In less than 24 hours, the Baltimore Spirit made a miraculous comeback against the Detroit Rockets Saturday night and came out riding an emotional high to hold off a persistent Buffalo Blizzard team, 18-14, yesterday at the Baltimore Arena.
The past three games have been an emotional roller coaster for the Spirit (27-12). They clinched the National Professional Soccer League's American Division championship on Thursday, rallied from an 11-point deficit to win 26-24 in sudden death on Saturday and yesterday held off a fourth-quarter rally by the Blizzard (22-17), who closed to 16-14 with less than seven minutes to play.
And if that wasn't enough emotion to go around, Spirit midfielder Tim Wittman expressed his share of it as well.
Wittman was issued a red card (ejection) 12:47 into the second quarter after he charged an official protesting a Buffalo goal.
Wittman had been serving a two-minute penalty for tripping and argued that Art Kramer scored for Buffalo while he was still in the penalty box, making it a one-point goal.
The Buffalo players, however, claimed Wittman had been released from the box, making the goal worth two points.
"I didn't even step on the field because my time wasn't up yet," Wittman said, recalling the incident. "The guy [in the penalty box] was counting 5-4-3 and then they scored."
When the goal was announced as a two-pointer, which cut the Spirit's lead to 10-6, Wittman erupted and charged the officials screaming and pointing.
"I go crazy when I know I'm right," Wittman said. "But that's what I felt I had to do."
Wittman was immediately issued a red card, but did not leave the field for another 10 minutes when he was escorted off by coach Kenny Cooper.
"I told the players we had to use it [Wittman's ejection] as a positive," Cooper said.
And they did.
Baltimore came out in the second half and Kevin Smith's hat-trick goal 1:24 into the third quarter extended the lead to 12-6.
Steve Nichols next scored a two-point goal to give the Spirit a six-point advantage at 9:21 and Joe Koziol's shootout goal at 12:10 in the same quarter gave the Spirit a 15-8 lead, its largest of the game.
"Sometimes when you lose a big-time player you tend to go back in a shell and fall asleep. Instead of going backward we kept going forward," said Koziol, who became the third Spirit player to score 100 points this season. "This was a big weekend for us overall, winning the division and coming home and winning before the fans."
Buffalo came close near the end as Doug Swanson's goal at 8:39 cut Baltimore's lead to 16-14. Spirit goalie Cris Vaccaro (16 saves) had three big saves in the final two minutes in which Buffalo pulled its goalie for a sixth attackman.
Vaccaro fended off Buffalo's last shot by David Hoggan with eight seconds left and threw the ball the length of the field into the empty net for a two-point goal, his third of the season.
"What made it special for us today was that it was Scott Manning day and the game finished up the way it did," Cooper said in reference to the nine-year Blast goalkeeper's jersey being retired before the game. "I couldn't feel any happier."