River Rats to debut in American Indoor Football League in 2007, will play in Rostraver

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There's a new professional team coming to town. The Pittsburgh River Rats will make their debut in the American Indoor Football League in 2007.

The River Rats will play a 14-game regular-season schedule from February 1-May 31, with seven weekend home games at the Rostraver Ice Garden.

"This is a dreamer's league," said coach Shawn Liotta, 26, who is entering his second season as coach at West Shamokin High School and was on Greg Gattuso's staff at Duquesne University as running backs coach from 2002-04.

One of the first things Liotta did after being named the River Rats' coach was to check out the scoreboard at Rostraver Ice Garden, which will have a seating capacity around 2,500.

"I wanted to make sure the bulbs work because they're going to be used a lot," he said. "We will have the best offense in the AIFL. The game is 90 percent passing and you're going to see footballs raining from the rafters."

Joe Butler, a football scout the past 29 years and founder and director of Metro Index, will be the team's director of player personnel.

"I've been evaluating high school and college players a long time," he said. "This can work -- it's just a matter of getting players."

Butler will conduct the team's first tryout camp Aug. 21 at Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena in Harmarville. The cost of the tryout is $65 and is open to anyone over 18 years old. A second tryout is planned for late September.

The River Rats will have 18 players on the active roster and five on the inactive list. Each team in the 16-member league is allowed to put a franchise tag on one player and pay him the maximum of $500 per game. All the other players will receive $250 per game in addition to housing and meals provided by the team.

Andrew G. Haines, 27, a businessman from Canton, Ohio, who formed the league three years ago, said each of the 16 teams will have a budget between $250,000 and $400,000.

"This is a steppingstone league," he said. "This is not a place where you want to make a 20-year career."

Haines is looking for an owner to purchase the River Rats' franchise for $125,000. He said the league's average attendance is around 2,500.

"We don't need an owner, but we'd like to find one," Haines said. "[The league] will run and operate the team. ... We're looking for a three-year commitment from all our owners."

The River Rats will be in the Northern Division that includes the Johnstown River Hawks, Erie Freeze, Canton Legends and Reading Express.

"We're hoping to provide a fix for football fans who have nothing to do in May," Liotta said. "If you like reverses, flea-flickers and footballs flying around, you're going to like the what you see in this league."

NOTES -- Ticket prices range from $12 to $30 per game. For more information, call 330-492-4600. ... Jim Ward, head coach at South Allegheny High School from 2000-02 and current assistant at Clairton, will be defensive coordinator and offensive/defensive line coach; Josh Lipkin, an assistant at Apollo-Ridge High School, will be special teams coordinator and fullbacks and linebackers coach.


Phil Axelrod can be reached at paxelrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1967.


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