Spirit playoff hopes crunched in 14-11 loss Cleveland rallies to end postseason chances

March 08, 1998|By Jeff Schudel | Jeff Schudel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CLEVELAND -- The biggest mistake the Spirit made yesterday may have been getting ahead of the Cleveland Crunch too early.

The Crunch has blown seven halftime leads this season. Yesterday at the Cleveland State Convocation Center, the Spirit led 8-4 in the second quarter. That gave the Crunch time to recover and go on to post a 14-11 victory and clinch a playoff spot for the sixth straight year. The loss eliminated any hope the Spirit (10-25) had of reaching the playoffs.

"It's been a tough year for us," Spirit coach Mike Stankovic said. ++ "Most of our games have been like this. We don't get blown out."

The Spirit had a golden opportunity to stay mathematically alive in the NPSL East playoff chase.

The Crunch (17-18) started the game without Hector Marinaro, who rested a nagging groin injury. Before the game ended, they also were without Nikola Vignjevic, who was ejected in the third quarter for head-butting Michael Henning, and without Zoran Karic, who left at the end of the third quarter with a badly bruised left shin.

All the injuries gave the Crunch an easy excuse to fold, but they refused. The way Cleveland's Tommy Tanner saw it, there was every excuse to fold even earlier.

The Crunch led 4-2 early in the second quarter, then fell behind 8-4 when the Spirit scored three straight two-point goals in a little more than four minutes.

The Crunch called a timeout, regrouped, then scored three straight goals of their own to regain the regain the lead for good, 10-8.

"We could have packed it in when it was 8-4," said Tanner, who led Cleveland with three goals and two assists.

"We played good defense in the second half. We gave them a power-play goal in the third quarter and a sixth attacker in the end. And that one was my fault. I didn't even see the guy."

The Spirit played hard until the final horn, so hard in fact that seven penalties were dished out with 4: 56 to play, all but one going against the Spirit. Denison Cabral was ejected for scrapping with Tanner and Lance Johnson was given two five-minute misconduct penalties.

"It was a scrappy game," Crunch coach Bruce Miller said. "It was ugly. We started the game with 15 guys because Hector was out. We had one guy thrown out and Zoran got hurt.

"By the end we were playing everybody but our backup goalkeeper."

The Crunch, leading 12-9, had to stave off Baltimore's sixth-attacker offense for the final 1: 54. It was not the kind of pressure the Crunch wanted; a week earlier they lost 13-12 to Buffalo on a sixth attacker goal with five seconds left.

Tanner ended the suspense by sending a spinning ball deep into the right corner with less than a minute left. Somehow, the ball had enough English on it that it continued to hug the boards and spun directly into the net.

"I had a horse shoe around my neck tonight," Tanner said. "That one never should have gone in. I was trying to pass to Chad [James] in the third quarter and the ball hit the crossbar and went in. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good."

Spirit today

Opponent: Milwaukee Wave

Site: Bradley Center, Milwaukee

Time: 2: 05 p.m.

TV/Radio: HTS/WCBM (680 AM)

Outlook: The Wave has wrapped up the Central Division and is tied with St. Louis for the best record in the NPSL. Along the way, the Wave overcame a 10-point deficit to defeat the Spirit for their 10th straight victory last weekend, the longest streak of the season. Milwaukee goalie Victor Nogueira is 13-0 at home.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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