If the Spirit was going to unravel, last night was the time. But it didn't.
Twenty-four hours after clinching the National Professional Soccer League's American Division championship, the Spirit fell behind the Detroit Rockers 24-13 early in the fourth period. Baltimore then ran off five straight goals to tie it with 40 seconds left and won in overtime, 26-24, on Joe Koziol's goal 2:57 into sudden death.
The third-largest crowd of the season, 7,110, watched the Spirit's stunning comeback. The victory stretched the Spirit's home winning streak to seven and raised its home record to 17-2.
The Spirit scored five goals (11 points) in 2:18 during one torrid fourth-quarter stretch. Barry Stitz, in the space of 2:12, recorded a hat trick.
The 50 points was an NPSL record for points in one game.
For the Spirit, the 24 points were a season-high yield at home. This by a team that is ranked second in the league in defense. But no one minded that after Koziol's goal.
The game didn't count much for either team. The Rockers, though the defending NPSL champions, are in sixth place in the division and out of contention for the playoffs. Detroit's road record is 4-15.
The Rockers' Andy Chapman had a banner game, erupting for 12 points with five goals and two assists. Stitz led the Spirit with four goals and Goran Hunjak had three.
Hunjak, the Spirit's leading scorer, opened the game with his 50th goal. Rookie Joey Murtagh got his first point in a Baltimore uniform with an assist on the play. Stitz soon raised the lead to 4-0.
For Baltimore, things went down hill from there. The Rockers peppered rookie goalie Brian Hartlove with five unanswered goals for a 10-4 lead early in the second quarter. During one stretch, they scored three times in 1:38.
Kevin Smith scored on a one-point shootout and Hunjak banged in his 51st goal, but Sean Bowers and Tim Ernst scored to give Detroit a 15-7 halftime lead.
Chapman and Bowers, Detroit's scoring leaders, combined for four goals and two assists in the first half.
With the division title clinched, Spirit coach Kenny Cooper announced before the game that "everybody plays these last three regular-season games." The Spirit will meet the Buffalo Blizzard here today and then travel to Harrisburg Saturday for its finale against the Heat.
"We want to win, of course," Cooper said, "but we want to give the young guys on the team extended playing time -- [Mike] Conway, [Roberto] Ascenzi, Murtagh, guys like that."
And like Hartlove, who made his fourth start, giving No. 1 goalie Cris Vaccaro a respite.
NOTES: As the NPSL's American Division winner, the Spirit will be the host to the second and third games in the best-of-three, first-round playoffs, April 6 and 7, both at 7:05 p.m. The playoff opener will be played in the arena of the fourth-place finisher (the Harrisburg Heat at the moment), probably April 1, 2, 3 or 4. Tickets for the games here, ranging from $4 to $13, are on sale at the Arena. For tickets and related information, call 481-SEAT.
Detroit 8 7 6 3 0 -- 24
Baltimore 4 3 6 11 2 -- 26