Football

On the Arena Indoor Trail: Harrisburg Stampede

Tagged under: Gameday Hub, News, Semi-Pro

Guy Smith | April 16, 2024

(2024.04). Our fourth straight Saturday of spring football, but this time it wasn’t the GEFA, as we headed indoors for our first Harrisburg Stampede game.

It was a busy Saturday for us. We started with a gym workout. Then we headed to DeSales University for men’s and women’s outdoor track and field, a tri-meet against Moravian and Muhlenberg. This completed another of our sports goals, seeing all 22 DeSales teams play this school year. Next up was a stop at the Crossroads Hotel in Hellertown to fuel up for the rest of the day with pizza and steak sandwiches. Then to Moravian Village in Bethlehem to visit Pam’s 97-(next month)-year-old stepfather. Finally, we made the 90-minute drive to Harrisburg for the arena football game. Sunday it was back in the gym before heading to the USA Gymnastics Women’s Collegiate National Championships at West Chester. Although we are both in our 60s, you’re only as old as we feel.

The current Harrisburg Stampede is a reincarnation of a previous Harrisburg Stampede. In the volatile world of the business of minor league sports, there is no sport more volatile than arena football. Teams and leagues come and go at a staggering rate. The original Harrisburg Stampede started out in the American Indoor Football Association in 2009 and 2010. At the end of the 2010 season, the Eastern Conference of the AIFL merged with the Southern Indoor Football League, while the Western Conference remained the AIFL. The Harrisburg Stampede spent one year in the Southern Indoor Football League before that league folded.

By this time the AIFL had also folded, but was relaunched as the AIF (American Indoor Football) and the Stampede rejoined that league for 2012 and 2013. The Stampede won the league championship in 2013, defeating the Cape Fear Heroes 52-37 in the championship game. Up until this time, the team had played all of their home games at the PA Farm Show Complex.

The defending champions left the AIF for the 2014 and moved to their fourth different league in six seasons. They were now in the Professional Indoor Football League or PIFL. At that time, the PIFL also included our local team, the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks, also now defunct. The Stampede lasted one season in the PIFL before the team folded. The entire league lasted one more season before also folding, in 2015. For their final season, the Stampede played their home games in Hershey, PA at the Giant Center.

After an eight-year hiatus, the American Indoor Football announced a return for 2024. This is the 12th year for the league, which operated from 2005 to 2016. And after nine years, the Harrisburg Stampede also announced a return. At the end of September 2023, the AIF announced there were nine teams for the upcoming season. The next month, the Beaumont Renegades announced that they would play only exhibition games this year before planning to join the league for 2025. And then there were eight teams. Next the West Virginia Miners left the league after an ownership change. Now seven teams. In February, the Flint Rivergators announced they would not be fielding a team this year after all. Six teams.

Less than a month ago after the first week of the season, the Mississippi Raiders folded due to financial problems. That left only five teams: Amarillo Venom, TX, Cedar Rapids River Kings, IA; Columbus Lions, GA; Corpus Christi Tritons, TX, and the Stampede.

The Stampede are back at the PA Farm Show Complex this season, playing in the smaller Equine Arena. General admission for games is $25 plus $10 parking. The Stampede have an eight-game schedule, consisting of six AIF league games and two non-league games. Oddly, although there are four other teams in the AIF, the Stampede only play two of the teams, having three games against the Lions (technically the defending league champions as they won the title in 2016), and three games against the River Kings. They do not play either of the two Texas teams during the regular season. They have three league home games, three away games.

The two non-league games, both at home, are against a pair of teams from the American Arena League 2: The Maryland Eagles and the Jersey Bearcats. The AAL2 is set to begin their second season, the Bearcats being the defending champs. We may check out an AAL2 game this season at some point.

The Stampede opened their season at home against the Cedar Rapids River Kings. In the first Stampede game since 2014, they pulled out an exciting win by a score of 44-29 after being down by two scores in the second quarter. The rebirth was deemed a success, with an announced crowd of over 1,000.

The Stampede have partnered with the Harrisburg Havoc of the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA). The Havoc presence was in full force at the Stampede game, handing out schedules at the entrance, an ad in the free program, a banner on the boards, and the team putting on a short on-field demonstration during halftime. The Havoc home opener is on May 11 at 6:00 against the very tough NY Knockout. Note that the Havoc home games will be played at Palmyra High School this year and not at Harrisburg High where they were located last season.

The Stampede’s second game on Saturday evening was a non-league game against the Maryland Eagles. General admission tickets for all home games are $25 plus $10 parking. A fair turnout of quite vocal fans attended.

