Spirit coach Kenny Cooper waited until the regular-season finale to turn a game over to his rookies. They delivered, even though the Spirit wound up on the short end of a 13-11 score Saturday night in Harrisburg, Pa.
Both teams had secured spots in the National Professional Soccer League playoffs. Both held out some of their best players. And both wanted to win but knew it wasn't terribly important.
Yet one ghastly number did goad the Spirit coming into the game. In two games in Harrisburg, the Spirit had lost by the combined margin of 22 points.
Since the Spirit will meet the Heat in the best-of-three playoffs next week and the second game will be in Harrisburg April 7, the rookies wanted to erase the impression that the team couldn't venture north on I-83 without getting crushed.
So Saturday night's loss before 5,794 at the State Farm Show Arena was seen as more than respectable. With the exception of goalie Brian Hartlove, who missed the game to be in his sister's wedding, all the rookies played extensively.
The Spirit led once, at 9-8 on Steve Nichols' three-point goal 1:05 into the fourth quarter, and it stirred hope that perhaps the rookies could do it. But the Heat responded with five unanswered points.
"As far as playing in Harrisburg is concerned, we feel better," Nichols said. "We missed our four starters [held out with nagging injuries], but we used eight rookies and only lost by 13-11. We made a statement that we can come up here and win."
Barry Stitz led the Spirit rookies with two goals, with Joey Murtagh, Billy Reinhardt and Nichols each scoring one. The only veteran who scored was Joe Koziol.
"The kids played their hearts out," Cooper said. "It was a chance for them to finish off the season and feel a part of it. They treated the game with playoff intensity.
"The only thing that wasn't right was the final score. But we did accomplish our No. 1 priority, giving our regulars [Goran Hunjak, Tim Wittman, Rusty Troy and Kevin Smith] a game off to heal so they'll be ready for the playoffs."
Harrisburg coach Jim Pollihan held out Lee Tschantret, who played Friday night after missing 12 games with a knee injury, and Richard Chinapoo, whose knees ache. The Heat is 13-3 with Tschantret in the lineup. Chinapoo is the team's No. 4 scorer behind Franklin McIntosh, Danny Kelly and John Abe.
"We wanted to win, but not at all costs," Pollihan said.