Spirit: no sleepwalking out of playoffs this year

April 08, 1994|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Sun Staff Writer

For the Spirit and the Harrisburg Heat, this is 1993 revisited.

Tonight the teams meet in Harrisburg, Pa., in the opener of a best-of-three series in the National Professional Soccer League's American Division playoffs. They'll play tomorrow night and, if necessary, Monday at the Baltimore Arena.

This is the way it was last year -- Baltimore, top-seeded and with the best record in the league, was beaten in the first two games by the fourth-seeded Heat, which advanced to the next round.

"Maybe we underestimated Harrisburg as the fourth seed," said the Spirit's Barry Stitz, a rookie last year. "Maybe we thought teams would look at our record and be intimidated. Maybe we felt we would beat everybody and move easily to the next round.

"We know now if we do that our season will be over. We learned our lesson. They won't catch us asleep. Practice this week was really intense."

The Spirit's most recent memory of the Heat is last weekend, when, in the final two regular-season games for both teams, Harrisburg romped, outscoring the Spirit by a combined 35-10.

The games, however, weren't important to the Spirit, which had clinched first place; Harrisburg had to win both to reach the playoffs.

Accordingly, Spirit coach Kenny Cooper held out six players who were injured but probably would have played if the games had been critical. The two key players were Cris Vaccaro, the NPSL's third-rated goalie, who had a broken nose, and Paul Wright, the team scoring leader (146 points) who had a tender knee.

"We didn't have to accomplish anything," said Goran Hunjak, the Spirit's No. 2 scorer with 106 points. "And we didn't have six of our players. To win, we need everybody playing as a unit -- team discipline at a high level."

Perhaps more than anything the Spirit needs Vaccaro. While Vaccaro took a breather before the playoffs, rookie Shawn Boehmcke took his lumps, absorbing both losses to the Heat.

The most telling statistic is this: In games Vaccaro hasn't started this season, the Spirit is 1-7.

"Nothing against Shawn, but when a team knows it has to face the league's best goalie, it preys on the players' minds," said the Spirit's Dan O'Keefe, the NPSL's all-time goals leader with 343.

"They know they'll really have to work hard for good shooting chances. Players' confidence goes down in a situation like that. That makes the game different."

All of the Spirit's injured are definite for tonight, with the exceptions of Clark Brisson and Tarik Walker, questionable with pulled hamstrings, and Joe Koziol, probable after missing four games with a hamstring problem.

The Heat draws strength for tonight's game from the fact it has, over two seasons, lost only once in seven tries to The Spirit The Spirit's lone win in Harrisburg came last November on rookie Rob Ukrop's overtime goal.

"We know we can win there now," Cooper said.

SPIRIT TONIGHT

Opponent: Harrisburg Heat

Site: State Farm Show Arena, Harrisburg, Pa.

Time: 7:35

TV: None

Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WAMD (970 AM)

Outlook: This is the opener of a best-of-three playoff series matching the NPSL American Division champion Spirit against fourth-seeded Harrisburg for the second straight year. The Heat won four straight and eight of its last 11 to storm into the playoffs for the third year in a row. The Spirit finished with the league's best record (26-14), but dropped eight of its last 12. Harrisburg is 11-9 at home and the Spirit is 8-12 on the road. The teams are tied 3-3 in the season's series after Harrisburg swept the Spirit last weekend by a combined score of 35-10. The teams will play again tomorrow and, if necessary, Monday at the Baltimore Arena. The winner will face the Cleveland Crunch-Buffalo Blizzard winner in the second round starting Wednesday.

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