Although the ticket price point may seem on the high side to sustain for six home games, the Equine Center is a very comfortable place to watch a sporting event. We had previously been there for the Harrisburg Heat indoor pro soccer, and kids Quarter Midget races. At the arena, you know to expect a clean facility, modern restrooms, good lighting, a working scoreboard, comfortable seating, a public address system, and refreshments available.

The head coach of the Stampede is Bernie Nowotarski, who is also the Director of Football Operations. Nowotarski went to Kutztown State College with both Pam and Guy, and was a starter as a defensive back on the Golden Bears football team for three seasons, 1979-1981, eventually signing NFL free agent contracts with the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions. Nowotarski has extensive experience coaching indoor football. His resume includes coaching the Reading Express, the original Harrisburg Stampede, the ASI (All Star Inc.) Panthers based in Reading, Lehigh Valley Steelhawks, and Philadelphia Soul. In another example of “it’s a small world” Nowotarski works at the Olivets Boys & Girls Club, and Guy used to race H.O. slot cars there as a kid.

The Stampede seem to be doing a lot of things right. Nice guy team owner and president Justin Coble is not new to the indoor football game, having previously owned the Stampede in 2012. They have done a great marketing job as the outside boards are packed with partner banners, as is the free game program. The souvenir stand is full of Stampede merchandise. They have a very active drum line, cheer group, and mascot. They had a number of fun contests for lucky fans during the breaks.

Pam and Guy had previously been to arena football games in Bethlehem, Allentown, and Trenton, NJ. Having been to eight GEFA games during the past two seasons, we believe those games have gone a long way towards giving us a better appreciation of the short field (50 yard) game.

Although the crowd loved the home team dominance, the non-league game was a mismatch from start to finish. The Stampede scored on their first offensive play, and could basically score almost at will on every possession. The offensive line gave QB Isaac Hurd from Southern Oregon University all the time he needed, and Hurd responded by firing pinpoint lasers. Hurd was originally slated as the backup QB. If he was #2, we can’t imagine the talent the original QB1 has! The defense was just as impressive. Nothing the Eagles tried worked, from beginning until end.

The final score was an ugly 84-0. For a minute, I thought we were watching Southern Columbia High. Neither of us can recall ever seeing a larger point differential in person, although GEFA had at least one last season, and students of college football history know that there were many 100+ point margins of victory before WWII, including the famous George Tech 222, Cumberland College 0 game in 1916. By the way, that GA Tech game might also have been the forerunner of the Mercy Rule, as the final two quarters were shortened by three minutes each.

Twenty minutes after the game, the Stampede players returned to the field to sign autographs and pose for pictures with the kids. This is a great way to build loyalty to the team, but with the activity being held after the game it might be a better idea to start the games an hour earlier at 6:00 as it was starting to get a little late for the youngsters to be out.

The Stampede have four more home games left this season, three league games and another non-league game against an AAL2 team. They have some interesting promotions upcoming, including autograph sessions with former Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Shazier at the next game, hall of fame coach Bob Huggins in game four, Rudy Reuttiger in game five, and with Penn State QBs Trace McSorley and Christian Hackenburg in week six. However, the autographs are not free, ranging from $49 – $99 including a general admission game ticket.

Overall, the event was entertaining, the excitement level was high, and the on-field product was excellent. The elephant in the room is whether the league, having already dropped from nine announced teams to just five early in the season, can survive. The history of indoor pro football suggests a tough road ahead. And if the league folds, can the Stampede reemerge in another league, as they did several times in their original iteration?

Next week it’s back outdoors with GEFA for us. There are four games scheduled and none of those home teams have we visited yet this year. Home are the Moshannon Valley Vikings, the Monroeville Titans, Coal County Nightmare, and Berks County Raptors. If there were just one more hour between their games, a Nightmare to Raptors double would be the sweet spot.

GUY & PAM 2024 GEFA SCORECARD

Week 0—Kickoff Classic (Central Columbia High School, Bloomsburg)
Week 1—Bedford County Buffaloes (Claysburg-Kimmel High School, Claysburg)
Week 2—Dauphin County Comanche (Koons Park, Linglestown)
Week 3—AIF Arena Football: Harrisburg Stampede (PA Farm Show Complex)

On the GEFA Radar: Coal County Nightmare, Indiana County Crusaders, Williamsport Wildcats, Wilkes Barre Warriors, Somerset County Miners, Moshannon Valley Vikings, Hazleton Mustangs, Berks County Raptors, Monroeville Titans, Keystone Bowl, All-Star Gam

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