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For Storm, all that's left is pain

The redundancy of losing to Orlando in the playoffs is devastating.

The first-round playoff game ended with the ball going in the wrong direction, which was just about right for the Storm in its 41-19 loss to Orlando.

For Tampa Bay Saturday night, strengths were weaknesses, up was down, and _ like the interception return for a touchdown by Orlando's Kenny McEntyre as the final buzzer sounded _ everything seemed to backfire.

"Before the game, I don't think I ever had seen a group of guys more focused," Storm coach Tim Marcum said of his players. "I felt we would go out and play unbelievably."

What was unbelievable to many at the Ice Palace was that it happened again, right before their eyes. A 62-31 ArenaBowl loss to the Predators last year haunted many players and coaches well into the off-season.

This one, which the Storm led 10-0 at halftime, also figures to be digested slowly and painfully.

"Certainly last year was devastating. This is just as bad," Marcum said. "You try not to think about it, but it's hard not to. It's tough to do anything right now but hurt. And if you're worth your salt, that's what you'll do."

That the Storm (11-4) had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and Orlando (8-7) needed to win its final regular-season game just to make the post-season was meaningless. Neither did it matter that the Storm beat the Predators twice during the regular season for the second year in a row.

What mattered was that Tampa Bay's offense never kicked into gear and its defense was caught off guard at key moments.

Offensively, Storm quarterback Peter Tom Willis was not afforded his usual pass protection. During the regular season, Willis was sacked 25 times, the second-lowest total in the league. The Predators, who got to Willis only once the previous two games combined, sacked him five times, four in the second half.

"We had some chances to make some plays, and (instead) they made some good defensive plays," said Willis, who threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. "We had a lot of chances."

Of the two players who most hurt the Storm's defense, one was held in check during both regular-season meetings and the other was not supposed to have been there.

Offensive specialist Barry Wagner, who holds most of the league's career receiving records, had three touchdown receptions and finished with six catches for 108 yards. In the regular season, Storm defensive specialist Tommy Henry limited Wagner to seven catches, 121 yards and two touchdowns in two games.

"He made some spectacular catches tonight," Henry said. "I felt I had good coverage on him. I feel like I let down the team, the fans and, more importantly, myself. It hurts more than words can say."

Orlando quarterback Connell Maynor, a former Storm backup, threw four touchdowns after struggling in the first half. He made just the second start of his career, and if not for injuries to starter Browning Nagle (wrist) and Pat O'Hara (shoulder), he would not have been in the lineup.

Maynor gave partial credit to the time he spent with the Storm. From 1994-96, he backed up Orlando coach Jay Gruden.

"I played behind Jay Gruden, the best to ever play the game," Maynor said. "I learned a lot. It's just going out and performing."

The loss could be the last football memory for several Storm players. A slew are over 30 and contemplating retirement. One, lineman Sylvester Bembery, already announced his.

"Right now, their bodies are aching and certainly they're aching inside," Marcum said.

The game was witnessed by only 10,706, the smallest crowd to watch a Tampa Bay-Orlando game since 1991.

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