Defense focuses Walker on goals

Blast: As his team prepares for the NPSL semifinals with Cleveland, the forward says stops and scoring go hand-in-hand.

April 12, 2000|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Still trying to conjure up reasons his team did not repeat as National Professional Soccer League champion last year, Milwaukee Wave coach Keith Tozer offers one possible explanation.

"We didn't have Tarik Walker," Tozer said. "We really missed him last year."

What about Walker did Tozer miss most?

"He is a big man who holds the ball real well," he said. "That was one of the things we struggled with."

Now Tozer watches Walker from afar do the same things for the Blast this season that he did for the Wave two seasons ago.

He may get a chance to face his former player if the Blast wins its best-of-three series against the Cleveland Crunch, which opens Friday night at 7: 35 at Baltimore Arena before going to Cleveland for Game 2 on Sunday and Game 3 on Tuesday (if necessary). The Wave faces the Edmonton Drillers in the National Conference finals.

Walker, 29, stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 195 pounds -- and he's a forward. Dimensions like those usually are reserved for defenders, but with his speed and ability to finish, Walker has spent his career scoring points.

When Milwaukee won the championship during the 1997-98 season, Walker scored 28 points in 11 games for the Wave in the playoffs.

He put up 112 last season when he came back to Baltimore and 75 this season despite playing with a slightly injured hamstring through part of the year.

Walker missed only one game and recorded a season-high 15 blocks, the key he says to jump-starting his offensive game.

"I try and step up my defensive play," Walker said. "When I'm playing defense well, those are the games that I'm scoring two or three goals."

Such was the case in the Blast's last game against the Philadelphia KiXX. He scored two goals in that game, with the first coming in the opening minutes of the second half and opening a seven-point lead.

"We were able to give him the proper amount of rest during the season, although he didn't miss any games," Blast coach Kevin Healey said.

"It is important that he perform well. It adds to the overall confidence of the team. He's been through the playoffs before and won it all."

Now, Walker serves as an X-factor for the Blast. His size makes it hard for opposing teams to set up a game plan against him and opposing defenders to win battles for ball possession.

Healey said most teams don't see the combination of size and speed Walker has from the forward position, making him difficult to defend.

Walker, who is from Washington, started his NPSL career in Baltimore after playing at Virginia Tech, winning All-South and All-Metro Conference selections his senior year.

He won the NPSL Rookie of the Year award in the 1993-94 season before going on to play on eight other teams in five cities and in three leagues.

This is his third stint with the Baltimore franchise and second under Healey, who coached Walker with the United States Indoor Soccer League Baltimore Bays.

He is a relatively quiet guy who gives his input only when he deems it necessary. Healey instead can see a difference in his non-verbal cues, specifically, the intensity in his eyes, since the playoffs have started.

"If we win the championship this year," said Walker, "it will mean more to me than the first one in Milwaukee.

"There, I didn't know many of the players. I had only been there for one season. But here, I've known all these guys for years."

Still, in that one season, Walker made an impact on his former coach.

"During the playoffs, when he was with us, he played at another level," Tozer said. "He can come back anytime," Tozer said. "He can baby-sit my children. I respect him so much as a soccer player and as a person."

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