Gregg Fornario said. “We were blown away and everyone that was here was involved in the game as well. They are very educated about arena football and they missed it, they love it and they were into it. Sometimes we have lopsided games like that and it takes the crowd out of it. Not them. They were loving it and they wanted us to score 100.
“We are loaded. We are going to do that to a lot of teams. We were very pleased with turnout from the fan base and hopefully it keeps on building from there.”
The Roughriders scored on the first play from scrimmage and the rout was on.
Fornario is a businessman and he knows in order for the Roughriders to be successful as an organization, it needs to be successful on the field.
Saturday’s opener could not have gone better, but tougher days will be ahead.
Take nothing away from the talent on the Roughriders, but the Burgh Defenders were not exactly a quality team.
The team didn’t supply a roster for the media or the announcers, so the rare plays that were successful they were only identified by number. Their jerseys looked like practice jerseys. Many of their pants were ripped up.
One player on the team was so small, the referees were bigger than him. On a professional team that is supposed to be made of former athletes, if you believe he played college football on any level, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona I’d like to sell you.
Still, Fornario and head coach Mook Zimmerman love their team and it is easy to see why.
It is a roster loaded heavy with former West Virginia Mountaineers.
Quarterback Jarrett Brown had a stellar debut. Defensive back Robert Sands made bone-jarring hits. Larry Ford hit the Defenders quarterback in the end zone, causing a fumble that the Roughriders recovered for a touchdown. Noel Devine had a rough outing in his first game, but it is only a matter of time before the electric WR/RB makes an impact.
Arena football veteran Larry Beavers Jr. showed why he has the nickname “Touchdown Larry” with his seven scores.
But the biggest star of the night might belong to Ohio Valley native Connor Arlia.
The former Weirton Madonna all-stater slapped on the pads for the first time in three years and made an immediate impact.
He scored two touchdowns on four catches for 57 yards.
“It was an experience and I feel very blessed,” Arlia said of his first career indoor football game. “I was out there with the fans and a little boy said ‘that was my first game and it was awesome’ and I said ‘buddy, it was my first game, too, and it was awesome for me.’
“It was so great to see the valley come and support us. Whether it is indoor, outdoor, once the adrenaline kicks in, it is football. It was a blast.”
Arlia wasn’t even sure he would even be able to go after injuring his hamstring a few days ago but was able to be effective.
Arlia learned about the Roughriders from playing with Brown and Devine in a flag football league in the summer. It got the juices flowing and when they invited him to play, he didn’t hesitate.
“I think I am in the best shape now than I have ever been in.”
Arlia has stayed in shape by helping train younger athletes at Quick Fit 30-Minute Fitness in Weirton.
“The first few weeks of practice were a little bit of a grind, but it was one of the best feelings to be out there again,” Arlia said. “It has been such a long time, but when I hit the field for warmups, I was in a zone and I felt like Seabiscuit going down the final stretch.
Being local, that is the best part of it. I am able to give back to the community in another way. So many people have reached out to me. I have 80 messages (on my cell phone).”
Zimmerman loved what he saw from the former Blue Don, as well as from the Wheeling community.
“Connor really stepped up,” Zimmerman said. “He has been banged up all through training camp. If you took off his uniform, he probably has 48 bandages on underneath it. He showed why he is a hometown hero and the crowd really reacted to him.
“The crowd was great. There were guys standing up in the rafters. The community support, I didn’t expect it to be like that. Man, I am so glad we chose Wheeling, West Virginia.”
Step 1 is getting people into the building. That was a complete success.
Step 2 will be getting them to return. And if the product continues to be anything like it was Saturday night, indoor football will be here to stay.
“Nothing is better than word of mouth and I made sure I talked to a lot of people,” Fornario said. “The fans that were here (Saturday) loved it. We gave them something different. People have always brought up the Greyhounds. It is a football town and we are bringing football to you.”
The Roughriders are back in action in two weeks at the Cape Fear Heroes. The next home game is a Monday night contest April 15 against the High Point Wildcats.
Josh Strope can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org