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Urban Tulsa Weekly, Tulsa, OK

Billie the Regulator hasn't seen much this season to justify the 18-inch teeth-gnashing smile that's permanently fixed to his oversized head.

No, the blissful demeanor of Tulsa's Champions Indoor Professional Indoor Football League franchise's mascot hardly reflects the type of season the Oklahoma Defenders have had.

For those who may not be familiar with the Defenders, they are one of Tulsa's newest professional sports franchises. Following the departure of Tulsa's former Arena Football League franchise, the Talons, the Defenders burst on the scene in 2012 as part of the Arena Professional Football League and compiled a 9-3 record good enough for a second-place finish. Despite a first-round defeat at the hands of the Council Bluffs Express in last year's APFL playoffs, the Defenders' first season was a success.

Aside from the fast-paced action and high-impact hits that typically accompany the sport of indoor football, one of the more intriguing aspects about a team like the Defenders is the personnel it typically employs. In a state like Oklahoma that has a hearty interest in college football, leagues like the CIPFL and teams like the Defenders offer fans of the local college scene a chance to continue enjoying some of their favorite gridiron stars.

Currently, the team boasts former University of Tulsa football players, players from St. Gregory's University in Shawnee, Northwestern Oklahoma State in Alva, Muskogee's Bacone College, the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, and even from the state's football juggernaut, the University of Oklahoma.

Defensive end and nose guard Ki'Ounta Cathey commented on the Okla-centric nature of the team, only naming one exception.

"Most of the guys are from Oklahoma," he said. "Our quarterback is from Kansas City, but most of our guys are homegrown."

The alma maters of Defenders players extend well beyond Oklahoma as well, with many players having enjoyed college careers from Kansas to Colorado and choosing Tulsa as their opportunity to achieve their seemingly impossible dreams of someday leaving behind their current salaries of $200 per game and making it big in the NFL.

Cathey himself is an unusual story. The 2002 graduate of Coweta High School did not go on to play college ball, so by "unusual story," I mean that he is the only one on the roster who didn't play for a college.

"I played semi-pro ball around OK. I played with Muskogee and kept myself active," he said. "One of the coaches for the Gunslingers told me about the Defenders."

Since then, he's loved his time with the team, even in the face of a less-than-stellar campaign this year.

"This is my greatest experience as far as football," Cathey said. "All the traveling we do, the camaraderie, the competition, and the fans are great. I'm grateful to be playing for the Defenders."

Players aside, the Defenders provide a unique experience focused on community involvement and a great fan experience. Through use of a top-notch cheer squad known as the Defender Diamonds and consistent availability for local appearances by players, the organization's impact has extended beyond its Tulsa Convention Center home.

With a handful of games left this season, the Defenders find themselves in eighth place of the ten-team league that spans much of the Great Plains region of the country. At 3-6, earning a post-season berth won't be an easy task for the Defenders, as they'll face three teams currently slated to make this year's playoffs. On May 26, they'll take on the 7-1 Omaha Beef.

 

If they manage to knock them off, the Defenders could possibly find themselves competing for a playoff spot against the 5-3 Salina Bombers.

 

Ronnie Neal, a defensive back for the team, averred to the young nature of the squad.

"I mean, there's a lot of new players to the indoor game," he said. "Players are starting to catch on. We're getting a lot better at understanding the game. But yeah, we had a lot of hungry players and a lot more experience with the indoor game last year."

Neal also spoke about the revolving-door adventures the Defenders have endured this season in the quarterback department, which began with the sudden departure of Rico Watkins.

"He started losing a love for the game," Neal said. "He said he wasn't feeling it anymore and wanted to focus on his family and his son. It was very unexpected."

Such a blow was a tough one for the team to take.

"He showed a lot of leadership," he said. "A lot of people looked up to him. A lot of the receivers were hurting over that. It's not like losing a lineman. Quarterback is pretty huge."

After some musical chairs at the position with David Bowie and Steve Hamilton trading series, Carlos Cavanaugh eventually came in.

"He's been the starting quarterback since he came in," Neal said. "Steven left the team about two weeks ago, so now it's Bowie and the new guy."

Irrespective of the likelihood of such a playoff run, Cathey's disappointment is palpable.

"As of right now, it's kind of disappointing the way the season is going," he said. "We have better athletes than last year, but we can't seem to put it together. It's really disappointing."

However, he's not bemoaning his team. Rather, in a way, he's praising the league's improvements.

"It's a new league, and the competition is a little better than it was last year, and everyone needs to be on the same page," he said.

If the Defenders can make a dramatic run in the final weeks of the season, that smile on Billie the Regulator's face might grow even wider.

As the season for the Oklahoma Defenders draws to a close, another new Tulsa team finds itself on the verge of its inaugural season, this time in the world of professional soccer.

After nearly 30 years without professional soccer in the city, the Athletics will try to pickup where their ancestral club, Tulsa's beloved Roughnecks, left off.

Of course, anyone who remembers the storied history of the Roughnecks knows it will be no easy task to replicate the success of the former soccer team that gained national attention for its 1983 North American Soccer League Soccer Bowl championship that fetched more than 60,000 spectators in Vancouver.

Back then, the Roughnecks were among the largest-drawing professional sports acts in town, often attracting crowds in excess of 20,000 to Tulsa University's Skelly Stadium. They were Oklahoma's first true major league sports franchise, competing with cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York. Financial difficulties for both the franchise and the league led to both disbanding, and since, soccer-crazy Tulsa has since been without any major franchise.

With an announcement last month, chairman Sonny Dalesandro declared soccer had finally returned.

The Athletics' season began May 18, as they took on the Dallas-based Liverpool Warriors in their first National Premiere Soccer League match at the former Drillers Stadium. The Athletics came away with a 3-2 win in its inaugural game.

But aside from a successful re-launch of soccer in Tulsa, Dalesandro and co-owner Dr. Tommy Kern have their sights set on something greater. In the organization's initial press conference, the two spoke of rejuvenating a lost sport in Tulsa and constructing a franchise that may be able to aid in the adoption of the nation's largest soccer organization, Major League Soccer.

With a July 2 match scheduled against one of Mexico's most storied clubs, 10-time national champion Club America of Mexico City, it seems as if Dalesandro and Kern might be well on their way.

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