The Baltimore Brigade will kick off their second Arena Football League season Friday night at Royal Farms Arena against the Washington Valor, but if you can't make it to the first meeting of the Ted Leonsis-owned franchises, don't worry.
There will be a second meeting. And a third. And a fourth. And possibly a fifth and sixth in a playoff matchup, too.
With the Tampa Bay Storm folding in December and the Cleveland Gladiators suspending operations for the next two seasons, the AFL is down to four teams, its fewest since the league's inaugural 1987 season: the second-year Brigade and Valor, the expansion Albany Empire and the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Soul.
The Brigade will play each team four times, twice at home and twice on the road, before a guaranteed home-and-home semifinal series. (After finishing 4-10 overall and fourth in the five-team AFL last season, the Brigade lost a one-and-done semifinal to top-seeded Philadelphia.)
The league's veterans are by now accustomed to these scheduling quirks. They also know what such familiarity breeds. First-year Brigade quarterback Randy Hippeard recalled that when his Storm faced the Valor four times in an eight-week span last season, each game seemed increasingly competitive. The result never changed, but Tampa Bay's margin of victory did, from eight and six points in their first two meetings to one and four points in the final two.
"We are creatures of habit," Brigade defensive lineman Justin Lawrence (Morgan State) said. "It's not like we're going to change the way we play one week from week to week. Maybe the schemes will change, but you as a player, you are going to be you."
The teams themselves, though, Hippeard speculated, will look completely different by year's end. Come playoff time, "there's going to be so many new wrinkles that there's no point almost in watching the first half of the season" on film, he said.
That wasn't always the case, of course. Not long ago, the regular season was more than just a runway to the postseason. Brigade coach Omarr Smith played in the AFL during its heyday in the 2000s, when as many as 19 teams vied for an ArenaBowl title. And now?
"We've got four teams," he said. He carried on as if it didn't matter. "On July 28, there's going to be a team that's on a podium, holding a trophy, and on a ring, it doesn't say how many teams are in the league."
On the move
Hippeard, the Brigade's top offseason acquisition, is the AFL's reigning Most Valuable Player. The team he won it playing for no longer exists. Among all the AFL's returning players, it's probably the league's best quarterback who best understands what it means to have a career in arena football.
In 2013, Hippeard's AFL tenure began in Tampa Bay. Two seasons later, he signed with the Orlando Predators. After two years there, the franchise suspended operations. Hippeard returned to Tampa Bay last season, leading the league in passing yards and completions and ranking second in passing touchdowns. Then the Storm ceased to exist, too.
"To have to up and leave what we have there, even if it's just for five, six months at a time, it's still a struggle," he said.
Hippeard, 32, and his girlfriend were considering buying a home in Florida when his career rerouted him to Maryland. Those plans are on hold for now, he said. He's living in Annapolis with his girlfriend, an environmental engineer, and a couple of pets. What comes next, he cannot say.
"It's kind of up in the air because if I'm going to continue to play for the next three to five years, where do we want to be?" he said. "So that's kind of where we're looking at now, toward the future."
With only 11 days of training camp under the Brigade's belt, the team is far from a finished product. But Smith highlighted cornerback Virgil Gray, who served on the team's coaching staff last season and last played in the AFL three years ago, and veteran linebacker Dexter Jackson as early standouts.
On offense, wide receivers Milton Williams, Kendrick Ings and Quentin Sims have been impressive, Smith said.
All times p.m.
April 13 vs. Valor, 7
April 21 at Soul, 7
April 28 vs. Empire, 3
May 4 vs. Soul, 7
May 19 at Valor, 3
May 25 vs. Soul, 7
June 2 at Empire, 7
June 9 at Empire, 7
June 15 vs. Valor, 7
June 23 vs. Empire, 7:30
June 30 at Soul, 7
July 7 at Valor, 3