For the Jacksonville Sharks, the near-perfect season got the perfect ending.
But not the way anyone drew it up.
Except for one.
“It’s really crazy how it played out,” third-string quarterback Jason Boltus said. “I actually had a dream that I would contribute some way to this championship tonight.”
Down to a third-stringer behind center, the Sharks captured the second championship in franchise history, hanging on to edge the visiting Columbus Lions 27-21 Monday night in the inaugural National Arena League final at Veterans Memorial Arena.
Jermiah Price recovered a muffed Columbus snap with four seconds to go at the Sharks’ 6, preserving the victory just when the Lions looked set to snatch the game away.
“It came down to the last play, and that’s exactly what we expected,” said defensive back Micheaux Robinson.
Stepping in for injured starter Damien Fleming in emergency duty, Boltus threw a pair of fourth-quarter scores.
Now, the Sharks are the first-ever kings of the first-year league.
“This team worked hard all year,” Price said. “This is what we were striving for.”
The Sharks’ defense controlled the tempo for much of the night. Putting the game away, though, was another story.
Four red-zone turnovers and uncharacteristic breakdowns in goal-line offense kept the Lions alive.
Jacksonville drove inside the Columbus 10 five times in the first half and could have jumped ahead 35-0 if not for fumbles by receivers straining to gain extra yardage and a Fleming pass intercepted by the Lions’ Kyle Griswould.
With the Sharks’ defense in a full feeding frenzy, Jacksonville looked likely to survive the offense’s bouts of sloppiness.
The withering pass rush of Price, Keith Bowers and Dale Pierson crumbled the Columbus pocket constantly, keeping Lions quarterback Mason Espinosa from finding a first-half rhythm.
Jacksonville defensive backs Robinson, Erick McIntosh and Jabari Gorman thoroughly smothered Lions wideout Michael Reeve, the league’s offensive player of the year, holding him without a reception in the first half.
The Sharks started to pull away in the second quarter on a double pass - Fleming to receiver Moe Williams to the corner of the end zone, where the ball settled into the hands of diving 320-pound lineman Moqut Ruffins.
But Columbus fought back after halftime.
“This is arena football, man,” Robinson said. “Anything can happen. We just watched this team on TV last week come back from a 21-point deficit, so we never felt like this game was over.”
Espinosa connected with Tristan Purifoy on a 34-yard bomb, slashing Jacksonville’s lead to six points, and the Sharks’ night looked like getting worse when Fleming was injured on a quarterback sneak.
With Tommy Grady already sidelined since his Week 7 injury, the Sharks had to toss Boltus in at the deep end. He rewarded them with a 6-yard touchdown toss to Williams on his first pass and a 7-yard score to Devin Wilson on the next drive.
But after two more Espinosa touchdowns, Boltus threw an interception to Chris Pickett that gave Columbus the ball with two minutes left and a chance to win.
Espinosa drove Columbus inside the red zone with 11 seconds to go, but the snap scooted through his hands and Sharks defensive end Price pounced as the crowd of 9,730 fans erupted.
“I just saw the ball on the ground, and I reacted quickest,” Price said.
The Lions were seeking a rare run of three consecutive championships in three different leagues. Columbus won titles in the Professional Indoor Football League in 2015 and American Indoor Football in 2016.
The Sharks, who nearly stormed through the whole year unbeaten - a loss to Monterrey in the meaningless regular-season finale was the only stumble - finally got to celebrate a championship on their home turf.
The franchise’s previous title, during their prior stint in the Arena Football League, came six years ago in Phoenix at ArenaBowl XXIV against the Arizona Rattlers.
“The feeling that I have right now after six years, it’s for the city, man,” said Robinson, one of two Sharks to play on both squads. “This is a lot bigger than just me and how I feel. It’s big for the whole community.”