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SaberCats romp past Thunder to start season

The San Jose SaberCats enjoyed a night of firsts Monday in their season opener visiting the Portland Thunder.

It was the SaberCats’ first trip to Portland, their first win of the season, and the first time that newly-assigned players Reggie Gray, Rod Harper and JJ Payne contributed touchdowns for their new team.

They sure do know how to make a good first impression.

Though WR Jason Willis was the SaberCats number one receiver last season, newcomers Gray and Harper saw the majority of throws in the SaberCats’ 64-34 rout over the Portland Thunder in their first game as an AFL Franchise.

Gray, who has a storied past with quarterback Russ Michna, immediately made his presence felt by catching his first touchdown as a member of the SaberCats on the first play of the game.

The completion was eerily similar to the story Gray told SFBay on Wednesday while reminiscing about his time in college with Michna.

Gray — known for his speed — never slowed down, finishing the night with six receptions for 102 yards and four touchdowns.

Fellow newcomer Harper was the most-targeted SaberCats wide receiver, notching ten receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns. His first touchdown came on just the second pass of the game on an 11-yard connection.

Payne got in on the action during the third period, rushing in for a six-yard touchdown and breaking what was an interesting game at that point wide open for the SaberCats. San Jose never felt the need to look back following that drive.

Together, the trio fueled a SaberCats squad that looks revitalized on both sides of the ball.

The Thunder’s rookie energy and chippy play made for an interesting first half, but the SaberCats’ usual brand of hard-nosed defense eventually wore the young team down.

San Jose forced a series of second half turnovers while disallowing the Thunder to get any offensive rhythm established.

The night of firsts were not just on the offensive side. Newly-assigned DB David Hyland had a strong first game as a member of the SaberCats, providing tight coverage and hard hits. Pus, his first team interception came on an impressive one-handed grab over the padding in the Thunder end zone.

Reigning Riddell Defensive Player of the Year Clevan Thomas had a solid game covering the Thunder wide receivers, finishing the night with six tackles. DB Huey Whittaker led the team in tackles notching nine in total in his season debut.

The SaberCats had one more unexpected first when rookie quarterback Nathan Stanley was rushed into action at the start of the third period after Michna sustained a head injury.

Though Michna seemed fine both on the field and during a halftime interview, SaberCats staff decided to take precautionary measures by pulling Michna from the game prior to the start of the third.

Michna’s first half was impressive, with 12 of 16 passes for 166 yards and five touchdowns. Stanley stepped in to keep the chains moving and closing out the victory by completing 8 of 14 passes for 89 yards and three touchdowns.

The SaberCats return to the Bay Area for their home opener against the Philadelphia Soul on Sunday at 5 p.m. at SAP Center in San Jose.

Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at for full coverage of the San Jose SaberCats.

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