May 11, 2006

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The big, bad Wolves
Part sports, part show, af2 team appeals to families

By Robert Greene rgreene@hippopress.com

Guitars shriek, lights flash and a troupe of wholesomely sexy dancers bounds out to do a few numbers. The crowd roars and waves banners and foam hands. The music is hot, but not as hot as the dance team.

A truck drives on to the field and the screaming fans know some kind of event, possibly a contest or giveaway, is at hand. The dancers head off the field and the announcer speaks up to see if anyone in the audience wants to play, to take a shot at the golden ring du jour.

Oh, yeah, there is also some football going on — the Manchester Wolves are out there to pound the heck out of their opponents. However, it’s not the sort of football that you followed with your dad when you were a kid. The field is about half the size of the ones the Pats and Cowboys play on. The play is fast and violent. The quarterback gets hit nearly three out of every four plays. Scores in the 50s are not uncommon.

“We’re more of an entertainment event than just a flat-out sports event,” said Ben Bennett, coach of the Queen City’s Arena Football2 team. “That’s kind of where arena football is — go, go, go the whole time. And our game is a much more family-oriented game than people think but we’re also cutting-edge. Arena football by its very nature is one of the, if not the most, fan-friendly game. I mean, how many leagues do you know that mandate that you have to come out after the game is over, take off your shoulder pads and sign autographs?”

The team
The Manchester Wolves are a professional arena football team, based at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. They play in the East Division of the af2’s American Conference. (Af2 is the minor league of the Arena Football League, meaning the players are part-time and hungry for a shot at “The Show.”) This is Bennett’s second season with the Wolves. Last year, he led the team to a 12-5 record and the East Division championship. This year, the local boys were 2-3 as of press time, after losing to the Memphis Xplorers this past weekend, 58-52 in overtime. (Wolves quarterback D. Bryant threw for 389 yards and eight touchdowns.)

The Wolves are relatively new to the Queen City. In December 2001, the team was formed as a Connecticut expansion team. The team name, the Mohegan Wolves, was selected via a contest sponsored by WCTY, Mohegan Sun and X-Tra Mart. In its first season, the team went 3-13, a record that included only one home win.

The team finished the 2003 season with a 10-6 regular season record (which included a 7-1 home record) and won its first postseason game, 50-47, against the Atlantic Division Champion Cape Fear Wildcats. To date, the Wolves are the fourth top-drawing team in the league, with an average home-game audience of about 7,500. Tickets range from $14 to $35.

Coach Bennett is an NFL veteran who has worked and played in the Arena Football League for 18 of its 20 years.

“I didn’t start it, but if they ever start talking about Arena Football pioneers, they’ll have to mention me,” Bennett said.

Bennett started coaching in Milwaukee in 1998 and became the office coordinator in the Arena League. Then he got the job at Duke the following season and was at Duke from 1999 to 2000. In 2001, he went to Fort Lauderdale as the assistant head coach and office coordinator for the Arena League’s Florida Bobcats. He was named coach of the Florida Fire Cats in ’02 and took the team all the way to the championships in 2004.

“After we won the title I pretty much decided that I had done what I wanted to do down in Fort Myers and this opportunity came along and it turned out to be pretty good,” Bennett said.

The game
One of the biggest differences between arena ball and the “outdoor game,” said Wolves General Manager Angelo Mazzella, is that the arena goalposts are half the width of the ones the NFL plays with.

“And we have these big flyswatter nets in the endzone,” Mazzella said “If the ball ever goes off of there, the ball is still considered live and in play.”

The next thing is the size of the field. It’s 50 yards long by 85 feet wide – essentially half the size of a regular football field. Ten yards is the first down and on fourth down (or anywhen else for that matter) there is no punting.

“You either have to go for it, or kick a field goal,” Mazzella said. “The aggregate score in an arena football game is about 100 points.”

Also, when the game gets down to the final moments of play, teams can’t just “sit on the ball” to run the clock out.

