Swarco Raiders HC Kevin Herron relishes healthy lineup ahead of Austrian Bowl

What happened to the Swarco Raiders?

As the Austrian regular season wound to a close, that was the question everyone was asking.

Sitting second in the league, the 2019 Austrian Bowl champions looked as good as ever with two weeks left, their only losses an overtime thriller against the top-seeded Daica Vienna Vikings in their second game and a tightly contested CEFL title game against the German powerhouse Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns. They had topped the Vikings to get to that final, then again in their second AFL matchup, but then a 24-17 loss to the Danube Dragons shocked everyone. A 16-7 loss to the Prague Panthers a week later made the questions louder.

“The Dragons’ game was a blow,” Raiders head coach Kevin Herron fully admits, explaining that his short-handed team got caught looking ahead and experimenting with their line-up.

“We wanted to try out stuff defensively to project how we would potentially match up to them or the Giants in the playoffs, figuring out what we could do in the playoffs and get by. Offensively, we definitely underperformed and had way too many mistakes there.”

The next week, the team from Tirol opted to rest some players with the standings already decided. Veteran quarterback Sean Shelton was pulled rather than secure the victory, a decision Herron doesn’t regret.

“It was still disappointing for me how we finished the season, but nevertheless, it wasn’t damaging,” he insists. “We knew that we were in the playoffs and we would have home field advantage. It was just kind of bittersweet, you could say.”

No team, especially a top club like the Raiders, wants to lose, but getting healthy for the playoffs may have been the more important victory. Since the start of the season, Herron’s squad has lost an average of three starters per game. The fact that it didn’t catch up to Swarco until the very end of the season is a testament to the team’s depth and the coaching staff’s creativity.

“Let’s figure it out. That’s the whole mantra of this season,” Herron says. “We’ll find a way, we’ll figure it out and try to put whoever we can put on the field to be in the best position to be successful.”

Their DBs have been decimated, the offensive line has been different every single week and it was their fifth-string running back in the backfield in that loss against Danube, or at least it was until he dislocated his elbow and had to be replaced with a receiver. That played havoc with pass protection, but they got their complete offensive line back for a semi-final rematch with the Dragons and the results were noticeable, a 31-20 victory courtesy of a reinvigorated offense.

“That was the main reason why we weren’t able to go vertical [a lot of the year], just due to the fact that the o-line hadn’t gelled and the protections were still shaky,” Herron explains. “We had a lot of guys playing that shouldn’t have been or weren’t in the plan at the beginning of the season.”

Now headed for an Austrian Bowl showdown Saturday against the familiar rival Vikings, just six players are completely ruled out for Swarco. That’s the fewest in months and with the focus now shifted from trying to piece together a roster to dissecting an opponent, there is no telling what the Raiders are capable of.

With the championship set to take place in Innsbruck, two straight home victories over Vienna will provide plenty of confidence, but these two opponents are far too familiar with one another to expect anything less than a tight game. Herron is preparing his team for every possible scenario, knowing no trickery will be held back with all the chips down.

“What you expect is that they’ll try to break their tendencies. Having an extra week, they’ll put in some wrinkles into what they do on both sides of the ball and special teams. You just try to anticipate, you try to look back to what did they do in the past and guess what might they come up with,” he says.

“We do the same. It’s trying to find those one or two plays that have a big enough wrinkle in them that they can maybe get you that big play touchdown and trying to be prepared defensively to take that away.”

Of course, when it comes to preventing big plays against the Vikings, there is one name that concerns teams more than most. Quarterback Eystin Salum has done it all, throwing for 1,390 yards and 14 touchdowns, rushing for 478 yards and 10 touchdowns, and has even caught six passes for 134 yards and three more scores. Herron is well aware of what his team will have to deal with.

“Salum is what keeps me up at night as a DC. He can beat you with his legs. If he runs around in the pocket and buys time, they can get open. Defensively the focus is trying to contain that guy somehow and if you can’t then just try to limit the damage he can do,” he acknowledges.

“That’s something that I’ve told the d-line the whole season; they’re going to win us a championship. It’s really going to be put on them and it’s a big task, so we’ll see if they’re up to par on that day.”

Should they win that matchup, hoisting the Austrian Bowl trophy won’t be far behind. After all the incredible challenges of this season, every single Raiders player can rightfully feel they earned their opportunity to be a champion.

“We truly needed everyone on the team at some point in time. It’s not just a number of guys that started the whole season and got us through, and then some guys riding that wave,” Herron emphasizes. “No, everybody has actually been on the field and had to contribute and therefore it makes it that much more special.”

Watch the 2021 Austrian Bowl between the Swarco Raiders and Dacia Vienna Vikings on AFI.tv, Saturday, July 31 at 15:00 CET (3 pm, 09:00 am ET).

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.