Of the five losses the Amarillo Venom had endured in its 2016 campaign, its final setback had the worst sting.
The Venom were unable to capture its third championship as the team lost to Wichita Force 48-45 in the 2016 Champions Bowl on Monday night at the Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan.
The title “Team Mom” takes on a different meaning when it comes to Stephanie Tucker.
She spent the week in Oklahoma City, sitting with other moms and watching daughter Kaitlyn compete in a national dance competition. Between dances, she was on the phone, keeping tabs on the two fitness centers she owns. She also was putting the finishing touches on a new business, which will offer wellness plans for Panhandle residents.
Oh yeah. One more thing.
While juggling all of that, Tucker was making arrangements to get the Amarillo Venom, the indoor football team she owns, to Wichita, Kansas, to play in tonight’s Champions Indoor Football championship game against the Wichita Force.
For Tucker, owner and general manager of the state’s most successful professional football team of the last five years, juggling life around the playoffs isn’t unusual.
The Venom won championships in 2012 and 2013. They lost in the semifinals in 2014, before faltering last year with a 7-6 record and missing the playoffs.
Tonight’s game is the second meeting between Wichita (11-2) and Amarillo (10-4) this season, with the Force winning the first 59-51.
Tucker sees her team as an extension of her family and is proud of its accomplishments in the same way a parent dotes over children. She’s fiercely protective of her players, helping them find offseason jobs to make ends meet. She’ll also tear into a player if, for example, he doesn’t wear a knee brace and re-injures himself because of it.
Pro Team Sports
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Tucker, a native of nearby Groom, caught the sports management bug when she was 16.
Working on the family farm, she accidentally plowed up a long stretch of her dad’s fencing. He promptly fired her from her farm job. She got a job answering phones part-time at the offices of the Amarillo Dallas, a now-defunct independent baseball team.
Within weeks, the teen Tucker was the team’s de facto promotions director, staging on-field contests and other non-baseball entertainment. She studied management and marketing at Texas Tech but spent her post-college years moving around the state as husband Toby Tucker lived the itinerant life of a high school coach.
The Tuckers had moved back to the Panhandle when, on a rare weekend with no youth sports obligations, they went to a Venom game.
It was 2011. Indoor football has been played in Amarillo since 2004, with the team changing either name, league or owner every few seasons. (It echoed the indoor football era in San Antonio, which ended in 2014 when the Arena Football League’s Talons went out of existence.)
High scores have always been part of the indoor football game, which is played by eight-man teams on a 50-yard-field. The game was created and marketed as a way to satiate football addicts during the off-season.
Fans, however, never paid much attention, resulting in teams that have always struggled to stay solvent.
The idea behind the league has thrived, ironically, in the traditional game. The modern 11-man game — at all levels — is a living, breathing homage to indoor football, with lots of passing, porous defenses, and high scores.
Back on Tucker date night, Stephanie spent the game sharing with Toby some of her sports marketing ideas. She had always dreamed of owning a professional team. By the end of the game, the couple had decided to put a bid in for the Venom
For the Tuckers, indoor football has been an immediate success on and off the field.
Besides winning, the Venom draw between 1,000-3,500 fans per game. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a nice-sized crowd in the Panhandle.
The league has a $3,500-per-game salary cap, Tucker said, to keep costs down and keep all of the teams viable in the long run.
She has no regrets.
“It’s been a roller coaster couple of years,” she said, “but it’s been fun.”
When asked about who is one of the most recognized faces on the Amarillo professional sports scene, most will point in the direction of Amarillo Venom head coach Julian Reese.
First arriving in Amarillo as the quarterback of the upstart Dusters of the Intense Football League in 2004, Reese has played a major part in indoor football’s success in the Texas Panhandle either as a quarterback or as head coach.
Since taking over coaching duties at the tail end of the 2011 season, Reese has accumulated a 43-26 record, four postseason appearances, secured winning seasons four out of five seasons, and has claimed two championships.
Reese will attempt to acquire his third championship Monday night when the Venom travel to Wichita, Kan., for the the Champions Indoor Football league title game.
The Venom earned the title berth with last week’s victory over the top-seeded Texas Revolution. But there was a slight bump in the road in preparing for the 7:05 p.m. championship game in Intrust Bank Arena.
On Tuesday, Reese underwent an emergency appendectomy at BSA Hospital.
However, by Wednesday, Reese was released and was back overseeing practice.
“I’m feeling a lot better, and I’m very thankful that the game is on Monday,” Reese said. “I’m a little sore, but I’m ready for the championship on Monday.”
Despite having the obvious drive to haul in another title for Amarillo, there lies much more to Reese than meets the eye, according to fellow coaches and those who play for him.
For instance, there is wide receiver/defensive backs coach Donta Bright. Bright, a veteran of the indoor game, has played with and against Reese.
“Julian is a good guy,” Bright said. “When I first met him, he was really passionate about the game. He was always on time, always the last person off of the field. He’s dedicated to what he does and he knows what he’s doing. I think that’s what grew on me when we played together and rubbed off on me.
“It was the way he studied and showed me how to study a little bit. That’s what helped me, and I’m trying to pass it on to the younger guys.”
Two of those younger guys are defensive back Percy Turner and linebacker Kendrick Causey.
“When Kendrick and I came here as rookies last season, Reese and (Venom defensive coordinator) Dannie Snyder took the time out to teach us the game,” said Turner, who spent time earlier this year as a member of American Indoor Football’s New Mexico Stars. “We got better every day. I can remember the first game was in Dodge City, and we didn’t know any indoor football rules. Coach Reese said, ‘just play football and I’ll correct you as you go.’”
Turner said he has continuously improved, and after the season-ending loss to Sioux City last year, he is determined to help Reese and his Venom teammates take home a championship.
Causey, who played alongside Turner in New Mexico and Amarillo, echoed Turner’s words in how Reese has instilled that hunger to win from within.
“We’re pretty much on the same page right now concerning that hunger stage,” Causey said. “I’ve never been to a championship before. This is my first championship appearance, so I’m hungry, and I want it really bad.”
Lastly, Reese has used his experience from his past title wins in 2004, 2012 and 2013 to aid his players.
“I just tell them, don’t try to do anything crazy and don’t do anything outside of your character,” Reese said. “As long as you trust in the guys next to you and trust in what we have in the system, we’ll be fine. We just need to make plays collectively and within the realm of what we’re doing as a team. As long as we can stay true to who we are throughout the game, there’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs, but it’s a matter of how you handle those things.”
Amarillo 98, Dodge City 56
Bloomington 65, Sioux City 45
Wichita 52, Bloomington 51
Amarillo 57, Texas 53
Champions Bowl II
Amarillo at Wichita, 7:05 p.m.
With a 57-53 road victory the Amarillo Venom will play in the 3rd championship game in 5 years. The Venom will travel to Wichita, Monday June 27 to take on the North Division champion Wichita Force. For ticket information contact 806-350-PASS.