“You have to have forward progress, the ball has to keep moving forward,” Mazzella said. “If it is not moving forward, the clock stops.”

The result is nonstop action, at least when the team is on the field. Some sports purists scoff at arena play, saying the games are more about show than sports skill. With a 50-yard field, speed and agility become lesser factors and the game often comes down to who can hit the hardest and who can take a pounding and keep possession of the ball. The Wolves organization says the team plays hard but there is nothing wrong with giving fans a show.

“We bill it as affordable family entertainment,” Mazzella said. “We say it’s everything from a hockey game to a football game to a rock concert all rolled into one. The Monarchs do Chuck-A-Puck, we do Fling-A-Football. We have games and events on the concourse. We do the Toilet Paper Toss. We’ll do things in between the timeouts. We have the Touchdown Dance, we have a pizza-eating contest ... a number of different things. We have an award-winning dance team.”

League rules mandate that every player has to go back onto the field after every game to sign autographs and interact with fans for a half hour. The Wolves take it a step further, requiring every coach and dancer to do the same.

“We have sort of a mini fan fest,” Mazzella said.

It’s all part of building up the fan base and making them feel like part of the team, he said.

The play
The Wolves are off to a rocky start this year, said Coach Bennett. They lost three key players to the big leagues: quarterback Jake Eaton, lineman Nick Myers and wide receiver JJ McKelvey.

“We brought back 12 guys and we have 14 new bodies,” Bennett said. “They have some pretty big shoes to fill.”

Bennett said he is trying to find replacements for the vets and working to get everyone “on the same page.”

“The disappointing game for us was our opener against Green Bay,” Bennett said. “Everyone, from top to bottom, played very poorly. We evidently just weren’t ready to play. We bounced back against Louisville, won a close one. We beat Albany. And just when it seemed we were moving in the right direction, we played a very uninspired game against [the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers]. That game was for first place and we didn’t grab the brass ring.”

“We will continue to do the things we need to do to find the winning combination,” Bennett added.

Leaders of the pack

The Manchester Wolves in one of the few teams in the Arena2 league that is owned by people who actually live or work in the the city the team represents. Here are the folks who pay the bills.

Steve Schubert
Schubert has lived in the Manchester area for nearly 50 years, and works in downtown Manchester as a senior vice president for UBS, a wealth management firm.

Schubert is a former local football star who made it to the big time, playing six years in the NFL as a wide receiver for the Pats and the Bears. After starring at Manchester Central High, Schubert went on to earn his degree at the University of Massachusetts.

He and his wife Sandy live in Candia. The couple has three children (Stacie, Stephanie, Scott) and four grandchildren (Cailey, Keira, Grace, and Tyler).

Dick Anagnost
Anagnost has played an integral part in revitalizing downtown Manchester with the renovation of 13 Millyard and downtown buildings. His award-winning renovations on Elm Street include the Chase Block, the Dunlap Building and the Bond Building.

Anagnost also has also been involved in bringing much-needed residential housing to the area, developing more than 400 new units in the last three years.

He is chairman of the Workforce Opportunity Counsel (WOC), director of the NH Business Finance Authority and vice president of St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

He and his wife Demetria live in Bedford with their three sons, Alexander, Stavros, and Demetri.

Stephen Talarico
Talarico is the owner and CEO of the Talarico Companies — Talarico Dealerships and Manchester and Nashua Harley-Davidson/Buell.

Talarico is a member of the NH Auto Dealers Association and was appointed to serve on the state Automotive Technology Advisory Council in 2004. Presently, he serves on the Souhegan Valley Boys and Girls Club Steering Committee.

Don Winterton
Winterton is a recently retired pharmaceutical executive. From 1997 through 2002, Winterton was the National Director of Sales for IDEC Pharmaceuticals, a company based in San Diego. Despite Winterton’s successes in that arena, most people from the area probably know him best from his days as a college referee. He officiated college games throughout New England for more than 20 years.

