Former Olive Branch Conquistador LaRico Stevenson aims for the third time to be the charm as he leads his Philadelphia Soul into the Arena Football League (AFL) championship contest.
Stevenson and the Soul meet the Arizona Rattlers in ArenaBowl XXIX on Friday, August 26. Kickoff from the Gila River Arena is scheduled for 6 p.m. with ESPN handling the television coverage.
Stevenson played at Olive Branch in football, basketball and track. He graduated in 2002.
"I'm very excited," said Stevenson. "Every year this is my plan. I've just been dedicated to trying to do whatever I can to hopefully change this go around to a victory for us."
It is the third ArenaBowl appearance for the Northeast Mississippi Community College alumnus in his five seasons with the franchise. Stevenson's Soul fell to these same Rattlers in the title tilt during back-to-back seasons from 2012-13.
"There's really not a revenge thing because this is a new year and a new team for us," Stevenson said. "We've been working real hard to try to get over the hump that we had those last two times."
Stevenson has established himself as one of the top athletes in the AFL since arriving in the organization for the 2010 campaign. He has become a consistent force as both a defensive back and as a kick returner.
He started his tenure in the AFL with brief roster stops for the Tulsa Talons, New Orleans VooDoo and Pittsburgh Power before settling in nicely at Philadelphia midway through the 2012 season. Stevenson also played briefly in the now-defunct arenafootball2 (af2) for the Lubbock Renegades.
The Olive Branch native has compiled nearly 450 tackles, 48 pass break ups, 19 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries plus 2,000 return yards during his outstanding six-year career.
Stevenson has accumulated 281 tackles, 29 pass break ups, 14 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries since his arrival with the Soul some three-plus years ago.
His impact may be even deeper on special teams. Stevenson has fielded 124 kickoffs for 1,956 yards while with Philadelphia to produce an average of 15.8 yards per return on the shortened 50-yard field.
Stevenson is currently fifth on the squad with 34 tackles and four pass break ups entering the ArenaBowl. He is also second for the Soul with 24 kick returns for 351 yards.
The 5-11, 205-pounder has completed several solid individual performances this campaign. He had six tackles in a season opening victory against Cleveland and tallied a team-high eight stops with a forced fumble two weeks later during a triumph over Portland.
Stevenson helped Philadelphia capture its fourth AFL American Conference crown in franchise history. The Soul defeated the Jacksonville Sharks in the league championship game on August 14.
Philadelphia enters the ArenaBowl with a 13-3 overall record and split its regular season series with Arizona. Stevenson recorded a pair of tackles in a home win versus the Rattlers on May 14 while the Soul fell during the return trip one month later.
Stevenson and his teammates will face the most high-powered offense in the AFL. The Rattlers averaged 66.8 points per game on its way to the National Conference title.
"Our expectation is to go out there and make minimal mistakes," said Stevenson. "We've got to keep picking on some of the little tendencies that they do. One of our keys is just being smart. We can't give them so many chances to try to score."
Stevenson joined the Tigers for the 2003-04 campaigns after graduating from Olive Branch High School, where he was a three-sport standout in football, basketball and track.
He led Northeast to its first of two consecutive Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division championships as a sophomore in 2004.
Stevenson was selected to the MACJC All-State first-team that year after lifting Northeast to a 7-3 overall record and their third-ever home playoff game inside the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium.
He completed his collegiate career at the University of West Georgia. His six interceptions and 10 pass break ups were the most for the Wolves during his junior season.
Stevenson was an All-Gulf South Conference (GSC) second-team selection following a senior campaign in which he compiled 28 tackles, including four of them for loss, four interceptions and four pass break ups.
"Arena football is a great thing. We're really pleased with (Stevenson) playing at that level," Tigers head coach Greg Davis said. "It's a great accomplishment anytime you're able to be on a team that's playing for a championship. That's a big honor."
Northeast is the only member of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) this year to have a former student-athlete play in the two biggest professional football title games in the world.
Former Tiger Mario Addison participated in the National Football League's (NFL) Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., as a defensive lineman for the Carolina Panthers.
Blake Long is Sports Information Director at Northeast Mississippi Community College.