SUNNYVALE -- The SaberCats seemed to be tettering on the brink at several points this season. They endured a rocky 2-3 start. They lost starting quarterback Russ Michna twice to injury, both times having to turn to a rookie quarterback.
Somehow they have come out of it all much stronger, landing the National Conference's No. 2 seed to the Arena Football League playoffs.
Thanks to the league's top-ranked defense and the emergence of rookie quarterback Nathan Stanley, San Jose (13-5) is in pursuit of its first ArenaBowl crown since 2007. The SaberCats begin that pursuit Saturday at 7 p.m. at SAP Center against the Spokane Shock (11-7).
"This has been the year of adversity," said coach/co-owner Darren Arbet, whose team has 11 players on injured reserve. "That's the thing I like about this team. There's been a lot of adversity this year and they've always looked at it straight in the eye and beat it."
Stanley's a big reason why. He saw action in the season opener and then started the next two games after Michna went down with a concussion.
Michna returned, but eight games later he broke his collarbone and Stanley has started every game since. Michna was activated from injured reserve on Thursday, but it's unclear which quarterback will start Saturday's game.
Stanley, who played at Southeastern Louisiana University, was a little surprised by the early playing time, but was able to settle in.
"I definitely didn't expect to get so much playing time my first year," Stanley said. "But it's a blessing. I'm just taking it one game at a time and trying to get better every week."
Stanley's had help from another rookie in wide receiver/defensive back Dominique Curry. After spending two seasons in the NFL as a special teams player, Curry was working programming computer-controlled door panels and security cameras when he got a call from the SaberCats.
He's quickly emerged as the team's deep threat -- 25 of his 50 receptions have gone for touchdowns -- and also contributed defensively as the team's sixth-leading tackler.
Curry said the team shifted gears after its May 31 loss to the Arizona Rattlers. That was the game Michna got hurt for the second time and it left the squad sitting at 7-4.
"We were trying to rely just on talent until we started working harder and coming together as a team, instead of being a bunch of individuals," Curry said.
The five-game winning streak with Stanley at the helm followed. That including delivering the first loss of the season to the defending ArenaBowl champion Rattlers, who have lost three of their last four heading into the playoffs.
The good vibes softened with a stinker two weeks ago at Philadelphia. Stanley struggled in the team's 42-20 loss to the Soul.
A week later, he and the SaberCats were back on track. Stanley threw for a season-high 314 yards and had six touchdown passes in a 72-43 win over the Iowa Barnstormers in the regular-season finale last Saturday.
"It was good for our confidence," Stanley said. "We took a tough one in Philly, had a rough game. But everybody came back to work the next week and we got it in and did what we needed to do against Iowa. That was good to have a big win going into the playoffs."
With a defense Arbet calls the best in his 14 seasons in San Jose, the SaberCats believe they are a title contender.
Cleven Thomas, an eight-year veteran from Florida State, agrees with Arbet's assertion while explaining the defense's simple approach.
"Our job is to get the ball back for our offense so our offense can score," Thomas said.
With the SaberCats allowing a league-low 40.2 points and 249.8 yards per game, Thomas and the defense is doing that as well as any team in the league.
Follow Jimmy Durkin on Twitter at twitter.com/Jimmy_Durkin.