On Saturday, the defending Football League Indoor champion opens the Massachusetts Pirates season

WORCESTER – The Massachusetts Pirates are back.

Back for their fourth season and back to defend their first championship.

The Worcester-based Pirates kick off the 2022 Indoor Football League campaign against the Frisco (Texas) Fighters at 7 p.m. Saturday on the blue and teal turf of Phoenix Field at the DCU Center.

The match will be preceded by a ring distribution and championship banner raising celebration.

“We are thrilled to be doing it again,” said Jawad Yatim, a 2008 graduate of Shrewsbury High, whose many hats include founder, co-owner, chairman and chief executive. “It’s been a very short off-season for us, but I think we’ve adapted well and are ready to go.”

An old athletic adage says that the only thing harder than winning a championship is defending it.

The Pirates went 14-3 last season – their first in the IFL having previously featured in the lower-tier National Arena League – winning their last 11 games on their way to winning the United Bowl.

They’re ready to get the most out of everyone in 16 regular-season games spanning five months before the playoffs begin.

“Our main goal is to win our first championship again,” Yatim said. “That’s how we approach it. We want to win our first championship again. So we take this season as if we had won nothing.

The Pirates return a number of key pieces on defense, including All-IFL selections Toby Johnson (University of Georgia) up front and Harlan Miller (Southeast Louisiana) and Chucky Williams (Louisville) in the backfield .

This unit will be tested in Week 1 as Frisco, one of 15 teams in 12 IFL states from coast to coast, will be led by the former starting quarterback. Alabama, Blake Sims.

Ashburnham's Brandon Diabo plays rock, paper and scissors with Massachusetts Pirates defensive back Khalid Wooten during a recent meet and greet with season ticket holders at the DCU Center.

But indoor football is a game of attack first and, more specifically, passing first – as in first, second and third downs. The Pirates are loaded in that regard, as quarterback Alejandro Bennifield (Tennessee-Chattanooga) and wide receiver Thomas Owens (Florida International) are arguably the IFL’s best past combo.

Bennifield threw for 43 touchdowns last season and was named United Bowl MVP. Owens, a unanimous All-IFL selection, came close to winning the receiving triple crown, leading the league in catches (77) and yards (1,014) and finishing second in touchdowns (27).

“Having them back is huge,” Yatim said. “That’s the best 1-2 punch in the league, hands down. … Some big plays that were made last year were between those two.

“They both work extremely hard, take their jobs seriously and their confidence is at a high level. We expect to see all of that translate to the pitch again this season.

Five interesting and eventful years have passed since the Pirates made their debut in 2018.

They went a combined 33-16 their first two seasons while earning a pair of playoff invites. Then they left NAL for the IFL, only to see the 2020 season canceled due to the pandemic.

Indoor football resumed at Worcester last year. Before winning the league title, the Pirates went on a season-opening road trip that took them from Kentucky to North Dakota to Wisconsin, where they were caught up in a mass shooting the day before the game.

“I feel like we’re pretty stretched organizationally,” Yatim said.

The Pirates, who are on the second of a three-year tenure with the DCU Center, have persevered and endured, having outlived their two indoor football predecessors in New England’s second-largest city.

The Masses. Marauders folded after one season, in 1994. The New England Surge went through the 2007 and 2008 seasons before quitting.

New Massachusetts Pirates coach Rayshaun Kizer talks to fans at the team's recent meeting for season ticket holders at the DCU Center.

“We expected to be here at this time,” Yatim said. “Maybe not everyone did it, but we did it. It wasn’t easy, man. We worked really hard, really.

“It’s not an easy sell, but the positive thing is that everything is growing exponentially for us. It’s just to speed up that process.

The Pirates have fielded a championship-caliber team every year, but they’re still working diligently to build a bigger fan base. This is typical of most professional youth sports teams.

“The reviews are good,” Yatim said. “When people go to the game, they leave a good review, they have fun. And that’s what’s important. Obviously, we also want to win ball games.

“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing. Try to grow our fanbase and following. Just keep pushing.

More information, including schedules and ticket information, can be found at masspiratesfootball.com.

—Contact Rich Garven at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RichGarventTG.

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