Spirit's Stankovic hopes week of R&R proves ticket for stretch

February 20, 1996|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

What does a coach do when his team doesn't have a game for 14 days, then faces back-to-back-to-back games on back-to-back weekends? Well, after questioning the wisdom of the schedule-maker and perhaps toasting his good fortune, he tells his squad to get lost for a week.

At least that's what Mike Stankovic did with the Spirit, while himself heading for the warmth and easygoing pace of Bermuda.

"The time off helped us as much mentally as it did physically," said the coach, "and besides recharging our batteries, it should help in that most of the other teams didn't get a long break."

Although the team has played well since Stankovic took over from Dave MacWilliams as coach late last month, winning three of four, Stankovic said, "You could begin to see fatigue setting in; plus the nagging little injuries were beginning to pile up.

"I left it up to the guys, telling them to make sure they worked out and to keep their health in mind." The "suggestion" obviously was heeded, for, during a lengthy practice yesterday, none of the Spirit players appeared as if he had lived a Tom Jones life during the vacation.

It will be three more days before the team plays away and home against Canton on Friday and Saturday, then heads for Buffalo and a Sunday game. "During that time," said Stankovic, "we'll work on sharpening up our shooting and passing and improving our quickness.

"Staying sharp and keeping your quickness, which is pretty much what the indoor game is all about, is tough to do when you're playing a stretch of games. When you're on the road, you're either playing a game or in an airplane. There's no time to practice.

"At home, you have your routine. Today, for instance, we scrimmaged for a while, then did some shooting and passing drills. All this work with the ball gave the guys the opportunity to get their touch back."

A return to the form that Baltimore flashed after recovering from a lingering slump in January appears to be a necessity at this time since the last quarter of the season will come down to 2-3-4 positioning for the playoffs. Cleveland is over the river and through the woods with its 27-3 record -- uncatchable.

Buffalo (18-11) is second, the Spirit (16-12) third and Harrisburg (16-15) fourth, but only a game and a half separates each. However, while Buffalo has seven road games in its last 11 and Baltimore is home for just three of its final dozen, Harrisburg plays two-thirds of its final nine games at the State Farm Show Arena.

The playoffs will see 1-4, 2-3 matchups in a best-of-three opening round. In other words, snooze and you lose in a short series, as favored Baltimore did embarrassingly to Harrisburg in 1993 and 1994, 2-0, 2-0. The Heat made it three in a row over its main rival last spring, 2-1.

The combination of rest and relaxation means the Spirit is the healthiest it has been all season. The biggest gain is having Dave Vaudreuil back after being on the shelf since a stomach operation in late December. Still doubtful is Barry Stitz, who has been trying to come back from a severely sprained ankle suffered two months ago.

NOTES: With a huge push in the weekend's trio of contests, midfielder Franklin McIntosh could become the first player in the 12-year history of the NPSL to pile up 1,000 points. His current total of 982 is already the league's career standard in this, his eighth, season. . . . An indication that many late-season games are beginning to fit into the critical category was available over the weekend when 10 games drew an average turnout of 7,300. Leading the way was the 13,000 fans who materialized in Buffalo last Thursday for a 10 a.m. game. It was a School Day promotion, the game somehow falling into the classification of field trip for elementary and middle school children.

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