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League rivals pitted in Arena

Arizona, San Jose set to raise the roof

PHOENIX -- The rivalry between the San Jose SaberCats and Arizona Rattlers is as close to definitive as the Arena Football League gets.

Arizona is in today's ArenaBowl for the third straight year and kept the SaberCats out last year by beating them in the semifinals. The Rattlers are looking to reverse a loss to San Jose in the 2002 title game.

The Rattlers beat the SaberCats twice last month to close the regular season with an eight-game winning streak after regrouping from a 3-5 start.

Not exactly the Packers and Bears, but as close as you get in the world of indoor football.

"It's a dogfight right here," SaberCats wide receiver/defensive back Barry Wagner said. "This is what everybody wanted to see. Tampa Bay-Orlando, everybody would have been glad to see that one, too. Rivalries get more attention than other games."

Each team is 13-5 after two playoff victories, taking widely dissimilar paths to identical records.

The SaberCats were 7-1 halfway through the season, but gave away home-field advantage by losing three times in the last four games -- including 58-41 in Phoenix and 50-43 to the Rattlers at home May 30, when they squandered a 34-14 lead.

Arizona was 3-5 at the midpoint after dropping three straight games, but changed its luck with a 10-point win over Grand Rapids April 4.

The momentum has been building ever since.

"They've arguably been playing the best football that's ever been played in arena football," San Jose coach Darren Arbet said. "Their defense down by the goal line is tough. Sherdrick Bonner? Gosh, what can you say about him? He plays great in big games, and Hunkie Cooper's been there a lot."

If the Rattlers manage to overcome history -- San Jose has never lost three times to the same team in one season -- Bonner could be the difference.

Only the second AFL quarterback to exceed 30,000 yards passing in his career, Bonner was the MVP in 1994, when Arizona won its first ArenaBowl.

"We know we're playing well," Bonner said. "There are things we want to do and ways we want to proceed. We don't want to come out and try to be aggressive, because we know this is a team that takes advantage of every little mistake you make, and we want to keep them on their heels."

Rattlers coach Danny White believes the key will be pressuring Mark Grieb, who led the SaberCats to a 50-43 win over the Chicago Rush two weeks ago, Grieb's first win in four starts in the semis.

"We're not expecting to knock him out of the game, because we know how tough he is," White said. "But we're sure going to try to force him to make some decisions that he doesn't want to make, at least without having the time to make them. That's the key."

Grieb, who was injured in 2002 when John Dutton led San Jose to its only title, said the losses to Arizona were behind him.

"To think we lost three of the last four, that was disappointing," he said. "But, on the other hand, it's a credit to how our team handled that and bounced back. Our goal was to get to the championship game."

Cooper, 5 feet 9 inches and 190 pounds, won the Ironman award in the 1997 game, Arizona's second championship, and often gives the Rattlers the edge. But San Jose has the ultimate all-purpose player in the 6-3, 225-pound Wagner, a six-time Ironman of the Year. Wagner was the title-game ironman in 1994, 1995, 1998, and 1999.

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