All-star free agent class brings determined expertise to Omaha Heart

At the beginning of the 2015 Omaha Heart season, there was an ominous feeling as only three members from the 2014 roster had returned. The result was a disastrous first half of the season, suffering the worst loss in Legends Football League history, a 79-0 whitewash at the hands of the Atlanta Steam.

Despite such heartbreak and disappointment, there was a feeling of encouragement when some familiar faces were welcomed back into the fold; running-back SarahJane Thompson and center Sarah Robinson. Adding to this momentum was the announcement that three former league All-Stars were joining the Heart as free agent acquisitions.

Among them were two-way player Heather Hudson, whose contributions helped transform the Baltimore Charm into an Eastern Conference contender. Joining her were quarterback Anonka Dixon, whose last team was the Orlando Fantasy, and former Minnesota Valkyrie competitor Leekplay Paye.

While Robinson and Paye helped anchor a defensive line that never truly recovered from the loss of Jacqueline “Wolverine” Smyth (among the league’s top five tacklers in the last two seasons), Hudson was found in the defensive backfield with the likes of Amanda Hogan and Jenna Holt. In their debut together, which resulted in a 40-0 loss against the Chicago Bliss, the unit managed the highlight of the game as they were able to stop Heather Furr five yards short on a fourth down possession.

It certainly resulted in a roar of approval from the loyal fans at the Ralston Arena. Despite some other signs of improvement on defense, it was the offense that struggled.

Considering that there was little time to learn the offense, Anonka Dixon struggled miserably. Compounded by the fact that the league’s defenses have evolved into a much tougher and faster unit, raising the level of brutal efficiency, Dixon’s three-year absence showed. With due deference to the Heart, the acquisition of a second quarterback such as Angela Rypien or Arika Lynne, who both played in starting roles last season may have alleviated the woes.

Unfortunately, the Bliss defense stymied Dixon, who only managed to complete one of six passes on the night. Turnovers continued to be the story on offense as Dixon was intercepted by Alli Alberts on their second possession. As a side note, Alberts would also intercept her in the second half. Hudson provided some heroics on offense, providing a valiant performance on both sides of the ball. Following the interception, she managed a fourth and goal rushing attempt that placed the Heart just two yards short of the end zone, which would have been their first touchdown all season. Hudson also accounted for Dixon’s only successful completion in the game, an eight-yard passing play.

On the opposite end of the field, the Bliss used the opportunity to experiment with their passing game, a direct rebuttal to the critics who claimed the Bliss were too dependent on the running game. Going to the air 71 percent of the time, quarterback Heather Furr completed 15 of 25 passes, while successfully connecting on four touchdown passes. In a superlative second half, she tossed touchdown passes to Chabria Survillion, Alli Alberts, and rookie Stephanie Murry.

Another benefit of the Bliss opting for the passing game was the discovery of rising star Alli Alberts showing versatility with a strong receiving performance. Logging six receptions for 60 yards, she has established herself as a reliable receiver should the Bliss require such an option in the postseason as their victory clinched the Eastern Conference title.

In the aftermath of a fourth consecutive loss, the one positive to be gained is the fact that the Heart attempted to salvage their season with the acquisition of star talent. Not only did it display a commitment to improve their roster, but it was a show of gratitude towards a fan base that is loyal to the core. With close to a month to prepare for the next match, there is a sense of optimism that better performances are ahead. Although the postseason is officially out of reach, the Heart may be at their most dangerous. Possibly employing a “nothing left to lose” mentality, it shall provide the opportunity for younger players to obtain more experience while obtaining valuable insight from the acquired all-stars. Of note, the Heart’s next match shall take place on July 10th against the Atlanta Steam, while a rematch with the Bliss takes place on August 8th.