Married to the game

Soccer: Talking shop at home is an inescapable, and pleasurable, fact of life for Maryland coaches Sasho Cirovski and Shannon Higgins-Cirovski.

September 29, 1999|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Maryland made the NCAA final four in men's soccer last fall for the first time since 1969, thanks partly to a defensive tip the U.S. under-18 women's national team coach gave coach Sasho Cirovski.

Early this season, the two talked about midfield options for her new team -- Maryland's women. And nine days ago, Shannon Higgins-Cirovski returned from Tobacco Road with a 4-3, overtime win over then-No. 9-ranked Duke, her first win as coach in an Atlantic Coast Conference game.

Unusual combination, Mr. and Mrs. Cirovski.

They are one of only two married couples coaching NCAA Division I soccer at the same college, the other pair being at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

But ACC opponents should not feel unduly double-teamed by a husband and wife the university described in a preseason press release as "the first family of Maryland soccer," even if their missions are similarly ambitious -- national championships.

As Sasho put it: "We have consummate respect for each other. We sometimes solicit the other's opinion, sure, and in that sense, we're like an extra assistant for each other. But it really isn't a major part of what we do. We're not co-coaches. We both have great assistants whom we rely on primarily."

Added Shannon: "We talk much more about things like personalities or dilemmas off-the-field than we do about the tactical and technical end of the game."

The Cirovskis, who have separate offices off the same hallway at College Park, operate in parallel universes. Their sport may be the same, but their players' and team needs, travel, schedules, practice routines and recruiting duties differ daily.

Thus, at their 9-month-old house in Columbia's River Hill village, they appear to be another working couple coping with the chaos and delight inherent in blending busy, travel-intensive jobs with raising two young daughters. A live-in au pair helps with Hailey, 5, and Karli, 3.

"They give balance to our lives," Sasho said. He is one of few coaches to interrupt post-game interviews, as he did with a harried smile last fall in College Park, because a daughter insisted she needed a new diaper now.

Recently, with Shannon in North Carolina for two games, the girls went to a D.C. United game with Dad.

In season, entertainment at the Cirovski household unavoidably involves soccer, and that also goes for the girls, who view their parents' players as an extended group of aunts and uncles.

Hailey was the one who got players from both her parents' teams dancing and singing during a preseason barbecue at the Cirovski house. This fall, she has started playing clinic ball in Columbia.

"They see all these positive role models who are having fun and like what they do," said their mother. "What better way for them to grow up?"

They're certainly experiencing the highs and lows of sports. "It gets very emotional, because we're always going up and down with one another's teams," said Sasho. "It doubles the emotional level for the year."

"After the seasons are over," Shannon said, "Sash and I will look back and wonder, `How'd we get through that?' "

They've done it before. "Team Cirovski" is a 7-year-old venture that began after Sasho and Shannon, 36 and 31, respectively, had established their playing and coaching credentials in different parts of the country.

He played and earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and tried pro indoor ball for three years with the National Professional Soccer League's Milwaukee Wave and in Canada.

His first coaching experience, as an assistant at his alma mater, was under former U.S. men's coach Bob Gansler, now with Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards. In his first head coaching job, Cirovski took the University of Hartford (Conn.) to the NCAA tournament twice in two seasons.

Shannon Higgins, as she was known as a player, was a pioneer on the U.S. women's national team, earning 51 caps between 1987 and 1991 as the American central midfielder -- the same position her husband played.

In the first Women's World Cup, as it's now called, she started all three U.S. games and set up both goals as the Americans beat Norway for the title in China. The Seattle-area native was a two-time All-American and four-time NCAA champion at North Carolina, setting up the Tar Heels' title-winning goals in 1987, 1988 and 1989. Her honors include the 1989 Hermann Award as the nation's top college player.

The couple met in 1992, when he was at Hartford and she had begun coaching at George Washington University. Their respective coaching assistants introduced them. Their first "official" date, as Shannon described it, came at a soccer convention in Pittsburgh.

"We knew, really, after a day or two that we were right for each other," Sasho said.

Now in his seventh season with the Terps, he is the more established at College Park. After a depressing 3-14-1 first season, his teams have one ACC title and five NCAA tournament appearances.

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