Recharged Blast hopes to atone for playoff flop

Newcomers should bolster defense as team tries again for elusive title


October 20, 2001|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

Blast coach Kevin Healey played the videotape of last season's painful final game as soon as he got home, a couple more times the following week, and one last time in preparation for this season.

When assistant coach Billy Ronson was asked if he ever watched the tape of that self-destructing, 16-15 loss to the Philadelphia KiXX, he quickly replied: "No. I was there. I saw what happened."

A mystery halftime penalty in that conference playoff final was followed by a KiXX power-play goal, a couple of own goals at one end, and missed chances at the other. When it was all stunningly over, the Blast, which had led 10-2 at the half, went home instead of to Milwaukee to play in its first championship series.

"I'm still not over it," said midfielder Paul Wright. "I think it's one of those things that's always going to be in the back of my mind. And the only thing that can make it a little easier is winning the championship. But even then, we're never going to forget what happened. Hopefully, we can all learn from it and not make those mistakes again."

The potential remedy starts tonight when the Blast opens its Major Indoor Soccer League season against the Harrisburg Heat at the Baltimore Arena. The National Professional Soccer League is gone, and in its place is a leaner, financially stronger, six-team MISL field.

With its core group returning, along with additions of fluid defender Sean Bowers and feisty midfielder Danny Barber, perhaps no team is better equipped than the Blast, which must now find a way to turn what's on paper into a championship.

"For this team, if we don't win a championship, then the season is going to be a failure," said midfielder Danny Kelly. "But we have to do it one game at a time, play every minute, every shift. And if we don't learn from last season, it's our own fault."

The defense working in front of all-star goalkeeper Scott Hileman is expected to possess the ball more efficiently with the arrival of Bowers, Dewan Bader and the elimination of the over-and-back rule that will enable teams to play the ball back. The midfield, led by Denison Cabral, Kelly and Wright, is stockpiled with speed and scoring punch. And the forward line has experience and youth with Lee Tschantret and Tarik Walker mixing in with second-year player Giuliano Celenza.

All the needed pieces are there.

"Usually on teams, it's not like you necessarily have a weakest link, but there's always something that holds you back," said Bowers, a two-time NPSL Defender of the Year picked up from Detroit in the dispersal draft after that league collapsed. "I don't see that for this team. As long as we play with heart and determination, the talent is already there. It's just for us to work hard 100 percent all the time. It's pretty easy, when you think about it."

That's what the Blast might have been thinking last season, when it charged to a 7-0 start. But as the season progressed, the team got into the bad habit of having letdowns with big leads, and that was its downfall.

Lesson learned?

"Hopefully, last season did it for us," said Tschantret. "If they don't have a sour taste in their mouth and they don't have the understanding that that can happen again, then you know what? Maybe they'll never have it."

The Blast will play a 44-game regular season with 10 games each against Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and eight games each against last year's NPSL champion Milwaukee, Cleveland and Kansas City. A playoff format has yet to be worked out.

"Every team is going to be good - there's no doubt about it, and the soccer is going to be better because of it," said Healey.

Blast tonight

Season opener

Opponent: Harrisburg Heat

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7:30

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM)

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