Winterton was born and raised in Manchester and was a football teammate of Steve Schubert’s at Central High School. He and his wife Paula currently reside in Auburn.

Jim Watson
Watson, a Texas native, moved to New Hampshire more than 30 years ago and has called the Granite State home ever since.

He owns the Watson Insurance Agency, a company that has run for close to 25 years. He and his wife Susan live in Bedford. The couple has two sons (Justin and Louie) and two grandchildren.

C.B. Sullivan
Sullivan, a Manchester native, is president/CEO of C.B. Sullivan Co., Inc., one of the nation’s leading wholesale beauty and barber supply firms. In 1949, after having served in World War II, Sullivan’s parents started the company to service barber shops in New Hampshire.

Steve Grzywacz
Grzywacz, a Manchester native, has held the positions of the president and CEO of two well-known local lumber companies, Milford Lumber Company and Muir Lumber Corporation, for the last 15 years.

He and his wife Shelley have two children, Megan and Stephen. The family lives in Manchester.

Tony Massahos
Massahos has worked in commercial and residential real estate since 1998 as the operator of a 21st Century Development Corporation.

In 1992, he founded TM Cellular and Paging, Inc. Upon selling the company in 2002, Massahos’ business had grown to include 15 retail stores throughout the state.

Massahos is a graduate of Saint Anselm College. He resides in Windham with his wife Karen. The couple has two children, Russell and Marie.

Peter Morris
Morris is the owner of MTG Mortgage Group. He established the Salem-based company more than 10 years ago, and now has offices in three states.

The Saugus, Mass. native played semi-pro hockey in Fitchburg, Mass., as well as in Canada. He currently resides in Methuen, Mass. with his wife and two daughters, 18 and 20.

Angelo Mazzella
General Manager
In 2003, Mazzella served as the team’s vice president, overseeing all business operations of the team while at Mohegan Sun.

Before joining the Mohegan af2 team in 2001, Mazzella served as general manager for two seasons with the UHL’s New Haven Knights. Prior to that, he was the assistant general manager of the Mobile BayBears baseball team.

He and his wife Danielle live in Bedford and have three children, son AJ and daughters Chloe and Sophie.
— Compiled from ManchesterWolves.com

Dancing with Wolves
Team is more than cheers and pretty faces
By Kristin Brodeur news@hippopress.com

Heidi Sullivan-Laroche has been dancing since she was 3 years old. She opened her own dance studio, Dance Visions Network, before most folks her age were graduating college, but still found time to work as a New England Patriots cheerleader. Nowadays, Sullivan-Laroche can be found choreographing the routines of the Manchester Wolves Dance Team. Last week, she answered some of our most burning questions about the life of a sports-entertainment dancer.

What was it like cheerleading for the Patriots?
I cheered for the Patriots for seven years. It was a great experience. I was cheerleader of the year in ’96, and went to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. I just love to perform, and it’s something that I didn’t want to miss out on because I opened up my studio at a young age; this gave me the opportunity to be able to perform as well as teach at my studio.

Why did you decide to come to the Manchester Wolves?
I heard that the Manchester Wolves football team was coming to Manchester my last year with the Patriots, and I decided that I was going to find out if they wanted a dance team. I felt that with my experiences with dance and the Patriots I would be able to put together a great team for the Wolves.

Could you explain what cheerleading and dancing is all about these days?
I think that they’re athletes, definitely; they do work really hard. [This team] isn’t really considered cheerleaders because they’re more of a dance team. They don’t do cheers; they just perform dance routines throughout the game. We want the audience to be entertained, of course, when there are timeouts or dead time, but also pump up the team as well. That’s one thing about the Wolves: there’s a lot of entertainment as well as the game. People aren’t going to the Wolves game just to see a football game; they’re also going to see a show.

What kind of requirements are there to become a member of the dance team?
You have to be physically fit, and also able to pick up dance routines pretty quickly, because we learn our routines on a week-to-week basis. Every game is something new. [We look for] somebody that has some dance training and performing skills. We look for somebody that likes to get the crowd motivated, and is willing to meet new people and to be able to perform in front of a large audience.

