Georgia faces potent Sharks in conference final

Photo by Ben

Photo by Ben

SUWANEE -- For the second time in the last three seasons, dating back to their days in Alabama, the Georgia Force are headed to the American Conference finals of the Arena Football League's playoffs.

They know exactly what they're up against when they travel to Jacksonville's Veterans Memorial Arena to take on the Sharks on Monday at 8 p.m., with a trip to Arena Bowl XXIV on the line.

The challenge is big enough under any circumstance, but the Sharks (15-4) standing in the way doesn't make the task any easier.

"Obviously, it's the same coaching staff and the same players, and we've faced them for many, many, many years," Force coach Dean Cokinos said of the Sharks, the conference's top seed. "They know what we're going to do, and we know what they're going to do. But this type of game, it all comes down to execution."

Based on the two meetings this season, the Force (12-7) will have to be executing to perfection Monday night, especially on defense.

Georgia put up 57 and 55 points respectively in each regular season game against Jacksonville -- normally enough to win with the Force defense allowing 51.7 points per game, seventh in the AFL.

But the Sharks managed to find the end zone more than most of Georgia's opponents, picking up wins of 71-57 on March 18 in Jacksonville and 62-55 on May 21 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center behind huge games each time from quarterback Aaron Garcia (402 of 462, 4,953 yards, 116 TDs on the season).

"We've just got to play better," Cokinos said bluntly. "We've got to execute better. The players haven't changed on both sides. ... We're both final four teams for a reason. You don't start changing what you do now."

The Force defense knows it must rise to the occasion to try to slow down the Sharks just enough for their own prolific offense to set the tone.

"Defensively, we're going to come with the same game plan," said defensive back Tracy Belton, who leads the force with 101.5 total tackles and nine interceptions, and has added 11 pass breakups, on the season. "We just left a couple plays on the field (in the two regular-season games).

"We're just going to stay poised, stay together and make the plays."

One thing that will definitely be different Monday -- at least, at the onset -- will be under center for the Force, where Cokinos will continue with the hot hand by giving Darnell Kennedy (63 of 100, 833 yards, 17 TDs) his third straight start at quarterback.

The Alabama State product came on in relief of Brett Elliott in the next to last game of the regular season against Tampa Bay and has led the Force to three straight victories.

However, while Cokinos confirmed Kennedy will start, he also said he would not hesitate to switch to Elliott if the matchup dictates.

"We'll continue on our course where both guys will be ready to play," Cokinos said. "Again, we're always going to play best players that give us the best chance to win. We'll start the way we ended in (the first-round game at) Cleveland (with Kennedy). But we'll dress 21 players. If we have to play them all, we'll play them all."