ALBANY, NY (NEWS10) — The Albany Empire’s bid for a second straight National Arena League championship began with an opening round 68-67 victory over the Jacksonville Sharks Saturday night. This was the third meeting between the two teams this year, and the first since May 22.

But round three proved to be a significantly tighter matchup than the 62-29 thrashing the Empire handed Jacksonville in May. Neither team led by more than two touchdowns at any point in this score. Despite combining for 135 points, the two teams actually traded defensive stops on the first two possessions of the game.

But the scoreboard was quickly broken in after that when Empire wide receiver and defensive back Marquel Wade returned a punt from inside his end zone, and ran it back over 50 yards for a touchdown, and the game’s first points. After the Wade punt return, a scoring frenzy commenced. The two sides traded touchdowns in the second quarter, some of which were the result of remarkable one-handed catches.

Albany wide receiver Darius Prince had one of those highlight-reel snags, hauling in his 40th receiving touchdown of the year in the second quarter to put Albany up 14-7. After taking a 35-24 lead into the locker room at halftime, it seemed as if the Empire were primed to cruise to the championship game.

Jacksonville had other ideas, rattling off 13 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to take a 53-49 lead. But Albany would not be denied a trip to the title. Trailing 59-58, Empire quarterback Sam Castronova would score his second rushing touchdown of the game, and after a two-point conversion, Albany led 66-59.

Perhaps the play of the game came on the ensuing kickoff, where Empire kicker Marc Orozco split the uprights for a “deuce,” extending the lead to nine points. Jacksonville scored a touchdown and two-point conversion on the final drive of the game to cut the deficit to one, but with no time remaining on the clock, so they were unable to attempt a “deuce,” and Albany salvaged the win.

The Empire will do battle with the Carolina Cobras for the NAL title next week. Albany lost all three regular season matchups.