Friday, March 19, 2004 | 9:32 a.m.
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., HP Pavilion TV: None. Radio: ESPN 920-AM
They're off the ropes. Now it is time to see if Las Vegas can land a few blows against the biggest bully of them all.
Saturday's trip to face Western Division leader San Jose is the beginning of a crucial four-game stretch for the Gladiators as they try to get back into the playoff race. Las Vegas (3-3) plays three of its next four games on the road after surviving in overtime last week with Arizona for a 65-64 win at the Thomas & Mack Center.
But beating the Rattlers to avoid a panic situation is just the first step in confronting the challenge for Las Vegas. Following the trip to San Jose (4-1), the Gladiators must travel cross-country to play Orlando before coming home to face Central Division leader Chicago. That tough game is followed by a trip to Arizona, which is quickly setting up as a rivalry.
Anything less than a split of that set of games will likely drop the Gladiators from playoff contention, as only the league's top eight teams make the playoffs. Bad bounces and injuries have contributed to Las Vegas' predicament, but the Gladiators are at the point where looking at what is missing is not an option.
What -- or who -- could be missing from Saturday's game is Gladiators head coach Frank Haege. Commissioner David Baker is expected to announce today if Haege will be disciplined for his fourth-quarter ejection and tirade last week.
AFL spokesman Chris McCloskey would not speculate on potential punishment for Haege, saying that there are very few situations to which this one can be compared.
"It's safe to say that coach conduct and ejections are infrequent," McCloskey said.
Haege berated officials over what he thought was an Arizona illegal substitution, eventually drawing an ejection. After being booted, Haege threw his headset into the stands, then tore off his shirt before sprinting off the field.
Haege said last week that he "just snapped" and that he expected to hear from the league office about a possible fine or suspension.
With or without their coach, the Gladiators face a huge task against the SaberCats. San Jose averages a league-leading 57.2 points per game and SaberCats quarterback Mark Grieb owns a 45-9 record when he starts. The SaberCats have also won five consecutive games at HP Pavilion. The SaberCats walloped the Gladiators, 72-37, last season at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Las Vegas is still experimenting with new lineups forced by key injuries to offensive specialist Terrill Shaw and defensive specialist T.J. Hill.
Shaw is likely out until after the April 11 bye week with a strained gluteus and Hill will miss the rest of the year with a torn ACL in his knee.
Marcus Nash is picking up the slack for Shaw, though, leading the league with 56 catches. Former UNLV defensive back Chameion Sutton earned defensive player of the game honors last week in place of Hill.