By Tim Unruh
A venture hatched in 2015 by two fun-loving football fans, is on the cusp of snaring national attention for Salina and north-central Kansas.
Salina Liberty, a successful professional indoor football franchise, has ascended to the Arena Football League’s Central/Midwest Division.
“This is the highest level of the indoor game,” said Dan Mendicina, who founded the team with fellow businessman Tom Perez. They soon added Roy Lawrence and Tom’s son, Josh Perez. Dan Kieborz and Jim Sponder joined in 2021.
The franchise is poised for a move to some big-time competition, with sponsorship help from national sponsors, such as Nike.
“We took our time and did some vetting, and when the AFL came calling, it was an easy decision,” Mendicina said.
Tickets go on sale Thursday morning at the Tony’s Pizza Events Center, where the Liberty have played home games since the team’s inception, in the Champions Indoor Football League. Now the team is among the elite in arena football, the AFL.
“It’s definitely a step up,” said Heron O’Neal, the team’s head coach, who guided the Liberty to a national championship in 2022.
The Liberty will compete with teams from all over the nation, with some games shown on national TV. While there has been some mention of telecasts on the NFL Network and Fox Sports, he said, those deals are not yet ready for release.
Thursday and Sunday games will be televised, and Saturday games will be streamed on the AFL Network.
Salina Liberty will play a scrimmage at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13 in the Tony’s Pizza Events Center against the Wichita Regulators. Scrimmage tickets are $5 each. There will be chances to meet players and staff, plus activities for kids.
The Salina team will be featured for Game 1 — 6:30 p.m. Sunday April 28 — hosting the Southwest Kansas Storm from Dodge City.
“We have the first Sunday night game, on national TV,” Mendicina said.
Opponents include the Oregon Blackbears in Salem; Iowa Rampage in Council Bluffs; Rapid City Marshals in South Dakota; Minnesota Myth in St. Paul: and the Lake Charles Voo Doo in Louisiana.
Most of those away games will require the team to travel by air. Details on the team’s air carrier, and where departures take place, will be announced later.
The AFL features elite athletes and stiffer competition, he said, as rosters are loaded with men who suited up for teams in the NFL, United Football League which is the result of the merger of the USFL and XFL (sort of an NFL minor league), and the Canadian Football League.
As a comparison to the former Liberty, which played in the last four CIF championship games, only four players were invited to the last training camp, said Sam Sellers, the team’s general manager as of Monday.
“The AFL is a next step up,” he said.
The talent level is higher, said Francis Flax, the team’s original GM, who remains a team consultant and sells sponsorships.
“There’s probably only two or three guys who played for us that’ll be able to hack it in the new league,” he said. “It’s gonna be arena football at its best. It’s big news.”
The new roster is filled, Coach O’Neal said, and the coaching staff is nearly complete. Practice begins April 1.
Tickets for home games will range from $12 to $30; for those 12 and under, admission is $7 with a paying adult. For season tickets and group rates, visit salinaliberty.com, or call (785) 826-7200.
“We’re definitely looking forward to the new challenges we will be facing,” O’Neal said. “It’s an opportunity to have new rivalries created.”
The team’s owners have invested more in the team, Sellers said.
“The budget is higher, but we can get a lot more from national sponsors,” Mendicina said. “They’re all national affiliations. They’re going to be critical for us to make this work.”
Liberty players will be paid from the “low three figures to the low four figures a game,” Sellers said.
The coaching staff is paid “very comparable to any staff,” O’Neal said. “Everybody gets paid more. You get what your pay for.”
The former Salina South High School head football coach for 14 years, and nine previous seasons as an assistant coach, Sellers resigned to take a full-time gig with the Liberty. He was admittedly giddy about the prospects Monday afternoon in a telephone interview.
“I grew up in the business world. My family owns a construction equipment business,” said Sellers, 42. “This is an itch I get to scratch a little bit. You don’t get to do that in high school sports.”
He has high expectations for the new Liberty squad.
“There’s already a strong fan base in Salina,” Sellers said. “One of my goals this year is filling up the Events Center every single night. We need to pack that sucker.”
That would require roughly 6,000 spectators.
“What an unbelievably huge opportunity for Salina and our community to showcase,” Sellers said. “We’re gonna have some fun.”