The Harrisburg Heat broke from its tie with the Spirit and took a giant step toward a bye in the National Professional Soccer League playoffs.
As it entered the stretch of the NPSL's regular season, the Heat responded with a major win yesterday, beating the Spirit, 11-5, ,, before 4,591 at Baltimore Arena.
The Spirit and Heat were tied at 16-16 in the East Division lead, but Harrisburg gained a one-game edge with seven to play. The reward for the division winner is the first-round bye.
"For the first time this season we're in sole possession of first place. We feel we can control that, especially since six of our remaining seven are at home," Harrisburg coach Jim Pollihan said.
"For whatever reason, we seem to play well in February and turn it on in March. We feel we can do it again."
Although the Spirit has the schedule edge because of three games against league doormats, two against the Toronto Shooting Stars and one against the Tampa Bay Terror, five of its final seven are on the road.
"Now they're in first place and the schedule is in their favor. But we can't worry about them. We have to right ourselves," Spirit defender Doug Neely said.
The Spirit has dropped three straight since its season-high three-game winning streak ended last week with a loss to the Kansas City Attack. Yesterday's defeat came on the heels of the team's most lopsided defeat of the season, 25-11, Friday to Edmonton.
"It's not the end of the world," said goalie-assistant coach Cris Vaccaro. "But we had an opportunity to be a game ahead, and didn't take it. Penalties hurt in crucial situations."
Rookie Sasa Zoric drew tripping and holding penalties at inopportune moments in the third quarter. The Heat converted them into three points, power-play goals by Chris Marinos and Danny Kelly and a shootout goal by Kelly, for a 6-2 lead.
"Stupid penalties hurt," said player-coach Mike Stankovic. "You have to keep your discipline and stay within the system to be successful. That was a lesson for some of us."
Even then, the Spirit was in position to win. Ronnie Simmons drove home a three-pointer to cut Harrisburg's lead to 6-5 early in the fourth quarter. That could have ignited the Spirit, but didn't.
Quite the contrary. The Heat scored five points in the next three minutes and the Spirit did not respond.
As Stankovic noted, Harrisburg's Scoop Stanisic made some "unbelievable saves," 22 to Vaccaro's 20. That, Pollihan said, "was as well as a goalkeeper can play."
Stanisic has a bold style, frequently venturing out of the net and becoming a field player.
NOTES: Spirit scoring leader Bo Vuckovic was shut out for the first time in 18 games. The Spirit's Bobby Joe Esposito (pneumonia) did not play. The Heat's David Bascome (shoulder), Richard Chinapoo (flu) and Larry Julius (back) did not play. Spirit rookie Shane Dougherty played in his first game since Jan. 22, when he sprained an ankle.
Opponent: Toronto Shooting Stars
Site: War Memorial Coliseum, Rochester, N.Y.
Time: 2: 05 p.m.
Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WASA (1330 AM)
Outlook: The game is being played at the Rochester neutral site as a test for possible future NPSL expansion. Toronto is the doormat of the North Division. This is the first of two games for the Spirit against the expansion Shooting Stars this season. Toronto has no player in the NPSL's top 20 in scoring and no goalie among the league's 10 leaders.
Pub Date: 3/02/97