Do you find that a lot of people look at your team with the stereotypical image of blond, peppy, ditzy kind of girls?
No, I don’t really think that I’ve seen that. I think that’s kind of passé, and it’s not really like that anymore. We have so many different skilled people on the team; we have people that work at doctors’ offices, paralegals, girls who own their own businesses. They do this [dance team] because they’ve [danced] all their lives, and want to be able to continue it.

During the season, how often do you guys practice the routines?
The girls practice at my studio for three hours Thursday nights. Then they have to work on their own during the week to make sure that everything they’ve been taught is perfected by the next practice.

What is it like to perform in front of so many people at the games?
It’s an adrenaline rush. You have that nervous, butterfly feeling, but when you come off the field, it’s just such a great feeling that you’ve accomplished [something]. Everybody sees that the girls have worked so hard, and the audience is so into the dance routines that it’s just great entertainment.

Would you say all the work that goes into it is worth it for such a short time in the spotlight each game?
Oh, definitely. A lot of girls enjoy dance or enjoy performing, but their high school and college dance teams are over and they still want to further it. It’s just a great outlet for somebody who has that skill of being able to perform.

How long have you had your dance studio? What do you do there?
I’ve had my dance studio, Dance Visions, for 16 years. We teach children from age 3 to adult, and we have classes in ballet, point, tap, hip-hop, jazz.

What is it about dancing that you love so much?
I’ve loved dance since I was three years old. I always knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. [People] would say “Well, when you get a little older you’re probably going to change your mind,” but I always just knew I wanted to stick to this art because I love dance so much. It’s something that’s just a part of me and always will be.


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The Wolves at home
7:30 p.m. May 20 vs. Estero-FL
7:30 p.m. June 3,vs.Tulsa
7:30 p.m. June 23 vs. Louisville
7:30 p.m. July 14 vs. W-B/Scranton
7:30 p.m. July 28 vs. Davenport-QC
For more, visit manchesterwolves.com

More good sports
Manchester Freedom women’s tackle football
The Freedom is part of the Independent Women’s Football League, which was founded in 2000, and began play in 2001. After five years of continuous growth and success, the IWFL has emerged as the clear leader in the sport of women’s tackle football. More than 1,300 women play on IWFL teams across the United States and Canada.
• May 20 vs. Carolina, at home
• June 3 vs. Bay State Warriors, at home
• June 10 @ Bay State Warriors, away
• June 17 vs. Maine Rebels, at home
• June 24 vs .Montreal Blitz, away
Home games are played at 4 p.m., at West Memorial Field, 9 Nortre Dame Ave., Manchester. $3 general admission. Children under 6 years old get in free.

NH Phantoms soccer
The Phantoms franchise was born in 1996 after the Canadian Soccer Association prohibited the Montreal Ramblers from playing in the US-based USISL. The franchise moved to New Hampshire but lasted just the 1995 season. Then owners Jim Dedeus and John Motta started a new franchise the following year. The Phantoms had a successful entrance to the league finishing 9-7 in the Pro League’s Northern Conference. In 1997, the Phantoms reached the national semi-finals and went one better in 1998 when they lost in the national final in overtime.
The Phantoms at home:
• May 13 vs. Wilmington HammerHeads
• May 20 vs.Long Island Rough Riders
• June 9 vs.Harrisburg City Islanders
• June 16 vs.Vermont Voltage
• June 21 vs. Long Island Rough Riders
• June 24 vs.Richmond Kickers
• June 30 vs.Western Mass Pioneers
• July 22 vs.Cape Cod Crusaders
• July 29 vs.Pittsburgh River Hounds
• Aug. 5 vs.Vermont Voltage
Home games are held at Southern New Hampshire University, 2500 North River Road, Manchester. For tickets, call 329-4422 or visit nhphantoms.com