Spirit's objective is to turn down the Heat Baltimore begins best-of-3 playoffs

April 06, 1993|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Staff Writer

The Spirit got the message. When the St. Louis Ambush shocked the Wichita Wings in the NPSL playoffs, the Spirit absorbed every vibration.

It had been the top-seeded team against the No. 4 team. Yet St. Louis, fourth in the NPSL's National Division with a record of two games under .500, defeated Wichita twice in overtime to advance to the division final.

Now it's No. 1 vs. No. 4 again, this time in the American Division, starting tonight at the Baltimore Arena when the top-seeded Spirit takes on the Harrisburg Heat in the opener of a best-of-three series.

"Like they say, it's a whole new season, and St. Louis reminded us of that," Spirit coach Kenny Cooper said. "It's a chance to express yourself. St. Louis did."

Judging by the teams' regular-season matches, the home team will have a distinct advantage. The Spirit defeated the Heat twice at the Arena, where games 1 and 3 (if necessary) will be played, and lost three times in Harrisburg.

"At home, the Spirit is almost flawless," said Harrisburg coach Jim Pollihan, noting the Spirit's 18-2 record at the Arena. "But we've been close twice [losing 14-10 and 11-7]. We just can't give goals away. We have to keep our defenders back."

After being crushed in the first two games in Harrisburg by a combined 48-26 score, the Spirit made it respectable in a 13-11 loss in the regular-season finale March 27.

"That game showed us we could play in their building," defender Doug Neely said. "It gives us confidence."

Cooper said the Spirit frequently "got caught in transition" in the first two Harrisburg games, in part because the Heat's arena is larger.

"That gives players more time and space, so they can hurt you," Cooper said. "We looked at films and made adjustments before the third game. The players feel more comfortable going back there now."

Home or away, the Harrisburg player the Spirit must contain is Franklin McIntosh. He is the Heat's top scorer and No. 6 in the NPSL with 157 points.

"If you worry about another player, you're not playing yourself," Tim Wittman said. "You don't play around one person. It's not like everything the Heat does goes through McIntosh, like it does with [Cleveland's Zoran] Karic."

The Spirit also must contend with Lee Tschantret. After missing 12 games with a knee injury, Tschantret returned to help Harrisburg clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Dayton Dynamo the night before the regular-season finale against the Spirit. The Heat is 13-3 when he's in the lineup.

"His energy, speed and tenacity lifts everyone," Pollihan said. "We realized how much we missed him when he came back to help us beat Dayton."

Like Tschantret, No. 1 goalie Brett Phillips, a rookie, sat out the final game against the Spirit, with a sprained ankle. Backup Joe Mallia made 14 saves. "Both can get the job done," Pollihan said, who declined yesterday to reveal his starter.

The team that is able to rouse itself from late-season lethargy is likely to win the series. The Spirit was 5-5 in its last 10 games and the Heat was 4-6.

"We think we're the better team," said Goran Hunjak, the Spirit's points leader with 141. "We've showed we can beat anybody, any time."

The postseason is starting just as Cooper hoped it would -- with a series against Harrisburg. He has been trumpeting Baltimore vs. Harrisburg as the Interstate-83 rivalry since October. "A rivalry like this can give the NPSL more credibility," Cooper said. "The cities are close, fans can travel to away games and some of the players played with or against each other before. It will bring out the best in all of us."

Tongue in cheek, Joe Koziol says that if you look up the word rivalry in the dictionary, "it says Harrisburg-Baltimore, right?"

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