- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2018

GAMBRILLS, Md. — This was not how the Washington Valor would have liked to start the 2018 Arena Football League season.

In addition to dropping their first three games of the season, all on the road, the Valor lost new quarterback Nick Davila for the year. The three-time AFL MVP who signed with Washington in March injured his neck in Week 2.

But Valor players practicing at Athletic Performance Inc. in Maryland were optimistic that things were coming together ahead of their home opener against the Albany Empire, Friday night at Capital One Arena.

“Right now it’s just kind of finding our identity as an offense and just getting everyone on the same page,” defensive lineman Jake Payne said. “Once everyone clicks … we’re gonna be great.”

“Before Nick got hurt we were unstoppable on offense,” head coach Dean Cokinos said. “We have to play differently now. We’re not going to be a high-scoring team, so how we built the team now has to change a little bit to how we play now. So we’ve got to get a new identity. It’s gonna be a transition for us.”

Journeyman QB takes over

In Davila’s place, Warren Smith will start at quarterback for the Valor for the second straight game. He threw three touchdowns and two interceptions in Washington’s loss to Albany last week.

Smith’s semi-professional career has spanned 10 teams in five leagues, including one in Germany. He was the MVP of the Professional Indoor Football League in 2014 and of the National Arena League in 2016.

But by day, he teaches at a high school in New Jersey, his home state. He was not at Thursday’s practice because school is in session a few more weeks.

Wide receiver Rod Windsor, who leads the Valor with seven touchdowns, said it’s important the offense “makes it easy” on Smith by doing their jobs and playing as a unit.

“If everybody on the offense comes in on the same page, I think we’ll be able to help Warren,” Windsor said.

Windsor, 33, followed Davila to the Valor this spring after six years as his teammate on the Arizona Rattlers. Windsor wasn’t going to play again until Davila, a friend and offseason workout partner, signed with Washington and told him he “needed a bigger receiver” to join him.

Payne added he has gotten close with Davila in the brief time they’ve known each other.

“You look at a guy like that, he’s just the ultimate competitor. This dude just got hurt and I called him two days ago like, ‘Hey man, I’m gonna make tacos and have a taco Tuesday,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, I gotta watch some game film and stuff,’” Payne said. “Dude, are you playing? But he’s watching game film because he knows it can help us.”

Returning after uncertainty

These players didn’t know two months ago whether they would have a season at all, as the league and players’ union debated the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement.

Payne is in his second year in the AFL, both with the Valor. It was tough for him and his teammates to hear the league could shut down entirely, he said.

“For me, I just love playing football, and I think a lot of guys are that same way,” Payne said. “We’d like to be compensated for the amount of time and effort we put in, and we feel that the union did a very good job of that, and the owners have done well working with the union and providing us with the things we need and providing us with an opportunity to come back out here and play.”

Cokinos and his staff started preparing for a season the same way, “whether it’s going to happen or not.”

“The biggest message I sent to not only my staff but the players and the operations folks is, ‘Control the things you can,’” Cokinos said. “It’s out of our power to control whether the league’s gonna play or not gonna play. We just prepared to play and did our daily job. You can’t mentally let it drain on you because there’s nothing positive in that.”

Now that the season is in full swing, the Valor are excited to finally play their home opener.

“We’ve got great fans. The crowd is always involved in the game. Always intense, on their feet, talking to us afterwards,” said Payne, a Virginia native.

Tickets are still on sale for Friday’s game, slated to start at 7 p.m.

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