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Twin peaks: League's top teams follow same style

Both teams have coaches with strong ties to Texas. Both have potential MVPs at quarterback, both have the great offensive specialists, both have a pair of complementary wide receivers.

When the Tampa Bay Storm lines up on defense tonight, what it will see is what it usually gets _ each day in practice.

The Arizona Rattlers might be Arena Football's equivalent to the Storm. Which has plenty to do with why the league is touting tonight's game as the biggest in its regular-season history.

How similar are the teams? Very.

Team success. This is an obvious one, as the teams enter the game with the two best records in Arena Football. Arizona is 11-1, while the Storm is 10-2. The teams have combined to win the past three ArenaBowls (Arizona won in 1994). Tampa Bay is 30-10 over the past three seasons, and Arizona is 29-11.

Texas connection. Storm coach Tim Marcum is a native of Roscoe. He coached at McMurry College, Rice University, and with San Antonio of the old USFL. The same year Marcum began his coaching career in Texas, 1980, Rattlers coach Danny White was a starter for the first time as Dallas Cowboys quarterback.

QB2. While the Storm's Jay Gruden lacks the physical stature of Arizona's 6-foot-4, 220-pound Sherdrick Bonner, he has matched his numbers. The two are considered by many to be the best in the league. Bonner is the top-ranked quarterback in the league; Gruden is third.

Bonner has 60 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions; Gruden has 59 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Both have won ArenaBowl MVPs. Both played in the league's All-Star Game in 1994.

Bye, George. George LaFrance is the reigning king of returns. He holds every league record for career returns and as a receiver has set a slew of career marks. He has defined the position of offensive specialist.

But Arizona's Hunkie Cooper, should he hang around long enough, could be the next LaFrance. He has proven himself as LaFrance's heir apparent while splintering nearly every single-season return record. His rookie year in 1993 he was the league's MVP, an award LaFrance twice won. Cooper, who is playing defense for the first time in his career, returned five kicks for touchdowns last year.

This season, LaFrance has 1,421 yards in returns and two touchdowns; Cooper has 915 yards and a score. LaFrance has 87 catches for 1,097 yards; Cooper has 85 catches for 953 yards.

Another similarity: both special-teams units will be have their hands full tonight.

Complements. What makes both teams so dangerous is the ability to spread the ball around _ Tampa Bay has Stevie Thomas and Arizona has the emerging Calvin Schexnayder.

Both have more than 60 catches. Both have 19 touchdowns. Schexnayder has 1,037 yards receiving; Thomas has 926.

Balance. Albany has the league's best offense, but it centers around one player, Eddie Brown. Orlando is all about Barry Wagner. San Jose lives and dies with Titus Dixon.

But on Tampa Bay and Arizona, any number of people can hurt you, making preparation difficult.

The lone difference, it seems, is wide receiver/defensive back Randy Gatewood. The UNLV product has 46 catches for 624 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Storm counters with Lonnie Turner, who has had a good season but not as productive.

"I think the one thing this team has lacked in the past is that teams have been able to attack a position," Gatewood said. "Now, you can't really key on one person."

The best offense? It just may be a good defense. At least there, the comparisons end _ Arizona is giving up 10 points a game more and allowing 50 yards more a game through the air.

"It should be a great game," Gatewood said. "We're definitely looking forward to this weekend."

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