Billy Ronson never allowed himself to be optimistic yesterday.
The Baltimore Blast midfielder said three hours before the game that the Wichita Wings were going to beat the St. Louis Storm and knock the Blast out of the playoffs for the first time in the 11 years the franchise has been in Baltimore.
"Everything is stacked in Wichita's favor," Ronson said. "They're playing at home on Fan Appreciation Day and need to win just one game to make the playoffs, and St. Louis [which already had clinched second place in the Major Soccer League Western Division] has nothing to play for and will just be making sure no one gets hurt because they open the playoffs Tuesday."
Ronson even refused for a long time to watch the Wings-Storm game on Home Team Sports.
"I'd rather watch paint dry," said Ronson. "At the end of the day, we didn't earn the right to be in the playoffs."
At the last minute, Ronson finally relented at the urging of his wife, Julie, and watched the game.
But nothing happened on the screen to change anything Ronson had predicted.
The Wichita Wings, playing with a lot of emotion, charged past the Storm to a 6-2 victory in the final game of the 1990-91 MSL regular season.
"I want to go to bed now [7:30 p.m.] and not wake up until August," Ronson said last night. "If in 52 games, we didn't win enough games to make the playoffs, we don't deserve it."
Ronson, Dale Mitchell and Tim Wittman were among the Blast players who decided to watch the Wichita game on their own yesterday while eight players; assistant coach Jim Pollihan; Ed Hale Jr., son of the team's owner; and trainer Marty McGinty viewed the action at a Timonium restaurant.
The eight players who gathered in Timonium were Mark Mettrick, Mike Stankovic, Mike Reynolds, Chris Haywood, Joe Barger, David Vaudreuil, Angelo Panzetta and backup goalkeeper Hank Henry.
Blast coach Kenny Cooper said he didn't watch the game.
"I spent some time alone, and I looked at film and was making plans for practice," said Cooper, who had guided the Blast to 10 straight playoff appearances. "I didn't want to be a third coach sitting there watching the game. You can't look for favors in this business. We had an opportunity to control our own destiny and didn't do it."
Cooper insisted he would not allow the worst season in Blast history to destroy the team's past accomplishments.
"The players gave everything they were capable of and in the end, it wasn't enough," Cooper said. "But we're not going to hide."
Mettrick said, "It's disgusting to end the season this way, but making the playoffs was in our hands Saturday night and we couldn't win."
Barger said: "I'm sick. I feel I let the boys down Saturday night [Barger's controversial tripping penalty led to a power-play goal that gave the Cleveland Crunch a 6-5 victory]. I was never even close to Ali Kazemaini."
St. Louis coach Don Popovic used his top two scorers, Preki and Thompson Usiyan, only briefly early in the game, and the Storm's third top scorer, Godfrey Ingram, didn't even make the trip to Wichita, Kan.
The win gave the Wings third place and the final playoff berth in the MSL East. Wichita (21-31) finished with a record identical to ,, Baltimore's, but the Wings were awarded third place because they won the season series, 5-3.
Wichita didn't exactly bolt to the playoffs, winning two of its past five games and going 6-6 in the final 12 games.
The Wings gave Baltimore several opportunities to clinch third earlier, but the Blast lost 13 of the last 15 games. The final seven losses of the season for Baltimore were by one goal.
Baltimore set an MSL record by losing 20 one-goal games this season.
The final one-goal setback came Saturday night in Cleveland, where the Crunch nudged the Blast, 6-5, on a power-play goal by Dave Hoggan with 1 minute, 39 seconds left in the game.
In addition to their failures in one-goal games, the Blast was done in this weekend by former Baltimore star David Byrne, who is now with Wichita.
Byrne scored the winning goal for the Wings in overtime Friday night against the Crunch, and yesterday he had an assist on Steve Pittman's goal that gave Wichita a 5-2 lead with 6:44 left in the game.
Byrne also played strong defensively.
However, Blast owner Ed Hale said Byrne and the Wings were helped yesterday by Popovic's decision to sit out Preki, Usiyan and Ingram.
"I'm going to tell Don Popovic and Milan Mandaric [Storm owner] that it was a bush-league move on their part," Hale said. "I think you should try to win every game. My other reaction is I congratulate Wichita for doing what they had to do to win the game. Wichita is my personal favorite to go all the way and win the title."
Cooper said: "I'm disappointed Preki and Usiyan didn't play more. If I had been in the same situation as St. Louis, I would have played everybody. The only time I don't play a player is when they're hurt."