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Following their trail

Fans congregate at Ground Round in W-B Twp. to cheer on the hometown team in the ArenaCup.

Henry Laboranti of Olyphant celebrates a touchdown Saturday at the Ground Round during ArenaCup8 between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers and the Tulsa Talons in Bossier City, La.

Jessica kovalcin/for the times leader

WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Hometown pride was at a high as fans gathered at Ground Round to watch the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers’ attempt to take the ArenaCup.

More than 50 people, many decked out in blue-and-white Pioneers gear, poured into the bar as the 8 p.m. kickoff neared, ready to have some fun and support their team in the arenafootball2 championship game against the Tulsa Talons. They gathered around for drinks and football-fueled conversation, and as they waited for the game to start, several people shot glances at the televisions in clear anticipation and excitement.

Brian Ferkel, a manager at Ground Round, said the restaurant had been getting calls all afternoon about the game. He said they had been expecting a good turnout. They weren’t disappointed.

“I’ve been waiting for this all day,” said Dominick Azzara, of Wilkes-Barre, who brought his son Robert Tulich to watch the game.

A season ticket-holder, Azzara said he had high hopes for the team this year. “They were looking good all along, and they kept the momentum.” He said the team’s defense has been excellent, and quarterback Ryan Vena has been right on the money. Azzara said he’s a big supporter of the whole organization. “They’re the best chance for family fun in the area.”

Tulsa ended up defeating the Pioneers, 73-66.

The game was a family affair for several other patrons. Ed Mack, of Shavertown, and his son Eddie Mack have been season ticket-holders for five years. Eddie Mack, sporting a signed Pioneers hat, said earlier this season he was unsure they would make it this far. “They were undefeated in the middle of the season, but they lost the last five years before they made it to the (title game).” He and his father thought the Pioneers would win the Cup.

Patty Clarke, who attended every home game, said she had confidence “the boys” would get this far. The Hanover Township woman said the players could bring home the championship if “they just keep it positive; don’t get over-confident.”

Her friend, Debbie Benkoski of Plains Township, said she’s also been to all the home games, and even attended an away game in Albany.

“We were the only Pioneers fans there. People were harassing us.”

She could rest easy at the Ground Round, as there wasn’t a Tulsa fan in sight.

Benkoski said her favorite player was Beau Elliot. “He’s such a nice guy. I’d like him for a son-in-law, or maybe a new husband,” she said, laughing.

The party wasn’t restricted to die-hard fans. Bonnie Lahart said she and her friends Mary Canfield and Gary Leonard, all of Wilkes-Barre, were Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin season ticket-holders and big hockey fans, but they were trying to get involved in the Pioneers.

Canfield said they had gone to the game last Saturday, when the Pioneers beat the Green Bay Blizzards to become American Conference champions.

“It was so exciting,” she said, “we want to see them win and bring home the championship cup.” She said she appreciates all the Pioneers organization does for its fans.

Leonard has no doubt the team would get this far. “I thought they had it from the start.”

When kickoff time neared and the restaurant staff switched the televisions over to the game, the level of excitement in the room jumped several notches, and people jockeyed for a good spot to see all the action. Several people catcalled when Tulsa fans showed up on the screen, and shouted out encouragement to the Pioneers coach and players as they appeared.

And as the Pony Express shook their pompoms and the Pioneers kicked off, the fans at the bar clapped and hollered, ready to cheer the hometown team on to victory.

Inside

For more on the ArenaCup, see Page 1C.

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