Crowd welcomes champion Blast

Fans at BWI help players stop pinching selves over crowning achievement


April 20, 2003|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

For some Blast players, the realization that they were indeed the Major Indoor Soccer League champions - courtesy of Friday's 13-12 Game 3 thriller over the Milwaukee Wave - hadn't sunk in as late as yesterday morning.

A reconfirming jolt came in the afternoon.

A couple hundred of the Blast's biggest supporters greeted the team loudly at Baltimore-Washington International Airport upon its return from Milwaukee. One sign summed it up: "The Blast never quits."

Captain Lance Johnson showed off the team's new hardware, the MISL championship cup. Denison Cabral, the final-round Most Valuable Player who provided Friday's game-winner, was hoisted on the shoulders of teammates Billy Nelson and Jason Dieter surrounded by chants of "M-V-P, M-V-P." Overall, it was a perfect ending to a season that never stopped getting better.

"It's great," said Johnson, who along with Dieter ended a 10-year career on the highest note as the Blast rallied from a 12-4 deficit. "I said all this time we wanted to get this trophy to Baltimore. We accomplished our goal, it's great to see the fans here and I can't think of a better way to end it."

With his 18-month-old daughter, Daniela, in his lap, his wife, Michelle, to his right and his MVP award resting in an empty seat on the flight home, Cabral couldn't have asked for anything more.

"It's hard to close my eyes right now and think about being a champion and an MVP and having my family around. It's just been a blast," Cabral said.

"This is the best experience I ever had in soccer. With the bad record in the beginning of the season, with a lot of things happening, we still believed in ourselves and played for each other."

The Blast will come into next season with "2002-03 MISL Champions" placed in front of its name and the majority of its players expected back.

Johnson and Dieter will be missed for their production on the field and strong leadership. The return of goalkeeper Brett Phillips, who teamed with Scott Hileman to give the Blast the league's finest one-two tandem, also is uncertain with his rights belonging to the St. Louis Steamers.

The Blast selected Phillips in the Steamers' dispersal draft before this season, but with St. Louis likely to return to the league next season, he will be sent back there unless an agreement can be made.

"Obviously I'd love to come back and play here, but it's not in my control," Phillips said. "But my feeling is, any time you win a title with a team, you should come back and defend it. This is a great bunch of guys, great ownership, so it'll be tough to not come back. But like I said, it's not in my control."

Coach Bobby McAvan and assistant Timmy Wittman, who came on in December and led the Blast to a 14-9 finish plus the postseason run, were signed only through this season. Management and the two agreed not to talk about the future until after the season.

"We haven't discussed it yet. It's just a joyous time of reflecting right now instead of looking forward," McAvan said. "I didn't want any distractions on whether we were coming back or if [Blast owner Ed Hale] was bringing us back. We just wanted to enjoy this time."

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