WESTMINSTER - A heavy rainstorm draped the midpoint of the season Saturday, and the Westminster soccer league's young players tried desperately to run between the raindrops at West Middle School.

Although the league's under-12 and under-14 divisions managed to stay reasonably dry, the under-10 schedule was canceled.

Larry House, coach of the under-12 Royals team, probably wishes the rain would have claimed his game, too.

The Royals, who entered the contest in a four-way tie for first place, found themselves in fourth when it was over.

They wound up on the short end of a 5-2 game with the Strikers. House's team, 2-2, trails the Kickers, Strikers and Force, all of which are tied for first place in the race for the regular-season under-12 title with 3-1 marks.

The Kickers and Force both kept pace by winning their Saturday games.

There are no playoffs or postseason play in the Westminster league.

The top under-14 game saw the first-place Blast continue its winning ways 4-2 over the Stars. The Blast maintains a solid hold on first with a 4-0-1 record.

The playing fields held up reasonably well, even though a steady rain peppered them during the early part of the morning.

The Strikers didn't seem to mind the rain that showered the first half of their game. They jumped ahead 3-0 against the Royals and coasted from there.

Ernie Smith scored two early Striker goals and Richard Brewer kicked in another before the Royals struck. Nick Malehorn closed the gap to 3-1 before halftime.

Brewer's second score made it 4-1 early in the second half before Malehorn, who leads Royals' scorers with 10 goals, narrowed the lead to 4-2.

But the Royals drew no closer, and Shannon Wynne, one of two girls playing for the Strikers, iced the match with a late goal.

Royals' coach House said he was expecting a tough game.

"They're a good team and they have good coaches," he said.

In addition, House's team was short-handed, which has been the case quite often in the league with this year's rule change that reduced rosters to 11 players, from the previous 17 to 20.

While the smaller rosters are intended to give the youngsters more playing time, they created a Royal problem Saturday.

House had only nine players for the game. Because he chose to rest one at all times, he could only field eight. The Strikers fielded nine, which is standard in Westminster league play.

House also chose to be aggressive, playing only two fullbacks instead of the usual three, thus keeping a full complement of players on the front line.

The strategy failed, and his squad surrendered the most goals it had in any game this year.

"We'll keep three fullbacks from now on," he said. "You live and learn in these situations."

But he didn't complain about having too few players, saying that his team had victimized the Kickers the week before when that team fielded a short-handed squad.

Also, House recalled that the Strikers had been short when they lost a game earlier in the season. But that team has since won three in a row and grabbed a slice of first place.

Striker coach Elaine Norris is used to having the whole pie. Her teams were undefeated in 1988 and 1989.

"It's really been exciting," said Norris, who also is league president.

"We don't want to lose any more this year," she added, knowing her Strikers are in a dogfight with two other teams for first, with the Royals only a game behind.

Blast coach Mike O'Hara however, can sit back and relax a bit. After Saturday's big win, his team, composed of 12- and 13-year-olds, is in first by two full games.

O'Hara is not surprised by his team's success this year. He said he chose some talented players when the teams were formed.

The Blast boss, an experienced soccer player himself, said he might have had an edge in knowledge over some others when picking players for this year's team.

However, talent is not the only reason for his youngsters' success to date, he said.

"There's good teamwork. They're really aware of each other out there.

They use each other well. They use good strategy bringing the ball down on the wings and crossing it (in front of the goal)."

However, he's wary of overconfidence, which already reared its head once this year, when the Blast played to a 1-1 tie with a team that hadn't won a game.

"I ran them (his players) nearly to death the next practice," O'Hara said, laughing. "Then I talked to them about the price of assuming victory."

However, he has little doubt about the ultimate outcome of the race for the under-14 crown.

"My guys are fired up. I have no doubt we'll win."

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