Pitch of dreams lures talent to Terps Cirovski builds winner, top recruits have come

December 10, 1998|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

COLLEGE PARK -- Be prepared when Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski comes knocking on your door.

He won't exaggerate about having the top facility in the nation. And he doesn't have a national championship trophy to showcase.

But if you're the premier high school star with footwork second to none, expect to see Cirovski and hear about his unrelenting dreams and desire. And you'll believe, too.

"He really asks you what you want out of your college soccer experience," said goalkeeper Christian Lewis, from Centennial High. "A lot of kids want to win and show the same passion that he does. It's kind of relating to him and how he feels about the game. It's just that you kind of cling onto him and don't want to go anywhere else."

Six seasons ago, Cirovski arrived when the Terps had become the joke of the Atlantic Coast Conference. This season, he has delivered the much-anticipated punch line: Maryland's first Final Four appearance in three decades.

He didn't map out a master plan, but Cirovski could reach his ultimate destination this weekend -- Maryland's second national

championship in the program's 45-year history. And it has been a mission primarily fueled by Cirovski's ability to persuade the country's best to play at Maryland, which, before this season, hadn't advanced past the round of 16 since 1969.

"I want to build the best program in the country, that's my goal," said Cirovski, 35, a native of Yugoslavia who grew up in Ontario. "I'm relentless in the pursuit of excellence. That's what I want this program to be defined as. We're not content on being good for one year. We want to be good forever."

Just scroll the roster for proof.

Cirovski has attracted the best talent from every region. Of his current players, eight made Soccer America's top 25 prospects as high school seniors, five were Parade All-Americans and five were their states' Gatorade Player of the Year.

Before Cirovski, Maryland struggled to pull in the top players in the region for a simple visit. And a players revolt that led to the resignation of coach Alden Shattuck in 1993 didn't make Maryland an attractive setting for top-flight recruits.

Now the Terps have become the who's who of college soccer and might have the best talent of the national semifinalists.

"He's the kind of person that gives you that extra push," midfielder Steve Armas said. "One of the main reasons I came here was Sash and what he wanted to happen with the Maryland program. That kind of reeled me in there."

Want to speak to last year's high school Player of the Year?

Take your pick. Maryland starts forward Taylor Twellman, the national coaches' association pick, and defender Nick Downing, the Gatorade and Parade selection.

And Cirovski said next year's class could be the nation's best, too.

"We make it very clear that this is an intense soccer environment," Cirovski said. "Sometimes kids get scared off by that. They're going to be driven to reach their potential on a continual basis. That's the only way I know to live my life and that's the only way I want people around me to live theirs. And we've attracted that sort of athlete."

Cirovski, who played collegiately at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, showed his ability to motivate when he began his head-coaching career at the University of Hartford in 1991. In just a few months, he guided the Hawks to their first NCAA tournament and took eventual co-champion Virginia to four overtimes in the second round.

With that same flair, Cirovski initiated the process on Day One at Maryland, taking over a program that had won 10 of its previous 35 games.

Just after being hired in February 1993, Cirovski drove an hour through a snowstorm in a desperate attempt to sway Fallston's Shane Dougherty, who was leaning toward Syracuse. Three hours later, it was a done deal.

Yet the biggest recruiting coup occurred a year later with Leo Cullen, the high school Player of the Year. Cirovski lured Cullen even though Maryland was coming off its worst-ever record, 3-14-1.

"He made a lot of promises about accomplishing something special and you just knew it wasn't a line like a lot of other coaches were using," said Cullen, who now plays for the Miami Fusion of Major League Soccer. "He's not a used-car salesman. He tells you that if you come to Maryland, you will leave a much better person and player. He's genuinely one of the nicest guys around and deserves his time in the spotlight."

And Cirovski lives for his players.

Ask him about Cullen, and he'll rattle off his phone number in Minnesota without hesitation. Sit with Cirovski in his office, and players will stop in unannounced just to chat.

That's why he doesn't need to rely on world-class facilities and championships to sell his program.

"I've given them as many hugs and kisses as kicks in the butts," Cirovski said. "If they take a break, they will be challenged. They come to respect and appreciate that."

$

Soccer final four

Santa Clara (15-4-2) vs. Indiana (21-2), 2 p.m.

Maryland (16-7) vs. Stanford (17-4-2), 4: 30 p.m.

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